Spooky Season

I don’t want to scare you, but those voices in your head, the haunting whispers, are all true: Halloween is right around the corner. It’s downright terrifying to consider how quickly the year is flying by, but it would be far more nightmarish to miss out on Spooky Season, and all the devilish treats it brings.

Commercial candies can be pretty frightening though, between artificial colors, unpronounceable preservatives, and the hidden horrors in labor and production. The instant gratification of trick-or-treat freebies does still tempt, but I happen to have a few tricks up my sleeve, too.

Years ago, I released Wicked Treats, a mini ebook with a half-dozen of my favorite homemade candies, sure to delight the most discerning guys and ghouls. Long off the market, this monstrous collection had been locked away, mummified in my digital vault. The photo quality is perhaps suitably unsettling but the sweet spells are still capable of culinary magic.

Unchaining this Frankenstein once again, you can now download Wicked Treats completely free of charge. In addition to being vegan, these recipes are completely gluten-free, with options to make your candies soy-free, too.

What are you waiting for? The witching hour is almost upon us. Get a kettle on the fire and start brewing up something sweet!

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General Admission

I hope this isn’t like debunking the myth of Santa Claus for ruining Christmas for some sad child, but I have bad news to break, and it’s about General Tso. Oh, no, he was a real person! It’s completely true that General Tso, otherwise known as Tso Tsung-t’ang, was a 19th-century general of the late Qing dynasty. Living on through epic tales of his prowess, crushing revolts, capturing rebels, and cultivating one of the most fearsome army forces in the world, his heroic might knew no equal. Lesser known are his efforts towards civil peace and stability through educated, prosperous citizens.

A complicated, stone-faced man, much remains unknown about the storied general, but one thing is for sure: General Tso had nothing to do with any sort of dish involving deep-fried chicken tossed in a tart-tangy-spicy-sweet brown sauce with broccoli. The eponymous leader never tasted the dish that keeps his name as part of the modern lexicon across the globe. For all we know, he didn’t even like broccoli – Because who’s really going to tell a war lord to eat his vegetables.

Sorry. The truth hurts.

Born in the good old US of A, General Tso’s chicken first appeared in the 1970, given the breath of the wok by a Taiwanese chef specializing in Hunan cuisine, no less. He was just a fan, a real history buff, I suppose, and also an excellent recipe developer. Riffs on this original formula proliferated faster than rabbits, coast to coast, introducing many American’s to their first taste of “Chinese” food.

So, my real point is this: Does knowing that an overweight bearded man won’t come slithering down the chimney at night to force coal into your stockings actually take the joy out of Christmas? Does learning that your favorite takeout might not be 100% “authentic” whatever that means, make it any less delicious?

Not a chance! Now, pass the plum sauce and wonton chips, please.

My take on General Tso’s is a departure from the typical composition. Replacing syrupy garlic sauce with a lighter, brighter soup broth spiked with vinegar and chilies, the results are richly invigorating well beyond greasy takeout. Crisp baked tofu perches at attention atop a coil of buckwheat noodles, tender and toothsome all at once.

One of two new vegan, gluten-free offerings from the JSL Foods line of Fortune Asian noodles, a package of Soba Buckwheat with Shoyu Flavor is the foundation of this unshakable recipe revamp. These new noodles can be found at Albertsons, Von’s, Lucky’s, Safeway, Carr’s, Dierbergs Markets and Cub Foods. Answering the call for their Fortune Asian Noodle Blogger Recipe Challenge, this fiery, bold, and somewhat sassy little beauty is my proud submission.

I’ve been burned out on contests lately, but I think that my General Tso, revived and injected with new life for more contemporary tastes, can take the heat. Go ahead and fight me for the title! Check out more inspiration from JSL Foods via Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.

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Stubborn as a Mule

Endlessly evaluating the population at large, it’s impossible to predict exactly when or if a trend with actually come to bear, but that sure doesn’t stop us from trying. One of the most recent assessments that hit my radar was which drinks would be big this summer.

Preferences appear to be split across the country, showing a rise in appreciation for the aperol spritz and negroni in along the west coast, while easterners are more likely to quaff hard seltzer or froze to beat the heat. However, Moscow mules were indisputably on the decline across the board, having peaked in popularity long ago. Those copper mugs are so 2018.

Naturally, that’s exactly what I find myself gravitating towards.

Rather than claiming I was on board before it was cool, I’m proud to proclaim that I’m all in after it was cool. Much less pretentious, just a bit slow, I’ve discovered the charm of bracing ginger and lime over ice, spiked with the clean, crisp bite of vodka. It’s hard to go wrong with such a classic combination, which begs the question, just who is turning up their noses to proclaim it as passe? Besides, you’ve already got the cups knocking around in the back of your cabinet… What else are you going to do with them?

Meeting Russia by way of Japan, my eastern inspiration swaps vodka for sake, lime for bold, astringent yuzu juice, and adds a touch of matcha for an earthy foil. Paired with bracing ginger beer for both a sweet and spicy bite, this new blend could very well become a trend-setter after all.

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Wholly Macaroni

I couldn’t shake the question out of my head. It ran loops around my brain, echoing off the walls of my skull. Surely, there were more important matters to consider, but no. All I could think about was cheese. Mac and cheese, to be precise. It suddenly struck me that many years had passed since I revisited my previous gold standard for Stove Top-Style Macaroni and Cheese, and wondered if it would still hold up to scrutiny.

Considering the great strides that dairy-free foods have made since then, the bar had been raised to lofty heights I could have never imagined back in the day, toiling over the stove with little more than memories of the blue box to light my path. Yes, indeed, it was still good stuff… But it could certainly be better.

A few tiny tweaks make a world of difference. It’s all about incorporating the subtle umami nuances and sharp bite that a good aged cheddar might impart, but nothing earth-shaking that would come as a wild departure from the norm. Just a bit more finesse, some higher-quality ingredients, and a better understanding of the alchemical changes that flavors undergo with varying temperature and time.

Toeing the line between healthy and indulgent, the new and improved sauce introduces a handful of red lentils for body and viscosity, with the side benefit of adding extra protein and fiber into the mix. At the same time, a fearless dose of vegan butter creates that inimitable velvety texture also known as kokumi, enhancing and amplifying flavors, much like salt. Nutritional yeast is essential, of course, but joining it in savory harmony is a dash of miso, lending a greater depth of umami flavor in every cheesy, creamy bite.

Yes, it’s a bit more involved than tearing open a packet of dried dairy-derived mystery powder, but there’s no going back once you taste the difference.

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Sip and Slurp Through Summer

Chill out. Strawberries might sound like an unconventional addition to the classic red tomato gazpacho, but they’re nothing to lose your cool over.

Given a surplus of the highly perishable rubies and an oppressive heatwave to contend with, my tastes quickly skewed toward the fast, easy, and refreshing side. Gazpacho must always be on hand for days like this; it was a natural, perhaps inevitable combination.

Balancing sweetness with savory undertones, the subtle bite of vinegar, and fresh verdant pop of basil, it’s a delicious study in contrasts. Don’t let the fruity feature scare you off! It’s not a vegetable-forward smoothie, but you may still want to drink it straight from the blender.

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Noodles for All

Between the hundreds of healthy eating regimes, food intolerance and allergies, and moral dietary restriction, to say nothing of basic taste preferences, the number of landmines one might hit just trying to get the whole family to the table can make everyday meal planning a war zone. When it comes down to it, though, there are just two types of eaters out there: Noodle lovers and noodle lusters. There really is a place where everyone can eat in peace, allowing everyone to fully embrace their cravings, healthy or more hedonistic. Taking great pains to become more inclusive than ever, Noodles & Company has launched a new initiative to offer dishes with flavors and options for every diet, preference, pickiness, and lifestyle.

Figuring out just what is or isn’t vegan is a top concern, especially when some dishes might be just one easy modification away from perfection. Penne rosa sounds inextricably bound by dairy, but believe it or not, can easily come without cream or cheese for a satisfying Italian feast. I wouldn’t have even thought to ask had it not been for the handy new personalized nutrition calculator which lists not only potential allergens, calories, and ingredients, but suggests swaps to better suit your specific needs. Unlike the harsh rules imposed by some unwelcoming, militant chefs, customization is genuinely encouraged here!

Best of all, the encouragement to tailor your meal to taste allows for infinite creativity. Everything is made fresh, to order, so it’s not a problem to mix and match, add and subtract to your heart’s content.

Need something without gluten? Try the pipette, which bear such a satisfying, al-dente bite that I had trouble believing they were made of rice and corn, rather than traditional wheat.

Want something a bit lighter? Go for the zoodles (ie, zucchini noodles), which pair brilliantly with the spicy peanut sauce, if I do say so myself.

Craving all the veggies? Load ’em up, adding a rainbow of produce to the already verdant whole wheat spaghetti fresca, sans cheese.

Need a bigger protein punch? Try the spicy Korean noodles with tofu instead of beef, and avail yourself heartily to extra sriracha on the condiment bar.

I’ve passed by Noodles & Company many times before without giving it a second thought, which strikes me as a terrible oversight now. These aren’t your average bowlfuls of bland, mushy food court pastas. The Japanese pan noodles are the OG plant-based option, standing the test of time as part of the menu since day one. Had I just ventured in and tried those chewy, beautifully charred strands of udon, twisting around tangles of broccoli florets and shredded carrots years ago, this superlative experience would have come as no surprise. It’s a good thing the Noodles & Company empire is continuing to expand, with many more locations in the works.

Whether your food preferences are dictated by a strict diet or a picky palate, there’s a place for everyone at this table.

This review was made possible as a collaboration with Noodles & Company. My opinions can not be bought and all content is original. This page may contain affiliate links; thank you for supporting my blog!