Supernatural Supper

Night slowly descended and glowing orange lights flickered on as the witching hour drew nearer. We donned capes and pointed hats, impractically sloped heels and brittle broom sticks, preparing to take the town by storm. It was Halloween night, better than Christmas Eve in my young mind’s eye, and it was almost time for the show to begin. Untold treasures awaited at every turn, the thrill of the hunt pushing caravans of candy-crazed children deeper into the bowels of the city, seeking a sugar high that comes but once a year. Oversized empty bags at hand, we were ready to cause mayhem.

But then the doorbell rang. It wasn’t an early batch of trick-or-treaters beating us to the chase, but the pizza man. One can’t plunder on an empty stomach, after all.

Equally important to the ritual and tradition, my family always ordered pizza before embarking on the annual Halloween candy crawl. Turns out I wasn’t alone; the busiest night of the year for pizza delivery and takeout is Halloween, beating out even Super Bowl Sunday.

Like ordering Chinese takeout on Christmas Day, I thought it was something quirky and unique to my family, but it turns out everyone else was hip to the trend all along. Of course, these old school pies were nothing special; just your average cheese and/or pepperoni options. Maybe it would have been more remarkable if there was a more thematic meal to suit the moonlit masquerade ahead.

Something with a mysterious, mischievous black crust, dark as night, perfumed with a hint of smoke enhanced by a lightly charred surface. Thin, crisp, yet structurally sound, it has no trouble bearing the weight of abundant autumnal toppings. Classic red sauce can take the night off when pumpkin steps up to the plate. Spread richly over the surface, that creamy, garlicky sauce combines the natural sweetness of everyone’s favorite orange squash with the savory flavors of nutritional yeast. Tender sweet potato slices seal the deal, contrasted with sharp red onion slivers and a touch of hot red pepper flakes for a devilish finish.

Before you send your little ghouls and goblins off to collect their sugary plunder, don’t forget to fill them up with something a bit more satiating. The witching hour will come to pass in the blink of an eye, but the memories of the time leading up to it will last a lifetime.

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How Does Your Garden Glow?

Bursting with unlimited culinary potential, the hardest part of cooking with fresh produce is to simply let it shine. Don’t over-think it! Good taste comes naturally, fresh from the garden, in colors as bold as the flavors within. That’s the premise behind Garden of Flavor, cold-pressed juices from down-to-earth folks that stubbornly believe in quality over unnecessary complexity.

That approach makes a real difference you can taste with just one sip. Certified organic, nothing comes from concentrates, there’s no added sugar, and not a hint of preservatives to be found.

Of course, keeping it simple doesn’t have to mean you’re getting a raw deal. After drinking down a bottle of the Twisted Roots blend for the umpteenth time, it struck me as the ideal base for an unconventional pasta sauce that still bears all the nostalgic comfort of simple Sunday sauce.

Believe it or not, this bolognese has neither meat nor tomatoes, yet it’s not missing a thing in terms of taste. No nightshades needed with this rich sauce, singing of highly aromatic herbs and savory seasonings. Beets and carrots build a solid foundation that can support any noodle in need, be it wheat, bean-based, zucchini, or more.

Omit the nuts for a simple marinara, puree to slather it on pizza, layer it in for lasagnas, add extra juice to soup it up, or add a splash of coconut milk for a creamier concoction.

From garden to table, naturally, it doesn’t get any better.

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Take It Easy

In a world rampant with tough choices and difficult situations, just getting a decent meal on the table shouldn’t take a herculean effort. Take it easy, and take a page from Laura Theodore‘s Vegan-Ease. This veteran cookbook author knows her way around the kitchen, boasting a solid arsenal of crowd-pleasing recipes. I’ve had the distinct pleasure of cooking from her archives on multiple occasions, and am confident there’s not a single failure nor even slight disappointment in the bunch. While so many people promise quick, easy, healthy dishes, few actually deliver like Laura can.

Already an essential resource, Vegan-Ease has been re-released in a first edition softcover just a few weeks ago. If you somehow neglected to stock your bookshelf with the original, prepare to immerse yourself in chapter after chapter of Laura’s creative, inspiring, yet completely practical culinary concepts. More than mere recipes, you get a full-featured guide for how to put a meal plan into action, along with shopping lists, nutritional information, and helpful advice every step of the way. Naturally, it’s great for new vegans or uneasy cooks, but there isn’t a soul out there who couldn’t benefit from simpler, more satisfying meals. Each recipe is ranked by “ease factor” so you know what you’re getting into before even pulling out a knife.

Though there are over 130 recipes spanning from breakfast to dinner and everything in between, I’m naturally drawn to the back of the book first, starting with dessert as my entree. Fool-proof, crowd-pleasing, and devilishly decadent, one of my favorites out of a plethora of winners is the understated and underrated Peanut Butter-Chocolate Mousse. Greater than the sum of its parts, scant, simple ingredients come together in some magical alchemy to create a sweet treat that defies expectations. Willpower be damned, each luscious spoonful seems to disappear in the blink of an eye. Effortless to prepare at a moment’s notice, the real danger is that it’s almost too easy to make. There’s no reason why you can’t always have a little bowlful of indulgence whenever the craving strikes.

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Feta Accompli

Feta, the stuff of myth and legend, has been a hot commodity since Byzantine Greece, first appearing in written record in Homer’s Odyssey. Loosely described as curdled sheep’s milk, it was the Cyclops that began what could be considered the first cottage industry business out of his cave.

Not to discount the early efforts of an innovative entrepreneur, I just can’t help but think it’s high time to stop following the herd. Over 6,000 years later, we ought to collectively crawl out from under that rock and start a new narrative for feta. No more sheep, no more strife.

Celebrating a robust 50-year heritage, Follow Your Heart may not have quite the same storied lineage, but they’re certainly out there making history. Introducing the very first dairy-free crumbled feta on the modern market, the “alternative” is one so good, it’s really impossible to justify traditional methods.

Firm, squeaky curds, briny and and slightly sour, like buttery unsweetened yogurt, they’re good enough to Greek out about. Each package contains diverse proportions of gleaming white morsels, ranging from nuggets the size of marbles to tiny specks akin to sea salt or coarsely ground pepper. This varied consistency is ideal for most applications; the smaller pieces evenly coat the vegetables, grains, or proteins in the mix, while the heftier chunks stand out for bold bites of concentrated cheesy flavor.

It’s a good thing there’s such a wide range of particle sizes, including such a fine spray that defies roving fingers, because it would otherwise be too tempting to simply eat out of hand.

This feta was born to be used in recipes, and not just salads, either. Blending Greek origins with Italian inspiration, it’s right at home in pillowy soft planks of fresh baked focaccia. Here, it gets mixed into the dough itself to infuse that distinctive umami flavor throughout, with more sprinkled directly on top for an irresistible browned surface. Nothing more is needed to dress up such a simple but bold bread, though it would be pretty incredible sliced in half and filled with your favorite sandwich fixings.

Soft, tender, and buttery slabs of flat bread would be hard enough to resist, but when each slice has morsels of compellingly salty feta embedded into every bite, no amount of willpower stands a chance. Give in and take a big bite; as your teeth sink into the crisp, caramelized crust, pushing past toasted garlic and aromatic herbs, you’ll wonder why you don’t bake bread everyday. That is, until you polish off a pan in record time, perhaps. It might be dangerous to make a regular habit. The feta is both the cherry on top, and part of the essential foundation. No other cheese will do, and certainly not one made from conventional dairy.

Follow your heart, mind, and stomach to a better feta. This will go down in history as yet another innovation that makes milk moot.

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Scoby Snacks

While the rest of the world came down with a serious case of sourdough fever, I remained immune. In San Francisco, of all places, where starter was almost literally growing on trees, nothing could convince me to try taming the wild yeast once again. Multiple attempts have proven that I’m just the neglectful sort of child that would repeatedly kill their own mother, and the last thing I needed was more heartbreak. Watching bakers boast of plump, golden loaves all across the internet, I was impressed, but remained unmoved. The only living organism I wanted to tend to was my beloved fur baby, and maybe myself, I suppose, on my better days.

Then, out of the blue, a kind neighbor offered extra kombucha scobys for free. Far less demanding dough-mestic responsibilities, all you need to do is brew a big pot of tea, plop in a disc of fungus, and forget about it for a few weeks. I could do that!

More accurately, a scoby is not a mushroom, but a “Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast,” thus the acronym. Touted for its powerful probiotic quotient, the yeast is what converts sugars into CO2 and ethanol, and the bacteria then convert the ethanol into amino acids, trace minerals and vitamins. Though the resulting flavors are quite complex, the procedure is not. The most important ingredient is time, which was the only thing I had in abundance at the beginning of quarantine. After 2 – 4 weeks, you have a refreshing brew to quench your thirst, and a brand new scoby to do it all again.

After a few batches, of course, the scobys start to stack up. It’s wise to keep backups in a scoby hotel if everything should go awry, but even with robust reserves, there’s bound to be excess eventually. There’s no such thing as a useless scoby, however! I may not kill my mothers anymore, but sometimes, I will confess to eating them.

Yes, you can eat your scobys! They look like disgusting sheets of phlegm, but trust me, their culinary value far outshines their initial appearance. (Notice I did not include a photo of my scobys. I just can’t make that look appetizing.)

Puree any amount to seamlessly weave it into your daily diet, particularly in:

  • Smoothies
  • Blended Soups (especially chilled soups, like gazpacho)
  • Fruit Leather
  • Baking (Use 1/4 cup scoby puree to replace 1 large egg)
  • Creamy Dressings or Vinaigrette (Use 1/4 cup scoby puree to replace 1/4 cup oil)
  • Dog Food or Treats

While brainstorming new ideas for using up this bounty, it’s most useful when I think about it like yogurt. Once blended, it’s thick and somewhat creamy, sour and tangy, and works well as a binder. Given its origins, I typically pair it with tea or coffee flavors by default, which is how this verdant verrine came about.

A fresh batch of green tea booch inspired this simple layered snack. Excess scoby is blended into the matcha base along with non-dairy milk for a creamy, pleasantly bitter, subtly sweet start. Set with agar like conventional Japanese kanten, a second stripe of translucent kombucha gel rests on top, almost like an adult Jello cup. Since each component is only lightly cooked, brought to the brink of a boil just to properly hydrate the agar, you’ll get the greatest benefits from all those live probiotics, and the freshest flavor from the tea.

There are some things in life you can never have to much of: love, fresh air, chocolate… And now, I’d like to add kombucha scobys to that list. Before you start cooking, don’t forget to spread the joy with your neighbors. You can cut a scoby into pieces and each fragment remains as potent as the whole for kick-starting a new brew. If you’re nearby in the area, hit me up for a scoby fix to dive into this fuzzy ferment yourself! Otherwise, it’s just as simple to start from scratch with store-bought culture. I promise, it’s much easier than sourdough, and the results are just as gratifying.

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Cutting Edge Cuisine

Let’s cut to the chase: Ceramic knives don’t get the respect, or the place of honor on the cutting board, that they deserve.

Ceramic may sound like a delicate, impractically fragile material to make strong, sturdy kitchen implements from, but it’s different from the dainty plates and coffee cups sitting in the cabinet. My top recommendation, Vos Knife, uses zirconium oxide, which is even harder than stainless steel or carbon steel. It’s more likely that your vegetables will shatter than the blade here.

Light as a feather, ceramic knives glide through fresh produce like a breeze, making them ideal for precision cuts, garnishes, and fine dices. The sharp edges, combined with such easy handling gives the user complete control. No more squished tomatoes or ragged, stringy celery. Instead, imagine slices of crisp apples so paper-thin that you could read through them. If you’re just getting started in the kitchen, they’re ideal for practicing knife skills.

Low-maintenance and long-lasting, ceramic knives retain a razor-sharp edge considerably longer than metal knives, which means they rarely need to be sharpened. As an added benefit, they’re almost impervious to stains and odors. Go ahead, chop those onions with abandon! Butcher your bloodiest red beets! It may look like a horror scene in the kitchen, but you won’t shed any tears over it.

The Vos Ceramic Knife in particular has a specially designed ergonomic grip, fitting like a glove in hands both big and small. The same can be said for all of their colorful, practical equipment. The ceramic peeler especially, as part of the 7-piece utility set, has quickly become an indispensable staple in my tool kit. Effortless zucchini ribbons, without busting out the bulky spiralizer? Sign me up!

Or, in this case, how about sweet potato fettuccine in a creamy melted onion sauce? Thin shavings of onion caramelize and seem to dissolve away into a rich cloak that fits the tender strands of spuds like a glove. This is where the chef’s knife really shines, making easy work on those onions without any tears. A sharp knife will damage fewer cells in the onion, thereby releasing less of the irritating oxalic acid into the air. Goggles, chewing gum, lighting candles, and other folk remedies can’t compare; the truth hurts, but that’s nothing to cry over.

Further expediting the caramelization process is a tiny pinch of baking soda. It’s the secret ingredient that softens, browns, and breaks down the onions in a fraction of the time.

Though simple in concept and effortless to prepare, the complex flavors could have anyone fooled. You could keep it straightforward and serve this dish as a side, or dress it up with crispy sauteed tempeh and toasted pecans for a dynamite main entree. If you just start with the right tools, half the work is already done.

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