Purple Prose

Setting the table for Passover with the good China, the candle sticks from generations past, the weathered old Haggadot that still bear politically incorrect gender pronouns, the trappings of the holiday are almost as ancient as the occasion itself. The millennia-old story of attaining freedom in the face of impossible odds resonates in a renewed tenor, filtered through more contemporary events. It begs the question, why not update the script for a modern audience?

Honoring tradition while revitalizing the predictable Passover Seder with a colorful new twist, I’m throwing a splash of purple onto the table with an unconventional first course. Deviating from the original offerings of lamb shanks and eggs on the Seder plate to begin with, as roasted beets and avocados are perfectly acceptable alternative symbols, it’s not a far stretch to consider more diversity on the menu itself, too.

I wouldn’t dare suggest replacing the irreproachable matzo ball soup. Perish the thought! Rather, I think there’s room at the table for another dumpling darling. “Kneidlach” is generally accepted as merely another word for the unleavened flatbread staple, yet it carries none of the weighty connotations. These doppelgangers might be made of potatoes or even almonds, and most scandalously, there might not be any matzo in the mix at all. Such is the case with my purple potato dumplings, making them suitable for gluten-free diners as well.

Delicious well beyond the scope of Passover festivities, their heftier chew is more reminiscent of gnocchi than fluffy matzo balls, which means they’re prime candidates for side dish servings as well. Boil as directed and then saute briefly in a bit of vegan butter and onions for a real savory treat. The hint of herbaceous fresh dill is like a kiss of spring sunshine, paired with the very subtle sweetness of the purple potatoes. You could also use regular orange-flesh sweet potatoes in a pinch, to create a more golden glow.

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Going to the Dogs

If you build it, they will come. If you shake the treat bag within earshot, they will come with tails wagging and tongues panting, too.

The push for alternative proteins isn’t limited to just the human diet; behind the scenes, toiling away in laboratories and kitchens, the race is on to develop a more sustainable, ethical, and wholesome way to nourish man’s best friend. Wild Earth is growing their blend, and their business, from the ground up with koji, a type of fungus used in soy sauce and miso.

Higher in protein content than steak (24 percent protein by weight), these cultured mushrooms contain over 45 percent protein by contrast. Though the nutritional numbers are impressive, to say the least, what matters the most to my guy is the fact that these healthy spores impart a unique umami flavor to the treats.

Luka and I were early adopters of this innovative concept, well before the Berkeley-based company revamped their packages, added different flavors, and made a big splash on Shark Tank last week. Now pet parents nationwide can’t stop buzzing about the brand, which successfully secured a $550,000 investment on the show.

Treats are truly just the appetizer to kick things off. Coming soon, proper dog food will be made of the very same savory stuff, providing a completely vegan, fully vetted (AAFCO-compliant) main meal.  That may come as a surprise to those still wedded to the notion that dogs are obligate carnivores, but with more research supporting the possibility of raising healthy, happy canines without the need for meat, Wild Earth is making it not only feasible, but enjoyable for the pups in question.

Pho-Nomenal

Robust, deeply savory broth spiked with equally bold and nuanced spices are the defining characteristics of any successful bowl of pho. Rice noodles are an essential component, soaking in those carefully honed, painstakingly crafted layers of flavor, but never the stars of the show. It all comes down to the soup itself, sometimes simmered for hours, if not days, built upon generations of family secrets.

Celebrated across Vietnam and now the world at large, that same passion for the process sometimes gets lost in translation, especially when searching for a vegan option. Pho Chay, born of Buddhist traditions that take all forms of meat off the dinner table, is all too often a sad, watered-down tease. Plain vegetable broth is not an adequate substitution for this edible art, but if you don’t know any better, how can one possibly get the delicate seasoning right?

With as many recipes as there are cooks that make it, happily, there are no hard and fast rules for building a better broth. That’s why even a blatantly “inauthentic” rendition can still soothe those soulful soup cravings.

Inspired by the uniquely aromatic blend of cinnamon, clove, ginger and cardamom found in Stash Chai Spice Black Tea, Pho Chai is both a crafty play on words and a delicious departure from the norm. The blend of strong Assam, muscatel Darjeeling, and well-balanced Nilgiri found in every sachet add surprising umami flavor along with unexpected sweet Indian spices. Energetic notes of cardamom and ginger brighten this bowl, harmonizing beautifully with the fresh spray of herbs piled on top. Perhaps the concept is dubious on paper, but unquestionably compelling on the tongue.

You’ll want to stock up on this warm, spicy tea for more than just soup. Head over to StashTea.com and use the promo codeĀ BITTERSWEET-SC to get discount off your purchase, and don’t forget to follow them on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter for both sweet and savory tea inspiration.

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World Renowned, Locally Loved

How many chain restaurants can draw lines everyday, from opening to closing, numbering well into the dozens on a “slow” day? What about an outpost that can claim a Michelin star? If you haven’t already heard of Din Tai Fung, there’s a good chance you’ve felt its impact on the overall culinary landscape whether you realize it or not. Born in Taiwan originally as a cooking oil purveyor, Din Tai Fung transitioned into the restaurant business in 1972 and has taken the world by storm ever since. Based primarily in Asia, the west coast has been blessed with a handful of these hallowed outposts, each one drawing rave reviews at a fevered pitch typically reserved for rarefied fine dining. Making a taste of the extraordinary accessible on a mainstream level is just one of their many triumphs.

It’s been said that their xiao long bao, otherwise known as soup dumplings, are the absolute pinnacle of perfection; the very best example of the art, executed with the exact same mastery every single time despite being made by hand, in volumes that would boggle the sober mind. Unfortunately, that’s not a debate I can weigh in on, as vegan soup dumplings are about as common as three-legged unicorns. Why bother with the wait, which can range from a minimum of  one to three hours, then? Well, there’s a whole lot more to this menu than just dough-encased parcels of pork.

Keenly aware of their local audience, Americans are treated to clearly labeled options for vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free dishes. Even without modification, overwhelming choices unfold with the turn of the page, particularly for vegetable-lovers with a penchant for spice.

Vegetable and Mushroom Dumplings surely can’t compare to their plump, porky brethren, but offer a highly competent, crowd-pleasing combination of springy wonton wrappers and tender umami fillings. The same can be said for the Vegetable and Mushroom Bun, which simply replaces that thin and chewy exterior with a puffy, fluffy cloud of steamed white bread. Essential for enjoyment is the DIY dip you’ll concoct from slivers of fresh ginger and black vinegar, mixed to taste.

No, that alone would not bring me running back to the Westfield Valley Fair mall where this Santa Clara locale has set up shop, of all places. It’s the starters and sides that make this meal. Like Thanksgiving dinner, side dishes are the stars of this show.

Go with a crowd and order every single plant-based appetizer because I can’t imagine leaving without just a bite of each transcendent taste lingering on my tongue. Soy Noodle Salad, a cold composition of shredded bean curd, is an absolute necessity. Deceptively simple on the surface, masterfully balanced flavors play on every delicate strand, sparkling with gently salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and savory notes in such perfect harmony that one can’t be fully separated from another. The Cucumber Salad arrives at the table like a statuesque work of edible art. Columns of stacked cylinders are crowned with a single clove of marinated garlic, which is a prize you’ll want to fight for, by the way. Wood Ear Mushrooms in Vinegar Dressing may not resonate as universally, but for fungus fiends, this is slippery plateful of earthy bliss.

Flip over to the section on greens and dig in deep. Every single dish here is completely vegan! Picking here comes down to personal preference, but don’t sleep on the Sauteed String Beans, lightly blistered from the kiss of the wok and dripping with sizeable garlic chunks. Taiwanese Cabbage gets a similar treatment, providing one of the few great examples of the concept this side of the seas.

Dessert buns stuffed with red bean paste or taro also tempt for a sweet plant-based finish, but I can’t personally vouch for these treats. Undone by an unreasonable attempt to eat through the full range of vegan specialties, I left feeling quite like an overstuffed dumpling myself.

Though you may go for the dumplings, you’ll inevitably come back for the vegetables.

Thai It; You’ll Like It!

Laap, laab, larp, lahb, larb; there’s about as many ways to spell the dish as there are to make it. Regarded by many as the national dish of Laos, it shows up in numerous different forms in neighboring countries. Thai cooks present their own fiery rendition of the traditional minced meat salad flecked with aromatic herbs and bold spices in perfect balance, but meatless versions aren’t hard to find in the surprisingly vegan-friendly nation. Inspired by my own journey to the Land of Smiles, I’ve taken to a hearty blend of tempeh and mushrooms, swaddling the hot mixture in cooling lettuce leaves. The combination of so many contrasting tastes and temperatures creates incredibly satisfying, harmonious little bundles.

If the original inspiration remains of reach, fear not. You can take a trip to Thailand in less time than it would take to order takeout! Join me at the Sacramento VegFest this Saturday, January 26th at 11:30 AM when I’ll share my secrets for whipping up a quick fix tempeh larb without compromising flavor, nutrition, or your budget, even during the busiest weekday dinner rush. Pick up more tips and tricks for faster, tastier meals across the board, based on my latest cookbook Real Food, Really Fast.

If only for the free samples, you won’t want to miss this. Hope to see you there!

Plant-Based Meals that Deliver

Meal delivery services have proliferated faster than amorous rabbits in recent years, expanding from an obscure, niche business model to one as common as the standard grocery store. There’s something for everyone, they promise with bright, inviting graphics, splashed across the screen with tempting photos of various dishes. If you like to cook, you can get bundles of ingredients with recipes. If your expertise in the kitchen ends at the microwave, you can have finished dishes ready to heat and eat land on your doorstep with just the click of a button. For those feeding a family, still more options abound for bulk meal prep. Don’t even get me started on all the specialized diets, from paleo to gluten-free, sometimes available all on the same platform. How does one begin to pick apart the best choices, given such a superabundance of promising meals- And seemingly endless deals?

While most enterprises now offer at least a handful of plant-based entrees, as is the trend, only a select few boast a fully vegan menu across the board. Veestro is one that can claim that distinction, inspired by the need for organic, healthy, and above all else, tasty food that fits into a fast-paced lifestyle. For their part, the stated goal is provide more plants for anyone hungry for a healthier alternative to takeout, appealing to the omnivores among us as well.

Sign up for a meal plan to save on the bundle or cherry-pick just a few dishes a la carte to supplement your standard rotation. Deliveries arrive frozen, conveniently packaged for further storage in your freezer or immediate thawing and consuming.

Here’s where I must sheepishly admit that I first tried Veestro many months ago, but as a testament to fervent following, these proven crowd-pleases are still delighting eaters all the same today. Such is the case for this Three Layer Scramble, which stacks up with a base of quinoa, smothered by a soft tofu scramble with black beans and topped by shredded dairy-free cheese. Reminiscent of enchilada filling without the heat of chilies, the ranchero-style sauce definitely erred more on the mild side, but that’s nothing a dash of sriracha can’t fix. Emphasizing the whole grains with a generous portion, it’s a very filling morning meal that would be just as enjoyable at lunch or dinnertime, too.

Perhaps the Breakfast Burrito was designed to be a more handheld, grab-and-go option, but the piquant sauce on the side is what truly makes this dish. Pour it on with abandon to make it a “wet” burrito, with a fork, knife, and plate required. Light and bright, it revives the slightly parched interior and adds volumes of flavor. Though labeled as hot sauce, it’s really more like a smooth, blended salsa. Wrapped up in the grilled tortilla, you’ll be pleased to find tender, toothsome, black beans, tofu, and potatoes. Served separately, lightly seasoned hash browns seem a bit redundant given this combination, but certainly aren’t unwelcome here. Who could say no to a supple, buttery potato, though?

If an urgent call should go out for some homey, uncomplicated comfort food, the Shepherdless Pie has got your number. Creamy potatoes with quinoa make up the bulk of this dish, slathered with a savory mushroom gravy that leads with the distinctive cheesy taste of nutritional yeast. Though slightly grainy after a harsh freeze and thaw, that textural shortcoming is easily forgiven when mixed into the main meal. Very much reminiscent of a pot pie without pastry, this easy entree presents familiar and uncomplicated flavors for widespread appeal.

There are no downright failures on this menu, but admittedly, some small disappointments. Thai Chicken Stew combines a thick, rich tomato base with incredibly meaty chicken strips, complete with a boldly charred, grilled essence, but I struggled to find any sort of Asian influence. Not a hint of curry, lemongrass, or coconut could be found. Although it looks like fried rice on the side, don’t be fooled; it’s just plain brown rice with peas and carrots. If simply re-titled without a reference to more exotic cuisine, it would be worthy of a reorder, but promises more on paper than it delivers in person.

Also available as a full “detox” plan, juices can be added a la cart, with a classic green juice predictably leading the pack as a top seller. Apple juice as a stand-alone beverage lost its appeal around kindergarten, so admittedly, I was not particularly enthusiastic to find the diminutive plastic bottle of Johnny Appleseed Juice in my sampler box. Clearly not just plain apple, as the dark green hue would make obvious at a glance, the initial smell is of grassy celery. Thankfully, it plays more of a supporting role in the overall flavor, which was definitely vegetal, but mellow and mostly sweet. More than mere veggies, this blend boasts a decent amount of protein thanks to the addition of sacha inchi, giving it much more more than just straight sugar for a quick energy boost.

As much as I love cooking, one of the greatest luxuries in life is allowing others to take the reins, and simply be fed. Knowing that those meals are of reliably high quality, healthy, and ready when you need them makes Veestro a strong contender for anyone who wants a night off from kitchen duty. Best of all, since they ship frozen, you can stock up and save them for times of need.

Have you tried any other prepared meal services? There are new plant-based providers sprouting out everyday, or so it seems, and I’m curious to try them all!