Not Your Average Joe

Of all the foods that Americans try to claim as their own, the Sloppy Joe may be one of the few that an actually trace their roots back to the good old U.S. of A. First referenced in the 1930’s and attributed to a cook only credited as “Joe,” it has humble beginnings befitting of original description of “loose meat sandwiches.” Doesn’t that just sound finger-licking good?

Many similar dishes exist abroad, owing largely to the simplicity of the concept, but few would recognize the childhood staple outside of these United States. However, the idea is still as foreign to me as tikka masala. I certainly enjoy it and appreciate its unique nuances, but can’t quite put my finger on what makes the best renditions so great. I must have been at least 20 years old before I ever assembled my own meatless melange. My mom never made it for our family meals, and I didn’t know enough to ask.

Lacking that essential reference point, it would be some bold claim to say that my illegitimate version is the best… But feels entirely fitting for this modern recipe revival.

That’s because instead of using the predictable, one-note tomato sauce base, I’ve pumped up the flavor volume with The Beet Goes On sauce from Bold Palate Foods. With a natural, subtle sweetness, deeply earthy savory notes, and bright spices, it’s a dynamite starter for any daring dining adventure. Simmered into an equally hearty and heart-healthy base of tender lentils and chopped cauliflower, there’s no contest when comparing nutritional stats.

Though you could very happily slap this thick stew on a bun and call it a dinner, I love the snappy, tangy bite of dill pickles on top. Conventional garnishes might call for a slice of day-glow orange American cheese, but I prefer to go bold, pouring No Cows on This Ranch dressing all over instead. It’s hard to beat that creamy, cooling, herbaceous contrast.

Tired of toting such big buns? Alternate serving suggestions run the gamut from spaghetti to baked potatoes, french fries, or even tacos. No need to stick to the beaten path when brighter, bolder, and smarter options are out there.

Be bold, and enjoy with reckless abandon.

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Pepper-Upper

More than fresh produce, or lack thereof, warming spices define seasonal treats as we enter the winter months. Crystallized ginger dances in soft cookies sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, while nutmeg frosts the top of frothy eggnog glasses. Clove and allspice infuse warm pumpkin pies, but what about a flavor that will really spice things up? Sichuan peppercorns aren’t exactly a typical taste for the holidays, but considering their zest and uncanny ability to lift the spirits, they deserve a place of honor at your next fête.

Still a somewhat obscure ingredient in the US that may not feature prominently at your mainstream supermarket, both green and red peppercorns have become much more widely available in recent years. Up until 2005, they were actually banned from import into the US, so unless you had access to the black market, you were out of luck. Now, like everything else it seems, they’re easy to find online, if local specialty stores can’t keep the shelves stocked.

Green Sichuan peppercorns are simply unripe berries harvested from the same vine that produces red pepper berries. They bear the same pungency found in the other peppercorns, with hints of citrus and a more earthy aroma. True red peppercorns are left much longer to ripen and dry in the sun. Their real claim to fame, however, is less about their flavor, and more about their effect. The distinctive tingling, mouth-numbing experience is unmistakable, transcending the normal understanding of what constitutes spice. It’s not exactly hot in the conventional sense, but certainly not bland in the least.

Why not apply that unique taste to more festive treats? For something that will take the bite out of winter’s chill and reinvigorate the weary spirit, go ahead and throw a pinch of this secret ingredient into any dish, really. Use it instead of that boring old black pepper and watch your cooking come to life.

If you’d prefer a more measured integration, consider the classic candied almond. Perfect for last-minute gifts, host/ess presents, easy appetizers, or late night snacks, there’s nothing a lovely lacquered nut can’t do. Crisply toasted with caramelized brown sugar, infused with a touch of molasses sweetness, you could stop right there and have a delightful, if basic, little morsel. Add in orange zest and the punch of Sichuan peppercorns to elevate each crunchy nut to a whole new level. Soy sauce instead of pure sodium lends a savory, lightly salty hit at the end.

Bask in the culinary glow of warming spices, and consider adding Sichuan peppercorns into your permanent seasoning lineup. A little pinch goes a long way.

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Love Your Leftovers

Scaling down a recipe is a cinch… In theory. The math isn’t hard, the general procedure is all the same. Maybe the time or temperature needs some adjustment, but we’re not talking about anything drastic here. In reality, at least speaking from personal experience, there’s a strange mental block that makes it feel much more difficult. Why go through all that effort to make a meal for one, when you can just as easily feed an army? That would certainly explain why I’ve ended up with Thanksgiving leftovers that could very well last me until next Thanksgiving, no matter how consciously I planned for a downsized feast.

Now, however, I do have yet another thing to be thankful for. Leftovers are quite simply the best part of any meal, be it takeout or home cooking. Cook once, eat twice or thrice, and the flavors only get better over time. If repetition gets dull, it’s a snap to switch things up, re-purposing tired components into a vibrant, fresh dish.

If you’ve never tried toasting your quinoa, you’re missing out on a wealth of flavor, nutty and woodsy, with notes of warm cereal, and a gorgeous golden color. To this endlessly accommodating base, Thanksgiving leftovers get a new home, no matter what you’ve got kicking around in the fridge. Brussels sprouts, tender persimmons, and roasted pumpkin seeds cozy into these plush grains, revived and enlivened with a hot browned butter vinaigrette- No dairy need apply, of course.

Sometimes, the leftovers are simply too good to mess around with aside from reheating. There’s no shame in eating Thanksgiving on repeat, verbatim. Just make sure you don’t miss out on this winning combination, even if you have to start from scratch.

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Stuffed to the Gills

Some vegetables were made to be stuffed. Open, empty cups, yearning to be filled, they’re more than just an anonymous vehicle for egregious amounts of dip. Meaty caps to really sink your teeth into, even simple little button mushrooms can transform the average appetizer into an elegant canape.

Popularized around the mid 20th century, these fun guys have a relatively short gastronomic history, but have been the life of the party ever since. No matter what savory delights you find packed into the center, a warm, roasted mushroom with concentrated umami flavor can do no wrong. Bonus points for being a naturally compact finger food, self-contained and perfectly portioned.

Lightening the load of what tends to be a very rich heap of cheese, cream, breadcrumbs, and/or sausage, these baby bellas are filled with everyone’s favorite culinary chameleon: Cauliflower! Simmered until meltingly tender, a quick mashing makes them indistinguishable from less healthy fare. Redolent of vibrant lemongrass and basil, it’s hard to resist eating straight out of the pan by the forkful. Truth be told, you could easily serve this stuffing in place of mashed potatoes, but mushrooms really do take it to the next level.

This recipe was inspired by Kevin’s Natural Foods Lemongrass Basil Sauce and is my entry into the “Eat Clean. Live Happy. Blogger Recipe Challenge.” Like all of these products, my recipe is proudly paleo, keto, gluten-free, and sugar-free. You can get more information and inspiration on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.

Don’t wait for a special occasion to make stuffed mushrooms. Even if you’re just throwing a party for one, the small amount of extra effort will really make your taste buds dance.

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Hot Potatoes

Remember years ago when sweet potatoes had a moment in pop culture history, akin to the fervor perpetually surrounding everyone’s seasonal darling, pumpkin spice? Oprah Winfrey essentially discovered the orange spud, according to online sources- And you know that if it’s on the internet, it must be true. All of a sudden, health gurus and foodies alike raced out to clear supermarket shelves of the tubers. It was as if no one had ever noticed them before, or at least, fully appreciated their flavorful potential.

Like all food trends, the extreme pitch and tenor of that enthusiasm quickly died down to a low roar, eventually settling back into a quiet hum of indifference. Where are all the sweet potato proponents now? Is there really only room in the oven for one autumnal vegetable superstar?

This year, I’m bringing sweet potatoes back. I’ve already professed my support for their simpler starchy brethren, so it’s time we dig a bit deeper into the root cellar for more colorful, flavorful possibilities.

Warm spices and dark, rich molasses join forces with the supple amber flesh, transforming the nostalgic, simple pleasure of the humble rice crispy treat into a seasonal delight. The satisfying crunch of toasted pecans punctuate the chewy, tender squares, rivaling the experience of a full slice of Thanksgiving pie.

Better than baked custard or scratch-made pastry, though, the instant gratification of transforming basic ingredients into a instant dessert surely squashed the competition. That’s definitely something to be thankful for.

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Socca Punch

Is there anything that chickpeas can’t do? They’re the Swiss army knife of legumes, seamlessly working their way into dishes sweet and savory, from breakfast to midnight snacks, as the bold feature or silent base. Fresh, dried, or ground, every form of this humble bean opens up new culinary possibilities, each more innovative than the last. Of course, many of the best preparations are those tried-and-true formulas, having withstood the test of time through the hands of countless cooks. Such is the case for socca, alternately known as farinata depending on who you ask, and is the meal-sized enlargement of the crisply fried, well-salted bar snack, panisse.

Essentially a large, thick pancake made with chickpea flour and a touch of olive oil, it could be categorized as peasant fare for its humble ingredients. However, proving that the sum is greater than its parts, the taste is fit for a king (or queen.) Legend has it that the first socca was hastily whipped up in Nice, France, while under siege from invading Turkish forces, these pantry staples were the only sustenance available. Since then, it’s come a long way, especially in this lavish seasonal twist.

“Wholesome decadence” defines my sun-kissed ode to summer, featuring peak produce picks set atop this beguiling chickpea base. No longer the food of strife, but of victory and resilience, this socca still began life as the results of a pantry raid, but could ultimately grace a table set with fine linens, should the occasion arise.

Sweet corn, stripped from the cob in crisp rows, and peaches so explosively juicy they quiver at the mere sight of a knife, tangle together in a tender nest of baby kale. A bite of minced jalapeño warms the palate periodically, lending gentle heat without overwhelming the delicate flavors at play. Of course, there must be tomatoes, though I’d admit the assembly might be improved with fleshy heirlooms, rather than more toothsome cherry tomatoes, if you can get them.

Then again, there’s no wrong way to dress a socca, and no bad recipe for using chickpeas. Make it count while harvests are abundant. While the season will be gone in a flash, such a deeply satisfying taste memory will last forever.

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