Hard Seltzer, the Easy Way

It’s no exaggeration to say that every company out there making anything vaguely resembling a liquid is now making hard seltzer. The Saturday Night Live sketch is so hilarious because it’s true, and you know what? I would legitimately purchase a variety pack including Men’s Jackets or Belts and Ties as flavor options. In fact, I have casually dropped cans of “Yard Darts” and “Skinny Dipping” into my basket as if those were on par with commonplace Lemon-Lime.

This profusion of hard seltzers can be chalked up to a number of intersecting trends. Alcohol sales shot through the roof during the height of pandemic lock downs, but most people weren’t trying to get smashed before noon. Lower ABV drinks have seen a resurgence as a more moderate choice, less intoxicating and more refreshing, perfect for a wide variety of occasions. Flavored sparkling water was already on the rise as a healthier alternative to sugary soda, so this extension of the concept appealed to the population that wouldn’t be as likely to crack open a heavy, high-calorie dark beer.

For me, a standard 12-ounce can of hard seltzer is the perfect serving size. It’s reasonable to drink in one sitting so leftovers won’t go flat, and is just potent enough to provide a comfortable buzz. Most 12-packs include four different flavors to keep things interesting, without having to commit to just one taste. Even if you get stuck with Jiffy Lube hard seltzer, it’s never so bad that it’s completely undrinkable.

That said, we can still do better. Hard seltzer is made from fermented cane sugar or malted barley, which is converted to alcohol. This takes special yeast and enzymes, just like wine-making. However, for even better and more consistent results, who said we need to go through all that rigmarole from scratch?

Here’s what you need:

Sparkling water and vodka. That’s it! You can use plain water and straight vodka to completely control the flavors through added extracts, fruit juice, or purees, or use infused options for one or either to make it even simpler.

If you’re hosting a party, set up a DIY hard seltzer bar with a variety of options for guests to mix their own. This way, they can also control the intensity of the alcohol, better accommodating both non-drinkers and heavyweights.

Here’s the magic formula:

  • 14 Tablespoons (7 Ounces) Sparkling Water
  • 2 Tablespoons (1 Ounce) Vodka (35% ABV)

= 1 Cup / 8 Fluid Ounces with 4.5% ABV

That’s roughly equivalent to most hard seltzers on the market. You easily have the advantage over the competition though, because it’s infinitely scalable and much less expensive in the long run.

If you want to go au naturel, cut the sparkling water with half fruit juice or puree, like peach nectar, apple juice, or tropical punch, both for taste and sweetness. That’s usually enough for me, but if you have a real sweet tooth, a drop of liquid stevia will help take off the edge.

If you’re a hard seltzer aficionado, what’s your favorite flavor? For upscale indulgence, I do love a bracing cucumber-basil lemonade, but by the same token, I still wouldn’t turn down Desk if you offered it.

Lobster In a Pinch

As a Connecticut native, I have a lot to say about lobster rolls. While I can’t claim to have been a big fan, it was an absolute, irrefutable fact that one such sandwich could ONLY be made with melted butter and steamed claw meat stuffed into a split-top bun. Served anywhere further than a mile from the shore, it should be regarded with suspicion. Better yet, it should be enjoyed at the beach for best results, with sand between your toes, wind in your hair, and the ocean filling the silence while you eat wordlessly with your lover.

Outside of that dreamy romance, as I got older, I found that the real world has other ideas. It turns out that there’s also a so-called Maine lobster roll that’s instead tossed with mayonnaise for a creamier, cooler richness, though that too should be a spartan affair. If you add things like chopped celery, onion, pickles, or carrots, let’s be honest: You just made expensive, luxury seafood indistinguishable from tuna salad. Some people call this Rhode Island-style, but I just call it an abomination.

Given there are so few ingredients and no where to hide extras, how can one accurately recreate the experience of a fresh, plump lobster roll without any animal products? To that, I say, “hold my bun and watch.”

Thick Sugimoto Donko shiitake mushroom caps offer the ideal meaty yet supple texture once rehydrated. Though smaller than Koshin, they’re the perfect size for tucking into a sandwich and filling every square inch with nuanced, umami and tanmi flavor. Making this recipe suitably lavish, tender artichoke bottoms join the party to replicate that buttery yet mild bite of fresh seafood. It’s a bit of a splurge, as a proper lobster roll should be.

On that note, it’s interesting to look back on how far such a humble crustacean has come. While lobster has become a prized delicacy in America since the early 1900s, prior to that it was so despised and devalued that it was literally served to prisoners. The general public regarded it as “sea trash”, with such overwhelming numbers washing up along the east coast that much of the catch was used as fertilizer. I have confidence that once word gets about plant-based lobster, it might enjoy a similar rise to fame and fortune.

And why not? Infused with the oceanic flavor of kelp and seasoned simply, these fresh vegetables taste downright decadent. Once you have the main meat of the matter ready to go, you can turn it into a Connecticut dream or Maine game in a snap- or both, if you can’t decide. While you could also go off the rails down the Rhode Island route, just don’t tell me about it. I won’t yuck your yum, but I think there’s no reason to mess with perfection here.

Continue reading “Lobster In a Pinch”

Parm for the Course

Cravings don’t always make sense. That’s the beauty and madness of it all. Humans are completely inscrutable sometimes, and I’d nominate myself as a prime candidate to represent this phenomenon.

Why would I start craving something that I didn’t enjoy in the first place? It makes no sense. Thanks, I hate it, I’ll have some more, please. I offer no explanations, but a far more rational remedy to an illogical appetite.

Plant-based ParmCrisps have obvious appeal. Crisp, cheesy, snackable, and packable, they can be eaten out of hand or added to a larger meal. The trouble is, I just didn’t love them. To each their own, but for approximately $1.75 per miserly 1-ounce serving (which would never satisfy), those tiny treats had better be pure instant gratification, no holds barred, to be worth the investment.

We can, and will, do better. May I introduce my very own Parm-ish Crisps, fresh from the oven and easily tailored to your specific tastes?

With a texture you can really sink your teeth into, my version is a bit thicker and more substantial, which gives them a heartier bite. Boldly flavorful beyond what you might expect for such a short list of inclusions, it’s hard to stop at just a handful. They’re perfect for using as chips with dip, tossing into salad as croutons, or stashing for snacking on the go. Get fancy and build a full charcuterie board around them or eat them straight off the baking sheet before they even finish cooling.

These babies aren’t so precious that they need to be saved for a special occasion. It takes a scant handful of pantry ingredients and just a few minutes of your time, so you can fully indulge your cravings, reasonable or not, whenever they might hit.

As it stands, these savory little morsels are already gluten-free, grain-free, dairy-free, and eggless! To accommodate even more dietary restrictions, adaptation is easy.

  • Keto or Paleo: Replace the vegan butter with coconut oil.
  • Oil-Free: Replace the vegan butter and water with aquafaba.
  • Nut-Free: Replace the almond flour with sunflower seed flour.

Don’t forget about the flavor variations! Simple cheesy satisfaction is all I need most days, but you can easily change things up for a different flavor adventure everyday. There’s no limit to the possibilities, but here are some of my favorite options…

  • Salt and Vinegar: Omit the water and add 2 tablespoons of white vinegar. Sprinkle coarse sea salt on top before baking.
  • Pesto: Add 1/4 cup basil, finely minced, into the dough.
  • Everything Bagel: Sprinkle 2 tablespoons of everything bagel seasoning on top of the crackers, pressing it in gently before baking.
  • Buffalo: Add 1/2 tablespoon of hot sauce and reduce the water to 1 1/2 tablespoons.
  • Garlic and Herb: Mix 1 tablespoons of herbs de Provence or Italian seasoning and 1 1/2 teaspoons of garlic powder into the dough.
  • Smoky Tomato: Omit the water and add 2 tablespoons of smooth tomato sauce and 1 teaspoon of liquid smoke to the dough.

No matter what you’re craving, or why you’re craving it, these cheesy treats should do the trick.

Continue reading “Parm for the Course”

On the Chopping Block

In this interconnected world separated by only wires and electrical impulses, it’s hard to imagine that any great invention could still fly under the radar, largely undetected by the masses. Yet, the chopped cheese sandwich exists exactly in this grey space. Wildly popular in its native New York bodegas, the rest of the world remains ignorant of such simple pleasures. I’m certainly not the first, nor last, to tout such an ingenious combination of bread, meat, and cheese, which is another point of controversy in itself. Also known as the shortened title of “chop cheese,” this fully loaded hoagie is just as heavy in cultural significance.

No one can pinpoint the exact origin of the chopped cheese sandwich, though it’s indisputably born and raised in the outer boroughs of NYC. Records date it back to about the 70s, but it’s quite possible such a creation existed before anyone thought to write such an experience down for historic preservation. Only after Anthony Bourdain made a fateful visit in late 2014 with his camera crew did the rest of the nation start taking notice.

Overnight, “upscale” versions appeared on New American menus, commanding steep price tags, well above actual market value. It was a slap in the face to all who cherished the concept, twisting it into a symbol of gentrification without any credit going to its true origins. To this end, I will never claim to make the best, most authentic, or most original rendering- But I can promise a darned tasty meal.

Born of scrappy persistence, the point of a chopped cheese sandwich is to take the bits and bobs, odds and ends, and maximize their flavor potential. That’s exactly why I save Sugimoto shiitake stems. A bit tougher than their supple caps, they need more finessing to enhance their textural impact, but still possess volumes of bold, rich flavor. Who could dream of throwing away such savory diamonds in the rough? They just need a bit more polishing to reach perfection.

In fact, I would never start with whole, fresh shiitake for such a dish. Did you know that these incredible mushrooms have two kinds of aroma? The first comes before eating, as the smell wafts from the cooked dish before you dig in. The second arrives with every subsequent bite, bumping up the flavor from start to finish. Only a long, slow soak can unlock the full potential for both of these stages, combining to create a fusion of umami intensity, far beyond range of your average meatless protein. Sugimoto is the only brand I’ve tried that truly captures this complete experience.

Back to the meat of the matter. Give me your rough, your affordable, your leftover proteins! Traditionally made from chopped hamburgers, this is where the sandwich gets its name. Anything goes here, whether you prefer something veggie-heavy, bean-based, or super beefy. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be fully formed patties. Finely minced homemade seitan, as seen here, was my favorite version yet, and I can’t wait to try it with everything in my arsenal, from rehydrated soy curls to tempeh. The magic is in the combination of juicy protein, melted yellow cheese, and crisp fresh vegetables piled high on a soft hoagie roll.

It would be easy enough to use prepared vegan queso or sliced cheese here, but I went the DIY route to make sure you’ll get that perfect, gloriously gooey bite every single time. Just whisk, heat, and pour. No nuts, no nonsense, and you can make it in minutes with basic pantry staples.

Speaking of awesome sauces, let’s not glance over the second layer of shiitake wallop. Hidden like a landmine right beneath the sliced tomatoes and shredded lettuce, a pinch of dried Sugimoto shiitake powder explodes with another round of bold flavor in the mixture of ketchup and mayonnaise. Such an unassuming spread is usually an afterthought, but leveraged properly, completes the flavor profile with a final round of richness.

It’s not fussy, definitely not fancy, and absolutely guaranteed to be messy, specifically designed to hit all the pleasure sensors in the brain with one giant wallop of umami. That’s the essence of what makes a chopped cheese sandwich so great.

Continue reading “On the Chopping Block”

Tidbits from Tibet

Like any reasonable human fortunate enough to try them, I love momo. All dumplings are delicious, but something about this Tibetan specialty is particularly captivating. These two-bite round bundles look like beautifully wrapped packages, which isn’t too far from the truth. It’s a real gift because making momo from scratch is no quick fix meal.

Funny enough, despite that, the thing that I crave most when I think about momos aren’t the dumplings themselves, but the unbelievably creamy tomato soup that comes with an order of jhol momo. Spicy, rich, and intensely flavorful, it’s essentially liquefied chutney that’s been spiked with toasted sesame seeds. Once blended, that nutty goodness transforms the brilliant red brew into the best kind of tomato bisque on the planet.

I still haven’t mastered momo, but I have cracked the code on a shortcut jhol achar soup. Garlic, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, and Sichuan peppercorns dance in this aromatic mixture, bolstered by the natural sweetness of lightly caramelized onion. Canned, fire-roasted tomatoes add an instant earthy, woodsy, smoky complexity, while tahini ensures a smooth finish every time.

This soup is so good that you don’t even need dumplings to make it a meal… But if you do have access, it certainly doesn’t hurt. If you can’t get your hands on vegan momo, homemade, frozen, or otherwise, other [unconventional but delightful] additions and serving suggestions include:

  • Diced avocado
  • Steamed vegetable gyoza or wontons
  • Gnocchi
  • Diced and roasted sweet potato
  • Chickpeas

On really cold days though, I’m happy to just pour it into a thermos and sip this soup all day. It’s soothing, invigorating, and restorative all at once.

Continue reading “Tidbits from Tibet”

Rock Out with Your Guac Out

There is no such thing as too many avocados. There is, however, such thing as overzealous purchasing leading to a glut of of avocados all ripening at the same time. Try as I might, it’s impossible to resist a good sale, which is how I ended up with 14 of the green gems on my kitchen counter. One per day is my usual rate of consumption, but even that couldn’t compare to the embarrassment of riches now at my disposal.

Most normal people would turn to guacamole, which is a solid answer to mashing down 3 or 4 avocados into a single serving (as far as I’m concerned.) That said, how many times can I spare so many of these savory treasures at once? This calls for something more exciting.

Fudge all your preconceived notions about such a classic confection; fudge is more than just chocolate. Rich and creamy not from butter, but from the glorious green flesh of avocados, this unconventional approach highlights the versatility of the beloved fruit. Creamy and custard-like, each small square melts in your mouth, leaving behind only a lingering, subtle sweetness. Hints of vanilla and lime accentuate the complex nuances for a delicate but well-balanced flavor.

Rather than the pure sugary rush of conventional fudge, this one has real substance with style. Don’t forget, these are all good fats, so you can pretty much write this one off as health food. It really is more satisfying than your average treat!

If ever you’re faced with the decision of how many avocados to buy, remember this. Too much is never enough.

Continue reading “Rock Out with Your Guac Out”