Make Room for Mushrooms

Cornbread has near universal appeal, although the particulars can be quite controversial. I’ve clumsily fumbled my way through this timeless debate before, the perpetual feud between the sweet and the savory, typically erring more on the sweet side of the fence. Given my penchant for pastry, this should surprise exactly no one, especially considering the fact that it took me over 10 years of recipe development to finally launch a cookbook of full meals, not just desserts, upon the world. Now, older and at least a little bit wiser, I realize there’s room on the table for both sorts of a-maize-ing dishes.

Not just savory but full on umami and sparkling with warm spices, this new approach may just hold the key to cornbread harmony, or at least win over a few more fellow sweet-toothed bakers like myself. A bold departure from my typical approach, I found inspiration from the Mexican flavors in BLENDABELLA, a ready to eat seasoned mushroom mix. Tempting as it was to just open up a jar, insert a fork, and call it a day, those tender portabella pieces combined with tomatoes, peppers, and plenty of piquant chili powder were a perfect addition to this humble side.

Tender, fresh corn kernels would be another welcome inclusion, but honestly, there’s no need to get all dressed up and fancy for soulful home cooking like this. Each bite resounds with a comforting warmth, amplified by the natural, earthy richness of everyone’s favorite fungus.

Here’s hoping that critics will be equally compelled by this divergent take on cornbread, since I’m entering the recipe into the Summer Blogger Recipe Challenge! For more information and inspiration, check it out on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest. BLENDABELLA Mushroom Blends are available for purchase online. (Please note that the Rustic Tuscan variety contains dairy, but both the Zesty Mexican and Coconut Thai Blends are 100% vegan.)

Where do your loyalties lie in the great cornbread debate? Sweet or savory? Simple or spicy? Or… given this new path to explore, downright umami?

Umami Mexi-Cornbread

1 Cup All-Purpose Flour
1 1/2 Cups Coarse Yellow Cornmeal
2 Tablespoons Coconut Sugar or Dark Brown Sugar, Firmly Packed
2 Teaspoons Baking Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Baking Soda
1 Teaspoon Smoked Paprika
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1 Cup Zesty Mexican BLENDABELLA
1 1/4 Cups Plain Non-Dairy Milk
2 Teaspoons Apple Cider Vinegar
1/3 Cup Olive Oil

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and lightly grease a 9-inch cast iron skillet or round baking pan.

In a large bowl, mix together the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder and soda, paprika, and salt. Stir in the BLENDABELLA and toss to coat thoroughly with flour. This will help prevent all those luscious mushroom pieces from simply sinking to the bottom.

Separately, whisk the non-dairy milk, vinegar, and oil to combine before adding these wet ingredients into the bowl of dry. Mix with a wide spatula just enough to bring the batter together smoothly, although a few errant lumps are just fine to leave be.

Spread the batter into your prepared pan, smoothing out the top and lightly tapping it on the counter to release any air bubbles. Bake for 20 – 25 minutes, until golden brown on top and edges just begin to pull away from sides. A toothpick inserted into the center should come out cleanly.

Let cool for at least 10 minutes before slicing and serving. Enjoy warm or at room temperature for the most savory satisfaction.

Makes 8 – 10 Servings

Printable Recipe

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Lazy Days

Writing a cookbook all about 10-minute recipes has made me the laziest cook ever. I’ve often said that it’s spoiled me for regular dinnertime prep, reducing me to infantile tantrums if anything should threaten to spill over that arbitrary time limit. Though I’m ashamed to admit it, I’ve been known to throw down a spatula mid-stir and plunder the cupboard for a bowlful of cereal instead, too hungry or impatient to complete the absurdly simple task. Just like the increasing efficiency of technology has eradicated our tolerance for lag, knowing just how quick a meal can come together creates a terrible intolerance for long, drawn out steps towards food fabrication.

For anyone else who knows that struggle, I’d like to introduce your to my easiest, fastest recipe yet, possible to slap on the table in 3 minutes all told. No arduous chopping, sauteing, baking, grilling, poaching, or advanced techniques required. If you can open a can and operate a microwave, you can feed yourself very well indeed. Truly, it’s so simple that it’s barely even a recipe, to the point that I hesitate to share this quick fix as a formal preparation. Considering how many times it’s saved me from the daily dinner dilemma, however, it seemed like a worthwhile idea to share.

Beans. Salsa. Spices. Heat and eat. It’s not fancy fare, but it’s a healthy bowl-in-one and deeply satisfying. Even a bare-bones sort of pantry should be able to accommodate without advanced planning, especially when you look at the ingredients with a flexible perspective. Simple as it is, the beauty of this basic formula is that it’s infinitely adaptable to any type of beans or seasoning you can scrounge up. See the end notes for more inspiration, but don’t be afraid to depart from the beaten path; make it your own and embark on a new flavor adventure.

Instant Fiesta Soup

2 (15-Ounce) Cans No Salt Added Pinto Beans (Undrained)
1 1/2 Cups Salsa
1 1/2 Teaspoons Smoked Paprika
1 Teaspoon Ground Cumin

For Topping (Optional):

Diced Avocado
Thinly Sliced Chives or Scallions

Toss the beans, aquafaba and all, into your blender along with the salsa and spices. Blend until mostly smooth but with a bit of texture still remaining, as desired.

Transfer the mixture to a medium saucepan and heat over medium-high, until steaming hot all the way through; about 4 – 5 minutes. Alternatively, a single serving into the microwave for 2 minutes and store the rest in the fridge, sealed in an airtight container, for up to a week.

Ladle into bowls and top each with avocado and chives or scallions. Dig in!

Makes 3 – 4 Servings

Variations:

On less lazy days, cook your own beans from scratch! Simply use about 3 cups total and either 1/2 – 1 cup of the aquafaba or vegetable broth, to reach your desired consistency.

To simply switch things up a bit, consider using black beans instead of pinto.

Make it an Italian-inspired soup by using white beans and marinara sauce in place of the salsa, plus a generous handful of fresh or dried herbs (heavy on the basil and parsley, please!)

Printable Recipe

True Gossip

Rumors are flying about the new taco spot in Nob Hill, but the buzz is so much more than mere gossip. Although that’s the translation of Chisme, the bespoke restaurant has already proven itself a worthy contender in a city teeming with Mexican eateries. Menu options are limited, focused on a short list of fillings to swaddle in soft, handmade tortillas, served two per order. Simple yet irresistible appetizer staples like chips and guacamole or fried potatoes do beckon, but stay focused here. Take a closer look at those taco options. Not only are the vegan choices clearly marked, but compared to the more meaty entrees, they dominate the colorful paper printout.

Fusion is the name of the game for these unconventional offerings, such as eggplant slathered in peanut mole, or plantains and black beans paired with a creamy coconut ranch dressing. Perish the thought of strained, unsatisfying attempts at “authenticity” here; flavor comes first, regardless of origin. Chisme caters to a different sort of crowd, and those customers seem to be eating it up.

Order at the front, grab a number, and take a seat at the communal table or benches. One might call the space spare and the service no-frills, but it’s warm and friendly, open and inviting, regardless. Besides, in a matter of minutes your surroundings will become irrelevant as a hot plate of food drops in front of you. If there’s only one dish to order, it’s the Jackfruit Taco. Marinated in a savory sauce and fried to crispy perfection, it remains juicy inside, with an impossibly meaty bite all the way though. Greens and cabbage are par for the course, adding a bit of freshness and crunch to the conversation, but the unexpected brightness of the mint verde sauce truly seals the deal. It sounds like a crazy combination, but trust me, it just works.

Don’t sleep on that fiery green hot sauce that comes on the side, either. It’s the sort of condiment that people would steal if it was put into bottles, or for those with more restraint, buy by the case if it was sold in stores. If the heat becomes overwhelming, cool down with a dairy-free coconut horchata for dessert. The sweetness of this cinnamon-spiked elixir could easily rival that of a proper milkshake, but is a welcome refreshment on a hot day.

Stop the gossip and get the facts. Chisme is the real deal.

Tamale Take Down

“They’re pretty good… But I’ve had better,” the woman sitting at a neighboring booth leaned across the table, whispering conspiratorially.

Seated in one of the most highly regarded vegan restaurants in the bay area, luxuriating in some of the most masterfully composed dishes around, this stunning utterance was enough to induce whiplash. Snapping back into reality out of a food-induced daze, it took a moment to re-focus and discover the source of such heretical words. A small woman with a kind face looked back at me, eyes gleaming with clarity- Or perhaps it was a hint of mischief.

The dish in question was a tamale, lavished with smoked black beans, spiced pepitas, and a luscious avocado crema. Impeccably plated with all the flourishes one would expect of a fine dining establishment, it was a sight to behold, and certainly no slouch in the flavor department. In fact, up until that moment, this could have very well been the pinnacle of tamale artistry in my opinion. Now that impression was suddenly questionable, an uninformed statement based upon only half of the story. I had to get myself these purported transcendent tamales.

I had to go to Flacos.

An east bay institution serving up an entirely vegan menu, the bill of fare is short and sweet. You won’t find any overstuffed “Mission-style” burritos or loaded nachos here, but real deal Mexican meals. Tacos slide out of the kitchen on handmade corn tortillas, thick and crisply toasted. Masa is made from scratch every day, and that dedication to the craft pays off in huge gustatory dividends. The scent of cooking cornmeal wafts out onto the street early in the day, tempting passersby even as breakfast time has barely ended.

Huarache is a regional delight that doesn’t make a big splash in most American states, which is a real shame given its fool-proof flavor combinations. Soft slabs of fried masa lurk beneath a veritable forest of romaine and cilantro, huge servings of refried pinto beans, and slathered with rich, creamy avocado salsa. It’s worth noting that the avocado salsa is available in both mild and spicy formats, but unless you’re a glutton for punishment, I would advise keeping it cool. The heat on the spicy rendition is no joke; I’ve seen grown men weep over their taquitos upon discovering this fatal flaw.

On cool, foggy days, nothing satisfies like a bowlful of pozole, a very simple soup of tomatoes and hominy. While it’s not quite on par with the other, flashier staples, it’s sure to hit the spot if you’re craving a bit of comfort.

But enough beating around the bush. The main attraction, the thing we’ve all been waiting for, the banana leaf-wrapped tamale is hands-down the single item you must order if you can only pick one. Though the mole, caper, potato, and green olive filling sounds like a discordant combination, suspend disbelief and give it a try. The reasons why it works so well remain a mystery, but you’ll never question it ever again. A true rarity in the crowded and heavily promoted bay area food scene, this particular promise lives up to the hype.

Tamales can be ordered a la cart or as a plate, complete with rice, beans, and salad. While you may feel more virtuous by selecting a fully balanced meal, the sides are nothing special. Get the most mouthwatering bang for your buck by doubling down on the tamales instead. It’s an easy choice that you’ll never regret, even for those with a penchant for fine dining. Flacos might very well hold the key to the best tamales you’ve ever had.

Corn Porn

The simplest elements of a meal, those unassuming side dishes that are all too often overshadowed by flashier, more expensive, or more complex mains, serve up far more nuance than they’re given credit for. A perfect example of this is the humble ear of corn. As summer marches on and those golden yellow kernels swell larger, juicier, and sweeter underneath the hot sun, truly sumptuous fresh corn is a rare treat despite its ubiquity. That’s because few cooks truly value this starchy staple as more than just plate filler. A whole world of flavor can be found within those pale green husks, just beyond the tangled forest of corn silk, if only one knows how coax it out.

Finesse is the key to letting such a pared-down dish shine, accentuating the inherent flavor of is base ingredients without covering them up with a heavy-handed smattering of seasonings. Elote, served up either straight on the cob or sheared off and mixed up in the humble “corn in a cup” presentation, is worth getting excited about. The concept is hardly a new one, appearing as classic Mexican street food for countless decades, and yet it’s still nearly impossible to find a vegan rendition to indulge in. Mayonnaise, sour cream, and/or cheese typically binds the creamy corn concoction together; an easy fix for the home cook, but good luck finding an accommodating eatery. That’s why eating my way through the menu at Cool Beans was such a revelation. Clearly, the chef at the helm here knows how to treat an ear of corn right. Not only do they make their own corn tortillas, placing the resulting tacos easily near the top of my list, but they’re perhaps the only ones outside of California that offer a proper vegan elote.

Tempted as I was to wheedle the recipe out of them, elote really should be so simple that only a basic formula is required. Start with sweet corn at the height of its growing season, prepared soon after it’s picked, and you can’t go wrong. Consider what follows more of a reminder to reconsider corn this summer, giving it a place of honor on the plate. Tweak seasonings as your heart desires; you truly can’t go wrong with either a spicier or subtler blend.

Do me a favor, would you? Stop taking corn for granted this summer and at long last, do the common cob proper justice with at least one big batch of elote.

Elote

8 Ears Sweet Corn, Husked
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1 Cup Raw Cashews, Soaked for 3 Hours and Thoroughly Drained
1 Clove Garlic, Roughly Chopped
1/4 Cup Lime Juice
3 Tablespoons Nutritional Yeast
1 Teaspoon Light Agave Nectar
1 Teaspoon Smoked Paprika
1/2 Teaspoon Cayenne Pepper
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/2 Cup Water
1/4 Cup Fresh Cilantro, Minced
Chili Powder, to Garnish (Optional)

It’s easiest if you can simply toss the corn on a hot grill, but you can also take it indoors by heating up a large griddle over high heat. Depending on the size of your cooking surface, you may need to work in batches since the corn must make full contact directly with the surface of the vessel. Lightly brush the corn with oil and grill the corn until lightly charred, turning as needed. This process should take approximately 10 minutes, but let the color of the corn serve as your guide. Set aside to cool.

While the corn cools, turn your attention to the creamy accompaniment. Place the cashews, garlic, and lime juice in food processor, and pulse to combine. Pause to scrape down the sides of the bowl with your spatula so that the nuts are all fairly well broken down. Add in the nutritional yeast, agave, paprika, cayenne, and salt, pulsing to incorporate. Allow the motor to run while slowly drizzling in the water, blending thoroughly. The sauce should still be a bit coarse in texture, as the small pieces of cashew that remain will more closely emulate the traditional curds of cotija cheese.

Cut the kernels off of the corn cobs and place them in a large bowl. Pour the cashew sauce on top and mix thoroughly. Add in the fresh cilantro, tossing to combine. Divide the elote into 6 – 8 cups and top with a sprinkle of chili powder, if desired.

Makes 6 – 8 Servings

Printable Recipe

Muchas Gracias

Singling out one favorite meal from my summertime jaunt around the 7 x 7 mile peninsula known as San Francisco would be an impossible task. Small but densely populated with more restaurants per square mile than people, or so it often appeared, even the most voracious adventurer could eat out for every meal of the day, and still never come close to exhausting their options. Picking the few gems out from the large swath of mediocre, adequate, or downright disappointing establishments, however, is a far easier task. Gracias Madre ranks very high on my list of keepers, laying claim to one of the top 5 meals I’ve eaten all year, coast to coast.

As part of the Cafe Gratitude empire and having recently expanded to a Los Angeles outpost, it’s likely that even far-flung readers who never plan to visit California have still heard of this storied establishment. It had been on my radar for years, but it had always been buried too deep within the Mission district to warrant a trek, or too busy to afford the wait. At last, the cards we stacked in my favor: It was a perfect, blue-sky day in July, warm enough to suit up with only a light jacket, and the company was unbeatable. Plus, she came with a car.

Sitting in the enclosed porch, we enjoyed a gentle breeze as dappled sunlight filtered in across our table, and a procession of savory delights began to grace our presence. Coconut Ceviche had been at the top of my “must try” list, simply because I had never seen nor tasted such a thing before. Could this tropical fruit really approximate something more oceanic in nature? Long story short: No. However, the flavors rendered from this unlikely combination are from a world beyond that expected flavor palate, elevating the dish into something entirely new. Truth be told, my one criticism was that I wanted more coconut! Each bite was dominated by rich, luscious avocado flesh instead, but that’s hardly something to complain about. Paired with sturdy, freshly fried but utterly grease-free tortilla chips, I could have been perfectly happy to make a meal of this appetizer alone.

But one could hardly turn a blind eye to the rest of the alluring menu. We ordered lavishly, accumulating far more food than any two people should reasonably consider eating for lunch, and yet not a scrap remained at the end of the meal. The Pozole, brought to the table in a great plume of steam, was not something I would have requested unprompted, but it turned out to be a top pick that day. A medley of vegetables and tender hominy mingled in a soothing, tomato-based and slightly spicy broth, topped with a thorny crown of thin tortilla strips. The balance of ingredients was pure poetry, a soup far greater than the sum of its parts.

Our final requests for the day came out in a flurry of small plates. Elote, a classic, beautifully simple preparation of grilled corn and Mexican cheese, has always been out of reach due to the dairy component, so it was a true pleasure to finally sink my teeth into that cashew cheese-smeared cob. The smoky, toasted kernels were perfectly cooked, plump and lightly charred, but the real star was that cashew crema. Upon asking the chef what magic went into such an ethereal condiment, he graciously laid out the entire recipe for us. Ready with you paper and pencil? Here’s how it goes down: Soak a bunch of cashews over night. Drain them. Add a bit of ancho chili, salt and black pepper, and blend them with a splash of fresh water until silky smooth. And that’s all he wrote.

Simple Greens Con Chile y Ajo were easily a step above your average sauteed kale, sparkling with crisp pepitas and carefully applied touches of spice. Always well seasoned but never hot, per se, these small touches proved the true finesse of the kitchen. Escabeche, pickled vegetables, rounded out our midday feast with a pleasing salty side, but were largely an unnecessary accoutrement to this lavish spread.

While I’m not about to start picking favorites, I will say that Gracias Madre is easily near the top of my hit list. If you’re ever in town, consider if your duty as an eater of any dietary designation to try it out at least once.