BitterSweet

Sweet Musings with a Bitterly Sharp Wit


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Tagine O’ Plenty

Two weeks, and counting. Are you ready for Thanksgiving yet? Don’t worry, there’s no need to rush out and grab a frozen roast from the grocery store yet. As a matter of fact, there’s still ample time to plan out a genuine feast fit for a crowd of voracious revelers. Be it a fancy affair or a low-key, casual gathering, I have just the recipe for you.

Shrouded in mystery as it arrives to the table covered, concealed by the heavy ceramic lid of the tagine. Hot and heavy, it lands with a weight of importance; all eyes are on this curious dish. Lift the lid to release a great plume of steam, followed shortly by awed gasps, wide eyes, and possibly even a round of applause. It’s no exaggeration to say that this entree is the height of my holiday hostess career up to this point.

Laden with slow-roasted autumnal squash, root vegetables, and caramelized onions, the multicolored melange of produce is just the tip of the iceberg. Dig deeper to uncover a warmly spiced chickpea and tomato curry, freckled with fresh herbs and punctuated with briny green olives. Explore further still, and eventually your spoon will hit gold; a vibrant bed of garlicky, flaxen couscous lovingly cradles the savory mountain with ease, supporting and absorbing those brilliant flavors without disappearing into the background like a bland bit player.

Thanksgiving is about celebrating abundance, and this meatless main is the epitome of just that. It’s not trying to imitate any trussed up fowl nor does it care to compare itself against ingrained traditions. It’s a bold departure from the standard American menu, and yet it makes so much more sense from a plant-based perspective. Rejoice in the season and all it has to offer, rather than stick to an antiquated script that hardly resonates with the average eater of today.

With great inventions comes great responsibility, and no small measure of commitment. Truth be told, this is a serious undertaking, a huge amount of food to break down and a lot of time to invest for one meal, but wouldn’t you go through exactly the same lengths for a grand roast? How many times a year do you get to invite over all your friends and family and feed them a lavish, over-the-top banquet, after all? This is the time to break out the nice plates, pull out all the stops, and create a dinner that everyone will talk about for years to come.

So now, tell me… Do you have your Thanksgiving dinner plans yet?

Harvest Tagine

4 Tablespoons Olive Oil, Divided
2 Apples, Cored and Sliced
2 Small Parsnips, Peeled and Cut into 4-Inch Long Sticks
1 Large Red Onion, Cut into Wedges
2 Medium Red and/or Orange Bell Peppers, Seeded and Cut into 4-Inch Long Sticks
1 Medium Delicata Squash, Halved, Seeded, and Sliced into Half-Rings
1 1/2 Cups Baby Carrots
1 Teaspoon Salt, Divided
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
4 Cloves Garlic, Sliced
2 Teaspoons Smoked Paprika
1 1/4 Teaspoons Ground Cumin
1 Teaspoon Ground Coriander
3/4 Teaspoon Ground Ginger
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Cinnamon
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Turmeric
1/4 Teaspoon Crushed Red Pepper Flakes
28-Ounce Can Fire-Roasted Crushed Tomatoes
1 14-Ounce Can (1 3/4 Cup Cooked) Chickpeas, Drained
1/2 Cup Green Olives
3 Tablespoons Lemon Juice
1/2 Cup Fresh Parsley, Roughly Chopped
1/4 Cup Toasted Pepitas

Toasted Golden Couscous

2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
2 Cloves Garlic, Minced
2 1/2 Cups Whole Wheat Couscous
3 Cups Vegetable Stock
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Turmeric

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees and lightly grease 2 – 3 sheet pans.

Begin by breaking down all the apples, parsnips, onion, bell peppers, and delicata squash, and laying them out on the prepared sheet pans, along with the baby carrots, in one even layer. Drizzle evenly with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, and sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon of the salt and all the black pepper. Roast for 50 – 60 minutes, rotating the pans every 20 minutes or so, until evenly browned and fork-tender. No need to flip as long as you adjust the sheets on higher and lower levels as you spin them around.

Meanwhile, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil in a large stock pot over medium heat on the stove. Add the garlic and cook until golden brown and highly aromatic, stirring frequently to prevent the pieces from burning; about 5 – 7 minutes. Sprinkle in all of the spice and mix well, toasting for just 1 minute to unlock their full flavor potential. Quickly deglaze with the crushed tomatoes, scraping the bottom of the pot with your spatula to make sure everything is fully incorporated. Bring up to a simmer and add the chickpeas and olives.

Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer for an additional 15 – 20 minutes. Stir in the lemon juice, give it a taste, and add the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt, if needed.

For the couscous, set another large pot on the stove over medium heat. Add the oil and garlic, and cook until golden. Add in the couscous next and stir well, coating that granules with oil and toasting until the mixture smells wonderfully nutty and garlicky. Pour in the vegetable stock and stir in the turmeric. Bring to a boil, cover, and turn off the heat. Let sit, undisturbed, for 15 minutes until the grains have absorbed all of the liquid. Fluff with a fork before transferring it to the bottom of a large ceramic tagine (or casserole dish fit for serving table side.)

To complete the tagine, cover the couscous with the chickpea stew and arrange the roasted vegetables attractively on top. Finish with a sprinkle of fresh parsley and pepitas, and serve immediately, while piping hot.

If you’d like to prepare the tagine in advance, you can make the entire assembly up to 5 hours before serving. Cover and store in the fridge. Reheat in an oven preheated to 375 degrees for 15 – 30 minutes, depending on how conductive your serving dish is. Just check periodically to see if it’s hot all the way through.

You can also create the individual components up to 2 days in advance. Just store them separately in airtight containers in the fridge. Be sure to re-fluff the couscous before proceeding with the rest of the construction.

Makes 10 – 12 Servings

Printable Recipe

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Triangles and Tribulations

If ever a single holiday could rival the festivities of Halloween, it would have to be Purim. The comparisons are obvious: Fanciful costumes, parties and games, and of course, sweet treats. Where Purim has the leg up on the competition, however, is in those much celebrated edible offerings. Rather than merely candy, hamantaschen are the traditional pastry-based prize. They’ve become synonymous with the observance, almost more important to the observance than the historical significance itself. A Purim party without hamantaschen would be like underwear without elastic; uncomfortable at best, but in practical terms, truly impossible.

Previous years have seen the sugar-flecked and jam-splattered variations flying fast and furious out of my oven. Traditional or avant-garde, it’s hard to go too far wrong when you start with tender, buttery cookie dough, so rich that the best cookies threaten to flatten out into triangular puddles while baking. Flipping the script in a drastically new approach is a dangerous proposition, considering their fervent following, but I can never leave well enough alone. Perhaps they’re only hamantaschen in spirit, but since any food with three corners can stand in as a representation of Haman’s hat, I’m hoping my wild digression might still get a pass.

Savory, not sweet. Steamed, not baked. Wonton wrapper, not cookie. We can argue the disparities all day long, but when it comes down to it, there’s no question about their taste. Stuffed with gloriously green edamame filling, these dumplings are a quicker and easier alternative to the typically fussy sweet dough, and offer much needed substance after overdosing on the aforementioned pastries. General folding advice still stands as a good guideline to follow when wrapping things up, but once you get those papery thin skins to stick, you’re pretty much golden. If you’re less confident in your dumpling prowess, cut yourself a break and fold square dumplings wrappers in half instead. You’ll still get neat little triangles, and with much less full.

Short on time but long on appetite, I’m not ashamed to take a few shortcuts to get these delightful little dumplings on the table. You can go all out with homemade edamame hummus and even dumpling skins from scratch, but this quick-fix solution allows you to steam up a quick batch at the last minute, or any time the craving strikes.

Edamame Hamantaschen Dumplings

1 Cup Shelled Edamame
1/3 Cup Edamame Hummus
1 Scallion, Thinly Sliced
1 Clove Garlic, Finely Minced
1/2 Teaspoon Finely Minced Fresh Ginger
1 Teaspoon Soy Sauce
1 Teaspoon Toasted Sesame Oil
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Cumin

Savoy Cabbage
15 (3-Inch) Round Wonton Skins or Gyoza Wrappers*
Additional Soy Sauce, to Serve

*You can typically find these either in the produce section near the tofu, or in the freezer aisle with other Asian ingredients. Double-check the labels because these sometimes include eggs.

The filling comes together in a snap so for maximum efficiency, set up your steaming apparatus first. Line a bamboo steamer or metal steam rack with leaves of savoy cabbage to prevent the dumplings from sticking to the bottom, and start the water simmering in a large pot.

Simply mix together the shelled edamame, hummus, scallion, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, sesame oil, and cumin, stirring thoroughly. Lay out your dumpling wrappers and place about 1 tablespoon of filling in the center of each one. Run a lightly moistened finger around the entire perimeter and bring the sides together, forming three bounding walls. Tightly crimp the corners together with a firm pinch.

Place on the cabbage leaves and cover the steamer or pot. Steam for 2 – 4 minutes, until the wrappers are translucent. Serve immediately, with additional soy sauce for dipping if desired.

Makes 15 Dumplings

Printable Recipe


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Dreaming of a White Chocolate Christmas

Gleaming in the early morning light, bright and luminous as freshly fallen snow, white chocolate is an irreplaceable staple for the holiday baker. Generous pans of fudge, slabs of peppermint bark, and boxes of cookies all shimmer with these sweet morsels, unrivaled in their versatility for ornamentation and flavor enhancement. The trouble, as every careful shopper knows, is that mainstream options contain far more dairy than cacao. White chocolate gets a bad rap for precisely this reason, to say nothing of the waxy hydrogenated oils that often bind the whole sugary messes together. While relatively limited vegan options exist on the market, the tides are slowly changing.

Homemade options are always a treat, and you’ll find boutique bars aplenty online, but what I’m talking about today are genuine chips, capable of holding their own in any dessert rather than functioning simply as a treat to eat out of hand. Right now, there are two types of vegan chocolate chips: Those that are good for melting, dipping, and drizzling, and those that maintain their shape, more resistant to the heat of the oven.

The newest chip off the block is somewhat revolutionary; 100% organic, no hydrogenated oils or questionable fillers in sight. Cocoa butter, rice milk powder, sugar, and vanilla are the only things that go into Pascha Chocolate‘s new rice milk white chocolate chips. For the obsessive label-readers or highly allergic eaters, this stuff is heaven-sent. Flatter than the traditional snowy peaks of conventional chocolate chips, they’re more like crisp white disks, ideal for melting down into creamy cacao creations.

Mildly flavored, they don’t beat you over the head with sweetness, but whisper gently of vanilla with a subtle buttery undertone. This nuanced approach is perfect for crowning more aggressively flavored baked goods, like these gingerbread bars pictured above, cutting their intensity without detracting from the overall experience. Although their more delicate composition means they’re more likely to pool and puddle when faced with a trip through the oven, they’re perfect for turning into white ganache or icing once your treats are fully baked. For your highest quality option with the cleanest label, Pascha Chocolate is your one and only choice.

If you’re craving a smattering of white chocolate freckles throughout your cookies or cakes, however, you still have one great option! While there are a few white chips out there designed for the kosher crowd, most of those taste of little more than wax and sugar, entirely eschewing cocoa butter and thus losing the essence of this simple sweet addition. Not so with the White Chocolate Chips offered by Chocolate Emporium. These are the little morsels of pale cacao goodness that I’ve been buying (and hoarding) in bulk for years.

Although they’re stubbornly resistant to melting down smoothly, that quality serves them perfectly for baked applications. They have a slightly softer chew right out of hand, but somehow manage to hold their own in the face of a 350 degree inferno. Their flavor would be described as subtle at best, but their main function should be to add sweetness, creaminess, and color contrast anyway.

When the chips are down, these two are your very best bets, and both should have a place of honor in your kitchen year round. Vegan white chocolate is still something of a rarity, so these sweet treats will undoubtedly elicit astonishment, wonder, and awe- Not to mention hunger.


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A Working Holiday

It’s been quite a few years now since my last Thanksgiving on the line, but I can still feel it in my bones; a physical memory that persists like a scar, emblazoned deep within. The crushing heat of the oven, pumping out roasted vegetables and tofu steaks; the furiously boiling pots of thickening roux, destined to become bases for a dozen different gratins; the reverberations of the knife on the cutting board, mowing down everything from beets to scallions seemingly of its own free will. These sensations return in flashbulb moments, random and unexpected glimpses into the past. Every Thanksgiving wasn’t just Doomsday, but Doomsweek. Manageable lists of orders quickly swelled into a wild mass of demands, nimble hands always turned out in short supply, and yet the shoebox kitchen still couldn’t accommodate the number of bodies toiling away, jockeying for a place at the tiny four-top burner. It was a violent dance, or perhaps a dark comedy, but it was certainly a show for all to see. The utilitarian rubber mats became our stage- No, red carpet- As we all starred in our insular performance. Though anyone outside of the industry could only consider this affair a pre-show for the great event, this was our time to shine.

Time continues to put more distance between this memory and the present, as the cafe has been closed and darkened since the ravages of Hurricane Sandy took their toll. For as long, painful, and exhausting as those long days leading up to Thanksgiving were, I wouldn’t have dreamed of being anywhere else. Fierce loyalty to the business and the team behind it drove me forward; that sense of comradery kept us afloat. No matter how much I dreaded those days, I secretly adored them and looked forward to them just as much, if not more. While it’s a luxury to finally enjoy Thanksgiving like most other people do- with their families, partaking in the festive meal, and cooking only enough for a dozen rather than half the town- I miss the maddening Thanksgiving catering rush dearly. Nothing made me more grateful than completing a successful day-long shift, bidding farewell to my cooking compatriots with hugs and long goodbyes, and quietly departing into the dark, cold autumn night once more.

Happy Thanksgiving to all who celebrate, whether you’re working, cooking, or just lucky enough to be amongst family and friends.


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The “F” Word

Just when you thought it was safe to open up your home to visitors once again, now that the tinsel dust and artificial pine scent has settled, I’ve come to ruin your day. More of a curse than a gift, it’s a dubious “treat” that has gained (and quite frankly earned) little respect over centuries of unsavory history. Not to be rude or anything, but it’s time that I dropped the F-bomb.

Fruitcake. Pardon my language.

Yes, I know, head for the hills and don’t accept packages from strangers; I’m offering you a genuine fruitcake, of all things! Trust me, I’ve been a very vocal naysayer of this brick-like food substance, never having seen the benefit to preserving mysteriously colored fruits in a metric ton of sugar before binding them all up into an impenetrable, flavorless batter. Better employed as entertaining projectiles than food stuffs, I would gladly get out there on the field with all the other unlucky fruitcake recipients as well. But, not with this new spin on the concept.

Rummaging through a pantry overstuffed with odd ingredients, I discovered an abundance of so-called “superfoods” that had no clear destination, and little use outside of random nibbles. Instead of simply frittering them away through impulse snacking, such special ingredients deserved a greater end. Baked up into a lighter cake than the traditional take, the crumb stays impossibly moist and does indeed only get better with age. Enhanced with the complex, caramel nuances of coconut sugar, volumes of flavor can shine through without the sticky veil of syrupy sweetness. Kombucha, with its very faintly alcoholic buzz, takes the place of harder liquor or rum here, so even teetotalers can indulge with abandon.

Of course, consider the exact superfruits and nuts listed here merely suggestions. As long as you throw in 1 1/2 – 2 cups of dried mix-ins in addition to the pomegranate arils, your cake will be golden… Literally, once baked.

Super-Fruitcake

1/2 Cup Fresh Pomegranate Arils
1/2 Cup Goji Berries
1/2 Cup Dried Mulberries
1/4 Cup Dried Goldenberries
1/4 Cup Chopped Walnuts
1/4 Cup Cacao Nibs
1 1/2 Cups Whole Wheat Pastry Flour
3/4 Teaspoon Baking Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Nutmeg
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Cardamom
1/2 Teaspoon Orange Zest
1/2 Cup Kombucha, Divided
1/3 Cup Coconut Oil, Melted
2/3 Cup Coconut Sugar
2 Tablespoons Molasses
1 (3.5-Ounce) Packet Frozen Acai Puree, Thawed (or Applesauce, in a Pinch)

Confectioner’s Sugar, To Serve (Optional)

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease a 6-inch round, 3-inch high cake pan.

In a large bowl, mix together the pomegranate arils, all of the dried superfruits, walnuts and cacao nibs. Add in the flour, baking powder, salt, nutmeg, cardamom, and zest, tossing to coat all of the goodies.

Remove 2 tablespoons of the kombucha and set aside for later. Separately, whisk together the remaining kombucha, coconut oil, coconut sugar, molasses, and acai puree until fairly smooth. Pour the wet ingredients into the bowl of dry, and stir with a wide spatula just until the batter comes together. A few lumps are fine, especially since it’s a fairly coarse mixture to begin with.

Transfer the batter to your prepared pan and smooth out the top. Bake for 40 – 50 minutes, until golden brown all over and a toothpick inserted into the center pulls out mostly clean, with just a few moist crumbs clinging to the sides. Immediately pour the reserved kombucha evenly over the hot cake so that it can soak in as it cools. After cooling completely, the cake sit covered at room temperature, for at least 24 hours for the best results.

If you’d like a little pinch of additional sweetness, top with a light dusting of confectioner’s sugar right before serving.

Makes 6 – 8 Servings

Printable Recipe


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Nog-Off: Speed Round Rematch!

Two years after the first fight for vegan nog supremacy went down, the landscape of dairy-free, egg-free holiday beverages has finally shifted once more. The first change is not a happy one; it seems that the Earth Balance Soy Nog has thrown in the towel, bowing out of the game altogether. This would have left a gaping hole in the lineup, but the good news is that a spry newcomer has stepped up to the plate in its wake. Going by the name of “Holiday Nog” by Califia Farms, this rookie is a definite underdog, having appeared on the scene with little fanfare and almost no web presence. It doesn’t help matters that these shapely 48-ounce bottles are Whole Foods Market exclusives, severely limiting their availability across the country.

What the Holiday Nog lacks in distribution, it makes up for in innovation. The first almond-based nog on the market, it fills a niche previously untouched, meaning that those first punches land with great impact on the largely soy-based competitors. Touting itself as a lighter choice, it goes beyond the standard comparison to traditional eggnog, and goes straight for the kill, hitting where it hurts and boasting lower sugar content than any of the other commercial options out there. True to the claims, this milky elixir pours freely, approximately the same viscosity of standard almond milk. Fine for a solo sip, but that kind of thickness really can’t support an added splash of holiday “spirit”.

Without any detectable almond flavor, it was a brash, borderline harsh and definitely manufactured nutmeg note that dominated, storming in a bit too hard and heavy to really enjoy. The rookie must have tired itself out in that first barrage, because the sweetness struck me as rather lacking, too. Some will definitely appreciate this aspect, owing to a light hand on the organic cane sugar, but quite frankly, I wanted a treat that could stand up to the promise of eggnog, and this just wasn’t doing it. Sorry, sports fans, but this kid is down for the count, leaving So Delicious as the reining champ.

For you folks keeping score at home, that brings the final ranking, from most highly to least recommended, to…

1. Coconut Nog by So Delicious

2. Silk Nog by Silk

3. Holiday Nog by Califia Farms

4. Rice Nog by Rice Dream

Don’t let me tell you what to fill your mug with, though. Host you own nog-off at home and taste the options for yourself! I’m giving away a $25 gift certificate for Whole Foods Market, furnished by the natural grocery giant itself, so that you can pick up a full complement of eggless nogs, or whatever else might bring you a bit of edible holiday cheer. All you need to do is be a resident of the US, and leave me a comment about your favorite commercial nog, homemade recipes, or what you like to make with your excess nog once the holidays are over. Make sure your name and email are both entered into the appropriate boxes so I know who to contact! The entry period will be open until Friday the 13th at Midnight EST, so start talking!

UPDATE: After consulting with my very favorite random number generator, together we determined that the winner of the gift card would be…

The owner of comment #40, otherwise known as sara!

If that wasn’t the result you were hoping for, don’t despair. You can still snap up a coupon good for 50 cents of off Califia Holiday Nog should you want to give it a try yourself. Stay tuned for more giveaways to come, too!