Legume Love Affair

Stocked up on dry beans recently? Judging by the empty shelves anointed with “sold out” and “temporary shortage” placards replacing usual price tags, you’re certainly not alone. Always one step behind the trend, pickings were already slim by the time I got motivated to hit the grocery store. A few bedraggled sacks of dusty pinto beans looked the most promising, which isn’t saying much.

Nothing against the little legume, but it doesn’t inspire the same way that, say, chickpeas do. They’re not quick-cooking like lentils. They’re not sexy like fresh fava beans. They’re not my first choice, but by no fault of the bean itself. It’s a personal failing that I couldn’t see beyond their ruddy pink skins to embrace the creamy elegance within. Every bean is worthy of greatness, especially in such lean times, so it was still a prize to snatch up at that late hour.

Rather than taking the typical Texan approach, I cast an eye out to farther afield to Georgia for inspiration. No, not The Peach State, but the eastern republic nestled at the intersection of Europe and Asia. There, lobio (ლობიო), is an indispensable staple, marking the place at every dinner table throughout the year. A thick, rich stew made with pureed kidney beans, finely ground walnut paste, and the tangy smack of tart cherry juice, sour green plums, or unsweetened pomegranate juice gives it a distinctive (and addictive) taste. It’s worth pointing out that the word “lobio” only means “beans,” allowing ample room for variations on the theme. There are a number of varieties of this dish already in the wild, so one based on pinto beans is hardly a stretch.

Some prefer to keep their beans entirely whole, while other cooks roughly mash the tender legumes, and still more chose to puree the mixture to silken sufficiency.

Tkemali, a sharp, fruity sauce made from sour plums is the traditional topper most highly recommended here, but a drizzle of thick, syrupy pomegranate molasses, or even a bold balsamic reduction can provide a similarly satisfying contrast, cutting through the concentrated bean bonanza.

You can serve lobio as an easy one-pot entree, or a side with grilled kebabs, baked tofu, or some other simple meatless protein. Either way, don’t let a lack of any one bean stop you from firing up the stove; all legumes, big and small, are welcome here.

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Working for Peanuts

Grazing my way through the day, it can be hard to sit down to a proper meal. Time constraints often create an imposing barrier to reasonable meal prep, leaving me at the mercy of my pantry when hunger strikes. Granted, there are just as many instances where my only excuse is a basic, child-like craving for snack foods, conventional lunch or dinnertime fare be damned.

For anyone else affected by these same cravings, take heart in knowing that you’re not alone, and that there is a cure.

Peanut sadeko, a Nepalese appetizer that satisfies like an entree and tastes like a snack, doesn’t translate easily to a typical American eating agenda. Some call it salad, but of course there are no leafy greens and scant vegetables, so my best advice is to enjoy it with an appetite for adventure, anytime it you see fit.

Biting, lingering heat from pungent mustard oil envelops warm peanuts, mixed with a hefty dose of ginger, jalapeno, and chaat masala for a savory, spicy blend. “Sadeko,” sometimes romanized as “sandheko,” simply refers to the basic seasoning that blends these sharp, distinctive, yet somehow harmonious flavors together, infusing a wide range of recipes throughout the Himalayas. Though nontraditional, crispy roasted edamame join the party in my personal mix for a resounding cacophony of crunch in every mouthful.

Unexpected, undefinable, yet undeniably addictive, it hits all the right notes for instant gratification.

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Smart Sweets

March is National Nutritional Month, which focuses not on good or bad foods, but emphasizes the importance of making informed food choices. This is an approach I can fully support. As a vegan with a huge sweet tooth, alimentary harmony is all about balance, which isn’t black and white. No single diet is best for everyone, but society at large would no doubt be happier and healthier with greater awareness of exactly what they’re eating. That all starts with simply reading the label!

Plant-based eaters are already seasoned pros at packaging interrogations, but it’s a skill that everyone can benefit from. Knowing which nasties to avoid goes a long way. Questionable ingredients like artificial colors and flavors, high-fructose corn syrup, and trans-fats should be on the permanent no-fly list for every conscious consumer. It might surprise you which brands do and don’t fit the bill. Voortman has been baking treats tirelessly since before superfoods were trendy or keto was a thing, but their consistent commitment to quality makes their cookies an ideal example of healthy indulgence.

Speaking of trends, charcuterie boards are all the rage these days, capitalizing on human nature to snack, graze, and nibble through the day. It’s a simple approach to hosting friends without putting out a full dinner menu, while still satisfying with a wide range of delights. Of course, there’s the stunning visual impact made by so many shapes, colors, and textures. Composed of simple staples that may not wow by themselves, the collection of complementary bites add up to far more than you would expect.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be all about meat and cheese. Dessert boards are where it’s at!

Dessert charcuterie is the new fun way to serve dessert. You don’t need to be a baker, spend a ton of money, or squander your precious time to assemble your own. In fact, you probably have everything you need already on hand!

Balance is the key, like anything else in life. Truly anything goes, and having a wide array of options ensures there’s something for everyone. Crisp wafer cookies are the most important feature for me, which guides the selections that follow. Voortman has so many bold flavors, I like to use one or two to get the party started. From there, I’ll match corresponding fresh fruits, pair dips that both contrast and heighten those flavors, and fill in the gaps with some additional treats. Your only limit is the size of your board!

In truth, you don’t need to spend a minute in the kitchen for this show-stopping composition. Just remember, it’s all about balance! Wholesome fresh ingredients, decadent chocolates, and healthy treats create a harmonious, natural union.

There’s a lot to be said for chocolate hummus if you wanted to go all-in on desserts with benefits, but I’m a fan of darker cacao endowment here, given the other lighter components. You can whip up this dip in one minute flat, and it’s great on ice cream, too.

Another crowd-pleaser is cheesecake, which graciously accommodates any flavors you can throw at it, while still retaining a tart, tangy vigor. More than just vanilla, it provides the light and lemony contrast to the darker, earthier additions.

Rounding it all out with something nutty, peanut sauce is often seen as a spicy topper for Thai food, but makes a rich addition to the final course, too. A touch of maple syrup and a pinch of salt is all it takes to flip the script over to the sweeter side.

A lot is said about the path towards health and wellness, but for me, it’s one that must still lead to dessert. At the end of the day, I’ll always crave something sweet, so I’m careful to stock only smarter choices. It’s all about creating a happy balance that starts on the plate, or in this case, charcuterie board!

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Lettuce Eat Celtuce

“Excuse me? Hi, yes, thank you. I know it’s been a while since my last visit, but I don’t see the Chengdu-style fava beans on the menu. Am I looking in the wrong section?”

Spoiler alert: I was not looking in the wrong section. Those supple pods bathed in fiery red oil, kissed by the heat of a blazing wok, were gone. In light of all the new, exciting eateries opening up everyday, few spots warrant repeat visits whenever I return to my hometown on the east coast, but Shu always drew me back in no matter how brief the trip, for another round of those inimitable fava beans. Now, bereft of my essential staple, I scrambled to amend my order. What could possibly take the place of this rare delicacy?

Not one to play it safe, naturally, my eyes drift to the most unusual option I can find. Vegetarian chicken with lettuce. Lettuce? Really? Described merely as an entree containing peppers, wood ear mushrooms, and scallion in a white garlic sauce, I pressed the waiter for details, to no avail. Not even Google translate could help, alternately suggesting that the Chinese characters might be indicating a type of celery, or asparagus, or an unidentified stem. It was perfectly peculiar.

Thus, I accidentally discovered celtuce, the greatest uncelebrated Asian vegetable to take root in Chinatown. The entire thing can be eaten, but is often sold with the leaves separated from its white stems. More versatile than your average tuber, it can be eaten raw, with a crisp texture similar to jicama or water chestnuts, or cooked, be it steamed, boiled, pickled, grilled, roasted, or sauteed, yielding a more tender bite. The flavor is mild but subtly nutty, with a slight woodsy, smoky piquancy, almost reminiscent of broccoli stem or kohlrabi.

Celtuce is almost too versatile, making it hard to narrow down the options for preparation at home. After much deliberation, I landed on a simple dish that is equally adaptable. Keep it cold and you’ve got a refreshing salad. Give it a little saute and you’ll be enjoying a hot stir fry in minutes. Toss with pasta, like al dente bucatini or spaghetti, and it’s a whole new meal.

Simple, fresh, full of crisp seasonal produce, it could become the star of your next potluck picnic. Spring is just around the corner, no matter the weather right now! Introduce your friends to celtuce with this compelling little salad, be it hot or cold.

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Chickens Come Home to Roost

Wasn’t it hard to give up meat? Didn’t you crave your old favorite foods?

Asked about my conversion to a plant-based diet, the questions are as predictable as they are consistent. When I went vegan, despite what my culinary background might suggest, I was not the least bit interested in food. In fact, I was a terribly picky eater, shunning all green vegetables, most fruits, and yes, any sort of meat that resembled the original animal. It wasn’t hard to make the switch because I barely ate anything to begin with!

Staple foods like ramen, mac and cheese, and hotdogs were my primary sustenance, despite my mother’s valiant attempts to expand my palate. Only after making the switch did I declare that veganism would not become a limitation, and declared that I would try absolutely everything cruelty-free.

Prior to that moment, however, one dish that would bring everyone to the table was chicken paprika. Despite the difficulties posed by two fussy children and one equally discerning husband, my mom did enjoy cooking, and tried repeatedly to find something that we could all eat together, in health and happiness.

Chicken posed the least threat; bland and anonymous, it’s really the tofu of the animal world, and thus got a pass from all of us. Onions were a bit contentious, but she was very carefully cut them into large chunks, so us kids could easily sweep them aside on our plates.

It’s incredibly basic, as the most comforting dishes tend to be. In tough times, when I miss my parents, my cozy home back on the east coast, and all the tenderness they showed me as I grew into a self-sufficient little herbivore, I do crave these flavors. Swapping out the meat is effortless now, thanks to the rapidly expanding array of plant-based options in stores.

I still don’t miss the chicken one bit. All I’m missing now is the company.

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Honey, I Shrank the Squash

If the current state of seasonal produce has you down in the dumps, dreading another farmers market haul of little more than potatoes and onions, take a closer look at the hardier squash. You might have missed one bright spot of culinary inspiration on the shelf, tiny as they are at no more than 6 inches tall. Honeynut squash look like miniature butternuts, but boast a remarkably intense sweetness beyond compare. Darker, creamier, denser, and overall richer, they’re everything you know and love in conventional gourds, amplified and intensified into a pint-sized package.

All it takes is a touch of heat to yield a flavorful side; even the skin is edible, if you so desire! The very best approach is to anoint with oil and perhaps a savory marinade before sending seeded halves through a blazing hot oven.

Of course, I can never leave well enough alone, and can’t resist the opportunity to take the name more literally. Brushing homemade vegan honey over wafer thin slits, allowing the nectar to penetrate the flesh in all its dulcet golden glory, takes only a tiny bit more effort that pays off in spades. Scattering a handful of crisp sliced almonds on top brings in a world of textural contrast, although I’d be tempted to try a more resounding crunch with chopped pecans or walnuts next time.

If you thought there was nothing to get excited about for wintertime harvests, stock up on these small squash. Just one bite will chase away the hibernal gloom.

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