BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


13 Comments

Neither Fish Nor Fowl

Contrary to popular belief, ceviche needn’t include any seafood to be considered “authentic,” or more importantly, to be considered delicious. One of many dishes with murky origins, it’s largely credited to the Peruvians, but it made its mark on cultures across all continents. If one were to look at the Latin etymology, it would simply mean “food for men and animals;” an ambiguous free-for-all with very little meaning other than the fact that it was, indeed, edible. Turning to Arabic, we see the foundation for “cooking in vinegar.” Persian would agree, going further to suggest that it was a “vinegar soup.” Sure, fish or meat was almost always invited to the party, but that doesn’t mean it was essential to the soul of the dish.

Scores of creative ceviches abound, plant-based and seasoned with a wide palate of different cultural perspectives. The most successful ones that I’ve come across take texture into account even before the flavor is considered, as backwards as that may sound. Few people realize just how much of the eating experience comes down to texture, which is why ceviche is a particularly fascinating preparation to experiment with. As long as it has a somewhat meaty yet springy texture that approximates something like shrimp or calamari, accompanied by a brightly acidic twang, you can craft a highly satisfying vegan rendition, no questions asked. Thus, upon biting into a fresh, juicy lychee, inspiration for a new approach struck me like lightning.

As the rest of the country starts hunting through their closets for long-forgotten sweaters and scarves, predictably, the bay area is forced to start shedding layers. The heat continues to skyrocket and the only thing I want to eat is something quick, cold, and satisfying. Ceviche fits neatly into that definition, no matter what else you consider essential. Packing it with buttery avocados and young coconut meat adds richness to this otherwise very lean preparation, fit for either a light meal or a good snack. Packed with crisp vegetables, everything is open to interpretation based on your personal tastes and accessibility. Want to mix it up? Consider ripe tomatoes, cubed watermelon, fresh corn, marinated mushrooms, chunks of fried plantain, or even steamed sweet potatoes, just for starters. Borrow from as many different cultures as you like; for ceviche, as long as it’s cold and raw, pretty much anything goes.

The only inviolable rule is to use ONLY fresh lychees, and I must be adamant about that. Canned can never compare, possessing both an unnatural sweetness and unpleasantly sour, metallic aftertaste. If you can’t find fresh, just double up on the coconut, and choose your own vegetable adventure from there.

Island Breeze Lychee Ceviche

10 – 12 Fresh Lychees, Peeled, Pitted, and Quartered (About 2/3 Cup)
1 Fresh Young Thai Coconut, Meat Removed and Diced
1/2 Large Cucumber, Peeled and Seeded
1 Small Avocado, Diced
3 Tablespoons Lime Juice
1 Tablespoon Pineapple Juice
1 Tablespoon Rice Vinegar
1 tablespoon Vegan Fish Sauce or Soy Sauce
1 Red Jalapeno, Seeded and Finely Minced
2 Scallions, Thinly Sliced
1/4 Cup Packed Fresh Cilantro, Roughly Chopped
Salt, to Taste

To prepare ceviche, you shouldn’t really need written instructions to break it down, but here goes: Toss everything together in a large bowl except for the salt, cover, and let marinate in the refrigerator for 15 – 30 minutes. Season with salt to taste and serve thoroughly chilled, with crackers if desired.

Makes 4 – 6 Servings

Printable Recipe


45 Comments

Big Fish in a Small Pond

If we can all agree that 2013 was the year of the coconut, then I do hereby declare 2014 the year of the vegan fish. Perhaps the trend isn’t quite so widespread or pronounced- You’re not about to find mock seafood woven into everything from granola bars to non-dairy beverages, thank goodness- but it’s a distinct and growing section of the innovative food industry. While the demand for cruelty-free alternatives has grown to a deafening roar over the past decade, meatless offerings never included any oceanic facsimiles. It was the last frontier of veganism, but no more.

I first became aware of Atlantic Natural Foods and their Vegetarian Fishless Tuna back in the cold days of winter, and thanks to my snail’s pace of turning out a review, they have since updated their branding. It now falls under their Caroline’s line, bearing a shiny new label, but the product itself remains the same. Soy-based and packed in a tin can just like the “real” thing, it’s the only fishless canned tuna on the market. Gone are the days of Tuno, but anyone who misses the stuff should be thrilled; Caroline’s is a clear improvement.

That said, for anyone unaccustomed to fishy flavors, steel yourself as you pop the lid for the first time. The pungent aroma hits you right away, and unfortunately, it’s not exactly an enticing one. Smelling quite a bit like cat food, it doesn’t look too much better, either. In all fairness though, real canned tuna has always grossed me out, even when I was an avid fish-eater. Appearing to be little more than TVP in water at first blush, a flaky yet substantial, satisfying texture reveals itself at first bite, imitating the grain of cooked tuna surprisingly well. Leading with an unmistakable oceanic flavor, only a slight soy aftertaste gives away its true origins. Though first impressions may not be stellar, it’s pretty darned close to canned tuna, as far as I can recall, and I found myself quickly warming to the unique taste. Best of all, it’s not just a starchy copycat like many of the existing konjaku-based faux-seafoods, but has some real protein to speak of, making it a sound nutritional choice all told.

Though I would venture to guess that 95% of buyers will inevitably turn their fishless tuna into good old fashioned tuna salad, I wanted to go with a lighter, cleaner presentation to really highlight the mock meat. Composing a platter of tuna nicoise salad was a real treat, since it took almost no effort for a huge flavor payoff. Chickpeas tossed with a touch of sulfuric black salt took the place of hard boiled eggs, and the tuna itself needed only a light dressing of olive oil, mustard, lemon juice, and a handful of sliced scallions to really sing. I couldn’t get enough of this veggie-packed plate, devouring the entire thing in record time.

What I truly yearn for when it comes to seafood, though, is Japanese food. Considering that fish really makes up the foundation of this cuisine, the potential for even a canned alternative is nearly limitless. Sushi would have been the obvious (albeit undoubtedly delicious) route, so I instead opted to make a delightfully briny, somewhat salty furikake topping out of my remaining fishless fixings. Serving to both extend this rare ingredient while also extending its shelf life, you really get the most bang for your buck when it can be used over the course of countless meals. Plain old sushi rice comes to life with just a light sprinkle of this simple condiment, but the sky’s the limit when it comes to topping potential. Think of the salads, french fries, popcorn, and noodles that could all benefit from a little extra umami. As long as you don’t include it as an option at your next ice cream social, I’d say all the rest is fair game.

Fishless Furikake

1/2 Cup Very Thoroughly Drained Vegan Tuna
2 Teaspoons Tamari
1 Teaspoon Mirin
1 Teaspoon Olive Oil
3 Tablespoons Toasted White Sesame Seeds
2 Tablespoons Toasted Black Sesame Seeds
1 Sheet Toasted Nori

Preheat your oven to 225 degrees and line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil. Lightly grease and set aside.

Simply toss the “tuna” with the tamari, mirin, and oil to thoroughly coat. Spread it out into one thin, even layer on your prepared baking sheet and slide it into the oven. Cook for about 1 1/2 hours, stirring every 30 minutes, until darkened in color, reduced in size, and dry to the touch. They may not feel crispy just yet, but they will continue to dry as they cool.

Cool the fishless tuna flakes completely before combining them with both types of sesame seeds. Use a sharp pair of scissors to cut the sheet of nori into inch-long strips. Stack the strips on top of each other and then cut them into very thin ribbons, just a few millimeters wide. Add the nori into the mixture, stir well, and store in an air-tight container at room temperature. The furikake will keep for at least a month, possibly longer- I couldn’t save any long enough to find out!

Makes About 1 Scant Cup

Printable Recipe


35 Comments

Tuna of the Field

It’s not what it looks like.

No, it’s not a poorly timed April Fool’s prank and no, I have not begun eating fish (perish the thought!) What you’re looking at is in fact good old fashioned watermelon, dressed up like ahi poke, the highly prized Hawaiian delicacy. Rather than mere eye candy, believe it or not, these ruby red cubes really do taste quite fishy- And in a good way! What really seals the deal is the texture, no longer bearing the crisp bite that you would want for an average melon, but meaty and downright silky on the tongue.

The concept for watermelon-based tuna is one that I heard of many years back, created with the aid of a chamber vacuum sealer to compress the melon flesh while simultaneously infusing new flavors. Lacking such expensive equipment, the idea languished in the back of my head, until a surplus of the sweet summer fruit prompted me to go beyond standard preparations. Turns out that it only takes a simple freeze and thaw cycle to transform fresh produce into something of a more oceanic nature. This is one that requires nice firm watermelon to start with, so don’t wait until the season ends and only mealy melons remain. Act now, and keep the “fish” stashed in the freezer until you’re ready to enjoy up to four months later.

Not only does it make an unbeatable poke bowl, but it’s perfectly suited to just about any other raw preparation you can imagine, such as tuna tartare. A perfectly savory appetizer deserving a place at even the fanciest affair, this mustard- and caper-spiked combination pairs well with crackers, plain, seeded, or herbed. Really, the sky’s the limit, as I enjoyed mine on top of leafy green salads as well.

Creating a delicious vegan fish alternative has long been the final frontier for meatless cooking, and I believe this brings us all one giant leap closer to that holy grail.

Fish-Free Watermelon Tuna

1 Cup Mushroom Broth
4 Tablespoons Reduced-Sodium Tamari
2 Tablespoons Olive or Sauerkraut Brine
1 Tablespoon Rice Vinegar
1 Tablespoon Chickpea Miso Paste or White Miso Paste
1 Small Clove Garlic, Finely Minced
2 Sheets Nori
1 1/2 Pounds Cubed Seedless Watermelon

In a large, shallow container, whisk together the mushroom broth, tamari, brine, vinegar, miso paste, and minced garlic. Place the cubes of watermelon into the marinade so that all of the pieces are covered, ideally in a single layer. Arrange the sheets of nori so that they cover the melon and make contact with at least one side of all the pieces. You may need to move things around so that you have a sheet of nori at the bottom of the container and one on top to achieve this layout.

Cover with plastic wrap and place the container on a flat surface in your freezer. Allow the whole thing to fully freeze; at least 12 hours, but ideally 24 or longer. If you want to save the “tuna” for a later date, just leave it at this stage until you’re ready to serve it. To continue preparing your fish-free feast, allow the tuna to fully thaw either in the fridge or at room temperature. Remove and discard the wet nori, and drain away the excess marinade. You can save this and reuse it if you like, since there’s no potential bacterial contamination like you would get if using raw meat. Your watermelon tuna is now ready to eat or use in other recipes!

Ahi Poke:

1 Batch Fish-Free Watermelon Tuna (Above)
2 Scallions, Thinly Sliced
1 Tablespoon Reduced-Sodium Tamari
1 Teaspoon Toasted Sesame Oil
1/2 Teaspoon Crushed Red Pepper Flakes
Fresh Limu or Rehydrated Arame, to Taste (Optional)

Tuna Tartare:

1 Batch Fish-Free Watermelon Tuna (Above)
2 Teaspoons Brined Capers, Drained and Rinsed
1 Teaspoon Dijon Mustard
2 Tablespoons Finely Chopped Shallot
2 Tablespoons Finely Chopped Parsley
4 Teaspoons Olive Oil

For either the ahi poke or tuna tartare options, simply mix all of the ingredients together and gently toss in the “tuna” to combine. Let marinate in the fridge for up to a day, but at least one hour before serving. Top freshly cooked, hot white rice with the ahi poke to make a classic poke bowl, and finish with sesame seeds if desired. The tartare can be served up plain, with crackers, or tossed with salad greens.

Printable Recipe