Say Cheese!

Names, dates, phone numbers: my memory fails me on these specifics nine times out of ten, embarrassing me to no end when I’m introduced to the same person for the seventh time. The one birthday I will always remember, of all things, is for someone I’ve never even met. Amy, the inspiration for Amy’s Kitchen, shares my same birth year, making it even more astonishing to recognize over 30 years of vegetarian and vegan meals made available to the masses, all from such humble beginnings. Those frozen samosa wraps, tamale pies (RIP), and vegetable barley soups saved my life back in high school, before I could even operate a toaster without causing a conflagration.

Where so many brands have failed and folded, Amy’s Kitchen has grown in leaps and bounds, expanding their dairy-free options exponentially while still maintaining high quality standards, and an endless hunger for both adventurous flavors and down-home comfort foods. Breaking into 2020 with a boom, Amy’s Kitchen has just unleashed a new line of ooey, gooey, cheezy vegan entrées, including two pasta dishes and two Mexican-inspired options. They’re all going into regular rotation here as emergency dinners at Casa BitterSweet, but if I had to play favorites, my money would be on the Vegan Broccoli & Cheeze Bake.

I’m rather picky about my pasta, to put it lightly, and I was stunned to realize a few bites in, going back to read the label, that these noodles were gluten-free, too. Tender, chewy, springy, the texture surpasses that of most average frozen wheat options, too. There’s no sacrifice nor compromise for accommodating such a range of dietary restriction; nothing makes it into the bowl but delicious, creamy instant gratification.⁣

You really can’t improve on perfection, by definition, but you can match it on the same level in an equally compelling, yet wholly unique way. That’s where these fool-proof party starts come in.

Baked, not fried, to golden brown and crispy brilliance, this is the halfway homemade food hack that could very well become the stuff of legends. Better than mozzarella sticks, they won’t start to congeal and lose their luster the moment they hit the table. The breading ensures easy prep, no culinary skills required. Banishing greasy fingers by adding no extra oil means you could be saving your sofas- and stomachs- from unnecessary anguish later, too.

Tender spiral noodles and organic broccoli, bathed in luscious, creamy vegan cheese sauce burst forth from their crisp breaded shells, a rush of comfort and savory satisfaction in every bite. This is one unforgettable finger food that will serve you well for many happy years, too.

Continue reading “Say Cheese!”

Mac Off!

Remember that time I judged the Texas Mac Off? What do you mean, I never blogged about it? Well, pull up a chair and have a seat, because I have quite a cheesy tale to tell.

Slung low in the sky, the midday sun fought to burn through the haze and humidity typical of a Texan summer. Undaunted, a dozen brave souls set hot plates and chafing dish heaters ablaze, igniting molten vats of gooey orange sauce, thick with ambition. The stakes were high, with competitors vying for cheese-covered fame, glory, but most importantly, the golden noodle trophy.

Over 300 hungry souls came to get their mac on, to taste and test oodles of noodles. Gluten-free, vegetable-based, whole wheat, and classic white pastas all vied for the title, each one smothered in equally diverse mixtures of spicy, savory, crunchy, gooey toppings. For the casual bystander, this was merely a celebration of the classic childhood treat, but for me, Jessica Morris, and Rolando Garza, my fellow judges, this was serious business.

Personal preferences aside, just how do you evaluate the proper degree of sauciness? Just what constitutes the perfect cheesy flavor? How important is it to stick with the classic preparation, or should more points be assigned to innovations that depart from the expected orange essentials?

By the time the 12th, and then 13th rich, creamy cup was delivered, my head was spinning. Yes, they’re all good, but which ones are great? Which single entry was the best? Coming to an agreeable consensus just among the three of us was fraught with disagreement, dissenting opinions strongly argued as we huddled over cheese-smeared papers smudged with undecipherable ink stains. Luckily, it was a close call at the top, and any of the dominant macs would have been fully welcomed on my dinner plate again.

Innovation won out over classic comfort in the end. First place went to Megan Gross with her blazing Buffalo Cauliflower Mac N Cheeze. Just one point separated this spicy blend from my person favorite, which ultimately came in second; the previous year’s winner, as it turned out, Megan Bee with her Classic Mac and cheeze with a cheezy crumb topping.

It was simply the platonic ideal of the art form in my eyes. Tender yet toothsome pasta tubes, generously sauced without becoming soupy, decadent, slightly salty, savory, and oh so cheesy. Crunchy cheese-infused breadcrumbs sealed the dish in a toasty, slightly nutty blanket, perfectly balancing out textures and flavors. If it hadn’t been pushing 100 degrees in the sun, I could have eaten that whole chafing pan of noodle goodness myself.

Easily the most creative, avant-garde edible was actually a dish not entered for consideration. Mac and cheese ice cream scooped out by Austin’s favorite vegan parlor, Sweet Ritual, blew out all the stops for what one might expect from the average mac. Mercifully sweet rather than full-on savory, this inspired frozen creation laced umami notes through nutritional yeast-spiked breadcrumbs, mingling amidst a smooth base glowing with a heavy turmeric glow. Fearless foodies clamored for a spoonful, curious, shocked, and ultimately delighted.

As with any good, spirited competition, there were clearly no losers in this crowd. Everyone went home in a fully contented, if slightly sweaty state of cheesed-out bliss. Think vegans can’t get their mac on? You should really go to the next Texas Mac Off and taste for yourself.

Copper-Plated

All that glitters isn’t gold, but if you’re lucky, it might just be copper. If that sounds like a bum deal at first glance, then you haven’t yet experienced the glory of copper cookware. Renowned for its ability to retain heat and distribute it evenly across the surface of any food, not to mention its undeniable aesthetic attraction, it’s easy to see why copper is the real gold standard for professional chefs. It’s also about as expensive as 24 karats, which is why these gleaming pans are rarely seen outside of the most elite professional kitchens.

That is, until now. Copper Chef is bringing this beautiful vessel to the masses, in gleaming non-stick square pans that boast incredible versatility far beyond the traditional format. The catch is that they’re not actually copper through and throught; copper-coated aluminum with a steel induction plate is a more accurate, albeit less alluring description. Though skeptical of the grand claims made by “As Seen On TV” products, I still couldn’t resist the offer to give them a trial by fire.

No matter what these gleaming pans are made of, color me impressed. With or without a protective layer of oil, not a single thing stuck to the surface, which meant that cleanup afterward was a breeze, too. With capabilities that go far beyond a standard sauté or stir fry, the full set includes a brilliant square stand for steaming, as well as a perfectly fitted mesh basket to facilitate effortless frying. The less traditional square shape may be a detractor for some, but I can only see more opportunities here, as these pans can actually be used as fully functional baking dishes as well. That’s right- You can bake your brownies in the same saucepan that you prepared dinner in! For anyone on a tight spatial budget in a tiny apartment kitchen, the incredible benefits of being able to consolidate pans needs no further explanation.

Almost as soon as I got my hands on this lovely cookware, I knew exactly how to put them to the test: baked mac and cheese. Not just any stove top instant mac, of course, but a fully baked, one-pot rendition, completed with only the Copper Chef pan in service. Turns out that my trial was no challenge at all, resulting in a beautifully baked slab of cheesy, gooey mac and cheese with a crisp breadcrumb crust on top after the first attempt. Looking back on it even now, it seems absurd that it could have been so easy; no boiling or draining water, no transferring slippery noodles into a casserole dish, no whisking sauce separately with all burners firing.

The quest for the perfect mac and cheese is never-ending, but I would implore you to give this one a trial by fire. I doubt you’ll find a baked rendition that’s altogether so quick, easy, and deeply satisfying. For all the shortcuts it takes in preparation, there are no concessions made to taste.

One-Pan Baked Macaroni and Cheese

1 Tablespoon Olive Oil (Optional)
1/2 Cup Diced Onion
1 Clove Garlic, Minced
2 Tablespoons White Miso Paste
1 Tablespoon Dijon Mustard
1 Tablespoon Tapioca Starch
4 Cups Unsweetened Non-Dairy Milk
2 Cups (1 8-Ounce Package) Shredded Vegan Cheddar
1 Pound Penne Pasta (Uncooked)
3 – 4 Cups Broccoli Florets

Breadcrumb Topping:

2 Slices (About 1 Ounce Each) White or Whole Wheat Sandwich Bread, Toasted and Crumbled
2 Teaspoons Nutritional Yeast
1/4 Teaspoon Smoked Paprika
1/4 Teaspoon Dried Basil
1/8 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper pepper
2 Tablespoons Fresh Parsley, Finely Minced

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Place the Copper Chef pan over medium heat and begin to heat the oil, if using. It’s not necessary to prevent sticking, but to add a touch more richness to the finished dish. Once shimmering, add the onion and garlic, sautéing until translucent and aromatic. Stir in the miso paste and mustard, and sprinkle the tapioca starch evenly across the top. Try to avoid dropping it in just one place to prevent clumps.

Slowly pour in the non-dairy milk of your choice while stirring continuously. Cover the pan loosely and allow the liquid to come just to the brink of a boil. Uncover, reduce the heat to medium-low, add in the cheddar shreds, stirring and simmering gently until melted. Finally, introduce the pasta and broccoli, mixing thoroughly to incorporate and distribute all of the goodies throughout. Let simmer, undisturbed, for about 8 minutes.

Meanwhile, mix together all of the ingredients for the breadcrumb topping except for the fresh parsley. Sprinkle the mixture evenly over the top, and very carefully move the pan into the oven. Bake for 20 – 30 minutes until golden brown. Top with the parsley and serve hot!

Makes 6 – 8 Servings

Printable Recipe

More Mac and Cheese, Please

Like countless other American children, I had an unshakable affinity for mac and cheese even before I could properly pronounce the words to request it. Elbows, twists, ambiguous character shapes that would better be described as pasta amoeba; they were all greeted with enthusiasm, as long as they came from that magical blue box. I had never even heard of such a thing as baked macaroni and cheese until I hit high school, and by then it was much too late to swap allegiances. Soft noodles slowly drowning in a pool of neon yellow cheese sauce were the only thing for me, and no bread crumbs, vegetables, or fancy seasonings need apply.

Happily, my palate has considerably improved since my formative years, allowing me to discover the joys of homemade mac, spruced up with a brave new world of different flavors. That said, the love of that ubiquitous blue box will always be embedded deep within my psyche, drawing comparisons to each new mac and cheese contender, for better or worse. Now that there are genuinely cheesy vegan options appearing in every aisle of the supermarket, there’s a new blue box on the market, seeking to dethrone the old mac monarch.

Earth Balance first made waves when it unleashed vegan cheddar and white cheddar mac and cheese options about a year ago. Casting aside all preconceived notions of how a classic mac should be constructed, they’ve fearlessly unleashed a revised box that is not only dairy-free, but also gluten-free. Even I have to say that this is a pretty risky move, considering past hits and misses for non-allergenic noodles alone.

The cooking procedure is identical to every past mac I’ve known and loved; boil the pasta until tender, drain, mix with “cheese” powder, “milk”, and “butter”, and shovel into your mouth as fast as you can. Okay, that last part isn’t specifically written into the instructions, but just like any other cheesy macaroni mixture, this one doesn’t sit around well, and reheats rather miserably.

However, when hot and fresh, the rich, subtly starchy sauce has an undeniably cheesy, savory flavor. The initial flavor is somewhat delicate, but builds with subsequent bites. Though the dense, toothsome noodles are impressive for gluten-free pasta, they still clearly lack the distinctive springy texture granted by traditional wheat flour. As a certified gluten-lover, I probably wouldn’t pick these over the original, but they’re easily one of the better options for those already accustomed to celiac options.

As my omnivorous sister could attest, they certainly wouldn’t fool someone who’s more familiar with the old fashioned blue box, but even she admitted that they were “not bad.” High praise from someone who balks at the sight of anything remotely green on her dinner plate. Overall, Earth Balance has created an impressive offering for an instant, out-of-the-box dinner that can accommodate eaters of all stripes.