BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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Monochromatic, Never Monotonous

In such murky, turbulent times, it’s comforting to know that some things remain clearly defined in black and white. Even through the dense fog of uncertainty, it’s easy to identify a satisfying meal when you see one. Should it be clad in an attractive range of tones that never deviate too far from one scale of the color spectrum, so much the better.

Black pasta is crowning jewel of this monochromatic treasure chest, arrestingly dark spirals twisting through a sea of contrasting produce. Though the concept would traditionally suggest that squid ink was at play, the rise in popularity of charcoal has brought a new tint onto the food scene. I can’t vouch for its “detoxing” abilities, nor do I care to test out the claims; what interests me most is the dusky onyx hue it imparts to everything it touches.

In truth, you could pair absolutely anything with those obsidian twisted noodles with equal success and beauty, but the bold visuals of pale white cauliflower and tofu feta create stunning visual appeal, and an equally stellar flavor profile. Briny kalamata olives join the party to add a salty top note, accentuating the deeper roasted flavor of the cruciferous addition and lightly caramelized onions. Pine nuts add an occasional crunch to keep every bite exciting.

Plan ahead for this meal and everything will come together quite easily. Handmade pasta is definitely a labor of love, but can be prepared well in advance to save you the struggle when the dinner hour rolls around. Trofie, my shape of choice, is a Ligurian pasta that is already vegan by nature, no eggs needed. Rolled by hand into bite-sized twirls, it requires no special machinery, but can be time-consuming to complete. Feel free to go a simpler route with basic linguine or spaghetti to save yourself the hassle. The pasta will taste just as good, and look every bite as darkly handsome.

Black Trofie Pasta

3 Cups All-Purpose Flour
2 Teaspoons Food-Grade Charcoal Powder
1 Teaspoon Salt
3/4 – 1 Cup Water

Place the flour, charcoal, and salt in a large bowl, whisking thoroughly to equally distribute the ingredients. Make a well in the center and pour 3/4 cup of water. Begin mixing the flour into the water, maintaining the well in the center as best you can. When the mixture gets too thick for a fork, drop the fork and get your hands in there to continue mixing. Drizzle in additional water as needed to incorporate all of the flour to form a cohesive dough. It should feel tacky but not sticky.

Knead on a lightly-floured surface for 8 – 10 minutes, until very smooth. Let the dough rest for an hour before proceeding, or cover with plastic wrap, place in the fridge, and let rest overnight.

To shape the noodles, first lightly flour a baking sheet and clean work surface.

Flatten the dough out into a disk and cut a strip about 1/2-inch wide. Don’t worry too much about the exact measurements, since you will next roll it into a rope about half that width. Slice it into 1/4-inch pieces.

Take one nugget at a time and rub it between your palms, creating a small cylinder with tapered ends. For extra flare, you can further twist the shapes to create ridges, but for an “authentic” trophie, you only need to rub the dough between your hands three or four times to create each noodle. Drop the finished shapes onto your awaiting baking sheet. Let the noodles rest and lightly air-dry, uncovered, for at least one hour before cooking.

The pasta will cook in boiling water in just 30 – 120 seconds (yes, seconds, not minutes!) depending on the thickness of your noodles. Stand by and taste-taste for when they’re perfectly al dente.

Makes About 1 Pound; 4 Servings

Black and White Pasta

1 Batch Black Trofie Pasta, Above

1 Head Cauliflower, Cut into Florets
1/2 Medium White Onion, Sliced
2 Cloves Garlic, Minced
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper

1/2 Cup Kalamata Olives, Pitted and Halved
5 Ounces Tofu Feta, Roughly Crumbled
1/4 Cup Toasted Pine Nuts

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper or aluminum foil. Toss the cauliflower, onion, garlic, oil, salt, and pepper together in a large bowl until the vegetables are evenly coated. Spread everything out on your prepared baking sheet in an even layer, making sure nothing overlaps, and slide it into the hot oven. Roast for about 30 minutes, until the cauliflower is golden brown and fork-tender.

Toss the roasted vegetables together with the cooked pasta, kalamata olives, tofu feta, and pine nuts. Add in a tiny splash of the pasta cooking water if desired, to give the dish a bit more moisture. Serve immediately, while piping hot.

Makes 4 – 6 Servings

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Wear Your Heart on Your Sleeve

January is upon us. The quietest month of all, a natural respite from the cacophony of holiday festivities, the days ahead stretch out like a lazy yawn. Mercifully unhurried and undemanding, it’s back to work as usual, but without the same frantic pace as before. Some unspoken understanding allows us to resume our activities with a greater margin for error. Retreating back into the warmth of our homes, insulated under the padding of thick sweaters and blankets, I used to see this as a very isolating time of year. Now I’ve come to realize that it’s just a matter of how we choose to find comfort. We’re actually all in this together, experiencing the very same nesting instinct; whether we choose to share our nests with one another makes all the difference.

Inevitably, much will be said about comfort food in the coming days, despite of the incessant push to “eat clean” or observe a “New Year, new you.” Join me in rejecting these silly slogans, once and for all. Changing your diet or exercise regime won’t change who you are. No matter how far you run, no matter how many green smoothies you chug, your essential core remains the same, and you know what? I think that’s pretty amazing.

Pardon the terrible segue here, but I just wanted to take that brief opportunity to wear my heart on my sleeve, inspired by the deeply soul-satisfying dish known as manicotti to us Americans, or “little shirt sleeves” to Italians. Such a labor-intensive pasta preparation could only be made with love and patience, both of which I’d like to believe are in ample supply as we stride boldly forward into 2017. Fitting the definition of comfort food to a T, the combination of noodles, cheese, and red sauce is one that can’t be beat… But perhaps, with just a bit of innovation, improved upon.

Chef Barry Horton of Sanctuary Bistro replaces the wheat-based pasta with savory sheets of yuba, naturally savory, toothsome, and somewhat lighter on the fork. Lithe and flexible, the tofu skins are wrapped up around dairy-free ricotta filling like crepes. There’s less danger of tearing apart hot pasta while fruitlessly burning your fingers during preparation, so even the cook can take it easy during this meal.

A perennial favorite on the menu, it strikes me as an especially appealing dinner now as we steep ourselves in the depths of winter. Soothing and familiar, yet exciting enough to pull us out of hibernation, it’s the kind of meal that makes it a little bit easier to share openly- of food, thoughts, and comfort.

Tofu Manicotti

By Chef Barry Horton of Sanctuary Bistro

Marinara Sauce:

1/2 Medium Yellow Onion, Diced
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1 Tablespoon Minced Garlic
1/2 Cup Red Wine
1 14-Ounce Can Diced Tomatoes
2 Tablespoons Italian Seasoning
2 Tablespoons Nutritional Yeast
Salt and Pepper, to Taste

Tofu Ricotta:

1 Pound Firm Tofu
2 Tablespoons Lemon Juice
1 Tablespoon Granulated Sugar
1 Teaspoon Salt
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
2 Tablespoons Italian Seasoning
1 Teaspoon Minced Garlic
1/2 Cup Vegetable Stock

To Assemble:

10 Ounces Fresh Yuba, Cut into 3×5-inch Rectangles
Olive Oil
Fresh Chives (Optional)

Begin by preparing the marinara. In a sauce pot, sauté the onions in olive oil until translucent. Add in the garlic and cook until aromatic and very lightly browned. Pour in the wine, reduce the heat to medium-low, and let simmer until reduced by half. Stir in the tomatoes and continue to simmer for an additional 10 – 15 minutes. Add the seasonings and yeast, along with salt and pepper to taste, before transferring to a blender. Blend until as smooth or as chunky as you’d prefer.

While the sauce is simmering, make the most of your time and get started on the tofu ricotta. Add all of the ingredients into your food processor and pulse to combine. Pause as needed to scrape down the sides of the container, ensuring that everything is well incorporated. Continue blending until smooth.

To assemble, spoon about 3 tablespoons of tofu ricotta across the short width of each yuba rectangle. Gently roll the strips of yuba up like a little wrap. Sauté 3 or 4 at a time in a generous amount of olive oil, cooking until crisp and lightly golden brown.  Serve on a pool of sauce and garnish with freshly chopped chives, if desired.

Makes 3 – 4 Servings

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Sari Sari, Not Sorry

It was the final food frontier, as far as my personal gustatory limits were concerned. After squandering the first half of my life as an unrepentant picky eater, my path had veered drastically into wild, unpredictable terrain to have reached this point. Plain pasta, hot dogs, and grilled cheese sandwiches dominated my food pyramid for those sad, early years, but going vegan proved a turning point that opened up my palate like nothing else. When naysayers taunted about how restrictive such a diet would be or how I would be deprived of so many edible thrills, I took it as a challenge. From that point forward, as long as it was vegan, I would try anything at least once.

Slowly, bite by bite, long-held prejudices fell by the wayside. Gnarled, earthy beets became sweet and lovable. Brussels sprouts no longer inspired fear with their rotten stench. What was once disgust gradually morphed into delight. Determined now to eliminate all food biases, just a scant handful of truly loathsome edibles stood in my way. Throughout it all, despite numerous valiant efforts, bitter melon remained my Achilles heel. No way, no how, could I find a way to tolerate that offensive flavor.

They don’t call it bitter for nothing. An arresting acrid taste is its claim to fame, and yet I was (and remain) convinced that absolutely anything can become delicious when cooked properly. After many more failed attempts than I’d care to quantify, it turns out that there are a few tricks to taming that harsh tartness.

  1. It all starts with the bitter melon itself. Pick younger, smaller specimens that are a bright lime-green color, as these vegetables grow only increasingly acerbic with age.
  2. Be certain to remove not only the seeds within, but also all of the spongy membrane. Much like the pith of an orange, it contains even more concentrated sour flavor.
  3. Salt aggressively. The salt will draw out moisture and bitterness, making it both tastier and easier to cook with.
  4. Blanch in boiling water, and for longer than most vegetables would be able to withstand. You may lose a little bit of structural integrity, but I found that about 8 – 10 minutes of boiling made a huge difference in overall palatability.

Got all that? Good! Like magic, the much maligned bitter melon can now contribute a balanced tartness to any savory dish.

Sari sari is a classic Filipino dish featuring the bitter melon, but no two cooks will prepare it the same way. Traditionally loaded with pork, shrimp, and all sorts of other mystery meats, few vegan versions exist. Though my take is far from traditional, needless to say, replicating the savory and seafood-y flavors were a breeze thanks to the abundance of umami found in wakame seaweed, fermented black beans, and everyone’s favorite Asian seasoning, soy sauce. Don’t skimp on a single one of those secret ingredients, or the stew will suffer. Such a simple combination of vegetables requires love and attention to shine, which is exactly the lesson I took away from working with bitter melon.

If you truly can’t stand bitter melon, I certainly won’t judge. It’s still bitter no matter how you slice it, and it can be an acquired taste. Try substituting chayote, or if all else fails, the humble zucchini, instead.

Sari Sari

1 Medium Bitter Melon
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
4 Garlic Cloves, Finely Minced
1-Inch Fresh Ginger, Peeled, and Finely Minced
8 Ounces Seitan, Torn or Chopped into 1/2-Inch Chunks
2 Medium Tomatoes, Diced
2 Medium Filipino/Long Eggplants, Sliced into 1/2-Inch Rounds
1/3 Pound String Beans, Cut into 1-Inch Pieces
2 Tablespoons Fermented Black Bean Sauce
2 Tablespoons Rice Vinegar
2 Tablespoons Tomato Paste
2 Tablespoons Soy Sauce
5 – 6 Cups Vegetable Broth
1 Tablespoon Instant Wakame Flakes

You’ll want to start preparing the bitter melon first, since it requires the most time and labor. The rest of the stew assembly will fly by!

Slice the bitter melon in half lengthwise and use a large spoon to scoop and scrape out the seeds. Remove any additional inner membrane as well, and discard. Slice the seeded gourd into 1/4-inch half moons and toss them in a large bowl with a generous pinch of salt. Don’t be shy because it will be washed away later on; go for 1/2 teaspoon at least. Let sit for at least 20 minutes while you slice and chop the remaining vegetables.

Bring a medium pot of water up to a roiling boil. Add in the salted bitter melon and cook for about 10 minutes. Drain and immediately rinse with cold water.

Return the pot to the stove over medium heat and add the oil. Once shimmering gently, begin to saute the garlic and ginger. After two minutes, introduce the seitan. Stir frequently and cook until the mixture is aromatic and the chunks of seitan are lightly browned all over; about 10 minutes. Add in the rest of the vegetables together, sauteing for an additional 5 – 8 minutes.

Pour in the first 5 cups of vegetable broth along with all of the remaining ingredients. Mix well, reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer for about 20 minutes, until all of the vegetables are fork-tender. Add more broth if you’d prefer a soupier stew, and serve steaming hot! Pair with sticky rice to complete the meal.

Makes 5 – 6 Servings

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Ranch, Reinvented

“Obsession” is a good way to describe the level of devotion for many otherwise easy-going eaters across the US. Inspiring a following that borders on fanatic, it makes an appearance on over 25% of menus across the nation. That’s all restaurant menus, in all states, so while it may not sound especially impressive at first, consider the diverse number of cuisines found coast to coast, including the the chefs who wouldn’t touch the stuff with a 10-foot stalk of celery. I’m talking about ranch dressing; the tangy, herbaceous condiment that has become inextricably linked with edible Americana. Even back in the days of my vegetable-hating youth, I too succumbed to the creamy comfort of pale, iceberg salads smothered in enough ranch dressing to sink a ship. Stealthily consumed under the pretense of eating a healthy serving of vegetables, I could empty out those family-sized bottles at an alarming rate.

Ranch has been re-imagined and revitalized in striking new ways since then, appealing to many previous detractors with brighter, bolder flavors and countless bases that cater to more wholesome diets. The concept itself has become so prevalent in popular culture, in fact, that it’s transcended that original format to become a wholly unique flavor. No longer a mere condiment, anything can be ranch-flavored.

That’s where Biena Chickpea Snacks come in with the introduction of their new Rockin’ Ranch Chickpeas. Crunchy garbanzo beans are the new bacon, as far as I’m concerned, proliferating in the snack aisle and home kitchens alike in a rainbow of flavors. The key to their success is their versatility, not only as stand-alone snacks, but also components in other dishes. The most obvious approach to incorporating these nuggets of crunchy goodness into your daily diet is to simply throw a handful into any green salad, replacing those tired old croutons with invigorating new zest. Especially true of these particular gems, the ranch flavor is ideal for perking up even the barest bowl of leafy greens. Bold and tangy notes of vinegar provide the first wake-up call; assertive but not aggressive. Savory garlicky undertones come through with each and every crunch, appealing to a wide range of palates. Despite being generously coated with spices and seasonings, this flavorful dusting won’t cake on your fingers or turn them fluorescent colors should you choose to simply munch out of hand. Overall, the flavor is remarkably ranch-y, yet sure to appeal even if ranch isn’t exactly your dressing of choice.

It would have been easy to plow through a full bag (or two) as fuel for marathon study sessions, but I wanted to make more out of these crispy chickpea gems. My mind quickly went to the classic pairing of buffalo wings and ranch dressing, but with a heartier and more wholesome slant.

Simple and easy enough to suit the most hectic weekday dinner rush, this hearty stew combines all the best parts of a spicy buffalo wing marinade with a few basic pantry staples, elevating the concept well beyond standard bar fare. Thick and rich, each spoonful sparkles with just all the right spice to ring true. Who needs fried fast food when little more than a few humble beans can trump the whole flavor sensation? A cooling ranch creme serves to balance out the heat, and of course, a generous handful of those addictive crunchy ranch chickpeas adds the much-needed textural contrast to complete the picture.

Even as the days grow longer and warmer, this is one satisfying one-pot dish that will stay on my menu as a perennial favorite.

Buffalo-Ranch Chickpea Stew

Buffalo Chickpea Stew:

2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1/2 Large Yellow Onion, Diced
2 Cloves Garlic, Minced
3 Stalks Celery, Diced
3 Tablespoons Chickpea Flour
1 Cup Low-Sodium Vegetable Broth
1/2 Cup Tomato Puree
1 14-Ounce Can (1 3/4 Cup Cooked) Chickpeas, Drained
2 Tablespoons Hot Sauce, such as Frank’s Red Hot
Salt, to Taste

Ranch Crème:

1/2 Cup Vegan Sour Cream
1 Teaspoon Apple Cider Vinegar
2 Tablespoons Fresh Parsley, Finely Minced
1/2 Teaspoon Garlic Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Onion Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper

To Serve:

Ranch-Flavored Crunchy Chickpeas, Store-Bought or Homemade
1 – 2 Scallions, Thinly Sliced

Set a medium pot over moderate heat and add in the oil. Saute the onion, garlic, and celery together until softened, aromatic, and just beginning to caramelize around the edges. Sprinkle in the chickpea flour and stir well, coating the vegetables. Cook lightly, for just a minute or two, to gently toast and cook the raw flavor out of the flour. Slowly incorporate the vegetable broth, stirring constantly to ensure that it properly hydrates the flour without clumping. Once simmering, introduce the tomato puree, chickpeas, and hot sauce next, stirring well. Turn the heat down to medium-low and let simmer until the liquid has significantly thickened; about 10 – 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare the ranch crème by simply mixing together all of the ingredients in a separate bowl. Keep refrigerated until ready to serve.

Once the stew is thick and bubbling away happily, add salt to taste and ladle it out into individual serving bowls. Top with dollops of ranch crème, crunchy chickpeas, and sliced scallions. Enjoy!

Makes 2 – 4 Servings

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Play Second Fideo to None

Winter in California looks very different from the winters of my childhood. Instead of the white wonderland I’d peer out at from my bedroom window, blankets of snow magically transforming the landscape into a brave new world, the scenery out here remains largely unchanged. Colder but not freezing, darker but not unshakably gloomy, the days of this season proceed much like those that came before, and will no doubt come once again. The key difference, however, is the rain.

You’re not allowed to complain about any amount of precipitation, each minuscule drop of moisture deemed essential to refilling the depleted reservoirs. Even when the winds blow and the temperatures drop, turning a steady shower into a clammy midday swim through the city streets, it’s all good, or so we say through clenched teeth. Thank goodness for the rain, bring on more rain, let it continue to rain all month, but for the love of a higher power, please let me find a way to stay dry!

As a hapless pedestrian, this request is as impossible as it is foolish to put to words. There’s no way to avoid a drenching soak, even while sprinting away from the BART at top speed, umbrella unfurled overhead. By the time I make it to the shelter of my warm little shack, wet and tired as a rung out rag, it’s hard to muster the same veneer of enthusiasm for this kind of weather. This is a job for comfort food.

Referred to by some as “Mexican Spaghetti,” fideo is the simple sort of pasta dish that has nearly universal appeal thanks to both its flavor and ease of preparation. What’s not to love about toasted noodles infused with a pinch of cumin and a hint of rich tomatoes? Typically served dry as a side dish or flooded with broth as a soup, my preference falls somewhere in between; a thick stew of vegetables and pasta that could be eaten either with a spoon or a fork, depending on how long the noodles are cooked. Taking that concept just one step further, I realized I had a genuine risotto on my hands- Just without the rice.

Silky strands of broken spaghetti boast a uniquely nutty taste thanks to a quick saute before cooking, setting this dish apart from your average heap of pale pasta. Roasted peppers mingle amongst the short strands, harmonizing with the essences of smoked paprika and cumin to render a wholly warming, revitalizing bowl full of edible comfort. It’s a hair fancier than the original inspiration, but not much more fuss, and a whole lot more satisfying as far as I’m concerned.

Alright, bring on the rain! As long as I can come home to a revitalizing bowlful of fideo risotto, it’s really not such a bad deal.

Fideo Risotto

3 Tablespoons Olive Oil, Divided
2 Cups (1/2 Pound) Broken or Cut Spaghetti
1/2 Large Red Onion, Diced
3 Cloves Garlic, Minced
2 Roma Tomatoes, Diced
1 Poblano Pepper, Roasted, Seeded, and Diced
1 Red or Orange Bell Pepper, Roasted, Seeded, and Diced
3 Cups Low-Sodium Vegetable Broth
1 – 2 Tablespoon Tequila (Optional)
3 Tablespoons Lime Juice
2 Tablespoons Nutritional Yeast
1 1/2 Teaspoons Smoked Paprika
1 1/2 Teaspoons Ground Cumin
1 Cup Corn Kernels, Canned and Drained or Frozen and Thawed
1/2 Cup Fresh Cilantro, Chopped
Salt and Pepper, to Taste
1/4 Cup Toasted Pepitas (Optional)

Place half of the oil in a large stock pot over medium heat. Once shimmering, add in the pasta and stir to coat. Saute the noodles, stirring frequently, until toasted and golden brown all over; 5 – 8 minutes. Remove the noodles from the pot and set aside.

Return the pot to the stove and add in the remaining oil. Cook the onions and garlic together until softened and aromatic. Introduce the tomatoes and both roasted peppers next, stirring periodically, and continuing to cook until the onion are lightly golden. Add the vegetable broth, tequila (if using), lime juice, nutritional yeast, paprika, and cumin.

Bring the liquid up to a boil before returning the toasted noodles to the pot. Stir well to incorporate, cover, and reduce the heat to medium-low. Simmer gently until the pasta is tender and the liquid mostly absorbed; 9 – 11 minutes. Mix in the corn and fresh cilantro last right after taking the pot off the heat. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and top individual servings with a tablespoon or so of pepitas, if desired.

Serves 3 – 4 as a Main Dish

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