BitterSweet

Sweet Musings with a Bitterly Sharp Wit


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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.

“Itโ€™s for people who love meat,โ€ 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, “Weโ€™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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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

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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.

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