BitterSweet

Sweet Musings with a Bitterly Sharp Wit


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Son of a Butcher

Snaking past the illuminated case of thin-sliced meats and artisan cheeses, spilling out the door and onto the sidewalk, the line is already at least 15 deep, and it’s not even noon yet. Any respectable food establishment in downtown Berkeley will inevitably experience the usual lunch rush on any given day, but The Butcher’s Son is guaranteed to be more or less a mob scene no matter the hour. After a year and a half of slinging sandwiches to these hungry hordes, their popularity shows no sign of waning, nor the excitement from dying down. Eavesdrop on the masses already tucking into their oversized sandwiches for encouragement to endure the wait; exclamations of deep, primal joy echo off the walls, speaking louder than any formal review.

Salads and fried snacks round out the menu, but make no mistake, it’s all about the sandwiches here. Overstuffed with plant-based meats and dairy-free cheeses, these generous assemblages transcend the boundaries separating vegans and omnivores. Scores of staunch meat eaters have been shocked to discover that this old school deli is entirely flesh-free, even after devouring a full meal. There’s a certain finesse to the casual fare that reveals dedication to the craft that can only come from passion and attention to detail.

Each towering creation is a feat of culinary architecture. The Fried Mozzarella & Meatball could comfortably satisfy two diners, and the Roast Beef Reuben piles on thinly shaved beefless slices and sauerkraut with the same enthusiasm.

Bestsellers include the BLAT, a classic combination of bacon, lettuce, avocado, and tomato, straight to the point and sure to satisfy any nostalgic cravings. It’s tough to leave without ordering the Pulled Pork though, a saucy, smoky barbecue sensation that’s crowned with tender strings of caramelized onions and creamy coleslaw.

Groaning, straining within the confines of one’s previously well-fitting pants, it would behoove the average diner to reach for a takeout box early on. Resist the temptation of cleaning the plate, no matter how strongly the urge strikes. Besides, there’s still dessert to consider. Don’t overlook the pastry case, stocked with a rotating selection of pies, cheesecakes, cookies, doughnuts, cannoli, flaky croissants, and all variety of other sweet surprises. Just in case you need a meaty fix throughout the week, cold cuts and cheese are sold by the pound, right alongside house-made sour pickles.

Come hungry and early to secure a table, especially for the epic weekend bunch menu. This isn’t your average delicatessen, but the overall experience wouldn’t lead you to think it was any different.

The Butcher’s Son
1941 University Avenue
Berkeley, CA 94704

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The Softer Side of Tofu

No longer a foreign, slightly sinister block of bland austerity, tofu has finally come to enjoy mainstream acceptance. Many meatless meals are built upon these solid bean curd foundations everyday, whether the intention is to craft a plant-based dish or not. That sort of universal recognition has been hard won, after many years of residing only within fringe health food stores, or the odd Americanized Chinese stir-fry. Still, what most people recognize as tofu is ironically one-dimensional; firm or extra-firm dominate the shelves, and anything with slightly less structural integrity is deemed crumbly, mushy, or generally unpalatable. If it can’t get crispy or stand up to a solid saute, it just doesn’t make the cut. It’s a real shame that softer, silken varieties are thus overlooked time and again; this rendition is the truest manifestation of tofu, in my humble opinion.

In this form, tofu straddles the line between custard and curd, a savory study in simplicity. Fresh is always best, which could explain some of the hesitance towards equal appreciation. Composed of only quality soymilk and nigari, each element makes a huge impact on the final flavor. The only way to ensure a delicious experience is to make it yourself… And thanks to the convenient tofu kit offered by Morinaga (makers of the very popular self-stable Mori-Nu) that’s not nearly as daunting a task as it may sound. Everything you need is included, from ingredients to hardware.

Granted, the instructions leave quite a bit to be desired. Despite the helpful video guidance for the truly intimidated, there’s no indication of ramekin size or number of servings. Additionally, the time range is quite large, and there are no hints of what to look for when it’s done.

Thankfully, despite these shortcomings, homemade tofu is almost effortless to prepare. You only need to know how to boil water to bring your own bean curd to life. Serving up my first batch still slightly warm, embellished with a bare minimum of garnishes, the experience is downright ethereal. So soft, it practically dissolves on the tongue. Delicate, in texture and flavor, such a product would be impossible to transport or preserve, which is why it far surpasses anything you would find sold in stores. Not aggressively beany but gently nutty, earthy in flavor, it’s the antidote to the super salty, pre-seasoned packs that are simultaneous gaining in popularity.

The beauty of this format is that it can just as easily be dressed up for a sweeter sensation. Topped with adzuki beans gently stewed in brown sugar, my fresh tofu created the perfect creamy base to support this healthy treat.

If you’re still craving something with a bit more of a bite, never fear. It’s just as simple to craft curds with greater density by pressing out some of the water. Rather than pouring the hot soymilk into a serving vessel, let it chill out in the provided mold lined with cheesecloth. After a mere hour or two, you’ll have something primed for slicing. Reminiscent of traditional cheese-making, I couldn’t resist the urge to season mine like feta and toss the cubes into a summery salad of leafy greens, fresh peaches and corn. The results were predictably spectacular.

Although considerably more fragile than mainstream options, the beauty of making your own tofu from scratch is the possibilities for bolder flavorings. Stirring in a healthy dose of sriracha, sun dried tomatoes, and fresh herbs instantly brightened up this particular block, no marination necessary. The sky is the limit for flavorful inclusions, so you only have yourself to blame if you still think tofu is plain and bland.

Bottom line: If you’re already on the tofu bandwagon, this all-inclusive kit will put you over the moon. If you’ve been ambivalent about those soybean blocks, it may finally win you over.


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Silent Sunday: Sichuan Situation

Tofu Clay Pot

Turnip Cakes

Hot and Sour Soup

Steamed Bao

Big Lantern
3170 16th St
San Francisco, CA 94103

Garlic Pea Shoots

Fish-Fragrant Eggplant

Vegetable Dumplings

MaMa Ji’s
4416 18th St
San Francisco, CA 94114



Sizzling Eggplant

Bean Curd with Mushrooms

Pot Stickers

Crispy Taro Rolls

Lucky Creation
854 Washington St
San Francisco, CA 94108


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Where’s the Beef?

I’ve got a beef with veggie burgers, but not for their vegetable content. Red meat never held much allure for me prior to taking the vegan plunge, so I’ve always been delighted to have a patty composed of lentils, seitan, or any other plant protein instead. The trouble is that burgers are all too often the default meatless entree, shoehorned into an otherwise carnivorous menu; the throwaway dish that’s shipped in frozen and goes out barely thawed, mushy and bland all the way through. It’s pretty much the last thing I would order at a restaurant, just one step above the plain pasta and marinara sauce option.

Considering my distaste for both meat and burgers, I’m probably the last person to get whipped into a frenzy over the new breed of beef alternatives, but my culinary curiosity knows no bounds. Living by the mantra that anything vegan is worth tasting at least once, I could find no reason why not to give this fresh alternative the benefit of the doubt.

“It’s for people who love meat,” Beyond Meat founder Ethan Brown has boldly proclaimed on a number of occasions. No, I’m not the target audience, to say the least, but I can appreciate good food regardless. Besides, the end goal is not just a matter of taste, but to reach a whole new audience, which I can wholeheartedly support. As Brown explains, “We’re actually enabling customers to eat more [plant-based] meat,” instead of merely preaching to the choir.

Now available in the no-man’s land of the meat section, Beyond Burger patties are sold “raw” among the traditional ground beef products, right next to the bloody Styrofoam trays. It’s unnerving and frankly off-putting for a longtime herbivore, but the message comes across loud and clear. This is not just a melange of vegetables molded into a puck, but something designed to genuinely look, smell, and feel like raw beef. On those fronts, I would say the Beyond Burger conclusively succeeds.

Even before removing the patties from the package, the aroma of beef is striking and unmistakable. Seared brown on the outside but still unnervingly pink on the inside, it’s easily the meatiest thing I’ve eaten in over 14 years. Not quite “juicy” per say, but a satisfying fattiness is imparted by neutral coconut oil, giving it the gratifying richness of actual animal protein. Granted, the texture might be a little off, seeming a bit more fibrous than I recall, but my memories are admittedly somewhat hazy at best. Overall, the experience is one very true to the bovine-based inspiration; savory but subtle, a neutral palate for additional seasonings or toppings, and yes, very meaty.

But that’s far from the end of the story.

Competing for the same place at the table, Impossible Foods claims to take the plant-based burger one step further. Only available in a select few restaurants, it remains out of reach for most mainstream audiences at this point, especially considering the price tag it commands on the high-end eateries. Such exclusivity only adds to the appeal, creating an air of mystery for those without easy access. Though typically immune to such marketing tactics, I somehow found myself joining the line as soon as Gott’s Roadside announced that they would carry this new plant-powered patty.

Here’s the rub: It must be ordered on sourdough bread, not a bun, without cheese or sauce, and grilled on a separate surface to qualify as vegan. That would be all well and good, but their treatment of the meatless beefcake is downright abusive. Emerging from the kitchen not just well done, but truly overdone, the exterior is genuinely crunchy. Any sign of the signature pink heme has been completely driven out, which misses the entire point of this particular patty. While I didn’t mind eating it, I could have just as well been chowing down on any old school texture vegetable protein burger. Savory and meaty, yes, but lacking any distinguishing characteristics that set it apart from the pack, I was sorely disappointed by this fast food fix.

Furthermore, the actual cooking experience is an important and defining factor. Pan-frying the Beyond Burger at home meant that the aroma of the burger filled the entire house, lingering long after the meal was eaten, deepening the impact of its meat-like qualities. To be honest, this was almost too much to bear, and I wish I had the foresight to grill the burgers outside. Meat lovers should be thrilled, however, especially thanks to the greater accessibility provided by this mainstream option.

The conversation is just getting started, but at least for now, I have to call Beyond Meat the winner of this beefless debate.

Have you tried either of these burger alternatives? Do you agree, disagree, or just think the entire pursuit of plant-based beef is absurd? Where do your meatless loyalties lie? Beef up the comment section with your thoughts!


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Jack of All Trades

Anything meat can do, plants can do better.

This isn’t news, but affirmation of fact. Brilliant marvels of engineering, science, and nutrition are bringing greater alternatives to the market every day, but sometimes it seems like the best substitutes have been right under our noses all along, growing in plain sight. Jackfruit is that underdog; the geeky guy in high school that ends up getting the girl and beating the popular kids at their own game. All it takes is a new perspective, some small insight and self-discovery, to unlock its full potential.

Though I adore eating the fresh, sweet fruit, the young, canned jackfruit in brine is the meat of the matter here. Slowly simmered in an aromatic marinade inspired by sweet tea, an irreplaceable summertime brew designed for maximum refreshment, these immature arils tenderize to a texture almost indistinguishable from pulled pork. Spiked with fresh lemon, it has a tart, sweet-and-sour balance, pulling out all the savory stops.

Deceptively simple, the ginger-scallion slaw is not to be underestimated, nor overlooked. Crisp, cooling, yet bright and invigorating in flavor, I could honestly just eat this by the bowlful. It’s an ideal foil to the richly meaty main, and truly completes this deeply satisfying sandwich.

Thinking along the lines of complete culinary inclusion and offering a main dish to suit all diets, I was also inspired by the Steviva Blogger Challenge.

Sugar is neither stranger nor foe to me. As a baker with a serious sweet tooth, I consider myself very lucky that it’s one ingredient that I don’t need to worry about. Many are far more sensitive, and it always bums me out when I can’t share my latest creations with them. For this dish, while you could use plain granulated sugar in a pinch, plant-based Erysweet, made of erythritol, sweetens the deal. It’s not as sweet as table sugar, so it merely smooths out the harsh edges of the citrus and tea in this tangy marinade.

Life is sweeter when it can be shared. Meatless, sugarless, or otherwise, this is a dish that everyone can enjoy*.

*This is especially true if you use tamari instead of soy sauce and opt for gluten-free buns if wheat is an additional concern!

Sugar-Free Sweet Tea Pulled Jackfruit

1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1/2 Medium Red Onion, Thinly Sliced (About 1 Cup)
2 Cloves Garlic, Minced
1 Teaspoon Black Tea Leaves
1/4 Cup Erysweet (or 3 Tablespoons Granulated Sugar if Not Sugar-Free)
1/4 Cup Lemon Juice
1/4 Cup Vegetable Stock
2 Tablespoons Soy Sauce
14 Ounces Young Jackfruit, Drained and Rinsed
1/2 Teaspoon Dried Rosemary, Crushed
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper

Ginger-Scallion Slaw:

1 Cup Roughly Chopped Scallions
1 Inch Fresh Ginger, Peeled and Chopped
2 Tablespoons Lemon Juice
2 Tablespoons Rice Vinegar
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 Cup Olive Oil
1/2 Medium Head Green Cabbage, Shredded (about 6 Cups)
1 Cup Shredded Carrots

3 – 4 Sandwich Buns, for Serving

Place a medium saucepan over moderate heat. Add the oil and onion, stirring periodically until softened and aromatic. Introduce the garlic and tea leaves next, cooking until golden all over. Give it time, because this could take 10 – 15 minutes to properly brown. Stir in the Erysweet (or sugar, if you’re not worried about making this sugar-free) and then quickly deglaze by pouring in the lemon juice, vegetable stock, and soy sauce all at once. Thoroughly scrape the bottom of the pan to make sure that nothing is sticking and burning.

Add the jackfruit, rosemary, and pepper next, stirring gently to incorporate without splashing. Turn down the heat to medium-low and simmer until most of the liquid evaporates; about 20 – 30 minutes. Use the side of your spatula to roughly mash/shred the jackfruit once it’s fork-tender.

For the slaw, toss the scallions, ginger, lemon juice, vinegar, and salt into your blender. Pulse to break down the more fibrous aromatics, pausing to scrape down the sides of the container if needed. With the motor running, slowly stream in the olive oil to achieve a creamy emulsification. Pour the dressing over the cabbage and carrots in a large bowl, mixing to thoroughly coat all of the veggie shreds.

To serve, lightly toast the buns and top with generous spoonfuls of the stewed jackfruit and slaw. Devour immediately! These are unapologetically messy sandwiches, so don’t be afraid to dive right in trying to be dainty about it. The buns will only grow progressively more soggy once fully assembled.

Makes 3 – 4 Servings

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Fit for a Fiesta

Funny how holidays tend to sneak up on a person, even when the date is baked into the name itself. Cinco de Mayo is largely an excuse for day drinking here in the states, but it would truly be a shame to let it pass without indulging in a bit of edible hedonism as well. Someone who was more prepared, or at least aware of the rapidly advancing calendar, might have shared something suitable with enough time to plan, prepare, and lock down a party game plan before the actual date.

I am not that person.

However, I don’t need to be, and neither do you! Not only are these spicy appetizers compulsively munchable, they’re effortless to throw together at the drop of a sombrero. Modeled after meatballs but inspired by tacos, each bite-sized morsel turns the classically meaty, spicy, typically messy dish into dainty finger food. No more crumbly taco shells dumping their contents all over your white pants; crushing tortillas into a crunchy coating allows them to remain perfectly crisp, yet intact and firmly adhered from plate to palate.

Clear your schedule, call up all your friends, and start crushing ice for a boatload of frozen margaritas; there’s a party brewing as soon as you preheat the oven.

Taco Bites

1 12-Ounce Package Vegan Beef Crumbles or Crumbled Tempeh
1/2 Cup Black Beans, Roughly Mashed or Refried Pinto Beans
2 Tablespoons Tomato Paste
1 Clove Garlic, Finely Minced
1/4 Cup Yellow Cornmeal
1 1/2 Teaspoons Chili Powder
1 Teaspoon Smoked Paprika
1 Teaspoon Ground Cumin
1/4 Teaspoon Dried Oregano
1/4 Teaspoon Crushed Red Pepper Flakes
1/2 Cup Aquafaba
1/3 Cup Fresh Cilantro, Minced
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/2 Cup Finely Crushed Tortilla Chips

Salsa, to Serve

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silpat.

Place your meatless crumbles of choice in the food processor, along with the beans, tomato paste, garlic, cornmeal, chili powder, paprika, cumin, oregano, and red pepper flakes. Pulse briefly to combine, but be careful not to over-blend. You want to break down the crumbles a bit but still leave a lot of texture here. Introduce the aquafaba, cilantro, and salt next, pulsing once more to incorporate. Blend just until you achieve a cohesive, meaty dough.

Scoop out balls the size of walnuts and roll them in the crushed tortilla chips, completely coating the exteriors. Place each ball on your prepared baking sheet and repeat the process until you’ve used up all of the central mixture.

Bake for 25 – 30 minutes, until the balls are firm and evenly browned. Serve hot, alongside your favorite salsa and an icy cold beverage.

Makes About 20 Bites

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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

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