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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Ten Out of Ten for Kanten

Instant noodles, sustenance and comfort to eaters of all ages and walks of life across the globe, will always have a place in my heart, not to mention my pantry. There’s more on those shelves than just cheap wheat bricks, though. Innovative, imaginative new takes on the old standby have flourished in ways that Momofuku Ando could have never dreamed back in 1958 when he invented the first entry to the now vast field.

In a world where cauliflower can be rice and sweet potatoes can be toast, why can’t seaweed be noodles? That’s the idea behind OhSo Tasty, pairing flavorful soup bases with quick-cooking kanten.

The term “kanten” is generally interchangeable with agar; the biggest differences are usually regarding the degree of processing. Long story short, it’s a dried, edible seaweed, typically found in Japanese cuisine, especially as a thickening or gelling agent. More than just a gelatin substitute when powdered, the less refined kanten threads can be cooked and eaten like noodles, which is exactly what OhSo Tasty has done. This format is composed of approximately 80% fiber, and has no taste nor odor like the fishier competition, shirataki. Plus, unlike animal-based gelatin, it won’t melt at higher temperatures, so there’s no risk of accidental overcooking.

Sealed in compact cups reminiscent of conventional ramen, these powerhouse packages are a far cry from those gut-busting sodium bombs. Truly instant, you’re just one minute from mealtime after opening the lid. The “new-dles” quickly soften in hot water, becoming tender and springy while retaining a satisfying bite.

As a miso maniac, the Miso Delicious Soup is the flavor that first drew me in. Absolutely packed with goodies, there isn’t a single watery spoonful to be had here. Tons of wakame, scallions, and tofu cubes make a splash in this comforting brew, alongside the headlining kanten noodles. It’s richly flavorful with a wallop of umami, thanks to the crafty addition of shiitake mushroom powder. This enhances the dashi broth much like bonito flakes would in traditional preparations, without resorting to such fishy ingredients. The overall effect is a taste of restaurant-quality miso, without the takeout price tag.

Sizzlin’ Sesame Soup doesn’t mince words, living up to the title with a definite spicy kick! It’s a nice gentle burn that builds with every subsequent sip, rounded out nicely by the warm, nutty broth. A stunning array of vegetables, sweet corn, diced carrots, and verdant spinach, swim freely between the kanten strands.

OhSo Tasty is available in six different flavors all told, five of which are vegan: Flamin’ Tomato Soup, Miso Delicious Soup, Sizzlin’ Sesame Soup, Soy Satisfying, and VaVa Veggie Soup. Available online for nationwide shipping, there’s never been a better time, or way, to stock your pantry with oodles of healthy noodles.

This review was made possible as a collaboration with OhSo Tasty. My opinions can not be bought and all content is original. This page may contain affiliate links; thank you for supporting my blog!

Udon of a New Day

Instant noodles are the staff of life. Globally, they sustain wild swaths of the population, satisfying picky children to discerning adults, proving a quick fix for the hapless homemaker and the harried office worker alike, fitting the bill for both impoverished college students and affluent entrepreneurs. Curly bricks of ramen, dried, fried noodles, make the world go round.

There’s so much more to slurp, though, with considerably fresher appeal. Udon, thick as double-braided nylon rope, make ramen look like limp spaghetti by contrast. Dense, chewy, substantial wheat noodles, it’s hard to improve upon the classic soup base.

That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, of course.

With just a bit of quick knife work, cut cubes plunge into bubbling hot oil rather than plain water to meet a crispier fate. Compulsively munchable, savory, and salty, these noodles are more than a last-minute dinnertime staple. Serve them with drinks for a new happy hour hit, pack them up for snacking on the go, or toss them into green salad as upgraded seasoned croutons.

Up until recently the best varieties could only be found frozen, flown in from Japan. Now the edible art form is available in the refrigerated aisle, made right here in the US by Fortune Noodles. Offered with a mushroom seasoning specifically and boldly labeled as VEGAN right across the front, they come out with the perfect texture and balanced yet bold umami broth every time.

Check out more inspiration from JSL Foods via Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. Plus, if you join the Noodle Club, you’ll be rewarded with a high-value freebie coupon right away at Stater Bros, Safeway, Von’s, Aldi, Lucky’s, SaveMart, Food Maxx, Food 4 Less, or Raley’s.

There will always be a place in my heart, and my pantry for instant ramen, but no one noodle can do it all. Fresh udon makes greater snacking opportunities possible.

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Mac Off!

Remember that time I judged the Texas Mac Off? What do you mean, I never blogged about it? Well, pull up a chair and have a seat, because I have quite a cheesy tale to tell.

Slung low in the sky, the midday sun fought to burn through the haze and humidity typical of a Texan summer. Undaunted, a dozen brave souls set hot plates and chafing dish heaters ablaze, igniting molten vats of gooey orange sauce, thick with ambition. The stakes were high, with competitors vying for cheese-covered fame, glory, but most importantly, the golden noodle trophy.

Over 300 hungry souls came to get their mac on, to taste and test oodles of noodles. Gluten-free, vegetable-based, whole wheat, and classic white pastas all vied for the title, each one smothered in equally diverse mixtures of spicy, savory, crunchy, gooey toppings. For the casual bystander, this was merely a celebration of the classic childhood treat, but for me, Jessica Morris, and Rolando Garza, my fellow judges, this was serious business.

Personal preferences aside, just how do you evaluate the proper degree of sauciness? Just what constitutes the perfect cheesy flavor? How important is it to stick with the classic preparation, or should more points be assigned to innovations that depart from the expected orange essentials?

By the time the 12th, and then 13th rich, creamy cup was delivered, my head was spinning. Yes, they’re all good, but which ones are great? Which single entry was the best? Coming to an agreeable consensus just among the three of us was fraught with disagreement, dissenting opinions strongly argued as we huddled over cheese-smeared papers smudged with undecipherable ink stains. Luckily, it was a close call at the top, and any of the dominant macs would have been fully welcomed on my dinner plate again.

Innovation won out over classic comfort in the end. First place went to Megan Gross with her blazing Buffalo Cauliflower Mac N Cheeze. Just one point separated this spicy blend from my person favorite, which ultimately came in second; the previous year’s winner, as it turned out, Megan Bee with her Classic Mac and cheeze with a cheezy crumb topping.

It was simply the platonic ideal of the art form in my eyes. Tender yet toothsome pasta tubes, generously sauced without becoming soupy, decadent, slightly salty, savory, and oh so cheesy. Crunchy cheese-infused breadcrumbs sealed the dish in a toasty, slightly nutty blanket, perfectly balancing out textures and flavors. If it hadn’t been pushing 100 degrees in the sun, I could have eaten that whole chafing pan of noodle goodness myself.

Easily the most creative, avant-garde edible was actually a dish not entered for consideration. Mac and cheese ice cream scooped out by Austin’s favorite vegan parlor, Sweet Ritual, blew out all the stops for what one might expect from the average mac. Mercifully sweet rather than full-on savory, this inspired frozen creation laced umami notes through nutritional yeast-spiked breadcrumbs, mingling amidst a smooth base glowing with a heavy turmeric glow. Fearless foodies clamored for a spoonful, curious, shocked, and ultimately delighted.

As with any good, spirited competition, there were clearly no losers in this crowd. Everyone went home in a fully contented, if slightly sweaty state of cheesed-out bliss. Think vegans can’t get their mac on? You should really go to the next Texas Mac Off and taste for yourself.

Noodles for All

Between the hundreds of healthy eating regimes, food intolerance and allergies, and moral dietary restriction, to say nothing of basic taste preferences, the number of landmines one might hit just trying to get the whole family to the table can make everyday meal planning a war zone. When it comes down to it, though, there are just two types of eaters out there: Noodle lovers and noodle lusters. There really is a place where everyone can eat in peace, allowing everyone to fully embrace their cravings, healthy or more hedonistic. Taking great pains to become more inclusive than ever, Noodles & Company has launched a new initiative to offer dishes with flavors and options for every diet, preference, pickiness, and lifestyle.

Figuring out just what is or isn’t vegan is a top concern, especially when some dishes might be just one easy modification away from perfection. Penne rosa sounds inextricably bound by dairy, but believe it or not, can easily come without cream or cheese for a satisfying Italian feast. I wouldn’t have even thought to ask had it not been for the handy new personalized nutrition calculator which lists not only potential allergens, calories, and ingredients, but suggests swaps to better suit your specific needs. Unlike the harsh rules imposed by some unwelcoming, militant chefs, customization is genuinely encouraged here!

Best of all, the encouragement to tailor your meal to taste allows for infinite creativity. Everything is made fresh, to order, so it’s not a problem to mix and match, add and subtract to your heart’s content.

Need something without gluten? Try the pipette, which bear such a satisfying, al-dente bite that I had trouble believing they were made of rice and corn, rather than traditional wheat.

Want something a bit lighter? Go for the zoodles (ie, zucchini noodles), which pair brilliantly with the spicy peanut sauce, if I do say so myself.

Craving all the veggies? Load ’em up, adding a rainbow of produce to the already verdant whole wheat spaghetti fresca, sans cheese.

Need a bigger protein punch? Try the spicy Korean noodles with tofu instead of beef, and avail yourself heartily to extra sriracha on the condiment bar.

I’ve passed by Noodles & Company many times before without giving it a second thought, which strikes me as a terrible oversight now. These aren’t your average bowlfuls of bland, mushy food court pastas. The Japanese pan noodles are the OG plant-based option, standing the test of time as part of the menu since day one. Had I just ventured in and tried those chewy, beautifully charred strands of udon, twisting around tangles of broccoli florets and shredded carrots years ago, this superlative experience would have come as no surprise. It’s a good thing the Noodles & Company empire is continuing to expand, with many more locations in the works.

Whether your food preferences are dictated by a strict diet or a picky palate, there’s a place for everyone at this table.

This review was made possible as a collaboration with Noodles & Company. My opinions can not be bought and all content is original. This page may contain affiliate links; thank you for supporting my blog!