Keyed Up

Meeting new people is awkward; that’s just a fact of life. Young or old, it really doesn’t get much easier to break the ice in a room full of strangers. Everyone nervously clutches paper cups of water or cola, as if they were irreplaceable heirlooms, carefully examining the contents of the room to avoid making eye contact. Sometimes it feels like just assembling any random sampling of humanity would be an impossible feat, if not for the promise of free snacks. The lure of food, no matter the type nor quality, is irresistible. That’s why an ingenuous move to incorporate that shared interest into the meet-and-greet itself, as I experienced at a recent gathering.

He sat alone in a quiet corner of the room, pushing hummus around his paper plate with a few limp sticks of celery. Pulling up an empty chair, I plopped down my similar medley of vegetables and chickpea puree, introducing myself with as much enthusiasm as I could muster. Bright smiles, elevator pitch, small talk about the weather. Check, check, check. Soon, the conversation stalls, dribbling down to long pauses and uncomfortable forced eye contact. Grasping at straws, I remembered to check his name tag…

The organizers had cleverly left a space here, prompting us to write down a recent or memorable food experience. “Zucchini muffins,” I read aloud, taking the cue from his haphazardly scribbled notation. “Tell me about these zucchini muffins of yours.”

Not your average sweet breakfast treats, it turns out that the zucchini muffins that this young man makes are savory, flecked with dill and topped by a crust of sharp, salty parmesan. Interesting, but far from innovative, what really captured my imagination was their origin. His not-so-secret recipe goes back many years to the days when he worked at the historic Baldpate Inn in Colorado, where they were actually called “zu-key-ni” muffins.

The title pays subtle homage to the massive collection of antique, unconventional keys donated by guests spanning their 100 years of operation. The tradition began after World War I, when the price of metal made it impossible to give away room keys as they once had so freely. In response, regulars began bringing new keys with every subsequent visit. Now, there are over 20,000 unique keys on display… But still only one zu-key-ni recipe.

Naturally, my head was filled with visions of summer vegetables and muffins for the remainder of the event. Instead of socializing, I was completely preoccupied by the mission of hunting down the fabled recipe, veganizing it, and sharing its story.

It didn’t take long to uncover the full rundown, just as promised, reprinted for all to see in the Taste of Home June/July 2001 issue. Still, I can’t leave well enough alone, and made a few of my own tweaks. Most notably, the zucchini factor is more than doubled here, because if you’re gonna put it in the name, it should really be the star of the show.

Soft, tender, and rich, they’re the kind of muffins that need no additional toppings or spreads to shine. Enjoy warm for maximum effect, ideally toasted to get those perfectly crisp edges, especially a day or two after baking. Some keys are made of metal, but others, of vegetable, apparently. Shared with the right person, this one unlocks hearts, rather than doors.

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Squeeze the Day

Limoncello is not any old fruit liqueur; it’s straight-up sunshine in a bottle. Liquid gold, simultaneously tart, tangy, smooth, and sweet, is so much more than the sum of its parts. Three simple, common ingredients are all you need, aside from the intangible addition of time. More patience is needed than anything else, as the infusion grows stronger, more fragrant, more colorful by the day. Though the temptation may feel irresistible at times, summon all your willpower to keep a lid on it, literally.

Intense citrus flavor allows this elixir to mix beautifully with other spirits or sparkling beverages without ever risking dilution. Traditionally enjoyed as a digestif, a simple shot can be equally restorative, waking up the senses with such a boldly fragrant, vivacious lemon essence.

Needless to say, every ingredient counts when so few make the cut. Do not skimp on lesser citrus especially, as none can match the delicate nuances and almost jammy sweetness of Meyer lemons, which come without the harsh acidity of conventional varieties. Likewise, this is the time to break out the good stuff from your secret stash at the back of the liquor cabinet. It’s impossible to end up with unpalatable Limoncello, truth be told, but it’s just as effortless to create something truly unparalleled in quality.

Though the wait time may seem daunting, don’t let that scare you off. The results are worth any delayed gratification, as no store-bought variety will ever taste as fresh.

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Great Shakes

Dessert emergencies are real. Even worse than a bad case of being hangry, they’re often very specific, exceedingly urgent cravings that cannot be assuaged by just any sort of sustenance. 9 times out of 10, I find myself desperately yearning for a milkshake. In those situations when merely “quick” fixes simply aren’t fast enough, allow me to introduce a genuinely instant answer.

No ice cream, no non-dairy milk, no waiting. Homemade milkshake mix has luscious coconut milk powder blended right in for rich, creamy satisfaction as soon as it hits water. Just add ice for a refreshingly frosty sensation. Flavors can be as wild or mild as your thirst dictates. My four favorites skew towards classic nostalgia, with contemporary superfood upgrades.

Vanilla – The warm, lightly floral essence of vanilla shines through, but with a buttery, tropical, and creamy mouthfeel from the underlying coconut.

Mint Chip – This is a pure, natural version of a classic flavor. The mint is cool and refreshing with wonderful crunchy bites from the cacao nibs. The brilliant green hue comes from the spirulina, which lends just a hint of grassiness to the flavor.

Malted Mocha – You might just want to substitute your morning cuppa Joe with this creamy caffeinated blend. It has a mellow roasted flavor with subtle oaky notes and a “biscuit-y” vibe.

Super Berry – The bright citrusy flavors of punchy acai and goji fruit lend a delicious tang to the light sweetness.

Get the details, short and sweet, on GoDairyFree.org.

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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Going Bananas This Summer

Officially, summer has arrived. It’s certainly felt that way for the past month, but at least the weather and the calendar are finally in agreement. Longer days, warmer nights, and of course, cooler eats are here at last. While some people live for the winter holidays, I’d make a strong case for classifying this fleeting moment as the best time of year.

Beautiful weather beckons, teasing me out of the house early in the day, tempting me away from work and towards play. The last thing I want is to be stuck in a hot, stuffy kitchen. I’d much rather reach for any easy treat like Voortman wafer cookies and be on my way. They make so many flavors that there’s always something to suit the season. Made with real fruit, nothing artificial, the flavors are all stunningly fresh.

The light, crisp wafers give way to soft creme filling, both crunchy and smooth, satisfying with every bite. Right now, the banana wafer cookies occupy that prime spot in my snacking routine. Evoking memories of crunchy banana candies of bygone childhood delights, the real magic happens when they’re stored in the fridge. Chilled, they suddenly taste like a fruit smoothie in stick form. That serendipitous discovery happened quite accidentally, stemming from an urge to clear overflowing counters with no shelf space remaining. Into the fridge the package of cookies went, and out came a brand new treat.

Of course, I couldn’t leave well enough alone right there. Obviously, what’s great alone could be spectacular with just a bit more finesse. No-churn banana ice cream, enlightened with a dollop of tangy dairy-free yogurt, perches temptingly on these edible sticks, every bite as satisfying and wholly refreshing as the last.

Chill out, enjoy the heat of summer, but don’t let the opportunity to indulge in more whimsical sweet pleasures melt away.

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Oceans of Inspiration

Culturally inseparable from its crunchy breaded or battered exterior, the default notion of calamari unfailingly involves deep frying. Even adventurous omnivores typically balk at the idea of eating naked squid, approximating both the look and chew of thick elastic rubber bands. That makes it delightfully easy to replicate in myraid plant-based forms; it’s hard to go too far wrong with anything crispy, still hot from a bubbling cauldron of oil, and lightly salted.

If you’re so lucky as to randomly find ready-made vegan calamari while idly shopping around Austin, TX, however, such a rare delicacy demands greater finesse for proper appreciation.

Yes, I’m that oddball who treats grocery stores like museums when traveling, with the added benefit of being able to eat the art if it resonates. Essentially seasoned rings of seitan, it would be easy enough to replicate on your own, but the novelty factor is what sold me. Stripped down and freed of breaded boundaries, the toothsome wheat spirals afforded me the opportunity (and inspiration) to consider a fresher, lighter side to this cruelty-free creation.

Gaining in popularity due to profusion of poke eateries opening up around the country, chuka ika sansai is a traditional Japanese salad made of thinly sliced squid and an assortment of tender vegetables, marinated in vinegar and ginger. Served as a side or a feature in rice bowls, the gently oceanic flavors satisfy a craving for seafood like nothing else.

Tomorrow, June 8th, is World Oceans Day. The importance that our oceans play in everyday life cannot be overstated, and yet rarely do we consider the greater implications of this fragile ecosystem. A vegan lifestyle is the best way to make a positive impact right away, everyday. With so many great alternatives, there really should be more fish in the sea, and fewer on the plate.

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