Taking a Dump for Dinner

The mere concept is ripe for ridicule. Built upon a shaky foundation of canned goods and prepared foods, dump-and-bake meals are the semi-homemade answer to the daily dilemma of someone who doesn’t want to, doesn’t like to, or doesn’t know how to cook. All you need is a can opener and a cooking device; I do understand the appeal. Quick, easy, pantry-friendly, and so much more SEO gold, convenience seems to win the war over good taste in this instance.

Of course, don’t get me started on the name. “Dumping” is simply never a positive verb. Evoking images of landfills, garbage, dropping or throwing away, I can’t get past the term. Mentally condensed, I read it out as “Trash Casserole” nine times out of ten, without thinking about it. Of course, don’t get me started on the connotations of “taking a dump.”

Snark aside, there’s a time and a place for everything. It’s a shame the idea is maligned by basic nomenclature, but you can’t blame a child for a name given at birth. Considering the dire state of my refrigerator, it’s time I get my head of out the gutter- Or toilet, as it may be.

Relying more on unprocessed dry goods than traditional alchemic creations of modern prepared foods, my take on classic stroganoff is an effortless one-pan approach to nearly instant gratification. Soy curls, some of the greatest unsung heroes of meatless proteins, take the place of more bovine inclusions. Re-hydrating right in the cooking liquid, alongside dry pasta, there’s no fussy soaking, draining, sauteing, or separate special treatment necessary.

You don’t even need to break out the knives if you plan your pantry well. Purchase pre-sliced mushrooms, jars of minced garlic ready to go, and even frozen diced onion to keep in the true spirit of dumping doctrine. Heck, go ahead and use canned>mushrooms if need be. There’s no shame in making the most of what you’ve got, and this luscious cream sauce is so rich, it can easily conceal a multitude of sins.

Soaking in all the umami seasonings built into the broth, tender noodles provide actual substance, rather than filler for this rendition. Use whole grain options for a bit of extra fiber, or gluten-free if you’re intolerant. Remain flexible, keep an open mind, and start preheating your oven.

Comfort food shouldn’t just provide solace on the plate. If I may be so bold, I’d like to propose that it should be soothing to create, too.

I get it: Dump dinners sound like culinary defeat, the last attempt at sustenance devised by a starving cook at the end of their rope. It doesn’t have to be that way. Emboldened by fresher fare, let’s all take back the notion and take a dump for dinner, together!

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Chickens Come Home to Roost

Wasn’t it hard to give up meat? Didn’t you crave your old favorite foods?

Asked about my conversion to a plant-based diet, the questions are as predictable as they are consistent. When I went vegan, despite what my culinary background might suggest, I was not the least bit interested in food. In fact, I was a terribly picky eater, shunning all green vegetables, most fruits, and yes, any sort of meat that resembled the original animal. It wasn’t hard to make the switch because I barely ate anything to begin with!

Staple foods like ramen, mac and cheese, and hotdogs were my primary sustenance, despite my mother’s valiant attempts to expand my palate. Only after making the switch did I declare that veganism would not become a limitation, and declared that I would try absolutely everything cruelty-free.

Prior to that moment, however, one dish that would bring everyone to the table was chicken paprika. Despite the difficulties posed by two fussy children and one equally discerning husband, my mom did enjoy cooking, and tried repeatedly to find something that we could all eat together, in health and happiness.

Chicken posed the least threat; bland and anonymous, it’s really the tofu of the animal world, and thus got a pass from all of us. Onions were a bit contentious, but she was very carefully cut them into large chunks, so us kids could easily sweep them aside on our plates.

It’s incredibly basic, as the most comforting dishes tend to be. In tough times, when I miss my parents, my cozy home back on the east coast, and all the tenderness they showed me as I grew into a self-sufficient little herbivore, I do crave these flavors. Swapping out the meat is effortless now, thanks to the rapidly expanding array of plant-based options in stores.

I still don’t miss the chicken one bit. All I’m missing now is the company.

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Stuff and Nonsense

Stuffing has always perplexed me. By definition, shouldn’t it be inside of something? The dictionary uses ambiguous terms, like “material used to fill,” be it cotton batting inside a teddy bear or beans inside a burrito. Please explain to me why, then, when Thanksgiving rolls around, we lose all sense of spacial relationships and present so-called stuffing as a standalone, completely exposed side dish?

Granted, I never grew up with the stuff, so my confusion stems from inexperience. My family was never much for casseroles or any sort of hotdish to begin with, which is why our festive holiday table followed suit. Separate rolls, roasted vegetables, and plenty of gravy their own distinct dishes? Of course. Combined together? On the plate, sure, but not in the oven.

Devotees might be aghast at my unstuffed childhood, but I actually consider it advantageous in my later years, as I have no frame of reference to constrain my reckless creativity. That’s why I connected the dots between stuffing and… Cheeseburgers.

Before you click away in horror, hear me out. This is no White Castle fast food abomination, but a humble celebration of Americana. You’ve got your classic aromatics and seasonings, enriched with meatless grounds for protein, and bulked up with a bit of bread. Beefy broth soaks in to bind it all together, and a quick sprinkle of cheese on top seals the deal. Now, that doesn’t sound so crazy, does it?

The end results are a little bit Thanksgiving, a little bit backyard BBQ, and 100% comfort food. It’s a dish you could serve as a side for your grand feast, or simply make as the main feature any day of the week. If you had to go and put a dab of ketchup and a pickle on top, well… Who am I to judge?

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Yo, Soy

Though still a rare delicacy outside of most Asian cultures, yuba has slowly developed a foothold here in North America thanks largely to one shining example produced right in my backyard. Hodo, better known for their contributions to Chipotle’s popular tofu sofritas and now their ready-to-eat line of seasoned savories still pushes eaters to expand their culinary boundaries. Yuba, the gossamer-thin skin that forms on top of soymilk as it’s heated is very closely related to tofu, but bears a few distinct differences. Tofu-making takes soymilk and immediately mixes it with either calcium chloride, calcium sulfate, or magnesium sulfate to curdle, whereas yuba requires no coagulant whatsoever. Fragile, quick to spoil, it’s a treat that few have an opportunity to experience fresh. Most options are sold dried, to be rehydrated on demand, which obviously loses a good deal of flavor and texture in the process.

This isn’t the first I’ve shared about Hodo nor extolled the virtues of Yuba, but it’s a delicious declaration that bears repetition. There’s no need to be redundant, however, since Hodo has begun sharing the softer side of yuba that only a privileged few have ever had access to before. In the stages just prior to coagulating into consolidated, solidified sheets, there are actually a number of stages that the soybean slurry goes through, each one uniquely delectable in its own right. I was lucky enough to experience these earliest phases right when production was just barely getting underway, photographing some of the first batches for easy reference to the uninitiated.

If you should be so as lucky to get your hands on an ingredient of such superlative quality, the best (and most difficult) thing to do is not mess it up. Little is needed to enjoy the naturally rich, luscious character of young yuba. The very earliest harvest, Kumiage, is the style I savored the most, being completely unique from anything currently on the market, or available in restaurants, for that matter. Given a pinch of black salt, you would swear you were eating the creamiest scrambled eggs on the planet, yet no shells will be broken for this plant-based luxury. My favorite approach was to simply scoop out a tender mound into a bowl, drizzle with light soy sauce, and finish with a sprinkle of sesame seeds and scallions. Nothing more, nothing less. Working in concert to bring out the nutty, umami notes of the whole bean, it’s unlike any other tofu experience to which I can compare.

Deeply savory yet just as versatile as the familiar beige bricks we’re all familiar with, I was delighted to try my hand at a sweet Philippine snack otherwise well out of reach: Taho. Made of soft soybean curds and lavished with tender tapioca pearls soaked in a sugary syrup, it’s a classic street food perfectly suited for the brutal heat of summer. Glittering in the sunlight, cherry- and mango-flavored popping boba sparkle atop this unconventional take on the concept, yet it’s truly the yuba beneath that shines.

These softer stages of soy supremacy can be purchased by the general public only online, not in stores, but it’s worth going all in for a big batch and sharing the riches with friends.

Oh, Good Larb

Waves of heat ripple across the surface of the wok, a thin layer of oil shimmering in the late afternoon sun. Power dial turned up all the way to 10, intense heat emanated from the stove, setting a controlled conflagration ablaze right within reach. With one fell swoop, our fearless culinary guide and adept chef sent verdant handfuls of tender green vegetables flying, sizzling violently against the carbon steel, instantly searing upon contact. One minute later, the meal was served; blink and you’d miss the whole show.

The beauty of larb, otherwise written as laab, lahb, larp, laap, or lahp and prepared just as many different ways, is that it comes together in a flash, even if you don’t have the same kitchen confidence as bay area food guru Philip Gelb. Under his guidance, I encountered my favorite version of this Laotian and Thai dish, lightly charred by the kiss of the wok and brilliantly perfumed with a bouquet of fresh herbs and spices. Stunningly simple in composition yet impossibly complex in flavor, every bite was a new revelation. It’s the kind of combination that can never get boring, offering a fresh experience with every mouthful, and opportunities for different variations with every passing season.

Over the years, I’ve enjoyed many riffs on this timeless theme, sometimes with a delightful discovery of tender green asparagus or the unmistakable umami of chopped mushrooms sprinkled throughout. Even in the heat of summer, that man-made inferno is short lived, smoldering on only in flavor, and tempered by the cooling foil of crisp lettuce cups for serving. It’s well worth that fleeting moment in the fire.

Tempeh Larb

By Chef Philip Gelb of Sound & Savor

2 Tablespoons Raw Brown Rice

3 Tablespoons Soy Sauce
3 Tablespoons Palm Sugar
1/4 Cup Lime Juice

8 Ounces Tempeh, Cut into 1/4-Inch Cubes
Oil for Frying

2 Tablespoons Coconut Oil
1 Stalk Fresh Lemongrass, Minced
4 Cloves Garlic, Minced
3 Teaspoons Ginger, Minced
1 – 10 Thai Chilies, Minced
1/2 Cup Green Peas, Fresh or Frozen
1/2 Medium Red Onion, Diced
1/4 Cup Fresh Thai Basil, Chopped
1/4 Cup Fresh Mint, Chopped
1/4 Cup Fresh Italian Basil, Chopped
1/4 Cup Fresh Cilantro, Chopped

Crisp Lettuce Leaves, Such as Romaine or Bibb Lettuce, to Serve

In a hot frying pan over medium-low heat, dry toast the raw rice. Shake the pan continuously for 2 minutes until the rice smells nutty. Transfer to a mortar and pestle and crush it until it’s powdery. Set aside.

Combine the soy sauce, palm sugar, and lime juice and set aside.

Deep fry the tempeh until crisp and golden brown. Set side.

Place the coconut oil in a hot wok. Add the lemongrass, garlic, ginger, and as many chilies as you like. Stir-fry for 30 seconds. Add the peas and onion and stir-fry for another minute. Add all of the fresh herbs and cook for only 10 seconds before add the soy sauce mixture. Give it just 1 more minute on the stove before turning off the heat.

Add the toasted rice powder and fried tempeh and stir everything together. Serve with lettuce leaves and let diners wrap parcels of larb with the lettuce.

Makes 2 – 3 Servings

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No More Street Meat

Right now, right at this very moment, a ponderous line is snaking its way down the sidewalks of downtown Berkeley, roiling with ravenous foodies clamoring for a taste of what some have called the best Halal food in the entire country. It doesn’t matter what time you’re reading these words; I guarantee that line still persists, waxing and waning well into the darkest hours of the night, thinning but remaining ever-present even once the doors shut for a brief reset in the morning. The hype behind New York’s famous Halal Guys is no joke. Even though their first outpost in the bay area is fully accessible in downtown San Francisco, the demand for these middle eastern platters of street meat has reached fever pitch.

Rarely have I read reviews so overstuffed with outrageous hyperbole; you’d think these writers were describing lucid dreams after one too many drinks, or perhaps something a bit stronger. From the glowing golden rice, infused with a mysterious savory flavor that no one can quite agree on, to the legendary “white sauce” described as a particular excretion from an angelic source, it’s hard to believe that any real life experience could ever live up to such bold advertising.

Though halal truly refers to the method of slaughter, deemed acceptable by Muslims to eat in good faith, the concept has come to simply indicate a sort of middle eastern cart cuisine, strong on spices, quick and easy to eat on a brief lunch break, and always there for you after a late-night binge. Such culture really only exists in NYC, but cravings know no boundaries, and so that same style of food has begun to take root on the opposite coast.

Allow me to tempt you to step out of line for a meatless rendition that needs no breathless amplification to sell itself. Leave the social media madness behind and focus on the flavor here. Tempeh soaks in all the rich, nuanced spices of a deceptively simple marinade to pack all the protein punch you could ever ask for. Load it up in a generous mound over fluffy, fragrant yellow rice, lavish it with white sauce of more reputable origin, and finish the plate with a few fresh garnishes for the complete experience.

Sure, it’s no 10-minute meal, but every single second is worth the wait for this unrivaled flavor explosion. Each piece is quite winsome in its own right, but the harmony that happens when the whole platter is united is difficult to describe in words. It’s something that must be experienced to be fully understood, just like the original inspiration.

Besides, you’ll still easily work your way through the whole process in half the time it would take to arrive at the front of that interminable line.

Halal Cart Tempeh Platter

Tempeh Shawarma:

2 Tablespoons Lemon Juice
1 Tablespoon Soy Sauce
2 Tablespoons Fresh Oregano
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Coriander
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Cumin
5 Cloves Garlic, Minced
3 Tablespoons Olive oil
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
2 (8-Ounce) Packages Tempeh, Cubed
1/2 Cup Finely Diced Yellow Onion

Yellow Rice:

1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Turmeric
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Coriander
2 Cups Vegetable Stock
1 Cup Jasmine or Basmati Rice
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper

White Sauce:

1 (5.3-Ounce) Container Plain Vegan Yogurt
2 Tablespoons Tahini
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1 Tablespoon Rice Vinegar
1/2 Teaspoon Garlic Powder
2 Tablespoons Fresh Mint, Minced
1/4 Teaspoon Salt

To Serve
:

Shredded Romaine Lettuce or Cabbage
Tomatoes, Sliced or Cut into Wedges
Pita Bread, Lightly Toasted and Cut into Wedges
Harissa

The longer you can let the tempeh marinate, the better, so begin preparing this meal at least 2 hours in advance, if not a full day. Start by whisking together the lemon juice, soy sauce, spices and herbs, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Mix well and add in the cubed tempeh and onions, tossing thoroughly to coat. This is also fantastic to prepare in a zip-top plastic bag to ensure complete coverage and an airtight seal. Place the mixture in your fridge and let rest for an hour at minimum, and 24 hours at best, before proceeding.

When you’re ready to cook the meal, get the rice started so that it’s hot and ready when you are. Place the olive oil in a medium saucepan over moderate heat, swirling it to coat the bottom. Sprinkle in the turmeric and coriander, sauteing very briefly just to toast the spices and allow their full flavors to develop. Deglaze the pan with the vegetable stock, stirring well to ensure that there are no spices sticking at the bottom, and add in the rice, salt, and the pepper. Cover, bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat to low. Simmer gently for about 20 minutes until all the liquid has been absorbed. Let rest for 5 minutes and fluff with a fork.

Meanwhile, return your attention to the marinated tempeh. Set a large skillet over medium-high heat and bring it up to temperature before dumping in the entire contents of the zip-top bag. Don’t be alarmed if it immediately begins to sizzle and smoke; that’s what you want to see! Spread out the cubed tempeh so that it’s arranged an an even layer, with full contact on the skillet. Let cook, undisturbed, for at least 5 minutes until browned on the first side. Flip and continue to cook, repeating until all sides are golden and crispy.

For the white sauce, simply whisk together all of the ingredients until smooth.

Finally, you’re ready to serve! Layer a sturdy base of fluffy golden rice on each plate, followed by a mound of hot tempeh. Drizzle generously with white sauce and garnish with any or all of the suggested accompaniments. Offer a dish of harissa paste or any other hot sauce on the side. Devour immediately!

Makes 4 – 5 Servings

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