Crunch Time

“Mmm, raw broccoli, my favorite!” …said no one, ever.

Despite being well aware of this and sharing the general sentiment myself, still I set forth mowing down a crown of fresh, green, utterly uncooked broccoli with aplomb. Sometimes you’ve gotta go with your gut, and mine was telling me to embrace the grassier, fresher side of this ubiquitous staple. Something about the crunch, the more herbaceous, slightly pungent bite was calling to me.

Pairing that assertive flavor with an equally bold, punchy dressing was necessary. Hot, peppery mustard, bearing a subtle burn right in the back of the throat, kicking the sinuses like a good dose of horseradish, would do just the trick. Taming the flame with the sweet contrast of maple syrup and chewy morsels of dates brought everything back into satisfying harmony.

Fold in some crisp pieces of smoky meatless bacon, nutty toasted pepitas, and a little extra pepper for good measure, and you’ll start craving the raw cruciferous vegetable too.

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Challah at Me

Everything has meaning. Everything has a purpose.

Woven into the smooth, elastic strands of dough that compose a loaf of lovingly braided challah bread is a taste of history. Surviving centuries of strife, passed down by word of mouth like folklore, it’s more than mere sustenance, yet hardly given a second thought beyond the customary blessing, if that. Even I was surprised to learn that the term “challah” isn’t necessarily defined by the rich, eggy, soft, and sweet crumb that immediately comes to mind. Any bread that’s sanctified for Jewish observances, from high holidays to regular old week days, can be challah.

That’s only the beginning of my true challah education. Visiting the Chabad Jewish Student Center at UC Berkeley prior to Shabbat one day, I was greeted by the sight of overflowing bowls of dough, the smell of yeast and flour wafting through the windows, perfuming the whole neighborhood.

Traditionally, seven essential ingredients compose the tender crumb we all know and love: water, yeast, sugar, oil, flour, and salt. Eggs, though frequently included to represent renewal, are not actually a necessary staple. That’s right; I wandered into this enclave of busy bakers to find about a hundred pounds of “accidentally” vegan challah dough at my disposal.

As explained by den mamma Bracha Sara Leeds, all while deftly kneading and twisting strands of the soft dough into elaborate braids, each ingredient can be linked back to the tenants of Judaism itself.

Water, the single most important, omnipresent component, represents the Torah. Just as we cannot live without water, we also cannot live without this guiding scripture. Bringing life and nourishment to all, it represents generosity and kindness. Like water, we want kindness to be infinitely abundant, flowing freely through our lives.

Flour is sustenance, the foundation to build a life on, physically and emotionally through our relationships with family, friends, and the community at large. We must feed these relationships as we must feed ourselves to maintain a healthy, happy, stable existence.

Oil is included to represent anointing, or sanctifying, to signify this loaf as being special, holier than your average daily bread. Oil enriches our lives, making particular moments, or meals, a bit more special.

Sugar stands in for all the sweetness in our lives, of course, but in this case also represents faith. With faith (in the future, in ourselves) comes sweet rewards. Fear not the sugar! Though challah is certainly classified as a sweet bread, it’s always well-balanced, to be served with equal enjoyment with toppings as diverse as jam or hummus, at breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

Yeast provides leavening, of course, allowing the dough to rise, grow, and expand. Whether that means growing in terms of our character, rising up above challenges, or expanding to reach our full potential, it only takes a small push to get started. Yeast is only a tiny piece of the recipe, yet completely transforms the finished loaves.

Salt, used sparingly but in fair measure, represents discipline or criticism. As difficult as it can be to accept, it’s necessary for contrast and proper perspective. Salt can also signify purification, removing toxins from the body, and anything that is toxic in our lives or minds.

Arguably the most ingredient is one absent from any written recipe. Patience, while kneading, waiting for the dough to rise once, rise twice, and again while baking, is indispensable. Have patience for yourself; don’t rush the process to reap the greatest rewards.

It’s my pleasure to share this simple, yet deeply nuanced, meaningful approach to challah for World Bread Day. As my 13th contribution to the effort, I wouldn’t miss this event for anything. Though I wish I could break bread in person with everyone in the blogosphere, I hope that sharing this little morsel of history might provide a bit of virtual nourishment, at least.

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Pumpkin Spice and Everything Nice

One week into autumn, and I already feel like I’ve overdosed on pumpkin spice lattes. Granted, my tolerance for the intensely sweet, largely over-hyped drink is far lower than the average enthusiast, but it doesn’t help that it’s already been perking up coffee shop menus while summer was still in full swing. Is it just me, or has the #PSL craze died down a bit this time around? Fewer rants, fewer raves; love it or hate it, I fear we may have collectively reached peak pumpkin spice.

I tease about the fervor every year, but I do still enjoy a strong cuppa myself. The trouble comes when it transforms into other foods and products that should never bear the orange hue. Please, just keep it out of my lip balm, cough drops, and… pet shampoo, at least! Is that really so much to ask?

Still, the overall attraction is undeniable. It’s hard to beat the comfortingly familiar, creamy espresso eye-opener adored worldwide to begin with. Add in an extra dose of sweetness, a touch of nostalgic spice, and the health halo associated with pumpkin itself, to say nothing of the beautiful latte art possibilities, and you’ve got yourself a viral social media hit. When the hype starts to wear a bit thin, though, I have a small tweak that will revive your enthusiasm over the usual brew.

Chai spice, bearing a brighter, bolder palate emphasizing ginger, cardamom, and a pinch of black pepper, makes a strong argument for skipping the one-note cinnamon seasoning typically on standard order. While the most popular (and some would argue original) purveyor of pumpkin spice lattes doesn’t even offer a dairy free option, it’s effortless to whip up a big batch of this spicy pumpkin sauce to flavor not only coffee, but drizzle over ice cream, swirl into cheesecake, and dip into with crisp apples all season long.

Happily, you’ll have plenty to play with, as this recipe does make a big batch indeed. Halve quantities if you must, but once you take your first sweet, invigorating sip, you’ll end up just going back in the kitchen to make more later.

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General Admission

I hope this isn’t like debunking the myth of Santa Claus for ruining Christmas for some sad child, but I have bad news to break, and it’s about General Tso. Oh, no, he was a real person! It’s completely true that General Tso, otherwise known as Tso Tsung-t’ang, was a 19th-century general of the late Qing dynasty. Living on through epic tales of his prowess, crushing revolts, capturing rebels, and cultivating one of the most fearsome army forces in the world, his heroic might knew no equal. Lesser known are his efforts towards civil peace and stability through educated, prosperous citizens.

A complicated, stone-faced man, much remains unknown about the storied general, but one thing is for sure: General Tso had nothing to do with any sort of dish involving deep-fried chicken tossed in a tart-tangy-spicy-sweet brown sauce with broccoli. The eponymous leader never tasted the dish that keeps his name as part of the modern lexicon across the globe. For all we know, he didn’t even like broccoli – Because who’s really going to tell a war lord to eat his vegetables.

Sorry. The truth hurts.

Born in the good old US of A, General Tso’s chicken first appeared in the 1970, given the breath of the wok by a Taiwanese chef specializing in Hunan cuisine, no less. He was just a fan, a real history buff, I suppose, and also an excellent recipe developer. Riffs on this original formula proliferated faster than rabbits, coast to coast, introducing many American’s to their first taste of “Chinese” food.

So, my real point is this: Does knowing that an overweight bearded man won’t come slithering down the chimney at night to force coal into your stockings actually take the joy out of Christmas? Does learning that your favorite takeout might not be 100% “authentic” whatever that means, make it any less delicious?

Not a chance! Now, pass the plum sauce and wonton chips, please.

My take on General Tso’s is a departure from the typical composition. Replacing syrupy garlic sauce with a lighter, brighter soup broth spiked with vinegar and chilies, the results are richly invigorating well beyond greasy takeout. Crisp baked tofu perches at attention atop a coil of buckwheat noodles, tender and toothsome all at once.

One of two new vegan, gluten-free offerings from the JSL Foods line of Fortune Asian noodles, a package of Soba Buckwheat with Shoyu Flavor is the foundation of this unshakable recipe revamp. These new noodles can be found at Albertsons, Von’s, Lucky’s, Safeway, Carr’s, Dierbergs Markets and Cub Foods. Answering the call for their Fortune Asian Noodle Blogger Recipe Challenge, this fiery, bold, and somewhat sassy little beauty is my proud submission.

I’ve been burned out on contests lately, but I think that my General Tso, revived and injected with new life for more contemporary tastes, can take the heat. Go ahead and fight me for the title! Check out more inspiration from JSL Foods via Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.

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Minutes to Mealtime

5… 4… 3… 2… 1… EAT!

I consider myself quite capable when it comes to whipping up last-minute meals and fast whole foods, but Nava Atlas has raised the bar to the next level. Now author of twelve cookbooks, 5-Ingredient Vegan, her latest entry to the burgeoning field, is yet another smash hit poised to take off in kitchens around the nation. Believe it or not, every single edible masterpiece is composed of just five ingredients.

Skeptics may argue that such lofty words of praise are tainted with bias, seeing that I photographed about half of the dishes in this book. Rather, I would argue that such experience leaves me in a better position to more accurately assess the recipes, since I had the pleasure of both cooking and eating all of those subject, too!

A particular standout from the long list of favorites has been the understated yet spectacular Curried Greens Smashed Potatoes.

A literal flash in the pan, it takes mere minutes to wilt massive amounts of greens into manageable portions. Tossed with boldly spiced Indian simmer sauce, the exact flavor profile is highly flexible, making it effortless to switch it up and never get bored. In fact, this is a concept that knows no cultural boundaries. Reaching into a spare pantry, I’ve been delighted by the results that even a basic marinara sauce have wrought, to say nothing of the dazzling flavors infused by a simple enchilada sauce. That’s the beauty of this cookbook; each recipe is an outline to fill with any colors you see fit. Go ahead and paint the town tomato red, if that’s the hue du jour.

I don’t just mean that in a hypothetical way, of course. I want you to really experience these taste sensations in your own home! That’s why I’m GIVING AWAY a copy of 5-Ingredient Vegan to one lucky winner, right here, right now! To enter, use the form below the recipe and let me know in the comment section: What is your current go-to meal using five ingredients or less? If you don’t have one, which of the recipes in the book sound like a fast favorite to start with?

Even when your fridge is nearly vacant and time is scant, Nava Atlas is here to save the meal. Who else could possibly pull off restaurant-quality Chickpea Masala with just five ingredients, or deceptively rich Seed and Nut Butter Truffles, ready to grab and go in a matter of minutes? With decades of experience, Nava’s welcoming voice narrates each page with compelling ease, making everyday plant-based cooking accessible, effortless, and most importantly, delicious.

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Americas Made

When is a bean more than a mere legume? Arguably, all pulses, big and small, have their own stories to tell, but some would spin epic tales encompassing history, heritage, and a whole lot of heart, if only they could talk. The oldest-known domesticated beans in the Americas were found in Guitarrero Cave in Peru, and dated to around the second millennium BCE. Can you imagine what those tiny seeds might say? Though we still lack bean-to-human communication, the best translation you might find today would be through Fillo’s. Born of two brothers determined to share some of the beloved Latin American foods from their childhood with a broader audience, each savory selection speaks clearly and boldly through the convenience of modern packaging. Celebrating the unique character of each bean and their diverse origins across the continent, you might be surprised by what tiny pulses are capable of with just a bit of time, gentle seasoning, and love.

Placing equal value on authenticity and convenience without sacrificing either, each flavorful blend is fully shelf-stable and ready-to-serve, filled with fresh vegetables, olive oil, beans, water, and spices. Otherwise known as sofrito, this cooking method extracts bold flavor and nutrients. Clocking 10-16 grams of plant protein per pack means that they’re ideal, complete meals on the go. What sets this pouch apart from others is the fact that it’s actually built for ease and accessibility. Fully microwavable, there’s a top notch to tear and pour, and a second, lower notch that can turn the entire thing into its own bowl; nothing more than a spoon needed.

Celebrating the cultures responsible for so many of our favorite foods today, there are six different options to shake up the bean routine in an instant.

Cuban Black Beans dazzle with savory notes of cumin and bay leaf simmered into every tender, toothsome morsel. The taste immediately struck me as a perfect pairing with chips, like a chunky dip, straight out of the bag. Adding freshly diced bell pepper to harmonize with those stewed within, the harmonizing flavors yet contrast of textures was simply sensational. This brilliantly simple combination is clearly a party-starter waiting to happen.

Mexican Mayocoba Beans shine the spotlight on a lesser known legume, bathing the creamy, if not downright buttery beans in a waterfall of onions and garlic, accented by piquant ancho chile and epazote. Swaddled in soft corn tortillas, they turn any day of the week into a flavorful fiesta, not just Taco Tuesday.

Puerto Rican Pink Beans, spiked with achiote and a hint of cilantro, are unbelievably rich, satisfying comfort food cravings without using excessive oil or salt as a crutch. Adding a scoop of steaming hot yellow rice alongside was merely a ploy to soak up every last drop of that thick, velvety gravy.

Peruvian Lentils manage to maintain an ideal half-dome shape, not mushy nor unpleasantly crunchy, which is quite a feat for this fickle little legume. As a meal in frequent rotation now, a touch of zesty aji verde enlivens the umami medley stuffed into a ripe avocado. If I had one shred of patience come mealtime, this has the makings of the ultimate avocado toast, but I’d rather just skip straight to the good stuff. An extra slice of bread would just be unnecessary filler here.

Tex-Mex Pinto Beans invites a punchy smattering of jalapenos to the party alongside the warmth of chili powder. Though mild, they’ve got a zesty kick that plays beautifully with the earthy flesh of baked sweet potatoes. Loaded with an extra punch of fresh, fiery pepper confetti on top, it’s a cozy yet invigorating union that will keep you on your toes.

Panamanian Garbanzo Beans ranked as one of my personal top picks, though it’s hard to really rank favorites when all the options are winners. Adding just a touch of vegetable broth created a rich stew that tasted as if it had been on the stove, cooking for hours. These particular beans have a subtle tomato undertone carrying notes of verdant oregano, perfectly al dente, in a way I can only dream of when cooking from dried stock. I was so thoroughly inspired by these chickpeas that I couldn’t leave well enough alone. After downing two or three packages straight, I had to take them into the kitchen to play.

Traditionally tinted a blushing pink hue with steamed and sliced beets, Ensalada de Papas is the Panamanian answer to potato salad. Incredibly popular for special occasions and everyday meals alike, there’s no bad time to break out a bowlful of this creamy dish. Simply adding a pouch of Fillo’s garbanzo beans transforms it into potential entree material, while still remaining flexible enough to serve as a side. My version adds the crisp bite of water chestnuts for variety, but at it’s core, all you need are potatoes, beets, and beans. The key is to keep it simple to allow the ingredients to speak, like Fillo’s Americas Made does in the first place.

Fillo’s is available online and in many retail stores such as Whole Foods, Jewel Osco, and more, but I want to share the legume love with you directly. Generously provided by the folks at Fillo’s Americas Made, you have an opportunity to win a full set of beans! Get a taste of each unique bend with a variety pack including one pouch of each flavor. To enter, all you need to do is fill out the form below and tell me your own little legume story in the comment section: What is your favorite bean, and how do you like to prepare it?

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