BitterSweet

Sweet Musings with a Bitterly Sharp Wit


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The Other Wheat Meat

Living “High on the Hog” has always meant enjoying the finer things in life, originally in reference to the choicest cuts of meat found on the upper half of the animal, which almost always meant one thing: ham. For many, a holiday just isn’t a proper celebration without a lavish roast on the table to both flaunt and share their prosperity. Such deeply ingrained customs are slowly evolving right alongside the shifting landscape of food preferences, so it was only a matter of time before someone was bold enough to take this tradition to task. I can’t think of any company more qualified to do so than Tofurky.

Makers of the original alternative roast, touting veganism before it was cool, Tofurky hasn’t stopped innovating since that fateful first product launch over 30 years ago. Trussed in genuine butcher’s twine and accordingly crosshatched by the pressure, the Vegetarian Ham Roast plays along to fit the bill, albeit on a much smaller scale. This beige football is said to feed five, but presumably a full feast with additional side dishes could stretch that number if need be.

Sharing many qualities with the classic turkey substitute, this porkless roast thaws out from a frozen state to meet a toasty preheated oven for about 1 1/2 hours of cooking. The biggest difference is that this rendition has no stuffing inside, but exterior embellishment instead. Included in the box is an “Extra Special Beer Glaze;” a thick syrup featuring Hopworks Velvet ESB, with a slightly granular texture owing to the inclusion of coarse, stone ground mustard. Make no mistake, it’s very sweet, first and foremost, but ultimately a good contrast to the saltiness of the roast.

That said, I had other plans for my roast and decided against the glaze, in favor of a more nuanced, herbaceous root beer brine, playing off the complex spices from the soda and contrasting with the savory heft of the roast. Dense, chewy, and quite solid, the texture is best when sliced thinly. No one would mistake it for meat, no doubt about that, but it’s a welcome departure from the standard faux-fowl or straight soybean fare for more festive occasions. Additionally, leftovers are brilliant additions to typically porky dishes, like a simple pot of creamy white beans or split pea soup. Since ham isn’t an entree that I encountered frequently as a child, it resonates more as a flavorful, protein-packed new ingredient than a whole entree for me.

That’s why I was especially excited to play around with the extra slices to make mock chashu, a Japanese form of marinated pork belly. Fanned out atop a bowlful of hot, steaming ramen, the visual and flavorful impact was quite stunning. Even with my otherwise humble assortment of vegetables cobbled together out of the pantry, this meal became an instant, unforgettable hit thanks to that exceptional meatless inclusion.

As further recipe experimentation has proven, this new plant-based ham roast provides more than just an annual comestible experience, but a promising year-round addition to anyone’s daily menu.

Root Beer Brined Ham

1 12-Ounce Bottle (1 1/2 Cups) Sugar-Sweetened Root Beer
1/4 Cup Apple Cider Vinegar
1 Teaspoon Black Peppercorns
1 Teaspoon Brown Mustard Seeds
1/2 Teaspoon Whole Allspice Berries
1/2 Teaspoon Whole Cloves
1/2 Teaspoon Dried Thyme
1 Bay Leaf
1 Tofurky Ham Roast

Simply combine all of the ingredients in a medium-sized pan and bring to a vigorous boil. Turn off the heat, cover, and cool to room temperature. Refrigerate and let the roast marinate for at least 12 hours, but ideally 24 or even 48 if you can bare the wait.

To cook, bake the roast in a preheated 350 degree oven for 75 – 90 minutes, until golden brown on the outside and hot all the way through. Meanwhile, set the leftover brine back on the stove and simmer until reduced to a thick, syrupy sauce.

Slice thinly and serve with the root beer reduction on the side.

Makes 5 Servings

Printable Recipe

Chashu

3/4 Cup Water
1 Tablespoon Toasted Sesame Oil
1 Tablespoon Agave Nectar
1 Tablespoon Red Miso Paste
2 Tablespoons Reduced-Sodium Soy Sauce
1/4 Cup Mirin
1 Inch Fresh Ginger, Sliced
2 Cloves Garlic, Sliced
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
1 Tofurky Ham Roast

Just like the previous preparation, this procedure couldn’t be simpler. Simply combine all of the ingredients in a medium-sized pan and bring to a vigorous boil. Turn off the heat, cover, and cool to room temperature. Refrigerate and let the roast marinate for at least 8 hours.

Slice thinly and add to your favorite bowl of ramen noodles to serve. The warmth of the soup should reheat the slices without any additional cooking necessary.

Makes 8 – 10 Servings

Printable Recipe

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Where’s the Beef?

I’ve got a beef with veggie burgers, but not for their vegetable content. Red meat never held much allure for me prior to taking the vegan plunge, so I’ve always been delighted to have a patty composed of lentils, seitan, or any other plant protein instead. The trouble is that burgers are all too often the default meatless entree, shoehorned into an otherwise carnivorous menu; the throwaway dish that’s shipped in frozen and goes out barely thawed, mushy and bland all the way through. It’s pretty much the last thing I would order at a restaurant, just one step above the plain pasta and marinara sauce option.

Considering my distaste for both meat and burgers, I’m probably the last person to get whipped into a frenzy over the new breed of beef alternatives, but my culinary curiosity knows no bounds. Living by the mantra that anything vegan is worth tasting at least once, I could find no reason why not to give this fresh alternative the benefit of the doubt.

“It’s for people who love meat,” Beyond Meat founder Ethan Brown has boldly proclaimed on a number of occasions. No, I’m not the target audience, to say the least, but I can appreciate good food regardless. Besides, the end goal is not just a matter of taste, but to reach a whole new audience, which I can wholeheartedly support. As Brown explains, “We’re actually enabling customers to eat more [plant-based] meat,” instead of merely preaching to the choir.

Now available in the no-man’s land of the meat section, Beyond Burger patties are sold “raw” among the traditional ground beef products, right next to the bloody Styrofoam trays. It’s unnerving and frankly off-putting for a longtime herbivore, but the message comes across loud and clear. This is not just a melange of vegetables molded into a puck, but something designed to genuinely look, smell, and feel like raw beef. On those fronts, I would say the Beyond Burger conclusively succeeds.

Even before removing the patties from the package, the aroma of beef is striking and unmistakable. Seared brown on the outside but still unnervingly pink on the inside, it’s easily the meatiest thing I’ve eaten in over 14 years. Not quite “juicy” per say, but a satisfying fattiness is imparted by neutral coconut oil, giving it the gratifying richness of actual animal protein. Granted, the texture might be a little off, seeming a bit more fibrous than I recall, but my memories are admittedly somewhat hazy at best. Overall, the experience is one very true to the bovine-based inspiration; savory but subtle, a neutral palate for additional seasonings or toppings, and yes, very meaty.

But that’s far from the end of the story.

Competing for the same place at the table, Impossible Foods claims to take the plant-based burger one step further. Only available in a select few restaurants, it remains out of reach for most mainstream audiences at this point, especially considering the price tag it commands on the high-end eateries. Such exclusivity only adds to the appeal, creating an air of mystery for those without easy access. Though typically immune to such marketing tactics, I somehow found myself joining the line as soon as Gott’s Roadside announced that they would carry this new plant-powered patty.

Here’s the rub: It must be ordered on sourdough bread, not a bun, without cheese or sauce, and grilled on a separate surface to qualify as vegan. That would be all well and good, but their treatment of the meatless beefcake is downright abusive. Emerging from the kitchen not just well done, but truly overdone, the exterior is genuinely crunchy. Any sign of the signature pink heme has been completely driven out, which misses the entire point of this particular patty. While I didn’t mind eating it, I could have just as well been chowing down on any old school texture vegetable protein burger. Savory and meaty, yes, but lacking any distinguishing characteristics that set it apart from the pack, I was sorely disappointed by this fast food fix.

Furthermore, the actual cooking experience is an important and defining factor. Pan-frying the Beyond Burger at home meant that the aroma of the burger filled the entire house, lingering long after the meal was eaten, deepening the impact of its meat-like qualities. To be honest, this was almost too much to bear, and I wish I had the foresight to grill the burgers outside. Meat lovers should be thrilled, however, especially thanks to the greater accessibility provided by this mainstream option.

The conversation is just getting started, but at least for now, I have to call Beyond Meat the winner of this beefless debate.

Have you tried either of these burger alternatives? Do you agree, disagree, or just think the entire pursuit of plant-based beef is absurd? Where do your meatless loyalties lie? Beef up the comment section with your thoughts!


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Summertime Snow Day

“Healthy” ice cream is all the rage these days, churning up new pints that promise more protein than your average energy bar, often with an equally chalky flavor to match. Seeking to redefine the category without the hype, Snow Monkey has an ambitious goal of crafting a frozen treat that is both delicious and nutritious. Superfoods like hemp seeds and sunflower butter blend into unconventional treats, taking a wholesome and unrefined approach to the concept, unlike the icy alternatives.

Fully loaded with 20 grams of protein and 12 grams of fiber all told, eaters are encouraged to indulge in the entire pint without remorse. That would be one hefty snack, if not a full meal, as this is one genuinely satisfying and energizing scoop. I daresay the Goji Berry variety may just be the new acai bowl, brilliantly purple and every bit as refreshing, fruity, yet subtly tangy and tart. I must say, however, that the Cacao was easily the winning flavor between the two. Gentle, measured sweetness allowed the natural bitter edge of the chocolate to remain, granting it a greater depth and dimension than most purely chocolate treats are allowed. Reminiscent of chocolate sorbet, it’s light, easy to eat; a refreshing way to refuel without weighing you down.

Granted, Snow Monkey hasn’t hit on the fabled perfect food quite yet. Don’t dig in expecting a decadent ice cream experience, as this powerful formula was conceived of less as an indulgent dessert, but more as high-octane frozen fuel to suit an active lifestyle. Not quite creamy in the traditional sense, but smooth and silky, thick enough to linger momentarily on the palate, it’s a tasty reward that comes close, but may not quite fulfill every sweet tooth’s craving. The banana-forward flavor is another potential barrier to mainstream acceptance, owing much of its sweetness to the pureed fruit.

For a healthy treat, there’s no comparison; I’d dig into the freezer for a spoonful rather than another bite of a boring granola bar, any day of the week.


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Bursting with Flavor

It was a warm summer day, just like any other, when I boarded a plane in Austin with a bomb in my luggage.

No, scratch that: Dozens, if not hundreds, of tiny little bombs, all packed neatly in my carry-on bag. Rest assured that security was no slouch, pulling me aside to examine the explosive contents, but still I slid through without much incident. Before I incite mass panic here, let me clarify that these bombs were only of the edible variety, bursting with energy and flavor, rather than actual firepower.

Returning home from a food-focused convention, I still felt like I was getting away with robbery, if not a greater crime of terrorism. Enjoy Life Foods had been one of the very few vegan sponsors and at the end of the event, unloaded nearly their entire supply of uneaten samples into my hungry hands. Yes, untold numbers of the brand new ProBurst Energy Bites were now mine to savor, if only I could transport them back across state lines. Though the physical weight was considerable, there’s nothing I won’t do for good food… Even if the x-ray results looked mighty questionable, and TSA cross-examination is never a fun addition to the travel agenda.

Think of the classic Larabar composition of a blended nut-and-seed bar but considerably less chewy, chop it up into bite-sized pieces, and drench the whole thing in chocolate, and you might get a vague idea of the goodness that goes into each little nugget. Each of the four flavors straddles the thin line that separates dessert from snack, pulling in impressive nutritional numbers while handily satisfying the most demanding sweet tooth.

Adventurous flavor combinations further distinguish these treats from the wide variety of energy bars already flooding the marketplace. Mango Habanero and Cranberry Orange are slightly less conventional pairings, yet there’s not a loser between them. SunSeed Butter offers nut-free peanut butter doppelganger, and my personal favorite, Cinnamon Spice, adds a balanced warmth to the dark chocolate foundation.

Although it seemed like an absurd haul at the time, guaranteed to last a lifetime for any reasonable snacker, it was a sad day when my supply finally ran dry. Thank goodness these bites are finally available for retail purchase– Especially if it means I won’t need to secretly smuggle them back home in bulk anymore.


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NuGo On the Go

The idea of going “back to school” has taken on a new meaning. Mere months after graduating, I find myself returning to campus bright and early each morning once again, eager to learn about the latest in photo technology. Now the difference is that instead of heading into the classroom, I plunge into the stacks of rental lenses in the equipment room, trying furtively to teach myself the intricate codes to their order and maintenance. These lessons are quite possibly even more difficult than those I grappled with as an undergrad, and while the days are long, the hours seem to evaporate in an instant. It’s the most I can do keep my head above water in the flood of paperwork, let alone steal away a full 30 minutes for a lunch break. After just a few hours in this position, I came to realize how little I appreciated those assiduous lab techs in my days as a student.

Times like these call for emergency sustenance; packable and compact, shelf-stable and easy to eat, healthy but of course, above all else, delicious.

The field of energy bars certainly has exploded over the past decade, expanding into a dizzying array of flavors, macro-nutrient combinations, and special dietary considerations. A blessing and a curse to those in need of quick snacks on the go, it’s difficult to discern when you’re actually picking up a cookie bar or sidewalk chalk dressed up in a shiny Mylar wrapper.

NuGo is a brand that’s been on the scene for ages, diversifying its offerings along different lines to accommodate shifting eater demographics. While their more old-school products contain milk and some admittedly questionable ingredients, their vegan NuGo Slim bars are more than enough to sustain the discerning herbivore. The company was kind enough to share a taste of their new Chocolate Mint and Toasted Coconut bars with me, and both were fine fodder for these busy days on the job.

Dressed in a cloak of dark chocolate, each one gives off the impression of a candy bar, but at half the sweetness, bear no threat of inducing a sugar coma. Although slightly dry, the texture is soft, with an easy bite that is not difficult to swallow- No pun intended. Imagine a very firm cookie dough binding together crispy rice cereal, and you’d come pretty close to the heart of these chocolate-covered protein bombs.

For those in need of a midday wake-up call, the mint option is the one for you. Sharp like spearmint rather than the more standard peppermint, it’s not messing around, leading with a fresh, bright punch of mint right from the first bite. Coconut, on the other hand, takes somewhat of a backseat to the chocolate, but still sings loud and clear with a comfortingly nutty resonance.

Though I can’t say either has instantly risen through the ranks to reach a new personal favorite, both are a boon to busy, hungry eaters of all stripes, with very impressive nutritional stats to boot. I’m certainly happy to have them on standby in my camera bag, ready in a flash when it’s time to go back to school all over again.


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On a Roll

Tender. Gooey. Buttery. Decadent.

The very best cinnamon rolls are defined by these words. They should be rich, no-holds-barred indulgences, dripping with liquefied cinnamon sugar and redolent of the eponymous spice. One bite should be enough to sustain an athlete for a day, and yet that seductive sweetness makes it impossible to leave a single crumb, no matter the size of the bun. The inevitable sugar rush and crash that follows is always worth the pain, but does it truly have to be that way? After one such an experience, head reeling and fingers still sticky, I couldn’t help but seek out a better option.

Clearly, I’m not the only one looking for that sweet satisfaction without such a deleterious impact. Pro(Zero), makers of my current favorite protein powders, have just unleashed a new Cinnamon Roll flavor, proving that you really can have your cake and eat it, too- Or, cinnamon roll, as it were. Naturally, I still had to take it one step further and craft a true baked rendition to bring the cinnamon-spiced concept full circle.

I’m not usually one to toot my own horn, but it needs to be said: These exceeded my wildest sugar-encrusted dreams. Soft, supple, and impossibly rich, these treats can roll with the big boys. They’re not sad imposters of the real that would necessitate a warning label of being “healthier” alternatives, but wholly gratifying desserts in their own rights. In sum: Toot!

Why reach for another dry, shrink-wrapped protein bar when you can have a luscious cinnamon roll instead? As far as I’m concerned, baked goods are the new health foods now.

Protein Cinnamon Rolls

Protein Dough:

1 Cup Plain Non-Dairy Milk
1 Packet (2 1/4 Teaspoons) Active Dry Yeast
3 Tablespoons Olive Oil
2 Tablespoons Light Agave Nectar
3 – 3 1/2 Cups White Whole Wheat Flour
1/2 Cup Pro(Zero) Cinnamon Roll Protein Powder
3/4 Teaspoon Salt

Cinnamon Filling:

1 Tablespoon Coconut Oil, Melted
1/3 Cup Coconut Sugar or Dark Brown Sugar, Firmly Packed
2 Teaspoons Ground Cinnamon

Cream Cheese Protein Icing:

1/4 Cup Vegan Cream Cheese
1/4 Cup Pro(Zero) Cinnamon Bun Protein Powder
2 Tablespoons Light Agave Nectar
1 – 3 Tablespoons Water

Heat your non-dairy milk in a microwave safe bowl for just a minute to warm, but do not bring it to a boil. Stir in the yeast and let is sit for about 5 minutes until frothy and active. Once re-awakened, pour the yeast mixture into your stand mixer, along with the olive oil and agave. Mix to combine.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the first 3 cups of flour, protein powder, and salt. Make sure that all the dry goods are thoroughly distributed before adding them into the liquid mixture. Beginning at the lowest speed, use the dough hook to slowly combine. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed to keep everything incorporated, until the dough forms a cohesive ball. If it still seems excessively wet, add up to 1/2 cup of flour. Bear in mind that the protein powder will continue to absorb liquid, so give it some time to fully hydrate.

Let the mixer continue to knead the dough for about 10 minutes, until smooth and elastic. You could also knead it by hand; just take 15 – 20 minutes to do so instead. Place the dough into a lightly greased bowl, cover with plastic, and let rest in a warm area for about 1 1/2 hours, until doubled in size.

Punch down the dough and turn it out onto a well-floured surface. Roll it out into a rectangle of about 14 x 18 inches. Brush evenly with the melted coconut oil. Combine the sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl before sprinkling the mixture over the entire surface. Starting from one of the shorter ends, roll the rectangle up as tightly as possible, pinching the seam shut when you reach the other end.

Use a very sharp knife to cut the roll into approximately 1 1/2-inch pieces. You can either bake them individually in lightly greased muffin tins or together in two 8-inch round cake pans. If baking them in groups, try spacing them as evenly as possible. You can begin preheating your oven to 350 degrees at this point, and allow the rolls to rise for 45 – 60 minutes before baking.

Bake for 25 – 35 minutes, until golden brown all over. Let cool completely before icing.

To make the icing, simply mix all of the ingredients together, stirring until completely smooth, adding more or less water depending on how thick you want the mixture. Less will give you something closer to a pipeable frosting, while more will create a thinner type of glaze. Bear in mind that the mixture will continue to thicken as it sits.

Makes About 12 Cinnamon Rolls

Printable Recipe

This post was is sponsored by HPN Supplements, but all content and opinions are entirely my own.


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A Cheesecake for the Ages

Now synonymous with New York, the Americanized cheesecake as we know it has only been around for about a century, beginning life a mere shadow of the dense and rich dessert it became. In fact, cheesecake originated sometime around 1500 BCE, from the hands of inventive ancient Greeks and Romans, frequently used as offerings to the gods. This rendition merely combined soft cheese with flour and baked it into submission; pastry bases only emerged sometime in the first century, with sweeteners joining into the mix shortly thereafter. From that point forward, there was no stopping it. Today it might look like the explosion of cupcakes or other trendy food crazes, but of course, without the aid of social media, the cheesecake’s popularity spread at a glacial pace. Eventually reaching the hands of more creative bakers, various cultures developed their own unique approaches, utilizing various cheeses, flours, spices, and eventually, fruits and chocolates. We’ve come a long way, baby.

I’d like to think that the evolution of the cheesecake isn’t yet over. There’s still so much left to explore through the medium of tangy cream cheese perched atop a cookie-like base. In fact, going by that very loose description, why does it need to be a full-fledged cake at all? Can’t we bring it back from the edge of decadence and debauchery, back a bit closer to it’s more humble, less saccharine beginnings? I’m not suggesting we whip up a batch of salty cheese nuggets, but just consider a cheesecake fit for everyday eating, perhaps with a few nutritional benefits to speak of.

I bristle at the overused turn of phrase, but it really is true; you can finally have your cheesecake and eat it, too! Re-imagined for the 21st century, the illustrious dessert has been stripped of all its highfalutin’ frippery and restored back to its original brilliance, suitable for the commoner and the gods alike. Simple squares replace the traditional wedge, making a knife and fork unnecessary for enjoyment. What’s not so plain to see is that underneath the hood, these luscious bars conceal a considerable dose of plant-based protein, furnished by the new Pro(Zero) Natural Strawberry Jam Protein Powder. Simultaneously bolstering the structure of this snack and contributing volumes of fresh, fruity flavor, the powder’s inherent sweetness considerably reduces the need for added sugar. Remarkably flavorful, Pro(Zero) really nailed the flavor of ripe strawberries simmered down into a rich spread, condensed into a satisfying, wholesome package.

Oh, and most importantly of all, did I mention that the finished treats taste amazing? Sure, these brilliant little squares may be a far cry from what the ancient Greeks and Romans had in mind when they first invented the concept, but let’s be honest; they couldn’t even dream up a treat this heavenly, even if it was the food of the gods.

Strawberry Protein Cheesecake Bars

Oatmeal Cookie Crust:

3 Tablespoons Olive Oil
2 Tablespoons Water
1/4 Cup Coconut or Dark Brown Sugar, Firmly Packed
3/4 Cups Quick-Cooking Oats
1/2 Cup White Whole Wheat or All-Purpose Flour
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Ginger
1/4 Teaspoon Salt

Protein-Packed Strawberry Cheesecake Filling:

1 1 12-Ounce Package Extra-Firm Silken Tofu
1 (8-Ounce) Container Vegan Cream Cheese
1/2 Cup Pro(Zero) Natural Strawberry Jam Protein Powder
1/3 Cup + 1/4 Cup Strawberry Jam or Preserves, Divided
2 Tablespoons Lemon Juice
1 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and line an 8×8-inch square baking dish with aluminum foil. Lightly grease and set aside.

Whisk together the olive oil, water, and sugar in a medium-sized bowl before adding in the remaining dry ingredients for the crust. Stir well to combine and form a cohesive but slightly crumbly dough. Transfer the mixture into your prepared pans; using lightly moistened hands, press it into the bottom of your pan so that it’s in one even layer. Bake 15 – 18 minutes until lightly browned and let cool.

Meanwhile, prepare the filling by first draining the tofu of any excess water before tossing it into your food processor or blender. Puree thoroughly until completely smooth. Add in the “cream cheese” and pulse to incorporate. Scrape down the sides and blend again, ensuring that no lumps remain before adding the protein powder, 1/3 cup of the strawberry jam, lemon juice, and vanilla. Blend thoroughly until completely smooth and creamy.

Pour the cheesecake filling on top of the par-baked crust, and smooth out the top with your spatula. Tap it gently on the counter a few times to knock out any air bubbles. Take the remaining 1/4 cup of strawberry jam and spoon dollops all over the surface. Use a flat knife or spatula to gently marble and swirl the jam throughout, being careful not to disturb the crust underneath.

Bake for 40 – 45 minutes, until the edges appear set but the center remains ever so slightly wobbly when tapped. It will continue to firm up as it cools.

Let cool completely before moving it into the refrigerator, where it will continue to solidify until it can finally be sliced into bars, after a minimum of 4 hours.

Makes 12 – 16 Bars

Printable Recipe

This post was is sponsored by HPN Supplements, but all content and opinions are entirely my own.