Barking Up the Right Tree

Regardless of holiday party plans, as host or attendee, no matter how long or short (or nonexistent) gift and wishlist’s may be, I have two words for you: Peppermint Bark.

All it takes is chocolate and crushed candy canes, yet it can elicit the same level of enthusiasm as a laborious multi-tier Christmas cake. You’d think the stuff was sprinkled with pure gold judging by the way some people clamor to snap up piece after piece, as if they had struck it rich at the dessert buffet.

Something about the combination of creamy chocolate slabs, festooned with crunchy red and white striped mint confections seems to strike a chord with everyone, young, old, jolly, and curmudgeonly alike. It’s all about the ratio and quality of ingredients that always hits the sweet spot.

For all the breathless praise this classic confection receives, the real beauty is in its simplicity. Even the fanciest renditions, decked out in layers of dark and white chocolate, can be made by the pound in a matter of minutes, for pennies on the dollar. If you’ve forgotten someone in need of a sweet holiday greeting, or need a last-minute contribution for a party, peppermint bark has your back.

This year, my bark is even better than a quick little bite. Blending cocoa butter with brilliant, full-bodied vanilla, freshly ground candy cane, and rich cocoa, I’m starting from scratch, building my bar from the ground up. Maybe I took it a bit too literally at that, but I couldn’t resist the double entendre of making it look like bark of the earthier sort while I was at it.

Of course, it’s still the very same straightforward concept at heart. Any shape will do, be it a bar or snowflake or edible spoon. The only way to mess this one up is to not make it at all.

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Feed Two Birds with One Scone

Early victories in the kitchen were hard-won for me because, quite frankly, I had no clue what I was doing. I didn’t know how to bake before going vegan, didn’t seek schooling on how to after, and to this day, I’m still not keen on following recipes. My parents suffered through some truly abysmal creations that could only loosely be described as “food.” One of my first notable successes came in the form of a simple scone, too easy to mess up even if I tried.

Cobbled together from odds and ends on hand, dried cranberries punctuated the rough, triangular biscuits, while thin flecks of orange peel appeared as faint confetti just beneath the surface. Barely sweetened, crisp, yet tender and buttery, I suppose they were special because in a way, they weren’t. There was no mystery, no magic to them, but something made them particularly compelling, both for the maker and the eater. Instant gratification; reliable satisfaction.

My mom, also known as my original number one fan, was effusive at the first bite. (In hindsight, I’m sure she was overjoyed that it was just finally something edible.) It became her go-to request, sometimes taking the form of hearts on Mother’s Day or rectangles arranged to spell out an “M” on her birthday, but always the same, year after year: Cranberry-orange scones.

Having committed the recipe to memory from repeated use, I realized with horror that it never got its fair time in the spotlight here on the blog. Finally, almost two decades later, I’d like to celebrate my mom’s birthday today by doing just that. Happy birthday, mom! As tradition would have it, these scones are for you.

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One and Done

One bowl. Six ingredients. No oil. No gluten.

Ready? Set? Bake!

It’s a lot to ask of one little loaf, but this pumpkin bread can truly do it all. Pared down to the bare essentials, it’s the ace up my sleeve for last-minute fall festivities or sudden sweet cravings. Everything comes straight out of the pantry and into the oven faster than you can say “good gourd!

Versatile, flexible, and endlessly adaptable, this basic foundation is just the beginning. Dress it up with nuts or seeds, get spicy with chai or apple pie blends, or go whole grain with buckwheat flour instead. Add cocoa powder, chocolate chips, and marshmallows, oh my!

This isn’t exclusively a bit of autumnal magic, either. Swap 3 – 4 large, ripe, mashed bananas for the pumpkin puree and you’ve suddenly got a crowd-pleasing perennial banana bread sensation to serve.

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Minutes to Mealtime

5… 4… 3… 2… 1… EAT!

I consider myself quite capable when it comes to whipping up last-minute meals and fast whole foods, but Nava Atlas has raised the bar to the next level. Now author of twelve cookbooks, 5-Ingredient Vegan, her latest entry to the burgeoning field, is yet another smash hit poised to take off in kitchens around the nation. Believe it or not, every single edible masterpiece is composed of just five ingredients.

Skeptics may argue that such lofty words of praise are tainted with bias, seeing that I photographed about half of the dishes in this book. Rather, I would argue that such experience leaves me in a better position to more accurately assess the recipes, since I had the pleasure of both cooking and eating all of those subject, too!

A particular standout from the long list of favorites has been the understated yet spectacular Curried Greens Smashed Potatoes.

A literal flash in the pan, it takes mere minutes to wilt massive amounts of greens into manageable portions. Tossed with boldly spiced Indian simmer sauce, the exact flavor profile is highly flexible, making it effortless to switch it up and never get bored. In fact, this is a concept that knows no cultural boundaries. Reaching into a spare pantry, I’ve been delighted by the results that even a basic marinara sauce have wrought, to say nothing of the dazzling flavors infused by a simple enchilada sauce. That’s the beauty of this cookbook; each recipe is an outline to fill with any colors you see fit. Go ahead and paint the town tomato red, if that’s the hue du jour.

I don’t just mean that in a hypothetical way, of course. I want you to really experience these taste sensations in your own home! That’s why I’m GIVING AWAY a copy of 5-Ingredient Vegan to one lucky winner, right here, right now! To enter, use the form below the recipe and let me know in the comment section: What is your current go-to meal using five ingredients or less? If you don’t have one, which of the recipes in the book sound like a fast favorite to start with?

Even when your fridge is nearly vacant and time is scant, Nava Atlas is here to save the meal. Who else could possibly pull off restaurant-quality Chickpea Masala with just five ingredients, or deceptively rich Seed and Nut Butter Truffles, ready to grab and go in a matter of minutes? With decades of experience, Nava’s welcoming voice narrates each page with compelling ease, making everyday plant-based cooking accessible, effortless, and most importantly, delicious.

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Hot Take on Hot Lunch

Living in the moment is best way to experience life, unencumbered by past regrets and future concerns, but it certainly has its pitfalls, too. Wrapped up in summertime revelry, I didn’t even realize that we’re fast approaching doomsday for every child and young adult under the age of 18: The first day of school. Creeping earlier and earlier across the calendar every year, I feel a bit blindsided to learn that local school will be back in session as early as next week. What kind of cruel joke is that, to pull children out of the sun’s golden glow, away from the beckoning beaches and parks, stuffing them into stiffing locked rooms without windows, without joy, without apologies? Hopefully the transition isn’t as harsh as memory suggests, but it’s still a hard sacrifice to make for anyone yearning to squeeze the very last drops of sweetness out of this fleeting season.

If there was anything that could inspire any enthusiasm for this kind of sacrifice, it would have to be the promise of good food. Of course, that’s pretty much the opposite of what you can expect from any institutional cafeteria menu, which is why a properly packed lunch is essential. Though the dark days of school lunches are well behind me, the memories of soggy PB + J sandwiches and stale granola bars are indelibly seared into my memory. No one should have to endure such hardship, especially if they hope to put any positive energy into their education after noon.

Ages ago, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I was still in high school, I developed a compact little e-book entitled Lunchbox Bites, filled with all the sweet and savory morsels that got me from homeroom to sixth period. No longer available for sale, it’s been languishing among all the forgotten recipes gathering dust in my digital archive. It seems such a shame to waste this potentially helpful resource, as new generations of young vegans grow up with the same hunger for quality nutrition as I once did.

For the love of food, for the good of the community, I’m now making Lunchbox Bites completely free to download. Bringing back old favorites like Coffee Buzz Energy Bars and Root Beer Pudding, there’s plenty for students of all ages to enjoy. Even if you’re just a student of life, there’s never a bad time to enjoy a big batch of Hummus Crackers, too.

Forgive me, if you would, for the antiquated terminology and terrible photography. Consider it an heirloom, a relic of a bygone era. “Margarine” should be read as “vegan butter,” “soymilk” simply as “non-dairy milk” (any variety will do), and canola oil, while fine, would be better if replaced by a light olive oil, avocado oil, or rice bran oil. There’s still a whole lot of good to reap from these basic concepts, and I must admit, it’s somewhat charming to take in the full glory of this throwback to a simpler time.

Prepare yourself properly for a brand new school year; don’t show up hungry, and if you’re feeling particularly generous, make sure you bring enough to share with the class. Cafeteria food doesn’t hold a candle to anything homemade.

 

 

 

Sip and Slurp Through Summer

Chill out. Strawberries might sound like an unconventional addition to the classic red tomato gazpacho, but they’re nothing to lose your cool over.

Given a surplus of the highly perishable rubies and an oppressive heatwave to contend with, my tastes quickly skewed toward the fast, easy, and refreshing side. Gazpacho must always be on hand for days like this; it was a natural, perhaps inevitable combination.

Balancing sweetness with savory undertones, the subtle bite of vinegar, and fresh verdant pop of basil, it’s a delicious study in contrasts. Don’t let the fruity feature scare you off! It’s not a vegetable-forward smoothie, but you may still want to drink it straight from the blender.

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