BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


11 Comments

Sari Sari, Not Sorry

It was the final food frontier, as far as my personal gustatory limits were concerned. After squandering the first half of my life as an unrepentant picky eater, my path had veered drastically into wild, unpredictable terrain to have reached this point. Plain pasta, hot dogs, and grilled cheese sandwiches dominated my food pyramid for those sad, early years, but going vegan proved a turning point that opened up my palate like nothing else. When naysayers taunted about how restrictive such a diet would be or how I would be deprived of so many edible thrills, I took it as a challenge. From that point forward, as long as it was vegan, I would try anything at least once.

Slowly, bite by bite, long-held prejudices fell by the wayside. Gnarled, earthy beets became sweet and lovable. Brussels sprouts no longer inspired fear with their rotten stench. What was once disgust gradually morphed into delight. Determined now to eliminate all food biases, just a scant handful of truly loathsome edibles stood in my way. Throughout it all, despite numerous valiant efforts, bitter melon remained my Achilles heel. No way, no how, could I find a way to tolerate that offensive flavor.

They don’t call it bitter for nothing. An arresting acrid taste is its claim to fame, and yet I was (and remain) convinced that absolutely anything can become delicious when cooked properly. After many more failed attempts than I’d care to quantify, it turns out that there are a few tricks to taming that harsh tartness.

  1. It all starts with the bitter melon itself. Pick younger, smaller specimens that are a bright lime-green color, as these vegetables grow only increasingly acerbic with age.
  2. Be certain to remove not only the seeds within, but also all of the spongy membrane. Much like the pith of an orange, it contains even more concentrated sour flavor.
  3. Salt aggressively. The salt will draw out moisture and bitterness, making it both tastier and easier to cook with.
  4. Blanch in boiling water, and for longer than most vegetables would be able to withstand. You may lose a little bit of structural integrity, but I found that about 8 – 10 minutes of boiling made a huge difference in overall palatability.

Got all that? Good! Like magic, the much maligned bitter melon can now contribute a balanced tartness to any savory dish.

Sari sari is a classic Filipino dish featuring the bitter melon, but no two cooks will prepare it the same way. Traditionally loaded with pork, shrimp, and all sorts of other mystery meats, few vegan versions exist. Though my take is far from traditional, needless to say, replicating the savory and seafood-y flavors were a breeze thanks to the abundance of umami found in wakame seaweed, fermented black beans, and everyone’s favorite Asian seasoning, soy sauce. Don’t skimp on a single one of those secret ingredients, or the stew will suffer. Such a simple combination of vegetables requires love and attention to shine, which is exactly the lesson I took away from working with bitter melon.

If you truly can’t stand bitter melon, I certainly won’t judge. It’s still bitter no matter how you slice it, and it can be an acquired taste. Try substituting chayote, or if all else fails, the humble zucchini, instead.

Sari Sari

1 Medium Bitter Melon
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
4 Garlic Cloves, Finely Minced
1-Inch Fresh Ginger, Peeled, and Finely Minced
8 Ounces Seitan, Torn or Chopped into 1/2-Inch Chunks
2 Medium Tomatoes, Diced
2 Medium Filipino/Long Eggplants, Sliced into 1/2-Inch Rounds
1/3 Pound String Beans, Cut into 1-Inch Pieces
2 Tablespoons Fermented Black Bean Sauce
2 Tablespoons Rice Vinegar
2 Tablespoons Tomato Paste
2 Tablespoons Soy Sauce
5 – 6 Cups Vegetable Broth
1 Tablespoon Instant Wakame Flakes

You’ll want to start preparing the bitter melon first, since it requires the most time and labor. The rest of the stew assembly will fly by!

Slice the bitter melon in half lengthwise and use a large spoon to scoop and scrape out the seeds. Remove any additional inner membrane as well, and discard. Slice the seeded gourd into 1/4-inch half moons and toss them in a large bowl with a generous pinch of salt. Don’t be shy because it will be washed away later on; go for 1/2 teaspoon at least. Let sit for at least 20 minutes while you slice and chop the remaining vegetables.

Bring a medium pot of water up to a roiling boil. Add in the salted bitter melon and cook for about 10 minutes. Drain and immediately rinse with cold water.

Return the pot to the stove over medium heat and add the oil. Once shimmering gently, begin to saute the garlic and ginger. After two minutes, introduce the seitan. Stir frequently and cook until the mixture is aromatic and the chunks of seitan are lightly browned all over; about 10 minutes. Add in the rest of the vegetables together, sauteing for an additional 5 – 8 minutes.

Pour in the first 5 cups of vegetable broth along with all of the remaining ingredients. Mix well, reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer for about 20 minutes, until all of the vegetables are fork-tender. Add more broth if you’d prefer a soupier stew, and serve steaming hot! Pair with sticky rice to complete the meal.

Makes 5 – 6 Servings

Printable Recipe


45 Comments

Big Fish in a Small Pond

If we can all agree that 2013 was the year of the coconut, then I do hereby declare 2014 the year of the vegan fish. Perhaps the trend isn’t quite so widespread or pronounced- You’re not about to find mock seafood woven into everything from granola bars to non-dairy beverages, thank goodness- but it’s a distinct and growing section of the innovative food industry. While the demand for cruelty-free alternatives has grown to a deafening roar over the past decade, meatless offerings never included any oceanic facsimiles. It was the last frontier of veganism, but no more.

I first became aware of Atlantic Natural Foods and their Vegetarian Fishless Tuna back in the cold days of winter, and thanks to my snail’s pace of turning out a review, they have since updated their branding. It now falls under their Caroline’s line, bearing a shiny new label, but the product itself remains the same. Soy-based and packed in a tin can just like the “real” thing, it’s the only fishless canned tuna on the market. Gone are the days of Tuno, but anyone who misses the stuff should be thrilled; Caroline’s is a clear improvement.

That said, for anyone unaccustomed to fishy flavors, steel yourself as you pop the lid for the first time. The pungent aroma hits you right away, and unfortunately, it’s not exactly an enticing one. Smelling quite a bit like cat food, it doesn’t look too much better, either. In all fairness though, real canned tuna has always grossed me out, even when I was an avid fish-eater. Appearing to be little more than TVP in water at first blush, a flaky yet substantial, satisfying texture reveals itself at first bite, imitating the grain of cooked tuna surprisingly well. Leading with an unmistakable oceanic flavor, only a slight soy aftertaste gives away its true origins. Though first impressions may not be stellar, it’s pretty darned close to canned tuna, as far as I can recall, and I found myself quickly warming to the unique taste. Best of all, it’s not just a starchy copycat like many of the existing konjaku-based faux-seafoods, but has some real protein to speak of, making it a sound nutritional choice all told.

Though I would venture to guess that 95% of buyers will inevitably turn their fishless tuna into good old fashioned tuna salad, I wanted to go with a lighter, cleaner presentation to really highlight the mock meat. Composing a platter of tuna nicoise salad was a real treat, since it took almost no effort for a huge flavor payoff. Chickpeas tossed with a touch of sulfuric black salt took the place of hard boiled eggs, and the tuna itself needed only a light dressing of olive oil, mustard, lemon juice, and a handful of sliced scallions to really sing. I couldn’t get enough of this veggie-packed plate, devouring the entire thing in record time.

What I truly yearn for when it comes to seafood, though, is Japanese food. Considering that fish really makes up the foundation of this cuisine, the potential for even a canned alternative is nearly limitless. Sushi would have been the obvious (albeit undoubtedly delicious) route, so I instead opted to make a delightfully briny, somewhat salty furikake topping out of my remaining fishless fixings. Serving to both extend this rare ingredient while also extending its shelf life, you really get the most bang for your buck when it can be used over the course of countless meals. Plain old sushi rice comes to life with just a light sprinkle of this simple condiment, but the sky’s the limit when it comes to topping potential. Think of the salads, french fries, popcorn, and noodles that could all benefit from a little extra umami. As long as you don’t include it as an option at your next ice cream social, I’d say all the rest is fair game.

Fishless Furikake

1/2 Cup Very Thoroughly Drained Vegan Tuna
2 Teaspoons Tamari
1 Teaspoon Mirin
1 Teaspoon Olive Oil
3 Tablespoons Toasted White Sesame Seeds
2 Tablespoons Toasted Black Sesame Seeds
1 Sheet Toasted Nori

Preheat your oven to 225 degrees and line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil. Lightly grease and set aside.

Simply toss the “tuna” with the tamari, mirin, and oil to thoroughly coat. Spread it out into one thin, even layer on your prepared baking sheet and slide it into the oven. Cook for about 1 1/2 hours, stirring every 30 minutes, until darkened in color, reduced in size, and dry to the touch. They may not feel crispy just yet, but they will continue to dry as they cool.

Cool the fishless tuna flakes completely before combining them with both types of sesame seeds. Use a sharp pair of scissors to cut the sheet of nori into inch-long strips. Stack the strips on top of each other and then cut them into very thin ribbons, just a few millimeters wide. Add the nori into the mixture, stir well, and store in an air-tight container at room temperature. The furikake will keep for at least a month, possibly longer- I couldn’t save any long enough to find out!

Makes About 1 Scant Cup

Printable Recipe


34 Comments

Tuna of the Field

It’s not what it looks like.

No, it’s not a poorly timed April Fool’s prank and no, I have not begun eating fish (perish the thought!) What you’re looking at is in fact good old fashioned watermelon, dressed up like ahi poke, the highly prized Hawaiian delicacy. Rather than mere eye candy, believe it or not, these ruby red cubes really do taste quite fishy- And in a good way! What really seals the deal is the texture, no longer bearing the crisp bite that you would want for an average melon, but meaty and downright silky on the tongue.

The concept for watermelon-based tuna is one that I heard of many years back, created with the aid of a chamber vacuum sealer to compress the melon flesh while simultaneously infusing new flavors. Lacking such expensive equipment, the idea languished in the back of my head, until a surplus of the sweet summer fruit prompted me to go beyond standard preparations. Turns out that it only takes a simple freeze and thaw cycle to transform fresh produce into something of a more oceanic nature. This is one that requires nice firm watermelon to start with, so don’t wait until the season ends and only mealy melons remain. Act now, and keep the “fish” stashed in the freezer until you’re ready to enjoy up to four months later.

Not only does it make an unbeatable poke bowl, but it’s perfectly suited to just about any other raw preparation you can imagine, such as tuna tartare. A perfectly savory appetizer deserving a place at even the fanciest affair, this mustard- and caper-spiked combination pairs well with crackers, plain, seeded, or herbed. Really, the sky’s the limit, as I enjoyed mine on top of leafy green salads as well.

Creating a delicious vegan fish alternative has long been the final frontier for meatless cooking, and I believe this brings us all one giant leap closer to that holy grail.

Fish-Free Watermelon Tuna

1 Cup Mushroom Broth
4 Tablespoons Reduced-Sodium Tamari
2 Tablespoons Olive or Sauerkraut Brine
1 Tablespoon Rice Vinegar
1 Tablespoon Chickpea Miso Paste or White Miso Paste
1 Small Clove Garlic, Finely Minced
2 Sheets Nori
1 1/2 Pounds Cubed Seedless Watermelon

In a large, shallow container, whisk together the mushroom broth, tamari, brine, vinegar, miso paste, and minced garlic. Place the cubes of watermelon into the marinade so that all of the pieces are covered, ideally in a single layer. Arrange the sheets of nori so that they cover the melon and make contact with at least one side of all the pieces. You may need to move things around so that you have a sheet of nori at the bottom of the container and one on top to achieve this layout.

Cover with plastic wrap and place the container on a flat surface in your freezer. Allow the whole thing to fully freeze; at least 12 hours, but ideally 24 or longer. If you want to save the “tuna” for a later date, just leave it at this stage until you’re ready to serve it. To continue preparing your fish-free feast, allow the tuna to fully thaw either in the fridge or at room temperature. Remove and discard the wet nori, and drain away the excess marinade. You can save this and reuse it if you like, since there’s no potential bacterial contamination like you would get if using raw meat. Your watermelon tuna is now ready to eat or use in other recipes!

Ahi Poke:

1 Batch Fish-Free Watermelon Tuna (Above)
2 Scallions, Thinly Sliced
1 Tablespoon Reduced-Sodium Tamari
1 Teaspoon Toasted Sesame Oil
1/2 Teaspoon Crushed Red Pepper Flakes
Fresh Limu or Rehydrated Arame, to Taste (Optional)

Tuna Tartare:

1 Batch Fish-Free Watermelon Tuna (Above)
2 Teaspoons Brined Capers, Drained and Rinsed
1 Teaspoon Dijon Mustard
2 Tablespoons Finely Chopped Shallot
2 Tablespoons Finely Chopped Parsley
4 Teaspoons Olive Oil

For either the ahi poke or tuna tartare options, simply mix all of the ingredients together and gently toss in the “tuna” to combine. Let marinate in the fridge for up to a day, but at least one hour before serving. Top freshly cooked, hot white rice with the ahi poke to make a classic poke bowl, and finish with sesame seeds if desired. The tartare can be served up plain, with crackers, or tossed with salad greens.

Printable Recipe


28 Comments

Beyond Meat; Beyond Expectations

Decades of stigma and misunderstanding are finally giving way to a more tolerant, open-minded approach to the murky waters of “fake meat.” Even NPR has taken note that more omnivores are willingly eschewing meat in favor of vegan alternatives these days. Though I’d like to believe that this shift can be attributed to a better understanding of factory farms and generally being able to access greater compassion to our feathered, furry, and scaled friends, I know that it all boils down to one thing at the end of the day: Taste. Innovations in the field have brought forth tastier creations than ever before, and suddenly, meat alternatives have become a painless way to eat healthier, without sacrificing flavor. Whatever the reason, convincing those outside of the vegan and vegetarian community to eat more cruelty-free foods can only be a good thing for everyone involved. Since my own approach to cooking puts flavor first, I’ve benefited greatly from the latest and greatest plant-based proteins, too.

A real game-changer in the industry is Beyond Meat, a company that’s made headlines numerous times for winning over Bittman, garnering support from Twitter’s Biz Stone, and unnerving longtime vegetarians for their similarity to actual poultry products. Serving up only chicken-style alternatives, this stuff is the real deal, at least as far as “fake” meat goes.

Right from my first encounter, it was abundantly clear that Beyond Meat was in a category all its own, creating an entirely different protein experience than one would find in traditional meatless mains, such as tofu, tempeh, or seitan. For one, it smells crazily, disturbingly, genuinely like cooked chicken. Even though I haven’t eaten meat in years now, I’m still exposed to those preparing and consuming it, and that previously inimitable scent really threw me through a loop. Firm but easily yielding to the tooth, the texture is where it really shines. Far from the rubbery, chewy, or latex-y consistency of previous faux meat options, the strips shred in a very authentic way, mimicking the grain of cooked chicken. Though this may put off staunch vegans who don’t miss the experience of eating meat one bit, it’s a big selling point for everyone else.

Lightly Seasoned is like a blank canvas; borderline bland, like plain roasted or broiled chicken breast. Ideal for soaking up any sauce or marinade, there are no competing or off flavors that would giveaway the soy base. Lean, non-fatty (“skinless”), the pieces are reminiscent of a light, white meat sort of taste. This was perfect for fulfilling my longtime craving for a bowlful of soothing chicken soup with rice. Tenderizing in the hot broth and soaking in the deeply savory bouillon, it was so unbelievably meaty, I wouldn’t have trusted its vegan label if I hadn’t prepared it myself.

Grilled is very similar to the prior option, now sporting attractive black grill marks that only a practiced hand would be able to achieve at home. Subtly smoky, woodsy, and bearing a charred essence on a lightly peppered backdrop, the hassle of pulling out your own grill is taken out of the picture. Sturdy enough to stay firmly in place on skewers, I was delighted to turn my seared strips into yakitori, a savory delight that hasn’t passed my lips in nearly a decade now. Too simple to consider as a true recipe, all you need is a batch of sauce to dip the “chicken” into, which goes something like this:

1/4 Cup Mirin
1/4 Cup Reduced-Sodium Soy Sauce
2 Tablespoons Rice Vinegar
2 Tablespoons Grated Fresh Ginger
3 Cloves Garlic, Finely Minced
1 Teaspoon Arrowroot

Vigorously whisk all ingredients in a small saucepan over medium heat, breaking up any clumps of starch should they form. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture comes up to a full boil. Remove from the heat and enjoy immediately.

Finally, Southwestern spices up Beyond Meat’s offerings with a chipotle and lime-spiked base. Defined by a gentle but discernible kick, the subtle burn grows with each successive bite. By the end of the meal, you may very well find your lips tingling, and not in an unpleasant way. Unfortunately, this heat doesn’t add much in the way of nuanced flavor, and overpowers the inherently chicken-like flavor that one might be craving from such a product. Though perfectly tasty, it strikes me as a waste to cover up the masterfully crafted taste of this unique protein base. I probably wouldn’t buy it again, simply because a sough a purer “chicken” experience, but it was undeniably delicious in a layered chicken taco salad. Composed of pico de gallo, shredded romaine, sliced olives, tortilla strips, and of course, Southwestern chicken-free strips chopped into cubes all packed into glass jars, this meal became an ideal impromptu picnic.

A radical departure from the crunchy-granola “hippy” foods of only a decade or two ago, Beyond Meat is making meatless living more possible for those who may not have even considered the option before. Anyone even moderately curious about trying another protein alternative would be doing themselves a disservice not to check these chicken-less strips out- I have yet to hear any negative feedback, from professional food reviewers and my own omnivorous dinner mates alike.