Turn Over a New Leafy Green Vegetable

Spring, a time of renewal and rebirth, is upon us! As someone who dreads the colder months like an impending death sentence, the arrival of spring feels like getting a new lease on life. We’ve been pardoned for our crimes, free to go back out and commit fresh offenses against the world. Nothing too severe now; I’m just talking about reinterpreting traditional dishes in unconventional and sometimes controversial ways. In lieu of traveling to get the full experience while still craving a taste of different cultures, that’s always my MO.

For as long as I’ve known about the celebration of Nowruz, I’ve always wanted a slice of the festivities for myself. The Iranian New Year, also known as the Persian New Year, begins today to mark the spring equinox. For some, that means spring cleaning, shopping, or visiting with friends, but for most, it means eating, drinking, and dancing, just as any good holiday should entail. Combining all of these inclinations, you’ll find incredibly creative dishes that are also excellent for clearing out the fridge of any bits and bobs leftover. I suppose the results are so good, they might make you want to dance, too.

Top of mind for me is kuku sabzi, frequently described as a Persian frittata, though I find that a bit misleading. It’s more about the herbs and greens than the eggs, bound together with just enough filler to create a cohesive savory cake. I recall seeing a vendor at the San Francisco Ferry Building Farmers market selling them in the early dawn hours, pomegranate arils sparkling on top like cut gems. Oh how they would tease me, beckoning in shades of dark emerald green, yet impossibly tangled up in that eggy base. I vowed to make my own, remembering that pledge every year as spring rolled around, and being too busy to make good on the promise.

I’m no less busy these days but I do have a better approach to time management. When something is important, we seem to find a way to make time, no matter what. I think it’s important to honor this Iranian tradition with my own eggless spin, if only to finally be able to enjoy it myself.

Kuku sabzi can be slightly sweet, pockmarked with chopped dates, barberries, or pomegranate arils with a hint of aromatic rose petals, or savory, leaning more heavily into bold spices, or a combination of the two. Terminally indecisive, I thought that mixture seemed like a fair compromise to try all the best, most intriguing additions at once.

Though it seems like a ton of greenery on paper, just trust me: You need to add them all. Granted, it doesn’t have to be this precise formula, since it’s excellent for cleaning out all the scraps you might find languishing in the vegetable crisper. Mix and match, make it your own, and dance a little jig when it’s all done.

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Vegan Baking Basics

Butter, eggs, and milk, essential staples of traditional desserts, no longer need apply when it comes to baking up the best treats. Vegan alternatives have come a long way in recent years, making it effortless to create sweet delights that are not only as good as the traditional recipes, but often even better. The results may seem magical, but there are no tricky secrets to unveil here! A few simple swaps will reveal just how easy to is to bake completely plant-based delicacies.

When it comes to converting classic recipes, there are no hard and fast rules, but guidelines to help steer you in the right direction. It may take a bit of fine-tuning to get just the right combination, so don’t get frustrated if it’s not perfect on the first try. Here are just a few ideas to get you started:

To replace butter, the options available on the mainstream market have never been more abundant or more delicious. Some name brands contain whey or other milk-derivatives, while others conceal the elusive, animal-derived Vitamin D3, so be alert when scanning ingredient labels. For ease, I prefer to use it in stick format, such as Earth Balance Buttery Sticks or Miyoko’s Creamery European Style Cultured Vegan Butter. Never try to substitute spreadable butter from a tub! These varieties have much more water to allow them to spread while cold, and will thus bake and cook differently.

  • Alternatively, if the recipe calls for melted butter, you can often substitute melted coconut oil at a 1:1 ratio. Just be careful to select refined coconut oil, as virgin coconut oil will impart a distinctive tropical taste.

To replace milk, an unlimited range of perfect replacements beckon from the dairy aisle! Once limited to sour, beany soy, you can now choose from milks made of hemp seeds, oats, almonds, cashews, flaxseed, and more. They’re all mostly interchangeable when it comes to baking applications, as long as you opt for a variety that is unflavored and unsweetened. Rice milk is the only sort that doesn’t make the cut for me, personally, as it tends to be watery, and in the worst cases, gritty.

  • To recreate buttermilk, simply place 1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar in a 1 cup measuring scoop before filling the rest of the way with your non-dairy milk of choice. Stir gently to combine and let “curdle” for a few minutes before proceeding.
  • To replace cream or heavy cream, pure, full-fat coconut milk is the answer. Shake well and use it straight for ice cream, but if you want to make a light whipped topping, let the can chill in your fridge overnight. Scoop out the thick white cream on top and place it in the bowl of your stand mixer, leaving the clear water at the bottom. The water can’t be whipped, but don’t discard it; It’s fantastic in smoothies, curries, and many other recipes! Beat the cream on high speed for about 5 – 8 minutes until fluffy. Sprinkle in a touch of sugar, if desired.

To replace eggs, the possibilities are vast. Bear in mind that the greater number of eggs you try to remove, the more difficult it will be to achieve consistent results. I would feel comfortable replacing up to three eggs in most recipes before needing to do more invasive structural rewiring for the rest of the formula. Bear in mind that the average medium egg is about 3 tablespoons in volume, whereas a large is closer to 4 tablespoons, so adjust accordingly.

  • My favorite eggless binder is aquafaba, the not-so-secret ingredient taking the world by storm, dubbed a “miracle” by some and a food science breakthrough by others. Believe it or not, it’s simply the excess liquid found in any ordinary can of chickpeas. Any bean can produce aquafaba, but the unique ratio of protein and starch found in garbanzo beans has been found to best mimic the unique binding and whipping properties previously only seen in egg whites. For more delicate applications like meringues or marshmallow fluff, you can always concentrate your aquafaba to create a stronger foam matrix by cooking it gently over the stove and reducing some of the water.
  • Otherwise, flaxseed or chia seed gel performs beautifully in most applications, particularly savory baked goods and breads. It takes a ratio of 3:1, water to ground seeds, mixed up and let sit for a few minutes to thicken. Make sure the seeds are ground very finely for the gel to be most effective, and least noticeable in the final texture.
  • Old-school alternatives include mashed banana, applesauce, and pumpkin puree, which work fine in heartier muffins and cakes, but inevitably contribute a denser texture and influence the overall flavor.

Rewrite your grocery lists, skip the animal products, and begin preheating your oven. Happy baking!

Hanami at Home

Nothing on earth compares to cherry blossom season in Japan. Falling like snow, the sky is filled with a flurry of petals, drifting gently to coat the ground like a blanket. Perfuming the air with their delicate, unmistakable aroma, this floral profusion touches all the senses. Anyone lucky enough to experience the full bloom even once will never forget that stunning, singular beauty; I know I won’t. It’s hard to imagine enjoying that natural phenomenon every year, like clockwork, come spring.

Old memories come flooding back at the mere mention of hanami, haunting my dreams, spilling over into my waking fantasies. In the blink of an eye, I’m 14 again, roaming the streets of Tokyo, watching as sakura trees sway in the wind, shaking loose torrents of white and pink flowers. They paint the city in pastel sheets, soft and feathery. Ladies carry parasols to shield themselves not from the sun, but from the barrage of ambient pollen.

With travel still strongly discouraged, the Land of the Rising Sun has never felt so far away. One day, I’ll return. One day… But that day is not today. Instead, I’m living inside these powerful flashbacks, creating my own hanami at home. There are no cherry blossom trees in Texas that I can find, so I’m looking elsewhere for inspiration. Naturally, the search begins, and ends, in the kitchen.

To be perfectly honest, this dish began as a wild attempt to use up extra pretzels in the pantry, and nothing more. Pretzel pasta is a pretty unorthodox concept to begin with, so it could have easily ended there. As I began rolling out the dough, however, those pangs of nostalgia gripped me out of the blue, guiding me to the sakura-shaped vegetable cutters. No mere pile of salted noodles, these dainty pink macaroni really did blossom in the bowl.

For anyone less affected by sakura fever, feel free to skip right over the coloring and shape the dough any which way you please. The darkly alkaline flavor of the pretzels is irresistible when paired with a mustard or cheese sauce, as one might enjoy with the original snacks.

This year, I’ll stick with live streams of various parks and stations around Japan, broadcasting the blossoms 24/7, while enjoying this unconventional edible tribute at home.

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Holy Crêpe!

Shrove Tuesday, perhaps better known as Fate Tuesday (Mardi Gras) or Pancake Tuesday, is nearly upon us. Established as the final feast before the famine of Lenten austerity, pancakes once represented all things indulgent, blending sinfully rich sugary, fatty ingredients in one shameless dish.

Beyond the iconic short stack, fluffy and soft, a wide world of diverse pancakes exist. Be it blini, latkes, injera, dosa, jeon, or bánh xèo, there’s a whole lot to flip over on this day, and everyday of the year for that matter.

Delicate, gossamer thin French crêpes follow the same basic blueprint as their thicker American brethren, but most notably take shape with a higher ratio of liquid to flour while omitting chemical leaveners. Even at their most basic, with a squeeze of lemon juice and a touch sugar, they will never disappoint. Flavors and fillings are truly unlimited, showing up in savory formats just as often as sweet, making the ideal vehicles for seasonal vegetables, soft cheese spreads, fresh fruits, and fudge sauce alike.

It all starts with one basic batter. Flying in the face of conventional crêpe construction, no eggs, butter, nor any debauched ingredients are necessary for the most exquisite, soft sheets of pancake goodness to emerge from your skillet. These righteous treats should stay on your menu all year long.

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A Dying Art

After the garish plastic skeletons of Halloween are cleared away, something far more haunting, yet entirely joyous remains in their wake. Sugar skulls, glittering sweet crystals dried into the shape of a human head, shine in the dark of night to honor the dearly departed on Día de los Muertos.

When the gates of heaven are opened at midnight on October 31st, deceased loved ones can return and spend the day with their families, drawn to the calavera made in their likeness. Decorated with colored icing, the most basic are technically ghoulish sugar cubes, super-sized for a couple gallons of coffee, but not exactly something you’d want to consume. Most artists incorporate inedible media like feathers, glitter, sequins, foil, and fabric, treating them more like sculpture than food, since there’s no such thing as too colorful nor too flamboyant to match the most vivacious personalities.

Traditionally, the “glue” that binds these sweet offerings together is either egg white or meringue powder, but for a simple veganization, this is another job for aquafaba. Just because you don’t eat it, doesn’t mean you can’t make it cruelty-free, too.

Contrary to the name itself, Día de Muertos is a truly celebration of life. Why not make it a sweet occasion with these sugary monuments, recalling the spirits of those no longer with us?

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The Straight Dough(p)

It was only a matter of time. After releasing a glorious vegan version of their infamous cookie dough ice cream, Ben & Jerry’s has now unveiled the next level of dough indulgence upon the world. Joining the previously limited run of “just the chunks,” vegans will soon see a variation with their names on it appearing in grocery stores and scoop shops nationwide.

This is the real deal; the straight dough(p). Cylindrical extrusions exactly like you would see rolling down factory conveyor belts, destined for an unceremonious ice cream burial. Now, they’ve been freed of that typical, undistinguished fate for a glorious full feature. No longer the sidekick but the true hero, every nuance of their buttery, brown sugar sweetness can be properly appreciated. Never before have I tasted anything so closely matched to the flavors of homemade dough without reaching right into the bowl of my stand mixer.

Suddenly, I’m three years old again, standing on a chair to see over the tiled kitchen counter while my mom prepares cookies. Stretching to reach the very edge of the beater, I surreptitiously swipe tiny morsels of soft batter, one after another, letting the flavors explode across my palate and slowly dissipate before going in for another bit. Each stolen taste was just enough to flood my senses with the slightly grainy texture of undissolved sugar and flour, subtly balanced salted edge, and deeply satisfying richness. Stealthy, I was not, but my mom charitably humored my advances, pretending to be engaged with very complicated oven calibration every now and then while I made my moves.

Like the flashbulb of an antique camera, the memory fades off into black, and just like that, the bag is empty, too.

Ben & Jerry’s, take another bow. This is a completely faultless edible masterpiece by any standards. If you’ve ever craved raw cookie dough, this is what you’ve wanted all along.