Awesome Sauce

This is not an industrial experiment in food science, jealously guarded mystery ingredients bubbling right below the surface, but there is an extraordinary story in the mix.

Hudson Green, named for the fertile Hudson Valley region, is truly a homegrown operation. Founded by chef Marie Rama and her son, Will Reiter, two Italian classics take shape from some unexpected sources. The heart and soul that goes into every bottle is every bit as important as the vegetables and herbs.

After a lifetime in the food industry, Marie draws from experience as a pastry chef, a cookbook author, and a spokesperson for national food companies, to bring the boldest, truest flavors to the table, but there’s more to it than that. After her husband nearly suffered a heart attack, the whole family was forced to reevaluate their plates. Plant-based, nutrient-rich, and flavorful, the invention of a Meatless Bolognese that could rival that of any loving Nonna’s was nothing short of a personal revelation. Recognizing the unmet need for rich flavors without compromise, all it took was a carefully calibrated formula of caramelized onions, cauliflower, mushrooms, and walnuts to satisfy the craving for comestible comfort.

From that resounding success, a vegan version of luscious Velvet Vodka sauce was a natural sequel hit. Coconut milk, rather than butter or cream, creates that silky, sumptuous texture, with a measured dose of nutritional yeast for irresistible umami taste.

With every bottle, chef Rama reasserts her commitment to making plant-based sauces without adding sugar, chemicals, or preservatives. She explains: “We use only real food, and we source the finest ingredients, regardless of price. Those deliberate choices make us a premium sauce. We don’t compare or compete with common, watery marinaras. There are plenty of those!”

You’d know from the first bite that this is no mere red sauce with a pretty label. Long-simmered tomatoes, concentrated down to their pure sweet, savory essence are just the start. Easily rivaling anything on the menu at a high-end trattoria or osteria, it’s a recipe that even your grandmother would approve of. Just twirl your fork around another undulating tangle of noodles, nod your head, and savor the moment.

Locally produced, universally beloved. You can get your fix nationwide through Amazon.com, too.

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

Greeking out with Popit!

June, here so soon? Breezy, beautiful month of June, she’s here before you know it, but gone in the blink of an eye. Inviting us back outside with a radiant warmth, now is the time get that free Vitamin D and soak in the sun. Naturally, dining alfresco is my favorite opportunity to do so, with a homemade meal at the ready whenever weather permits.

Eating outside demands a bit more preparation than cobbling together a meal on the fly at home. That’s why I’m turning to Popit! once more to plan ahead. Stocking the fridge at quiet times means I can just enjoy when I get a break in the action, or perhaps a break in the clouds on a rainy day. These accommodating containers actually make food last longer because they’re 100% airtight, so you’ll never have to worry about spoilage or food waste if sudden storms derail your excursion.

What to put in these efficient boxes, you ask? This month, it’s all Greek to me.

The love of pasta transcends all cultural boundaries and knows no seasonal limitations. As the weather warms and cravings skew lighter, this infinitely adaptable noodle is flexible enough to follow suit. Pasta salad is a summertime picnic staple, gleaming in all the colors of the rainbow with any number of fresh vegetables tumbling over twists or tubes, nestled in shells or toppling out of trumpets. The best salads have a distinct theme to unite these otherwise disparate additions, and an eye for presentation certainly doesn’t hurt.

Greek salad lends itself beautifully to a pasta-based adaptation, ripe with briny olives, gem-like cherry tomatoes, tender artichoke hearts, and crisp cucumbers. Glistening with a light coat of red wine vinaigrette, the whole melange is gently kissed by the invigorating breath of fresh herbs.

Laid out in neat rows like a fancy composed salad, it takes on an air of greater prominence, turning the everyday outing into a special occasion. Of course, feel free to toss everything together for simplicity’s sake. It will taste every bit as good, even if it gets jostled around in your bag while in transit. If closed properly, Popit! guarantees there won’t be any spills whatsoever. You could even take soup or gravy anywhere wanderlust beckons. You certainly don’t have to worry about oil stains from leaky seals, so go ahead, throw caution to the wind and take it outside!

If there’s a chill in the air, don’t despair. This meal is just as delicious heated. You don’t even need to take it out of the container. Popit! can be used in the microwave; simply remove the lid to avoid a vacuum from being formed, stir well, and dig in.

Getting hungry, or just getting tired of being stuck indoors? Grab a Greek pasta box and get out there. Lunch is ready whenever you are.

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Pearls of Wisdom

Some dishes just have no right to be so good. They’re too simple, too ordinary, too easy to yield such spectacular results. No matter how uninspired the ingredients look on paper, a jolt of bold flavor belies such humble components. It’s the kind of dish that makes you wonder what magic has conspired in the kitchen, or perhaps, some secret MSG is spiking the punch.

Such is the case for the curried couscous salad at Mendocino Farms. The creamy, golden yellow pasta pearls don’t even look vegan at a glance, but lo! Clear labels reassure eaters that it’s vegan mayonnaise carrying the torch.

Decadent to a degree that would make the average side salad blush, a large part of me wants to hate it on principle. One should never add sugar to a savory dish, and at such a lethal dose! Mayonnaise should be used sparingly at best, a breezy whisper across a slice of bread, barely detectable by the human eye. Then, to go ahead an add even more oil on top of that fatty spread sounds purely excessive, unnecessary, uncalled for, hedonistic in the worst kind of way…!

But, falling prey to the offer of a free sample, I cast all common sense to the wind, letting go of those ingrained notions of decency just long enough to get hooked. I can’t get enough, and I don’t quite know why.

Perhaps the appeal is exactly for all those reasons. It’s because it flies in the face of preconceived boundaries of health and balance, that somehow, it manages to simply WORK.

I can’t claim to understand the compelling appeal of the curried couscous salad, but I can’t deny it, either.

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Wholly Macaroni

I couldn’t shake the question out of my head. It ran loops around my brain, echoing off the walls of my skull. Surely, there were more important matters to consider, but no. All I could think about was cheese. Mac and cheese, to be precise. It suddenly struck me that many years had passed since I revisited my previous gold standard for Stove Top-Style Macaroni and Cheese, and wondered if it would still hold up to scrutiny.

Considering the great strides that dairy-free foods have made since then, the bar had been raised to lofty heights I could have never imagined back in the day, toiling over the stove with little more than memories of the blue box to light my path. Yes, indeed, it was still good stuff… But it could certainly be better.

A few tiny tweaks make a world of difference. It’s all about incorporating the subtle umami nuances and sharp bite that a good aged cheddar might impart, but nothing earth-shaking that would come as a wild departure from the norm. Just a bit more finesse, some higher-quality ingredients, and a better understanding of the alchemical changes that flavors undergo with varying temperature and time.

Toeing the line between healthy and indulgent, the new and improved sauce introduces a handful of red lentils for body and viscosity, with the side benefit of adding extra protein and fiber into the mix. At the same time, a fearless dose of vegan butter creates that inimitable velvety texture also known as kokumi, enhancing and amplifying flavors, much like salt. Nutritional yeast is essential, of course, but joining it in savory harmony is a dash of miso, lending a greater depth of umami flavor in every cheesy, creamy bite.

Yes, it’s a bit more involved than tearing open a packet of dried dairy-derived mystery powder, but there’s no going back once you taste the difference.

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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!