Slimy Yet Satisfying

Like many great inventions, this recipe was borne of an abject failure. Any reasonable person would have admitted defeat and tossed the initial results without a second thought, but then again, no one has ever accused me of such distinction.

It all started with a used pasta maker, the catalyst for a deep-dive into all sorts of noodles, common and obscure, simple and complex, to see what I could churn out at home. After working through soba and pappardelle and more, I hit upon rokube. Served on Tsushima Island, this local specialty is made of sweet potato flour mixed with grated yams as a means of creating more nutritious noodles during times of scarcity. Though rudimentary recipes do exist, they aren’t well detailed, leading to some very questionable cuisine.

Obviously, sweet potato flour is different from sweet potato starch, and perhaps they meant actual sweet potatoes instead of what I assumed were nagaimo. Thus, my attempt was doomed from the start. Nagaimo are known for having a uniquely slimy texture when grated or pureed; also known as “neba neba” in Japanese. This gooey mouthfeel is difficult for many western palates to accept, so be forewarned that what follows may not suit all tastes.

So, merrily, I measured out all the wrong ingredients and was surprised to see that it didn’t work at all- What a shock! Though the dough seemed stiff and difficult to knead, it refused to come out of the nozzle and when at rest, it appeared to liquefy. It was such a bizarre consistency that it defies easy explanation.

This is where I should have given up, but thrifty and scrap-happy cook that I am, I racked my brain for any way to salvage the mess. How about… Drying it out in the oven? Sure, why not? Into a greased sheet pan it went and it did indeed set into a sheet of odd, floppy, white and translucent starch. Next, still stuck on the idea of noodles, it only made logical sense to slice it into ribbons and proceed as planned.

Shockingly, flying in the face of all common sense, it actually worked. The strands cooked up as intended, remaining intact yet tender, and incredibly, extremely chewy. Very neba neba.

Served chilled and topped with additional nagaimo, this is a taste experience for the adventurous, seeking something refreshing and cool that offers textures not otherwise found in most common cookery. Slippery, springy, and slightly gooey, you must be able to embrace slime to appreciate it. Other neba neba ingredients can be added to enhance the sensation, like natto and sliced fresh okra.

There are probably easier ways to arrive at such a result, but through the process of experimentation, I’m just happy to land at such satisfying end results. It never hurts to keep trying and pushing forward, no matter the questionable path!

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Nuts and Bolts

Confession: I like peanut butter cookies, though try as I might, I simply don’t love them. Their alluring crosshatch imprints do beckon, and I wouldn’t turn down a nutty morsel when offered, but they’re never my go-to treat. I don’t crave them like I do a proper fudgy brownie, or chewy caramel candies. When offered the choice between peanut butter cookies and just about any other comparable confection, be it gingerbread, biscotti, thumbprints and beyond, it’s almost always going to fall to last place.

Perhaps this isn’t such a scandalous admission, especially compared to the controversy that merely including raisins in cookies can cause, but somehow it feels like a personal shortcoming. There must be something inherently wrong with me that I can’t appreciate the subtle art of classic peanut butter cookies more thoroughly.

Ultimately, it comes down to texture. I’m not talking about creamy versus crunchy spreads; the very foundation of the treat fails to meet my expectations for an ideal cookie. Coarsely textured, a bit crumbly and sometimes sandy, yet it doesn’t have the same buttery richness of shortbread. Plagued by dryness if over-baked for a single second, they’re easy to throw together, but shockingly unforgiving once they hit the oven. Making peanut butter cookies is a snap; making great peanut butter cookies is no small task.

The solution is surprisingly simple: add more peanut butter.

Peanut butter powder stands in for plain flour, adding an extra punch of rich, nutty flavor along with a more flexible foundation. Working in concert with cornstarch for a gluten-free base, the results are exceedingly tender, soft, and chewy. Better yet, there’s no eggs or butter anywhere to be found in such a spare list of ingredients. In fact, no extra oil is needed at all when you can harness the natural oil of the peanuts themselves.

Complete with classic crosshatching, they may look like the traditional sort of peanut butter cookies that deserve only a passing glance, but I’d implore you to look closer. These treats could upset the conventional cookie hierarchy as we know it.

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Purple is the New Black

Potato salad is like the little black dress of dishes; it’s suitable for all gatherings and occasions, never going out of style. Potato salad is better than a little black dress, however, because it’s infinitely adaptable, rather than being restricted to the same basic routine for years on end. Not to mention, potato salad always fits.

Riffing off the classic creamy chilled spuds, this tropical twist makes a colorful splash with vibrant Okinawan sweet potatoes. More than a bland starchy base, these tender cubes are naturally sweet, like orange yams. As the name might suggest, they’re originally from the southernmost island of Japan, but were also cultivated by Polynesians in Hawaii, where it thrived in the rich volcanic soil. That’s what inspired the tropical flair for the rest of the chilled salad.

Crisp, buttery macadamia nuts are a key ingredient to making this simple recipe shine. That crunchy contrast against the tender flesh of the potatoes, paired with the creamy twang of tart coconut yogurt, sets it apart from average humble spuds.

Next time you need a quick dish for a gathering, no matter the season, think of potato salad and more specifically, purple potato salad, if you really want to wow your friends and family. Everyone will remember this dish long after memories of fashion trends are forgotten.

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Totopos por Todos

In the same spirit of equally amorphous concepts like salads and curries, basically anything you throw on top of tortilla chips can be considered nachos. In fact, many further blur the lines with alternative bases like pita chips or potato chips, deftly dancing across cultural boundaries with ease.

Unlike the aforementioned culinary abstractions, nachos can trace their lineage directly to one single innovator. Mr. Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya, maître d’ of Club Victoria in Piedras Negras, Mexico was not even a chef, but a tirelessly hospitable host. When, in 1943, a group arrived at the restaurant and the cook was no where to be found, he leapt into action. Piling up what scant ingredients he could find, the towering plate of tortilla chips topped with sliced jalapeños and melted cheese was an instant hit. Named for the man of the moment, the Nachos Especiales, would forever change the way that Mexicans, Americans, and the world at large, ate their chips.

There’s no one “right” or “best” way to make nachos; they’re the ultimate blank slate, infinitely adaptable to your personal tastes. Though it defies the conventionally accepted definition, even the chips are variable, if you’d rather a base of fries or tots. Personally, I must insist that some form of cheese or queso is mandatory, but from there, just a few ideas for toppings include…

  • guacamole or diced avocado
  • pico de gallo
  • shredded lettuce or cabbage
  • fresh spinach
  • fresh or grilled corn
  • roasted red peppers
  • halved cherry or grape tomatoes
  • whole pinto or black beans
  • re-fried beans
  • sliced black olives
  • fresh or pickled jalapeño
  • fresh or pickled red onions
  • meatless grounds
  • pulled jackfruit
  • crumbled tofu
  • sour cream or cashew crema
  • hot sauce
  • pepitas
  • scallions
  • cilantro
  • fresh lime juice

That’s not even the half of it. Think about the possibilities for a breakfast variant, and even sweet options for dessert nachos! Given the endless choices, what are your go-to’s?

Fritter the Day Away

From the beginning of time, when humans discovered fire and the very concept of cooking itself, fritters have bubbled up across all cultures. Defined primarily as battered and fried morsels, the specifics that flavor these nuggets are limitless. Vegetables, fruits, or proteins could be the main feature, or a combination, or none of the above. The dough could be raised by yeast or baking soda or eggs, or left unleavened altogether. Served at any meal from day break to nightfall and in between, fritters can be sweet or savory, spicy or mild, served hot or cold. When you start trying to pin down exactly what a fritter is, it might be easier to describe what it isn’t instead.

Most Americans are familiar with simple, comforting fritters born primarily in the south; apple fritters are a staple lining in any decent pink doughnut shop box, while corn fritters are essential summer snacks. The French have beignets, while Italians call them bigne. Pakora hail from India, binding together bits of onion, potatoes, cauliflower or other vegetables in savory, seasoned chickpea flour.

While I could write a whole dissertation about the diverse world of fritters, I’d like to draw attention to a less celebrated sort today: the black eyed pea fritter. Known also as accara, this legume-based variant is primarily found in Africa. You could almost think of them as falafel from another motherland. Dried pulses blended coarsely with spices, fried until golden and crisp, they’re irresistible eaten out of hand as a snack, but work well in everything from sandwiches to salads.

This recipe comes from Chef Philip Gelb, who in turn adapted it from Bryant Terry. I was fortunate enough to first taste this beloved street food first hand, at one of his cooking classes eons ago. They were part of a lavish Jamaican spread including jerk cauliflower, calaloo, run down stew, and peas and rice, but I daresay they stole the show. Paired with a tart, tangy, sweet, and spicy tamarind chutney, I have a feeling you’ll fall in love with them, too.

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Prince Char-ming

You know what’s really good at True Food Kitchen? Well, everything, but I can’t ever get the charred cauliflower out of my head. Ever since the first time I tried it, I’ve been enamored with this darkly roasted, mysterious dish. Teetering on the edge of burnt but never quite crossing that line, it’s nutty, spicy, crunchy, herbaceous, salty, bold, and VERY sassy. It’s what all cruciferous vegetables aspire to be when they grow up.

You know what’s not so great at True Food Kitchen? Well, at least in downtown Austin, the parking. I have parking PTSD from that whole area; I would genuinely rather walk the 10 miles there and back than negotiate those streets. It’s an infuriating case of “so close, but still so far.”

In any event, it’s just another good reason to stay home, save money, and do it yourself, right?! Hell-bent on satisfying that craving with what was already on hand in the pantry, the results were bound to be different, but equally delicious in an entirely unique way.

Being thrifty and lazy, I’ve made all sorts of egregious substitutions. Peanut butter instead of tahini, sriracha instead of harissa, dried cranberries instead of dates. Is it even the same dish, at the end of the day? Nope, not at all. But is it delicious? Oh yes, hell yes. I’m calling that a success.

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