Pepper-Upper

More than fresh produce, or lack thereof, warming spices define seasonal treats as we enter the winter months. Crystallized ginger dances in soft cookies sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, while nutmeg frosts the top of frothy eggnog glasses. Clove and allspice infuse warm pumpkin pies, but what about a flavor that will really spice things up? Sichuan peppercorns aren’t exactly a typical taste for the holidays, but considering their zest and uncanny ability to lift the spirits, they deserve a place of honor at your next fête.

Still a somewhat obscure ingredient in the US that may not feature prominently at your mainstream supermarket, both green and red peppercorns have become much more widely available in recent years. Up until 2005, they were actually banned from import into the US, so unless you had access to the black market, you were out of luck. Now, like everything else it seems, they’re easy to find online, if local specialty stores can’t keep the shelves stocked.

Green Sichuan peppercorns are simply unripe berries harvested from the same vine that produces red pepper berries. They bear the same pungency found in the other peppercorns, with hints of citrus and a more earthy aroma. True red peppercorns are left much longer to ripen and dry in the sun. Their real claim to fame, however, is less about their flavor, and more about their effect. The distinctive tingling, mouth-numbing experience is unmistakable, transcending the normal understanding of what constitutes spice. It’s not exactly hot in the conventional sense, but certainly not bland in the least.

Why not apply that unique taste to more festive treats? For something that will take the bite out of winter’s chill and reinvigorate the weary spirit, go ahead and throw a pinch of this secret ingredient into any dish, really. Use it instead of that boring old black pepper and watch your cooking come to life.

If you’d prefer a more measured integration, consider the classic candied almond. Perfect for last-minute gifts, host/ess presents, easy appetizers, or late night snacks, there’s nothing a lovely lacquered nut can’t do. Crisply toasted with caramelized brown sugar, infused with a touch of molasses sweetness, you could stop right there and have a delightful, if basic, little morsel. Add in orange zest and the punch of Sichuan peppercorns to elevate each crunchy nut to a whole new level. Soy sauce instead of pure sodium lends a savory, lightly salty hit at the end.

Bask in the culinary glow of warming spices, and consider adding Sichuan peppercorns into your permanent seasoning lineup. A little pinch goes a long way.

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Shell Shock

Everyone in my family is a fidgeter, a picker, or a combination of the two. We simply can’t sit quietly, motionlessly, and we certainly can’t keep our hands still. As if possessed, they move with minds of their own, searching and groping into empty space for something to latch on to, work through, touch and feel.

If not for knitting, I would have long ago torn my nail beds to utter ruin, all without realizing precisely what those devious hands were doing. I’ve noticed that my mom often tries to redirect that energy into more positive channels as well, typically working knots out of yarn or twisted lengths of jewelry, impossibly tangled by yours truly. My sister’s gift, however came as a complete surprise. It turns out, she’s a gifted and endlessly enthusiastic sheller.

Failing to locate shelled pistachios for a recipe in need, I resigned myself to a frustrating night of cracking open about a million half-smiling green nuts, their tiny smirks mocking me from the safety of their hard cocoons. Somehow detecting the need for help, my sister was there in an instant, popping them out left and right, until only a pile of clean, perfect pistachios remained. Stunned, I could only stare at the heaping bowl of nuts, dumbstruck. This girl hates nuts, had never willingly or knowingly eaten a nut of any variety, and yet relished this horribly monotonous duty to free them from their shells.

Of course, this discovery came years ago, when we all lived together under one roof. Now separated by hundreds of miles, I can’t help but think of this moment wistfully as a new heap of nuts sits before me, cocooned in their impenetrable cloaks.

In the times of quarantine, though, it’s not the worst way to pass the endless hours. Any project that ends with a delicious result is a worthwhile investment in time.

Most cream of [fill-in-the-blank] soups are good only as ingredients, possessing little redeeming culinary value alone, but this pale green pottage was designed specifically to fly solo. Lush toasted pistachios are blended to both flavor and enrich the silken brew, dazzling with simplicity and subtlety. Glorious spring greens enhance the color, of course, while adding a light, peppery bite. Fennel, typically a bit player, is essential for this unique concert of seasonal flavors, not to be overpowered by the standard array of aromatics.

If you don’t start with shelled pistachios, it will definitely take a minute to prepare, to which I say: All the more better. Consider it an act of productive meditation. Don’t rush the process, but embrace it instead.

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Baklava for Breakfast

This blog post is sponsored by iHerb but as always, the opinions and experiences expressed in this post are my own.

My dad is a tough one to spoil. He never asks for anything, rarely complains, and never seems to want anything beyond his means. Gracefully, graciously, he’ll accept gifts when the occasion mandates such an exchange, but he genuinely means it when he says, “you shouldn’t have.” For a man who deserves so much, he sure is impossible to shop for.

The best presents come from the heart, of course, and that’s synonymous with the kitchen, as far as I’m concerned. My dad would never turn down any of my crazy creations, no matter his preferences or appetite, but for Father’s Day, I wanted to make something he would genuinely enjoy.

Further complicating matters, grocery shopping just isn’t what it used to be. Gone are the carefree days of popping into the nearest store to pick up a few things. If it can’t be ordered online, it pretty much can’t be on the menu. Thank goodness for iHerb, supplying both the basics and more specialized superfoods and delicacies.

It’s one-stop shopping for all things vegan and beyond. Unlike other online marketplaces, iHerb clearly labels and categorizes all of their goods by dietary needs, so you can search specifically for items that are plant-based, gluten-free, soy-free, and so much more, separately or all together if needed! Considering that there are literally thousands of vegan products to choose from, that eliminates the typical search frustration of scrolling through blurry pictures of labels, giving you exactly what you need. Orders are shipped to over 150 countries straight from climate-controlled distribution centers, ensuring the quality of their products. You’ll never receive expired goods, in sharp contrast to the gamble you sometimes take when purchasing from massive, multichannel online retailers. If there are ever any concerns, you can email or chat online with a real person 24 hours a day 7 days a week, speaking 10 different languages, too!

In case you forgot about Father’s Day until the last minute, don’t panic. You can get next-day, no-contact delivery without sweating over shortages or strange substitutions. iHerb even has the accoutrements covered; buy yourself some extra time by brewing up a quick beverage to slowly sip, savoring the company of The World’s Best Dad while breakfast is cooking. For me, that means instant iced coffee using Mount Hagen for a quick fix, and Twinings Cold Brewed Peach Iced Tea for him.

Recalling lazy weekends and leisurely mornings, the ultimate breakfast treat was a plateful of fluffy waffles, lavished with enough maple syrup to make a sapling weep. Only Real, Organic, Grade A Maple Syrup would make the cut here, because that quality makes a difference you can taste. Sticky and satisfied, we’d roll away from the table ready to take on the day.

Folding those memories into an even more decadent treat, such a celebration calls for something even more special. Flaky pastry meets the resounding crunch of crisp Eden Foods Pistachios and Bergin Fruit and Nut Company Almonds in my dad’s favorite dessert, baklava, now fit for “the most important meal of the day.” Sandwiched between two slabs of puff pastry, the nutty mixture is perfumed with aromatic Simply Organic Celyon Cinnamon and enriched with  Nutiva Butter-Flavored Coconut Oil, a thousand gossamer-thin layers rising to the occasion not in the oven, but in the waffle iron.

These delicate, shatteringly crisp sheets are designed to hold onto golden, honeyed syrup, infused with floral essence of Heritage Rosewater and subtly acidic edge of True Lemon Crystals. Each pocket unleashes a river of the sweet stuff, sure to appease even the most extreme nectarous cravings.

While you could serve baklava waffles for dessert instead, why not indulge a little bit? If your dad is even half as supportive, patient, loving, and good natured as mine, surely, he deserves it.

To you and yours, from me and mine, Happy Father’s Day!

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Roll with the Punches

I received free samples of California Walnuts mentioned in this post. By posting this recipe I am entering a recipe contest sponsored by California Walnuts and am eligible to win prizes associated with the contest. I was not compensated for my time.

Bob and weave, parry and block; keep on dancing around obstacles and don’t let anything stop you. We’ve all suffered setbacks in recent weeks, to put it lightly, and even on the brightest of days, it’s easier said than done. How can one keep on going, keeping on rolling, in the face of such daunting odds?

There’s no easy answer, certainly no snappy, one-size-fits-all solution, but it all starts with you. That means nourishing your mind and body, which comes together quite nicely for me in the form of healthy, fun, and light meals. This one is literally how I roll.

California Walnuts, rich in plant-based omega-3, are a solid staple for versatile snacks both sweet and savory. Blended with umami miso and savory herbs, they turn into a stunningly creamy, unbelievably cheesy take on dairy-free ricotta. Spread lavishly across tender planks of grilled zucchini and twisted into tidy pinwheels, I’d be willing to call it the new power lunch.

Complementing the Italian-leaning seasoning, simple marinara sauce is a velvety tomato blanket to cradle these bundles, although it could just as easily be served alongside as a dip, turning each pinwheel into two-bite canapes for a crowd. One day, hopefully soon, those garden parties will blossom with friends, family, and good food once again.

Just keep on rolling, friends.

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Real Food in Real Life

Here we are, a day before the official release of Real Food, Really Fast, and it feels as though I’m already late to my own party. By some strange twist of fate or marvel of Amazon.com, copies started shipping weeks ago, way back in the depths of December amidst all the holiday madness that goes with it. My head hasn’t stopped spinning since then, and if you can believe it, we’re about to turn this steady buzz into a bold roar, all the way up to eleven.

Kicking things off with a casual sampling and signing, come meet me TOMORROW, January 16th for my first appearance at Nourish Cafe, 1030 Hyde Street in San Francisco, 11am – 1pm, where I’ll hand out tastes of the single most popular recipe among testers: The Buttered Buffalo Pecans. Crisp, nutty, spicy, and just a touch sweet, it’s no surprise that this simple snack turned into such a big hit overnight. One bite and you’ll be hooked too, but in case you’re not in the bay area, here’s a little sneak peek:

The big celebration happens on Friday, January 19th, with a menu of sweet and savory tastes straight from the book, along with an incredibly generous raffle of premium baking supplies furnished by Rodelle, a free copy of the latest issue of VegNews Magazine for every attendee, and perhaps most importantly, an evening of fun and revelry! On the menu are more of the greatest hits, including Millionaire’s Kale Salad, Thai Laab in lettuce cups, and Peppermint Bark Meltaways. Get your tickets here ASAP because space is limited, and because, well, I need to know how much food to cook. Small details, right?

I hope to see your lovely, shining faces out there soon! If you’re not nearby, don’t despair; I have many more book-related appearances on the horizon, near and far, so stay tuned for those details. Until then, keep it real[ly delicious.]

The Smiling Nut

Question: What’s a food photographer’s favorite subject?

Answer: Pistachios, because they’re always smiling!

Now you know my best/worst joke. Should I attempt to tell it again in person, I wouldn’t blame you for rolling your eyes, sighing in exasperation, or both at once. Despite that, I’m certain it will still happen sooner than later because I just can’t resist a terrible pun, especially when it relates to food. The likelihood that it might become a prime interjection into standard conversations is also high because pistachios happen to be one of my very favorite nuts, if I was forced at gunpoint to pick just one.

Granted, I’m far from a discerning connoisseur. Typical choices for these edible emeralds range from raw to toasted, in shell or out. Maybe you might get some fancy seasoning sprinkled into the mix, or keep it classic with a shower of fine salt. It’s an embarrassing admission to make in the age of hyper-awareness surrounding food sourcing and the celebration of less conventional options, but it never even occurred to me that there might be different types of pistachios out there. All nuts are not created equal, though history suggests that the pistachio originated from one general region in Asia over 9,000 years ago. Notable growers today include California, which is the sort of green emerald most US consumers are likely to pick up from the grocery store, consciously or not, as well as Iran and Turkey.

Just a single farm from any of these locations might be churning out a half dozen unique varietals, too. Rarely would the average consumer be able to pick them out by name, but the distinction between nuts is striking. Some might range from a mere centimeter to a full inch long; a whole spectrum of green hues can tint the kernels; flavors can dominate with more buttery, woodsy, grassy, or savory notes; textures might be impeccably crisp, or more tender, almost like a raw pea. Just scraping the surface on the micro-mutations of the cashew’s cousin makes me realize just how little I know about this beloved nut.

Greek pistachios had never crossed my radar prior to a press release from Hellas Farms. I wondered how different they could really be from my standard economy pick, a no-name brand from a pirate who’s name rhymes with Grader Schmoe’s. It was surprising to see the warm red blush tinting these nuts, a reminder of where the antiquated practice of dying the shells once came from. A very light kiss of salt accentuated the lightly roasted flavors embedded within, highlighting the high quality nut in a very simple, unfussy way.

The ultimate takeaway from this nutty exploration, however, is not that it’s necessary to seek out pistachios with particular pedigrees; rather, what counts more than anything else is freshness. All too often, packaged nuts sit on grocery store shelves for months, or even years, before you toss them into your cart. It makes a world of difference to have them shipped directly from the source, and especially when that producer has a real passion for their pistachios. No matter from where in the world your pistachios hail, opting for a more carefully cultivated selection will certainly give you something to smile about.