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.

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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!

Pho-Nomenal

Robust, deeply savory broth spiked with equally bold and nuanced spices are the defining characteristics of any successful bowl of pho. Rice noodles are an essential component, soaking in those carefully honed, painstakingly crafted layers of flavor, but never the stars of the show. It all comes down to the soup itself, sometimes simmered for hours, if not days, built upon generations of family secrets.

Celebrated across Vietnam and now the world at large, that same passion for the process sometimes gets lost in translation, especially when searching for a vegan option. Pho Chay, born of Buddhist traditions that take all forms of meat off the dinner table, is all too often a sad, watered-down tease. Plain vegetable broth is not an adequate substitution for this edible art, but if you don’t know any better, how can one possibly get the delicate seasoning right?

With as many recipes as there are cooks that make it, happily, there are no hard and fast rules for building a better broth. That’s why even a blatantly “inauthentic” rendition can still soothe those soulful soup cravings.

Inspired by the uniquely aromatic blend of cinnamon, clove, ginger and cardamom found in Stash Chai Spice Black Tea, Pho Chai is both a crafty play on words and a delicious departure from the norm. The blend of strong Assam, muscatel Darjeeling, and well-balanced Nilgiri found in every sachet add surprising umami flavor along with unexpected sweet Indian spices. Energetic notes of cardamom and ginger brighten this bowl, harmonizing beautifully with the fresh spray of herbs piled on top. Perhaps the concept is dubious on paper, but unquestionably compelling on the tongue.

You’ll want to stock up on this warm, spicy tea for more than just soup. Head over to StashTea.com and use the promo code BITTERSWEET-SC to get discount off your purchase, and don’t forget to follow them on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter for both sweet and savory tea inspiration.

Continue reading “Pho-Nomenal”

Carbivore

WAIT! Before you start folding up the picnic table and packing away the lawn darts, let’s pretend like it’s still summer for just a little bit longer, please? While everyone else rushes to embrace the new pumpkin-infused season, plenty of warm, sunny days remain in the forecast yet, with much of the west coast in particular still due for a solid heatwave soon. Despite what the calendar may tell you, take a look outside before donning that heavy sweater. Let’s party like fall is but a distant concept for later days, concerning only overly cautious weathermen determined to throw shade on our fun.

My encouragement is of course entirely self-serving, but you see, it would be a shame to sit on this great pasta salad for another full year. Inspired by a trip to Baia Pasta, my neighbors in Oakland that I never knew lived next door all along, such incredible noodles need little ornamentation to shine on any table.

These small-batch artisan noodles are making a big splash nationwide thanks to an obsessive level of passion for every detail. Obvious considerations are the specific amounts of protein, moisture, type of flour, but what about the drying temperature and time? Procuring the unique shapes and the obscure dies to extrude them? Determining the types of wheat that can endure such a demanding process without breaking, dissolving, or crumbling under the pressure? That’s to say nothing of the unconventional seasonings blended into some of the more colorful pastas, giving rise to a full rainbow of bright, bold flavors.

Organic durum, whole durum, spelt, whole spelt, and whole khorasan wheat are the foundations of each charming twist, twirl, and tube. Pale, limp spaghetti strands are no where to be seen here, and you’d never miss them in the first place.

To fully celebrate such an exquisite yet uncomplicated staple, the greatest (and most challenging) task for the cook is to simply not mess with perfection. It’s already great as is- What more could one add?

In this case, my inclusions are more like additional refrains of the chorus, echoing and underscoring what already got the crowd off their feet to sing. Beautiful Organic Durum Wheat Flavored Soup Radiatori (Dynamos) are infused with beets, spinach, and tomatoes, which are exactly the same guests I invited to harmonize. Yes, that’s why it’s the BeST pasta salad, but for more than that cute pun alone. Accented with an invigorating punch of fresh basil, savory yet subtle white miso, and a light kiss of buttery avocado oil, it might very well be best dish of the season altogether, if we can sneak this last ode to summer in, right under the wire.

Smothering any of the superlative pastas from Baia with a heavy sauce seemed a crime, though I’ll readily admit, later experiments with mac and cheese were a stunning success…

But that can wait for colder days. For now, let’s revel in the fading sunlight, the last call of summer, until we reach the very bottom of the bowl.

Yield: Makes 4 – 8 Servings

BeST (Beet, Spinach, and Tomato) Pasta Salad

BeST (Beet, Spinach, and Tomato) Pasta Salad

Inspired by noodles infused with beets, spinach, and tomatoes, the same fresh ingredients join the party in this colorful mix. Yes, that’s why it’s the BeST pasta salad, but for more than that cute pun alone. Accented with an invigorating punch of fresh basil, savory yet subtle white miso, and a light kiss of buttery avocado oil, it might very well be best dish of the season.

Prep Time 5 minutes
Total Time 5 minutes

Ingredients

Instructions

  1. As you might imagine, this pasta salad comes together very quickly and easily. If you’ve gone through the trouble of prepping the ingredients as listed, you probably aren’t even reading this instruction right now. That’s okay; I wouldn’t bother either. Simply toss everything together until well blended, and either enjoy immediately, or chill for up to 4 hours. Savor a taste of summer all over again.

Nutrition Information:

Yield:

8

Serving Size:

1

Amount Per Serving: Calories: 150 Total Fat: 7g Saturated Fat: 1g Trans Fat: 0g Unsaturated Fat: 6g Cholesterol: 0mg Sodium: 312mg Carbohydrates: 19g Fiber: 2g Sugar: 7g Protein: 3g
All nutritional information presented within this site are intended for informational purposes only. I am not a certified nutritionist and any nutritional information on BitterSweetBlog.com should only be used as a general guideline. This information is provided as a courtesy and there is no guarantee that the information will be completely accurate. Even though I try to provide accurate nutritional information to the best of my ability, these figures should still be considered estimates.

Noodling Beyond Pho

Plumes of stream erupt in the dining room as waiters hurriedly scuttle oversized bowls from the kitchen to waiting eaters. Each one large enough for a small child to bathe in, filled to the brim with boiling hot broth and vermicelli noodles, each portion is like a self-contained bottomless buffet. No appetite can rise to the challenge, despite the compulsively slurpable soup, explosive with fresh chilies, redolent with bright lemongrass and fresh cilantro. You’d think this wildly popular order was something highly recognizable like pho, but you’d be wrong. Bún riêu, Vietnamese crab noodle soup, is the worst kept secret that the Western world is just catching onto.

Complicated to prepare, most recipes lay claim to over two dozen components for the soup base, let alone the additional garnishes that finish each bubbling cauldron. Given that difficulty and the expense of such luxurious ingredients, Bún riêu would typically be reserved for special occasions, but that distinction has faded with increased prosperity and accessibility. Still, if you’re hoping for a meatless facsimile when dining out, you’d be more likely to get struck by lighting on the way out to the restaurant. Few chefs see vegetarian alternatives for the distinctive texture and flavor of fresh crab… But they’ve clearly never experienced fresh yuba.

Since dreaming up this sweet-and-sour brew, I’ve come to realize how much more potential there is to play with substituting jackfruit, simmered until meltingly tender, should Hikiage Yuba remain out of reach. Standard tofu puffs, found in most Asian markets, can stand in for the more highly seasoned nuggets as well. Worst comes to worst, should all grocery stores fall short, you could simply saute some standard firm tofu until crisp on all sides and toss it into the broth. The only mistake here would be thinking that pho is the only spicy noodle soup to savor, without getting a taste of this hot rival.

Yield: Makes 4 - 6 Servings

Bún Riêu Chay (Vegetarian Vietnamese Crab Soup)

Bún Riêu Chay (Vegetarian Vietnamese Crab Soup)

Vietnamese crab noodle soup has flavors that rival the more commonly known pho, but rarely offer meatless alternatives. This one uses tender tofu in different forms to create a compulsively slurpable soup, explosive with fresh chilies, redolent with bright lemongrass and fresh cilantro.

Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 45 minutes
Total Time 1 hour

Ingredients

Soup Base:

  • 2 Tablespoons Coconut Oil
  • 2 Medium Shallots, Diced
  • 2 Cloves Garlic, Minced
  • 3.5 Ounces Fresh Oyster Mushrooms, Roughly Chopped
  • 1 (14-Ounce)Can Diced Tomatoes
  • 1/4 Cup Pineapple Juice
  • 2 Tablespoons Vegan Fish Sauce
  • 1 Tablespoon Light Soy Sauce
  • 1/2 Teaspoon Crushed Red Pepper Flakes
  • 4 Cups Low-Sodium Vegetable Stock

Toppings:

Instructions

  1. Set a large stock pot over medium heat on the stove and begin by melting the coconut oil. Once shimmering, add the shallots, garlic, and mushrooms, sauteing until aromatic and tender.
  2. When the vegetables begin to just barely take on color, introduce the tomatoes and pineapple juice, scraping the bottom of the pan to make sure nothing sticks.
  3. Simmer for about 10 minutes before adding in the vegan fish sauce, soy sauce, red pepper flakes, and vegetable stock.
  4. Cover and simmer for another 20 – 30 minutes for the flavors to mingle and meld. The soup base can be made up to 4 days in advance, when properly cooled and kept in an airtight container in the fridge.
  5. To serve, simply divide the noodles, yuba, and tofu nuggets equally between 4 – 6 bowls, depending on how hungry you and your guests are. Top with a generous portion of broth, and pass around the crispy onions, mint and/or basil, scallions, and bean sprouts at the table, allowing each person to garnish their bowlful as desired. Slurp it up immediately, while steaming hot!

Nutrition Information:

Yield:

6

Serving Size:

1

Amount Per Serving: Calories: 276 Total Fat: 10g Saturated Fat: 5g Trans Fat: 0g Unsaturated Fat: 4g Cholesterol: 3mg Sodium: 181mg Carbohydrates: 46g Fiber: 16g Sugar: 6g Protein: 11g

Don’t Chicken Out

Back in the day, creamy chicken ramen was my jam. I grew up downing bowls of the stuff when I was too picky to accept the mere suggestion of a green vegetable on my plate. Heck, I even lost my first tooth while hastily slurping down those long strands of salty noodles! Now I realize that this style has a lot in common with tori paitan ramen, which has very rich and creamy broth, usually created from long-simmered chicken bones. Lowbrow instant noodles can’t compare to the depth and delicacy of the real thing, but poultry needn’t apply to forge an authentic flavor in a fraction of the time.

Be it mental malaise or a physical flu, this is the kind of soup that will cure what ails you, or at least provide a serious serving of comfort through it all. Such simple flavors are universally appealing; it’s the ramen that could very well unite a nation. The two keys to success are high quality stock options and superlative noodles, since there’s no where to hide these key players with such few ingredients in the mix. In a perfect world, you could make your own vegetable stock and reduce it down to a concentrate to replace the 1/2 cup of water, and go through the full process of making alkaline noodles from scratch… But for a quick fix, you really can’t beat this kind of instant ramen gratification.

Vegan Paitan Ramen

3 Ounces Dry Ramen Noodles (Straight or Curly)
1/2 Cup Unsweetened Non-Dairy Milk
1/2 Cup Water
2 Teaspoons Tapioca Starch
1 Teaspoon No-Chicken Broth Powder or Paste
1 Teaspoon Soy Sauce
1/2 Tablespoon Vegan Butter
Thinly Sliced Scallions (Optional)

Begin by setting a small pot of water on the stove to boil and cook your noodles to al dente, as directed by the instructions on the package. Drain thoroughly when ready.

Meanwhile, whisk together the non-dairy milk, water, starch, instant broth, and soy sauce, beating the mixture vigorous to ensure that there are no clumps of starch remaining. Pour everything into a small saucepan and place on the stove over medium-low, stirring frequently. Cook until thickened and bubbles break with regularity on the surface; about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat, add in the vegan butter, and stir until melted and smoothly incorporated.

Toss the noodles in the sauce, transfer to a bowl, and top with scallions if desired. Slurp away without delay! This dish does not keep well nor get better with age.

Makes 1 Serving

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