BitterSweet

Sweet Musings with a Bitterly Sharp Wit


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Given the Cold Shoulder

Blurring the line between genius and madness, typical recipe brainstorming sessions can yield any number of wild, unpredictable results, combining disparate flavors that bear tenuous connections at best. It’s the best and worst part of any free-association exercise, opening up the floodgates and allowing a torrent of unfiltered ideas to flow. I’ve come up with some of my greatest hits this way, but sometimes, I’ve inadvertently managed to cobble together terrifying Frankenstein monstrosities instead. Most of these are easily eliminated before they ever come to fruition to assault unsuspecting eaters in real life, but unfortunately, it sometimes takes a round of testing before I realize the errors of my ways. Recipe writers don’t like to talk about it, but failure is far more common than success.

Thus, given my adoration for ice cream and endless supply of crazy concepts, I’ve dished out more than my fair share of distasteful scoops. In honor of Nation Ice Cream Day today, I thought it might be fun it dive into the archives to unearth some of these frozen horrors. Brace yourselves: The following list is not for the weak of stomach.

  • Raisin Bran Ice Cream
  • Black Garlic Ice Cream
  • Old World Borscht Ice Cream
  • Ketchup Ice Cream
  • Bread & Butter Pickle Chip Ice Cream
  • Cinnamon-Raisin Noodle Kugel Ice Cream
  • Smokey Barbecue Sauce Ripple Ice Cream

Consider yourselves lucky that I had enough common sense to know when to put the ice cream paddle down. Not all ideas can be winners, but you have my word that only the best ever make it into print.

I hope everyone is enjoying this “holiday” with only the creamiest, sweetest, and most luxurious of sweet scoops!

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Go Fourth and Conquer

Fellow Americans, arm yourselves with a cold beverage and prepare for the party of the summer! If you’re really on the ball, you’ve already checked out of work and are easing into a full four day weekend, packed with all the things that make this country great: Explosions, drunken revelry, and more food than you can comfortably consume but still manage to, heartily. It’s a no-holds-barred celebration of summer, and I believe that very same free spirit should apply to the menu, no matter what your specific plans are. Whether you’re planning a low-key affair with just a few friends, a giant neighborhood bash that includes a couple of zip codes, or some very patriotic Netflix and chill alone, this is not an event that calls for culinary frippery. Leave the recipes in the kitchen, but take these ideas to the celebration.

Potato salad is pretty much mandatory, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be larded up with a thick miasma of creamy dressing and unidentifiable “vegetables.” Rather, try out a vinaigrette version and think of more flavorful additions. Some of my favorites include caramelized onions, thinly shaved fennel, olives or capers for some briny goodness, and meatless bacon of any variety. It doesn’t take too much to make it shine, so keep it to 5 inclusions at the most and don’t overthink this one.

Corn, one of the only crops indigenous to North America, is another friend that must be invited to join the fun. The absolute freshest sweet corn is a joy to eat cold and raw, but if you live more than 1 hour away from the fields, toss your ears on the grill for a real treat. Take a page from elote and slather it vegan mayo, sprinkle generously with paprika and nutritional yeast, and finish it off with a squeeze of lime. Eaten straight off the cob, it will be incredibly delicious and extremely messy if done right.

Anything on a stick. (Seen here: shishito peppers.) Enough said.

As many dips as you have chips! My vote goes for hummus or guacamole, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be plain. Dress up your chickpea spreads with spinach or artichokes to recall some of that old school flavor, or go bold and douse your guac with a generous squeeze of sriracha.

Though they may be “traditional” mains, skip the hot dogs and hamburgers this year. Instead, stuff some fresh veggies and celebrate the height of growing season here in the states. Any sort of grains and beans make fine fodder here, with bell peppers or zucchini serving as prime vessels, and you can even wrap them up and toss them on the grill, too.

For dessert, all you need is fruit. Yes, really, coming from the sweet-toothed baker, take my word for it! Something light, sweet, cold, and refreshing will hit the spot after a day out in the sun. The only acceptable alternative is ice cream, because really, when is ice cream ever a bad idea?

There you have it: A plan of attack suitable for the laziest of citizens, because working hard on this weekend of rest would be downright un-American. Happy Birthday, America! You’re looking pretty fine for all your 240 years.


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Top Ramen

When fresh noodles meet hot broth, some sort of strange alchemy occurs. It’s easy to understand the allure of ramen, and yet mysteries still abound, lurking at the bottom of each steaming bowl, compelling slurp after slurp as if the secret might be hiding in that very last spoonful. How on earth can such simple, humble ingredients meld together into something so sublime? Where exactly do those immense, throat-gripping savory flavors come from? Which came first; the pasta or the soup?

I paid a visit to my friend and accomplished chef Philip Gelb in hopes of answering these questions and gaining some insight on the way of the noodle. The promise of ending up with a taste of fresh, handmade ramen may or may not have been the primary excuse for attending his often sold out class. Either way, I got much more than I signed up for, which is the essential wisdom behind this dish.

It turns out that like most foods, there is no magic going on behind the scenes. Rather, the foundation is built upon quality ingredients that are treated with respect, prepared with the utmost care to coax out their full potential. The richest, most umami-infused broth you’ve ever splashed across your palate contains a minimal number of components, but is slowly simmered for a number of hours, allowing the water to reduce while the latent flavors to naturally emerge and intensify.

Ramen masters jealously guard the formulas to their patented brews, but even the die-hard fanatics rarely make their own noodles. Without means of mass production, the temptation to cut corners by sourcing acceptable starchy options is understandable, and indeed Sun Noodle provides very good ramen noodles for approximately 90% of the trendiest shops around the US. No, that’s not an overstatement, but the honest truth. Few other manufacturers have mastered the art form quite like the Hawaii-based company, eliminating a huge amount of labor for innovative restaurateurs nationwide. No matter how good this high standard may be, still nothing compares to the delicacy of a fresh ramen noodle made by your own two hands- And perhaps a pasta roller if you can afford the luxury.

Chewy, soft, and bouncy in all the right ways, the ramen noodle gets its great acclaim from its inimitable texture. Though traditionally imparted by kansui, a solution of potassium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate that serves to toughen wheat proteins and create the signature mouth-feel for these distinctive strands, a more accessible alternative can be found right inside your kitchen cabinet. Philip smartly induces the same sort of chemical reaction in standard baking soda by burning it in the oven. Aromatic in a less than pleasant way, he recommends doing this step in bulk so that you only need to suffer the fumes once. You may question your sanity as the stench rises in growing waves, but you must persevere through the pain! The rewards on the other side of this acrid wall are great. The difference between alkaline noodles and plain old spaghetti are like night and day.

Toppings are another discussion entirely, but my impression is that pretty much anything goes. Consider it the pizza of noodle soups; strong opinions about what is “right” and what is “wrong” are prevalent among purists, but if it tastes good, there’s no reason not to indulge. For this demonstration, key additions include deeply savory shiitake mushrooms, fried tofu, spicy pickled bean sprouts, and roasted cabbage. Crazy as it may sound, a whole head of cabbage is simply rubbed with olive oil and tossed in a slow oven for two hours, yielding an impossibly buttery and dare I say meaty morsel that very well could steal the show in a lesser bowl of soup.

The beauty of this combination, though, is the perfect balance of ingredients. Each addition is a strong player in its own right, capable of standing up to competing flavors without drowning each other out. While some continue to argue about whether it’s the noodles or the broth that makes the bowl, the real secret is that it’s neither. It’s the bigger picture of the dish altogether that makes ramen so great, and anyone focusing on just one piece of the puzzle is bound to be disappointed. Sure, it’s quite a bit more work than tossing a quick-cooking block of instant ramen on the stove, but every eater owes it to themselves to try the real deal at least once. You will never regret the time spent when you consider the true satisfaction gained by fabricating each and every facet by hand.

Homemade Ramen
By Chef Philip Gelb

Ramen Noodles:

1 Cup Semolina Flour
1 Cup White Flour
1/2 Teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 Teaspoon Burnt Baking Soda*
3/4 Cup Water

*Burnt baking soda is needed to alkalize the dough. Place approximately 1 cup baking soda on a sheet pan and bake at 250 F for 1 hour. Store in an airtight container for a few months.

Mix both flours, salt and burnt baking soda. Add water and stir well. Knead by hand for 20 minutes or until very smooth and pliable. Wrap tightly and refrigerate overnight.  Bring dough to room temperature and knead again for 10 minutes. Wrap tightly and let rest 1 hour. Roll out noodles to desired thickness and cut into thin strands.

When ready to eat, drop noodles in rapidly boiling water for about 1 minute or till desired texture. Serve immediately.

Makes 4 Servings

Kombu Stock:

Water
Dried Kombu
Dried Shiitake Mushrooms
Yellow Onion
Scallion
Fresh Ginger
Celery
Carrot

Place all ingredients in water to cover, add heat, bring to simmer, lower heat, cover, simmer for 2 hours. Drain all solid parts out.

Optionally, roast some or all the vegetables first for a darker, richer flavor.

Experiment by adding other vegetables such as cilantro, pumpkin, sweet potato, celery root, parsnip, lemongrass, and so forth as desired.

Soup:

12 Cups Kombu Stock (Above)
1 Cup Mirin
3/4 Cup Sake
1 1/2 Cups Soy Sauce

Combine all ingredients, bring to simmer and cook 5 minutes to burn off some of the harsh notes of the alcohol. Balance with more shoyu or mirin if needed, to taste.

Makes 7 Servings

Topping Options

Roasted Cabbage:

1 Whole Head Green Cabbage
Olive Oil

Rub cabbage generously with olive oil and wrap tightly with aluminum foil. Roast at 350 for 2 hours. Let cool completely before slicing thinly.

Quick Pickled Sprouts

1 Pound Mung Bean or Soybean Sprouts
2 Quarts Boiling Water with 1/8 Teaspoon Baking Soda Added
2 Tablespoons Rice Vinegar
3 Tablespoons Soy Sauce
1 Tablespoon Toasted Sesame Oil (FOR SPICY SPROUTS add hot chili oil instead)

Plunge sprouts into boiling water. Immediately remove and rinse well under cold water. Place blanched sprouts in a bowl and add vinegar, soy sauce, and oil. Toss to coat.

Shiitake Mushrooms

6 – 8 Dried Shiitake Mushrooms
1 Cup Kombu Stock
1 1/2 Tablespoons Granulated Sugar
2 Tablespoons Soy Sauce

Bring water to boil with sugar and soy sauce. Add shiitake and cook over medium-low heat until the liquid evaporates.

Slice each mushroom into several sections. Use one mushroom per bowl of soup.

Tofu

1 Pound Firm Tofu, Drained
Oil for frying

Cut tofu into 1/4-inch wide strips and pat dry. Deep fry tofu till crisp.

Printable Recipe


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Summers on Ice

It has long been rumored that Mark Twain once asserted “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” Although readily disproven, the false quote still haunts the bay area to this day, resonating with those more accustomed to the sweltering sunshine seen further down the west coast. Even I’ll admit a certain disappointment when heading downtown on a mid-July day calls for a jacket and long pants, but it’s an entirely different story just across the bay. Berkeley and Oakland regularly send the mercury rising 10 – 15 degrees higher, and there’s no telling what sort of tropical conditions exist just a few miles further out towards wine county. By the time I’m ready to head home, the disparity finds me swimming in my heavy layers, gasping for the relief that only a frozen treat, or two, can bring.

In such a desperate state, nutrition is rarely top of mind, truth be told. Anything cold and preferably sweet will do, never mind the sugar rush and crash soon to follow. After one too many midday food comas, I’ve found it essential to stock only the good stuff in the first place, making the best choice also the easy choice.

Thank goodness for Pro(Zero), my top protein powder pick of the moment. Blending with any liquid as smooth as silk, thickening like a dream, and possessing a rich sweetness far beyond the label might indicate, it’s everything you could ask for in a powdered supplement. Okay, there is one more think you might one: Good taste.

Previously available only in a limited palate of flavors, the latest release of a Chai Latte rendition has stolen my latte-loving heart. Warm spices mingle with a hint of coffee flavor, both in perfect balance, the combination of the two is a real snacking showstopper.

A thick, frosty protein shake does wonders to tame the typical hunger pains, but all it takes is a humble popsicle mold for crafting next-level summertime satisfaction. Initially inspired by a leftover protein shake left in the freezer for too long, it was obvious that my oversight was no mistake, but a hint of unlocked potential. All it needed was a stick.

Flecked with bold, invigorating spices and the perk of your favorite caffeinated beverage, these frosty treats are no mere syrupy ice cubes. Flakes of toasted coconut add texture, while coconut milk provides a decadent, creamy backdrop. Each bit has all the richness of typical ice cream, but without the need for any fancy equipment, or for loosening your belt afterwards.

To all the hot, busy, summer days ahead: Bring it on, do your worst. I’ve got some delicious backup ammunition in my freezer now, ready for instant refueling.

Coconut Chai Freezer Pops

1 3/4 Cups (1 14-Ounce Can) Full-Fat Coconut Milk
1/2 Cup Plain or Vanilla Non-Dairy Milk
1/4 Cup Light Agave Nectar
1/4 Cup Pro(Zero) Natural Chai Latte Protein Powder
1/4 Cup Unsweetened Shredded Coconut, Toasted
1 1/4 Teaspoons Ground Ginger
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Cinnamon
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Cardamom
1/8 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
1/2 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract
1/8 Teaspoon Anise Extract (Optional)

The procedure here really couldn’t be any simpler: Whisk together the coconut milk and non-dairy milk of your choice along with the protein powder, mixing thoroughly to ensure that there are no remaining lumps. Add in the toasted coconut, spices, salt, and extracts, and stir well. Pour the resulting mixture into popsicle molds, insert sticks, and place them on a level surface in your freezer. Allow at least 6 hours before serving, and preferably overnight.

If you have trouble getting the pops out of the mold, run the outsides under hot water for about 60 seconds to loosen them.

Makes About 6 Medium Freezer Pops

Printable Recipe

This post was is sponsored by HPN Supplements, but all content and opinions are entirely my own.


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Kept On Ice

UPDATE: Okay folks, I’ve let this go on for long enough… APRIL FOOLS! I’m sad to say, it was all a bit of fun in this name of today’s “holiday.” Although I thought everyone would figure it out immediately, I didn’t expect such an outpouring of enthusiasm and support. Instead of getting a laugh out of it, I ended up feeling more dejected that I wouldn’t be able to deliver on this artificial promise.

Rest assured, I do genuinely want to create this book, but I haven’t yet found a publisher willing to take it on. Right now, it’s just a pipe dream, but this whole affair gives me hope that it may still happen some day. Thank you, everyone, for providing such persuasive inspiration!

It’s no secret that I play favorites when it comes to dessert, and regardless of the season, my preference invariably points to chilliest option on the menu. Creamy and cool, a generous scoop of ice cream always hits the spot. Wrapping up production on Vegan a la Mode was one of the most difficult publishing decisions I made back in the day, still bursting with frosty inspiration but running up against the threat of harsh deadlines, a lot was ultimately left unsaid. Even worse, a lot was left unchurned.

For years now, since the moment that original tome hit the market, I’ve been pining for an excuse to revisit that file of unrealized potential. Well, the idea of making a sequel is no longer just an empty threat; it’s about to become a sweet reality.

Vegan a la Mode: The Second Scoop will pick up right where the first cookbook left off, with never-before-tasted flavors like Tamarind-Chile Ice Cream, Nesselrode Pie Ice Cream, and Butterbeer Ice Cream. Unique frozen confections will feature prominently this time around, bringing fun new serving suggestions like Neapolitan Spaghetti Ice Cream and Lava Flow Bombes to the table when you’re craving a real show-stopping grand finale.

Pushing ahead at break-neck speed to meet the imminent summer 2016 release, I simply couldn’t wait any longer to share the delicious news. Stand by for pre-orders and the final cover art, coming soon!


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Background Information

Every single photo, be it simple or complex, novice or professional, must always start with two essential components: A subject and a background. Whether we’re talking about people, products, or skyscrapers, it’s the same story. Mercifully, greater control is bestowed upon the photographer lucky enough to work with food, effortlessly modifying textures, colors, and patterns to best highlight the dish du jour. Inevitably cast as the backup singer by definition, photographic backgrounds never get the praise they deserve for setting the scene. Few single components can lay claim to the same power when it comes to affecting the whole composition of a piece in one fell swoop. Such responsibility naturally comes with serious drawbacks, especially when you find your microscopic apartment studio bursting at the seams with huge wooden boards and slabs of worn ceramic tiles. Lest every image start looking the same, it becomes imperative to start diversifying your options, and fast.

Uber Gray Grunge From Ink and Elm Backdrops

For a number of years, I found moderate success using lengths of contact paper as one approach to expand my collection of backgrounds, but this approach has distinct limitations. Rarely do the most useful patterns come in a matte finish, leading to distracting reflections or harsh shiny spots under the glare of strobe lights, especially if there should ever be the smallest wrinkle in the roll.

It was a serendipitous moment of aimless online shopping when I stumbled across Ink and Elm Backdrops. Though clearly developed with the portrait photographer in mind, I immediately saw potential for my inanimate focal points, too. Made of high-quality vinyl, the big question would be how that texture would translate under the close scrutiny of a macro lens. Don’t expect deep wood grain or genuine stone surfaces, but happily, not a single image came out screaming “ARTIFICIAL PRINT BACK HERE! THIS IS ALL A FARCE!” Good news too, since I hate it when my props yell at me.

Heirloom Planks From Ink and Elm Backdrops

Best of all for food photography, these surfaces are highly washable. Go ahead, lay your greasiest potato chips right on top, splash around with cookies dunked in milk; nothing seems to shake these sturdy foundations.

Flexible sizing is another big benefit that traditional alternatives can’t boast. Small squares are available for your basic shoot, but if you want to create a whole Thanksgiving spread on a rustic oak table spanning a couple of feet in both directions, they’ve got you covered, too. Plus, each sheet easily rolls up for compact storage when it’s all said and done.

There is one very serious pitfall to ordering through Ink and Elm, however. Their expansive catalog is so extensive, it’s almost impossible to pick out just one or two patterns!


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Love Triangle

Don your silliest costumes and rattle your noise-makers; Purim is around the corner! As one of the most joyous events on the Jewish calendar, games of chance, dancing, and parades are just the beginning of the fun festivities. Marked by vibrant color and a celebratory cacophony, it should only follow suit that the iconic food of the day, the hamantaschen, should follow suit. While the multi-colored fruit fillings contribute that particular visual impression, the uproar can often be attributed to the baker’s wailing over the fickle, uncooperative dough. Even the most experienced kitchen wizards sometimes get tripped up on this buttery pastry shell.

While everyone has their favorite flavors, from classic poppy seed to nouveau yuzu marmalade, the very same base is essential for hamantaschen mastery. Rather than leave you simply with a tried-and-true formula, I thought I might share a few tips to improve the end results, no matter what recipe makes the cut.

  • Start with shortening. It’s not the most flavorful fat on the shelf, but you can make up for that with citrus zest, spices, or concentrated baking extracts if that really bothers you. Nothing else works quite as well for this very rich dough. Vegetable shortening has less water than vegan butter and a higher melting point, which means your cookies are less liable to spread or, worst case scenario, liquefy in the oven.
  • Chill out. Keep all of your components as cold as possible, including the filling and even the rolling pin. The structure of the cookies becomes increasingly unstable with every passing minute once dough begins to warm up, so work quickly and handle it as little as possible.
  • Keep on rolling. Roll out the dough as thinly as possible, to about an 1/8th of an inch at most, so that the corners won’t crack when you begin to fold. Denser dough will also affect the rate of baking, causing the cookies to open up while still soft and impressionable.
  • Portion control. Apply the filling sparingly (no more than a teaspoon for a 2 1/2-inch round of dough) to prevent overflow. It may seem stingy at a glance, but a little bit really does go a long way.
  • Get the seal of approval. Pinch those corners very firmly to ensure that they adhere, and if they’re giving you trouble, add a tiny dab of water to act as glue.
  • Time to shine. For a very subtle finishing gloss, lightly paint the exposed dough with an even coat of equal parts agave and aquafaba and a tiny pinch of salt. The combination of sugar and protein will help add just a touch of added glamour and enhance browning.

Do you have any hamantaschen secrets of your own? Favorite recipes for dough or fillings? Don’t forget to share, and keep the noise in the kitchen just as jubilant as in the party!