Dancing in the Rain

Predictably unpredictable as always, springtime in San Francisco meaning blazing hot days of sunshine, followed immediately by the shock of hail, and endless vacillation between floods and droughts. Winter is usually the rainy season, but all bets are off as weather across the globe grows more extreme. Though fleeting, each sudden downpour puts a serious damper on business as usual. If you’re on foot, you’re liable to drown before reaching your destination, even if it’s just across the street. If you’re lucky enough to have a car, get cozy because traffic will be at a standstill as hapless motorists try to contend with the unmanageable conditions. A real rainy day like this calls for staying in by all means possible, for the sake of safety and sanity.

That means you had better stock your pantry and be prepared to make a meal of whatever you have on hand. Soups and stews are my go-to solutions for just such an occasion; anything in the fridge, freezer, and pantry can meld together in some sort of harmonious fusion, and with an ample spice rack, you’ll never risk flavor fatigue. Cook once, eat twice, thrice- or as many times as you can stand it.

Contending with another drenching rain one recent afternoon, sheer luck and serendipity yielded one of the most brilliant, prismatic brews I’ve had simmering on the stove in many months. Boldly magenta, or perhaps violently violet, purple potatoes, black quinoa, and red cabbage join forces to create a stew of a different hue. Delicious as it is visually stunning, I knew right away that this was no average stone soup, setting to work recording my recipe for future reference. Only in hindsight to I see the uncanny connection to Prince, whom we remember for his untimely passing exactly two years ago tomorrow.

I’d like to think that this simple bowl of comfort might be a small way to celebrate, rather than mourn such a vibrant life. It doesn’t need to be raining out to enjoy such a blend, but it certainly does make for a comforting complement to the weather. As Prince has said, “Honey I know, I know, I know times are changing.
It’s time we all reach out for something new,” so go ahead, shake up the usual routine and give it a try.

Purple Rainy Day Soup

2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1 Medium Red Onion, Diced
4 Cloves Garlic, Minced
4 Cups Shredded Red Cabbage
1/3 Cup Black Quinoa
2 Medium Purple Potatoes, Peeled and Diced (About 1 Pound)
1 Bay Leaf
4 Cups Vegetable Stock
2 Tablespoons Red Miso Paste
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
1/2 Teaspoon Dried Rosemary, Crushed
1 Tablespoon Sherry Vinegar
1/2 Cup Frozen Green Peas

Place the olive oil in a large stock pot and set it over medium heat on the stove. Saute for about 5 minutes, until translucent. Add in the garlic and continue cooking for another 5 – 10 minutes, until aromatic and lightly browned. Incorporate the shredded cabbage in handfuls, allowing it to wilt down slightly before adding more. Follow that with the dry quinoa, potatoes, and bay leaf.

Whisk the miso paste into the stock until smooth before pouring the mixture into the pot. Bring the mixture up to a boil, reduce the heat, and cover. Simmer for 25 – 30 minutes until the potatoes are fork-tender and the quinoa is fully cooked. Season with black pepper, rosemary, and vinegar, adjusting to taste if needed.

Toss in the frozen peas and simmer just until thawed and hot all the way through. Serve right away while piping hot!

Makes 4 – 6 Servings

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Weather or Not

Mentally battered by an assault of inclement weather warnings, you’d think the general public would have staged a revolt against all forecasters at this point. The anxiety and stress piles up faster than the foretold falling flakes, thanks to the added hype that always comes with incessant social media repetition. Nine times out of ten, expectations don’t match the reality of the climate outside, but the hysteria is sure real. So much as suggest that there might be anything less than blue skies and people will turn out from all corners of the earth to wrestle that last roll of toilet paper out of your hands at the grocery store. It’s like a battle of life and death, to secure a stockpile before the world ends, regardless of the pitifully low probability of even flurries.

This is a phenomenon I’ve become somewhat immune to in the generally mild atmosphere of the bay area, but that same illogical impulse still grips me when I’m least expecting it. Rain is the new snow around here, since it appears so rarely and thus cripples unsteady drivers and fragile public transit systems that don’t know how to cope. I still feel the pain of all those back east, hunkering down for a brutal nor’easter right now, undoubtedly hurtling through their local markets as if their shopping carts were assault weapons.

As darkening skies approach, what’s going into your basket? What are the staples that immediately make the cut as sustenance to hold you through those difficult times (maybe even hours!) when the roads are too intimidating to traverse? Practicality is not my strong suit, and so the parade of groceries marching down the conveyor belt at checkout is typically laughable. Peanut butter, bread, frozen peas; sure, those are wise investments. But the random assortment of chocolates, half-priced hummus, and impulse buy mini gnocchi? Those are perhaps a bit less crucial for long-term survival. I would not fare well if ever faced with a real lock-down emergency.

Luckily, my unreasonable yet well-meaning instincts have led me to create some incredible combinations out of those curiously assembled ingredients. Those mini gnocchi, for example, caught my eye as ideal comfort food when the going got rough, and they didn’t disappoint even when the forecast did. There’s never been a better time to indulge in such a recipe, although I can’t say that there would ever come a bad time, either.

Lavished with a buttery cream sauce made of typical pantry staples, it could very well be the new face of emergency rations, despite its less urgent origins. Dauphinoise potatoes typically layers thinly sliced spuds in a casserole concoction, but since pasta keeps longer and is almost always on hand, gnocchi struck me as a natural extension of the concept. In more dire times, or healthier mindsets, I realized that swapping out the dumplings for simple legumes like chickpeas could make for an equally satisfying, comforting side dish, too. It’s all the same starchy, savory, subtly salty flavors which meld into an effortless indulgence in the end.

If you haven’t already gone through the throes of panic-induced grocery shopping, may I make three quick suggestions? 1) Make a list. 2) Avoid the candy aisle. 3) Write in mini gnocchi as a necessity, no matter how silly it may appear at first glance. You’ll thank me for this later.

Gnocchi Dauphinoise

1 Pound Mini Potato Gnocchi
1/3 Cup Raw Cashews
1 Cup Unsweetened Non-Dairy Milk
1/3 Cup Vegetable Stock
2 Tablespoons Vegan Butter
1 Tablespoon Nutritional Yeast
2 Cloves Garlic, Minced
1/2 Teaspoon Dried Thyme
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 Teaspoon Ground White Pepper

Preheat your oven to 300 degrees.

Gently separate the mini gnocchi and toss them into a 1 1/2 quart baking dish. They’re so small that they don’t need to be parboiled before baking.

Toss all of the remaining ingredients into a high-speed blender and pulverize on the highest setting until perfectly silky smooth. If you’re using a machine that has a bit less torque, soak the cashews for at least 4 hours in advance before blender, to make them a bit softer and easier to emulsify. Blend for a full 6 – 8 minutes, until the mixture is steaming hot.

Pour the cashew cream all over the waiting gnocchi before easing the dish into the oven. Bake for 1 – 1 1/2 hours, until the gnocchi are fork-tender and the liquid is thick and rich. Top with freshly chopped parsley, if desired, and serve bubbling hot.

Makes 4 – 6 Servings as a Side; 2 – 3 Servings as an Entree with Salad

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Curry of Another Color

Glowing like a vibrant stoplight on the table, each bowlful of curry distinguishes itself with a visual warning, much like the markings of poisonous animals send out a visual alarm to all those who cross their paths. Stay away, or else, admonish the unworldly hues, seemingly more insistent and threatening when found in the boldest shades. For curry, quite the contrary, those alarm bells seem to be silent, and in fact beckon to gustatory fire-starters with their distinctive complexions. From the more mellow Indian yellow madras, the deceptively gentle browns of massaman, to the full spectrum of more fiery stews from Thailand in brilliant greens and reds, at least we only have ourselves to blame when our palates are set ablaze. The cautionary colors were all plain to see.

What then, if you came across a curry of another color, an entirely different beast altogether? Would the potential culinary danger be daunting, or a delicious challenge to face?

All hints of heat are hidden within that murky stew, concealed by a cloak of impenetrable darkness. Fresh vegetables light the way, promising a healthy and satisfying meal, but all other bets are off the table.

Darkened not by some flavorless edible dyes, but by the rich, pungent cloves of black garlic, this new breed balances out heat with a molasses-like sweetness, earthiness, and smoky character. All of that darkness conceals bright, bold pops of citrus and herbaceous cilantro, a stark but compelling contrast to those initial base notes.

Once you make the paste, you have this umami bomb ready at your finger tips for many more almost instant meals to come. Just freeze the leftovers in ice cub trays and store in zip-top bags when solid. Pop one or two out when you’re ready to eat, and toss in any of your favorite vegetables to round out the dish. Consider the following recipe a guideline to fill out to your own taste- and, of course, spice tolerance.

Black Curry Paste

1/2 Cup Fresh Cilantro, Lightly Packed
2 Stalks Fresh Lemongrass, Peeled Chopped
14 Makrut Lime Leaves
4 Cloves Raw Garlic
1 1/2 Bulbs Black Garlic
1 Medium Yellow Onion, Roughly Chopped
4 – 6 Thai Bird’s Eye Chiles, Stemmed
3-Inches Fresh Ginger, Peeled and Roughly Chopped
1 Lime, Zested and Juiced
1 Tablespoon Soy Sauce
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
1/4 Cup Avocado, Peanut, or Olive Oil
1/4 – 1/3 Cup Mushroom or Vegetable Stock

To make curry paste, simply toss the cilantro, lemongrass, both types of garlic, onion, chiles, ginger, and lime into your food processor. Pulse to combine and begin breaking down the more fibrous vegetables. Slowly drizzle in the oil, followed by 1/4 cup of the stock. Puree, pausing to scrape down the sides periodically, until the paste is very smooth. Add more stock if needed to keep the blades spinning, and be patient. It could take as long as 10 minutes of processing to plow through all that lemongrass.

Use right away or freeze for more long term storage. It’s perfect for enlivening soups and stews, of course, but also stir-fries, salad dressings, veggie burger patties, cornbread, and more.

Makes About 1 Cup Curry Paste

Black Curry:

1/4 Cup Black Curry Paste
1 Tablespoon Tomato Paste
1 14-Ounce Can No Salt Added Black Beans, Undrained
1/4 Cup Mushroom or Vegetable Stock
3 – 4 Cups Mixed Vegetables (I used yellow squash, green beans, mushrooms and carrots)
Fresh Cilantro
Roasted, Unsalted Peanuts, Roughly Chopped
Rice or Noodles, to Serve

To make a simple black curry, stir the curry paste, tomato paste, and black beans together. The liquid in the can will help create a thick, rich sauce, so don’t even think of dumping it out! Heat the mixture, along with the stock and your vegetables of choice in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Simmer for 20 – 30 minutes, until the vegetables are tender and the stew is highly aromatic. Top with fresh cilantro and peanuts, and serve alongside hot rice or noodles to complete the meal.

Makes 2 – 3 Servings

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New Year, New Stew

Rubbing the sleep from our eyes as sunlight floods the room, still slightly subdued from last night’s festivities, we all wake to greet the new year: Welcome, 2018! Ripe with potential, the days ahead unfurl before us, bright and gleaming like gems, a treasure to discover along the way.

Encouraged to seize this opportunity for personal renewal, the temptation to reinvent oneself is strong. We’re encouraged to set lofty goals for a “new year, new you.” The hype has grown considerably quieter over the years, thankfully, but still it persists. I’m here right now to say that if you’re still feeling tempted by those invasive marketing tactics, you’re not alone, but you’re already good enough. Smart enough. Pretty enough. Fit enough. Kind enough. If you’re even considering what you’d like to improve about yourself, you’re thoughtful and motivated and intelligent enough to make it happen, if that’s what you really want. But you don’t need to, and you don’t need to pretend to, if you don’t. You’re exactly the same person you were before the sun set last night and the ball dropped at midnight, and that’s exactly who you need to be. You are already the best YOU out there. DON’T throw it all away in an attempt to start with a “new” you all over again.

Understand that in all honesty, I’m saying this as much for you as I am for me, because sometimes it’s easier to see the goodness in others than yourself. That doesn’t detract from my conviction in those words, but further strengthens the sentiment. If you can start to see positivity and have a more optimistic perspective of your world, you can manifest that same light, too.

Motivational pep talk out of the way, let’s move full steam ahead into the best year yet, shall we? Embark on this new journey forward with something hearty, soul-soothing, and utterly effortless in case holiday revelry is still ringing in your ears.

Murky gruel the color of swamp water is typically the defining characteristic of split pea soup, but beneath the surface lies true inner beauty. Mixing in frozen sweet peas at the very end brightens up the situation considerably, lending both fresh pops of pigmentation and flavor. Unlike most bean soups, no soaking is necessary to tenderize the legumes, cooking quickly into an instantly an creamy, thick stew.

Simple Split Pea Soup

1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1 Small Red Onion, Diced
2 Cloves Garlic, Minced
1 Medium Sweet Potato, Peeled and Diced
2 Tablespoons Reduced-Sodium Soy Sauce
1 Cup Split Green Peas
4 Cups Vegetable Stock
1/2 Teaspoon Smoked Paprika
1 Tablespoon Fresh Rosemary, Minced
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
1 Cup Frozen Green Peas
Salt, to Taste

Heat your pressure cooker on the sauté setting and add the oil. Add the onion and garlic, cooking until translucent and aromatic; about 6 or 7 minutes. Add in the sweet potato, soy sauce, split peas, vegetable stock, paprika, rosemary, and pepper, stir to incorporate, and lock in the lid.

Once sealed, cook on High Pressure for 18 minutes. Let stand for 3 minutes longer before opening the valve to release the remaining pressure.

Stir in the frozen peas (no need to thaw in advance) and season with salt to taste. Give the mixture a vigorous stir to further break up the split peas for a thicker, smoother texture, if desired.

To make this soup on the stove top, without a pressure cooker, simple cover and simmer on low heat for 35 – 45 minutes instead.

Makes 3 to 4 Servings

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The Other Wheat Meat

Living “High on the Hog” has always meant enjoying the finer things in life, originally in reference to the choicest cuts of meat found on the upper half of the animal, which almost always meant one thing: ham. For many, a holiday just isn’t a proper celebration without a lavish roast on the table to both flaunt and share their prosperity. Such deeply ingrained customs are slowly evolving right alongside the shifting landscape of food preferences, so it was only a matter of time before someone was bold enough to take this tradition to task. I can’t think of any company more qualified to do so than Tofurky.

Makers of the original alternative roast, touting veganism before it was cool, Tofurky hasn’t stopped innovating since that fateful first product launch over 30 years ago. Trussed in genuine butcher’s twine and accordingly crosshatched by the pressure, the Vegetarian Ham Roast plays along to fit the bill, albeit on a much smaller scale. This beige football is said to feed five, but presumably a full feast with additional side dishes could stretch that number if need be.

Sharing many qualities with the classic turkey substitute, this porkless roast thaws out from a frozen state to meet a toasty preheated oven for about 1 1/2 hours of cooking. The biggest difference is that this rendition has no stuffing inside, but exterior embellishment instead. Included in the box is an “Extra Special Beer Glaze;” a thick syrup featuring Hopworks Velvet ESB, with a slightly granular texture owing to the inclusion of coarse, stone ground mustard. Make no mistake, it’s very sweet, first and foremost, but ultimately a good contrast to the saltiness of the roast.

That said, I had other plans for my roast and decided against the glaze, in favor of a more nuanced, herbaceous root beer brine, playing off the complex spices from the soda and contrasting with the savory heft of the roast. Dense, chewy, and quite solid, the texture is best when sliced thinly. No one would mistake it for meat, no doubt about that, but it’s a welcome departure from the standard faux-fowl or straight soybean fare for more festive occasions. Additionally, leftovers are brilliant additions to typically porky dishes, like a simple pot of creamy white beans or split pea soup. Since ham isn’t an entree that I encountered frequently as a child, it resonates more as a flavorful, protein-packed new ingredient than a whole entree for me.

That’s why I was especially excited to play around with the extra slices to make mock chashu, a Japanese form of marinated pork belly. Fanned out atop a bowlful of hot, steaming ramen, the visual and flavorful impact was quite stunning. Even with my otherwise humble assortment of vegetables cobbled together out of the pantry, this meal became an instant, unforgettable hit thanks to that exceptional meatless inclusion.

As further recipe experimentation has proven, this new plant-based ham roast provides more than just an annual comestible experience, but a promising year-round addition to anyone’s daily menu.

Root Beer Brined Ham

1 12-Ounce Bottle (1 1/2 Cups) Sugar-Sweetened Root Beer
1/4 Cup Apple Cider Vinegar
1 Teaspoon Black Peppercorns
1 Teaspoon Brown Mustard Seeds
1/2 Teaspoon Whole Allspice Berries
1/2 Teaspoon Whole Cloves
1/2 Teaspoon Dried Thyme
1 Bay Leaf
1 Tofurky Ham Roast

Simply combine all of the ingredients in a medium-sized pan and bring to a vigorous boil. Turn off the heat, cover, and cool to room temperature. Refrigerate and let the roast marinate for at least 12 hours, but ideally 24 or even 48 if you can bare the wait.

To cook, bake the roast in a preheated 350 degree oven for 75 – 90 minutes, until golden brown on the outside and hot all the way through. Meanwhile, set the leftover brine back on the stove and simmer until reduced to a thick, syrupy sauce.

Slice thinly and serve with the root beer reduction on the side.

Makes 5 Servings

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Chashu

3/4 Cup Water
1 Tablespoon Toasted Sesame Oil
1 Tablespoon Agave Nectar
1 Tablespoon Red Miso Paste
2 Tablespoons Reduced-Sodium Soy Sauce
1/4 Cup Mirin
1 Inch Fresh Ginger, Sliced
2 Cloves Garlic, Sliced
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
1 Tofurky Ham Roast

Just like the previous preparation, this procedure couldn’t be simpler. Simply combine all of the ingredients in a medium-sized pan and bring to a vigorous boil. Turn off the heat, cover, and cool to room temperature. Refrigerate and let the roast marinate for at least 8 hours.

Slice thinly and add to your favorite bowl of ramen noodles to serve. The warmth of the soup should reheat the slices without any additional cooking necessary.

Makes 8 – 10 Servings

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Welcome to the Dark Side

Maybe the most ardent shoppers are still shaking off crushing food comas from the previous night’s excess, but I’m ready to call it early: Black Friday has lost all credibility. Gone are the lines snaking through parking lots, populated by die-hard bargain hunters setting up camp up to a day in advance. 3 AM wake up calls are almost entirely a thing of the past, owing to advanced Thanksgiving day openings, if they didn’t simply leave those automatic glass doors yawning wide open all night long. Most notably on the list of offenses, however, is the fact that it’s not even a single day anymore. How can you call it Black Friday when the big ticket, door buster deals hit a week ago, if not earlier? Perhaps it’s just my heart that’s gone black this year, but I’m officially burned out on this buying and selling insanity.

No, on second thought, I take it back. It’s more than just my black heart speaking, it’s also the black stew percolating on the stove that’s keeping me away from the celebration of consumerism this afternoon.

There’s nothing wrong with a healthy dose of darkness, especially when it comes primarily in the form of rich, nutty tahini paste. Quite the rarity despite the popularity of standard blonde sesame butter, black tahini is in a category all its own. I was lucky enough to score a jar while visiting the Living Tree Community Foods offices here in the east bay, and have been somewhat obsessed with it ever since. If you thought almond butter toast was pretty snappy, just try switching up your schmear tactics and taste the difference for yourself. A subtly bitter edge offsets its sticky decadence, lending a far more nuanced flavor profile than one might expect from this silky-smooth, raw puree.

Not to throw shade on Black Friday, but it only wishes it was half as dark as this hearty concoction of black lentils, black beans, black cocoa, and of course, black tahini. Get a healthier fix this “holiday” and save your dollars for the important things that really matter… Like more sesame paste to prepare a second round, perhaps?

Blackout Sesame Chili

2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1 Medium Red Onion, Diced
5 Cloves Garlic, Minced
1 (14.5-Ounce) Can Diced Tomatoes
1 (6-Ounce) Can Tomato Paste
1 1/2 Cups Dry Black Beluga Lentils
1 (16-Ounce) Can Stout Beer
2 Cups Vegetable Stock
1/4 Cup Maple Syrup
2 Tablespoons Chili Powder
2 Tablespoons Black Cocoa Powder
2 Teaspoons Ground Cumin
1 Teaspoon Chipotle Powder
1/4 Teaspoon Cayenne Pepper
1/2 Cup Black Tahini
2 (15.5-Ounce) Cans Black Beans, Rinsed and Drained
1 Tablespoon Lime Juice
1 Teaspoon Salt

To Garnish (optional):

1 Cup Vegan Sour Cream
3 – 4 Scallions, Thinly Sliced
1/4 Cup Toasted Black Sesame Seeds

Place a large stock pot over medium heat and add in the oil. Once shimmer, add the onion and garlic, sauteing until lightly browned and aromatic; about 6 – 8 minutes. Introduce the diced tomatoes and tomato paste next, working the paste into the scant liquid to break it down into a smooth mixture. Next, incorporate the lentils, beer, vegetable stock, maple syrup, chili powder, black cocoa, cumin, chipotle powder, and cayenne. Stir well to combine, cover, and bring to a boil.

Reduce the heat to low and simmer for approximately 30 minutes, until lentils are tender. Add tahini and black beans, mixing well to incorporate. Continue to stew, uncovered, for an additional 15 – 20 minutes until thick, rich, and piping hot. Add the lime juice and salt, adjusting both to taste as needed.

Depending on your desired consistency, you may want to add more vegetable stock or water, particularly if the chili is made in advance. It tends to thicken further as it cools.

Ladle out into bowls and top with sour cream, scallions, and black sesame seeds. Eat to your black heart’s content!

Makes 6 – 8 Servings

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