Of Siblings and Spaghetti

Repeatedly recalled for decades, certain family stories become the stuff of lore. So vividly told that they seem like my own memories, I can practically see, taste, and feel these moments that happened long before I was born. The funny thing is, most of these moments are completely inconsequential, with many of the main players unconsciously or selectively choosing to forget the specifics. Regardless of the plausible bias coming from just one source, there’s a particular bit of family lore shared by my dad that I just can’t shake.

The second eldest of four children, he grew up in a boisterous household with plenty of sibling rivalry. Everyone had their quirks and irritations, which each knew exactly how to provoke. Meal time could be particularly fraught, as hunger drained what little patience might remain for the usual shenanigans.

As the story goes, my uncle Jim was throwing a fit about his spaghetti. It was always exactly the same but completely at random, he would inexplicably decide that it didn’t taste as good. Well, as the story goes, my dad finally got fed up with this routine. When Jim abandoned the table for just a moment, my dad swooped in and made his move. Deftly pouring his glass of chocolate milk into the forsaken noodles, my aunts could barely manage to stifle their giggles. Much to everyone’s surprise, upon his return, Jim proclaimed the pasta… Suddenly, miraculously improved!

The secret remained a mystery for all of about two seconds before the jig was up, launching an equal and opposite reaction of chocolate milk being poured into my dad’s white rice. Such an ultimately trivial moment that could have easily become forgotten somehow became wrapped up in our larger family lore, a fundamental piece of my personal history, despite taking place many decades before I was born.

History is destined to repeat itself, manifesting in unexpected ways, and so here I am today, recreating my Uncle Jim’s chocolate milk spaghetti.

Yes, you read that right; looking beyond the dessert course, blending cocoa into cream sauce isn’t the craziest idea. My dad was onto something in this moment of reckless provocation, little did he know at the time. Deep, dark Dutch process cocoa has both sweet and savory notes, waiting for the right sidekick to coax either side out into the light. Though we typically focus on more sugary pairings, the subtly bitter edge inherent in raw cacao comes to the fore alongside garlic, nutritional yeast, and black truffles. Twirling stands of al dente noodles within that mysterious, tawny sauce, crunchy bites of toasted cacao nibs deliver a shock of texture, hammering in the duality and versatility of this single ingredient, found in many forms.

Who knew that such an innocuous event would stay with us for generations, and perhaps, many more to come? Truffles certainly weren’t on the menu on that fateful night, but there’s no reason why we can’t learn from our “mistakes” and improve upon them- If only we can be so fearless by taking that first step to pour chocolate milk into pasta.

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Slimy Yet Satisfying

Like many great inventions, this recipe was borne of an abject failure. Any reasonable person would have admitted defeat and tossed the initial results without a second thought, but then again, no one has ever accused me of such distinction.

It all started with a used pasta maker, the catalyst for a deep-dive into all sorts of noodles, common and obscure, simple and complex, to see what I could churn out at home. After working through soba and pappardelle and more, I hit upon rokube. Served on Tsushima Island, this local specialty is made of sweet potato flour mixed with grated yams as a means of creating more nutritious noodles during times of scarcity. Though rudimentary recipes do exist, they aren’t well detailed, leading to some very questionable cuisine.

Obviously, sweet potato flour is different from sweet potato starch, and perhaps they meant actual sweet potatoes instead of what I assumed were nagaimo. Thus, my attempt was doomed from the start. Nagaimo are known for having a uniquely slimy texture when grated or pureed; also known as “neba neba” in Japanese. This gooey mouthfeel is difficult for many western palates to accept, so be forewarned that what follows may not suit all tastes.

So, merrily, I measured out all the wrong ingredients and was surprised to see that it didn’t work at all- What a shock! Though the dough seemed stiff and difficult to knead, it refused to come out of the nozzle and when at rest, it appeared to liquefy. It was such a bizarre consistency that it defies easy explanation.

This is where I should have given up, but thrifty and scrap-happy cook that I am, I racked my brain for any way to salvage the mess. How about… Drying it out in the oven? Sure, why not? Into a greased sheet pan it went and it did indeed set into a sheet of odd, floppy, white and translucent starch. Next, still stuck on the idea of noodles, it only made logical sense to slice it into ribbons and proceed as planned.

Shockingly, flying in the face of all common sense, it actually worked. The strands cooked up as intended, remaining intact yet tender, and incredibly, extremely chewy. Very neba neba.

Served chilled and topped with additional nagaimo, this is a taste experience for the adventurous, seeking something refreshing and cool that offers textures not otherwise found in most common cookery. Slippery, springy, and slightly gooey, you must be able to embrace slime to appreciate it. Other neba neba ingredients can be added to enhance the sensation, like natto and sliced fresh okra.

There are probably easier ways to arrive at such a result, but through the process of experimentation, I’m just happy to land at such satisfying end results. It never hurts to keep trying and pushing forward, no matter the questionable path!

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Wham, Bam, Dan Dan

It’s a good thing I love grocery shopping so much, because I tend to do it more than your average bear. Especially in my days before moving to Austin, when I lacked proper transportation for bulky or heavy items, I would find myself making multiple trips to carry everything on foot- Sometimes in the same day and at the same store, no less. Somehow my hapless friends often find themselves roped into these missions, since the market is “just along the way” to our original destination, or I’ll suddenly remember I’m in dire need of x, y, and z, which of course I’d love to share when the recipe was done. There’s always some good excuse, or at least one reasonably convincing.

Not all accomplices in this recurring crime are matched in their skills for smooth acquisitions and quick getaways, however. Some in particular have proven to be more of a liability rather than an asset. These people know just how to stir the pot before we ever get into the kitchen.

Scanning the aisles with a short, clear list in hand, I’ll have my mission set, but no matter how efficiently we cruise past tempting oddities and intriguing new ingredients, it’s impossible to maintain the same steady pace. Our combined culinary curiosity can’t stand up to the power of a new food mystery, no matter how relatively mundane. On a quest for plain, ordinary, unexceptional bananas, the basket somehow becomes heavy with unlisted extras.

This recipe, and so many others, come to think of it, are entirely their fault. An unusual style of noodles caught my eye and BOOM, they snap it up without a second to breathe, let alone consider the purchase, practically frothing about a story they read about this rarefied staple.

What was such an esoteric import doing at the pitifully ordinary mega mart? How could we possibly pass it by? Suddenly we were on a search and rescue mission, precious cargo in hand, hustling to the checkout line before I could protest.

In the Sichuan province of China, dan dan noodles are typically served as a snack, rather than an entree, swimming in a thick, fiery red broth spiked with chili oil. Pork was used sparingly as a seasoning, but if you ask me, even greater flavor can be drawn from wild mushrooms, rich with umami and unbelievably meaty texture.

Dan dan noodles found in the US are quite different from the original, of course, bearing a gentler sauce that’s more sweet and sour than spicy. Sometimes you might even find sesame paste blended in to add creaminess and mellow out the spices. My approach is a blend of these two styles, creating something entirely inauthentic and recognizable to absolutely no one of either culture. That is, in a word: Perfect.

Cashew butter creates a smoother, more neutral canvas to paint with dazzling Sichuan peppercorns, allowing their unique mala essence to shine through. The “holy trinity” of aromatics in Chinese food are in full force, harnessing the foundational flavors of garlic, ginger, and scallions to carry such bold, nuanced flavors with grace. Funky fermented black beans play off the earthy notes of the mushrooms, echoing back savory tones to the soy sauce and nutty toasted sesame oil all at once. It’s hard to say whether the noodles, mushrooms, or sauce itself is the star of the show, but the overall effect is worthy of a standing ovation.

Authenticity be damned. Let’s just explore, create, and make something that tastes good together.

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More Bang for Your Buckwheat

Overlooked, underappreciated, and widely misunderstood, buckwheat has faced numerous obstacles gaining traction in mainstream markets, despite its extensive history and remarkable nutritional profile. Despite the name, buckwheat isn’t actually a type of wheat at all, and is in fact a fruit seed from the same plant family as rhubarb. Most people don’t realize that there are different types of buckwheat as well, which vary greatly in quality and flavor.

Big Bold Health has unleashed possibly the most potent, ground-breaking strain as the world’s first ever certified organic, US-grown Himalayan Tartary Buckwheat.

Also referred to as HTB for short, this unique genus of buckwheat is redefining the superfood field as we know it. HTB is packed with immunity-supporting phytonutrients, magnesium, zinc, B vitamins, and prebiotic fiber. If you don’t have time or patience to cook with the flour, you can also get a concentrated dose of its key phytonutrients in supplement form. HTB is also an essential ingredient bolstering Big Bold Health‘s protein shake mix, which easily turns into sweet treats with serious benefits.

For those seeking the full buckwheat experience by cooking and baking with the finely milled flour, even greater nutritional riches await, as HTB contains two times more protein per gram than quinoa.

The biggest barrier to widespread embrace of HTB is the distinctly earthy, bitter flavors created by the rich phytonutrients themselves. Generally speaking, HTB can be substituted 1:1 for up to one third of the wheat flour in many conventional recipes. Lacking gluten, it has none of the elasticity found in other blends, producing more fragile baked goods.

It’s a delicate balancing act, best highlighted by the art of classic soba noodles. Hearty and slightly chewy, with a delicate toasted, nutty flavor, they embrace the harsher, more polarizing taste of buckwheat with grace.

Plain soba is just the start. Spiked with a splash of vinegar, the acid helps to neutralize bitterness and even bring out a faintly sweet aftertaste. Fiery chili crisp brings the heat with crackling spice, setting off sensory fireworks with every bite. Long strands of cucumber join the tangle to cool things off, intertwining bright, fresh herbs with tender edamame.

Blending Japanese noodles with Chinese condiments, it’s a fusion of my favorite summertime sides. Smashed cucumber salad, drizzled with fragrant hot chili oil is cool yet invigoratingly spicy, with a touch of mala‘s numbing tingle. Zaru soba, on the other hand, is mild and refreshing, simple and understated. Combining the two creates an addictive savory experience that seems to hydrate and revitalize right down to the soul, quenching thirst and hunger in one go.

Though the flavor of HTB is distinct, it’s easy to embrace in such a harmonious dish.

For a 10% discount off your order on BigBoldHealth.com, use the code hannahkaminsky10 at checkout.

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Hanami at Home

Nothing on earth compares to cherry blossom season in Japan. Falling like snow, the sky is filled with a flurry of petals, drifting gently to coat the ground like a blanket. Perfuming the air with their delicate, unmistakable aroma, this floral profusion touches all the senses. Anyone lucky enough to experience the full bloom even once will never forget that stunning, singular beauty; I know I won’t. It’s hard to imagine enjoying that natural phenomenon every year, like clockwork, come spring.

Old memories come flooding back at the mere mention of hanami, haunting my dreams, spilling over into my waking fantasies. In the blink of an eye, I’m 14 again, roaming the streets of Tokyo, watching as sakura trees sway in the wind, shaking loose torrents of white and pink flowers. They paint the city in pastel sheets, soft and feathery. Ladies carry parasols to shield themselves not from the sun, but from the barrage of ambient pollen.

With travel still strongly discouraged, the Land of the Rising Sun has never felt so far away. One day, I’ll return. One day… But that day is not today. Instead, I’m living inside these powerful flashbacks, creating my own hanami at home. There are no cherry blossom trees in Texas that I can find, so I’m looking elsewhere for inspiration. Naturally, the search begins, and ends, in the kitchen.

To be perfectly honest, this dish began as a wild attempt to use up extra pretzels in the pantry, and nothing more. Pretzel pasta is a pretty unorthodox concept to begin with, so it could have easily ended there. As I began rolling out the dough, however, those pangs of nostalgia gripped me out of the blue, guiding me to the sakura-shaped vegetable cutters. No mere pile of salted noodles, these dainty pink macaroni really did blossom in the bowl.

For anyone less affected by sakura fever, feel free to skip right over the coloring and shape the dough any which way you please. The darkly alkaline flavor of the pretzels is irresistible when paired with a mustard or cheese sauce, as one might enjoy with the original snacks.

This year, I’ll stick with live streams of various parks and stations around Japan, broadcasting the blossoms 24/7, while enjoying this unconventional edible tribute at home.

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