Not Your Average Joe

Of all the foods that Americans try to claim as their own, the Sloppy Joe may be one of the few that an actually trace their roots back to the good old U.S. of A. First referenced in the 1930’s and attributed to a cook only credited as “Joe,” it has humble beginnings befitting of original description of “loose meat sandwiches.” Doesn’t that just sound finger-licking good?

Many similar dishes exist abroad, owing largely to the simplicity of the concept, but few would recognize the childhood staple outside of these United States. However, the idea is still as foreign to me as tikka masala. I certainly enjoy it and appreciate its unique nuances, but can’t quite put my finger on what makes the best renditions so great. I must have been at least 20 years old before I ever assembled my own meatless melange. My mom never made it for our family meals, and I didn’t know enough to ask.

Lacking that essential reference point, it would be some bold claim to say that my illegitimate version is the best… But feels entirely fitting for this modern recipe revival.

That’s because instead of using the predictable, one-note tomato sauce base, I’ve pumped up the flavor volume with The Beet Goes On sauce from Bold Palate Foods. With a natural, subtle sweetness, deeply earthy savory notes, and bright spices, it’s a dynamite starter for any daring dining adventure. Simmered into an equally hearty and heart-healthy base of tender lentils and chopped cauliflower, there’s no contest when comparing nutritional stats.

Though you could very happily slap this thick stew on a bun and call it a dinner, I love the snappy, tangy bite of dill pickles on top. Conventional garnishes might call for a slice of day-glow orange American cheese, but I prefer to go bold, pouring No Cows on This Ranch dressing all over instead. It’s hard to beat that creamy, cooling, herbaceous contrast.

Tired of toting such big buns? Alternate serving suggestions run the gamut from spaghetti to baked potatoes, french fries, or even tacos. No need to stick to the beaten path when brighter, bolder, and smarter options are out there.

Be bold, and enjoy with reckless abandon.

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Bedtime Story Plot Twist

How do you cope when you can’t sleep at night? Do you burrow deeper under the covers and count herds of sheep? Do you reach for your phone and scroll through social media feeds until your eyes can’t focus and the words all blur? Do you get out of bed to pull out a book, or binge-watch the latest trending series?

Me? I head straight to the kitchen. I’m not looking for a midnight snack, though. The first thing I’ll grab is a bag of flour. While the world outside is dark and still, all I want to do is revel in the soothing simplicity of making bread. Watching the yeast come to life, turning a shaggy, sticky batter into smooth, elastic dough. Gently, methodically kneading the warm mixture is almost like a massage enjoyed vicariously, without any messy human interaction.

Wordlessly, thoughtlessly going through the motions, it’s more about the process than the product. It’s usually a simple sandwich loaf I’ll find rising on the counter in the morning, still bleary-eyed and barely awake. Sometimes I’ll get more ambitious and try something new, a curiosity that I can’t decipher until taking a bite later. In other cases, it’s the perfect opportunity to fulfill longstanding cravings, set aside as being too time-consuming for the average day.

Scallion buns, soft as a pillow, twisted into golden strands that dance with green onions, might just be better than a full night’s rest. The stars aligned when I pillaged the fridge to discover a bouquet of fresh herbs already past their prime. This was their big chance, and mine, to make something magical.

The results would be equally satisfying steamed or pan-fried, but in my sleepless stupor, it was easiest to turn on the oven and walk away. Don’t go too far though, because they bake quickly, meaning you can leave the shaped buns in the fridge to finish off bright and early, rather than staying up all night.

Adapted from The Foodie Takes Flight, I would implore you to watch the superlative video to see how a real pro shapes these twisted sisters. Words can only do so much for such a visual technique.

Next time sleep is elusive and the hum of the oven beckons, I know exactly what I’ll be making. Do you?

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Fresh Starts

Strapped for cash, struggling to make ends meet as the year winds down, the time had come to sacrifice some of my extraneous toys. I finally bid adieu to an old friend, and sold my juicer. The behemoth had flown with me from Connecticut to California made the drive from Oakland to Austin, surviving both treacherous journeys without so much as a scratch. Don’t get me wrong; I loved the masticating monster. It just never found a stable place in my daily routine. Peering out from the cabinet periodically, it would catch my eye as the light glinted off its stainless steel facade, only to return to the darkness untouched.

It deserved better. A machine should be used, not just stored. Helping to kick-start a neighbor’s newfound fervor for juicing, it’s a relief to see the old gal find a loving new home, as hard as it is to let go. Before that fateful day, we gave it one last whirl, squeezing the last drops of joy from our time together.

Releasing a golden wave of liquid sunshine into my glass, tropical notes of pineapple spiked with the bright acidity of fresh lemon flowed freely in this last hurrah. Naturally sweet without any sugar, the blend was tart, tangy, bright and bold. It glistened with vitality, fresh and invigorating. That would be enough for a morning wake up call, but to celebrate the occasion, a splash of sparkling white wine felt like an appropriate final touch.

As I raise this glass, to friendship and new beginnings, my heart swells with hope for the future. May 2021 be better for all of us.

Cheers!

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Blue Christmas

I’ll have a blue Christmas without you
I’ll be so blue just thinking about you
Decorations of red on a green Christmas tree
Won’t be the same dear, if you’re not here with me

And when that blue corn starts popping
That’s when those blue memories start dropping
You’ll be doin’ all right, with your Christmas of white
But I’ll have a blue, blue blue blue Christmas

That is how the song goes, right? Elvis always said it best, but he didn’t quite get in all the right words. He was a notable foodie in his day, and I know he must have been thinking about his next meal, even if the lyrics didn’t quite match.

There aren’t that many naturally blue foods out there, so I feel fairly confident that the King of Rock and Roll was talking about blue corn. Tamales, the quintessential corn-based staple of Christmas, must have been on his mind. At least, that’s the first thing I was thinking of after listening to the oldies. Crooning on for all eternity every holiday season, it just hits a bit different this year. Physically distant from friends and family this is a particularly blue celebration for many.

Embrace the blues with me and go in for seconds, too. Tender masa made with brilliant blue cornmeal, further enhanced with the intense indigo pigment from butterfly pea tea. Seasoned blue potatoes are the only suitable filling for a such brilliantly saturated dish of course. I’d be tempted to pair it with blueberry salsa, if only they were winter fruits.

It’s okay to feel the blues, and in this case, eat your feelings. Making blue tamales can provide a positive emotional outlet along with a healthy, comforting meal. Now that’s something worth celebrating.

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Plenty of Knish in the Sea

What defines a feast? Is it the number of dishes, the volume of the servings, the size of the crowd? It’s a curious term with particular significance when dinner parties are discouraged, or downsized at best. The answer lies somewhere in the annals of history, while remaining firmly rooted in this present moment.

Let me explain. Years ago, I first learned of the Feast of Seven Fishes. The origins are hazy, details are scant, but the basic idea is that Roman Catholics would eschew meat before holy days, such as Christmas, eating fish instead as a form of fasting. That’s simple enough, but why seven? Theories abound, but none hold water. Some say it represents the seven sacraments, seven cardinal virtues, the seven sins, or seven days of the week. When it comes to the celebratory meal, however, you may just as well find 10 different fish dishes on the table, or even 12. Others might take a shortcut by combining everything into one big stew. All bets are off for this helter skelter celebration. The “feast,” built upon the principles of abstinence, could be decadent or downright austere.

As you might have guessed though, my curiosity about the concept has nothing to do with seafood. The mere title started forming new, unorthodox neural connections in my food-obsessed brain. What if we replaced the fishes with… Knishes?

Now that’s something I can make sense of. Call it a Jewish hand pie, empanada, baked bao, kolache, or breakfast pastry; none are too far off the mark. Typically stuffed with mashed potatoes or toasted buckwheat, it’s humble fare with universal appeal. One knish could be a substantial snack, while two make a hearty meal. Three knishes might be somewhat extravagant, but seven? Seven would definitely constitute a feast.

Thus, I present to you a new holiday tradition: The Feast of Seven Knishes! Stemming from a single master mashed potato filling, it may be a bit time-consuming to complete, but not complicated. Traditional inclusions are typically very simple, humble ingredients, so I tried to stay true to the art with a few of the basics.

Caramelized onions make everything delicious, so they’re a fool-proof way to get this party started. My secret ingredient is a pinch of baking soda to speed the process along. Sure, they get a bit softer that way, but texture isn’t so critical when they’re wrapped up in a crisp pastry shell anyway.

Spinach is also a classic all-seasons addition, adding a verdant vegetable into the mix, even if it’s just frozen and thawed. Such is the case here to make light work of the process, though you could certainly wilt down a fresh bundle if you had some handy. Likewise, kale, collards, swiss chard, or any other dark leafy greens would be right at home here, too.

It’s hard to beat the rich umami flavor of even plain button mushrooms, but a dab of truffle oil definitely bumps it up to the next level. Just a drop will do, lending volumes of bold, earthy, savory taste to every satisfying bite. You could omit the extra flourish in a pinch, though it’s well worth the investment, even for a small bottle.

Departing now from the beaten path of knish history, tender red beets brighten the next filling with a bright, rosy hue. Kissed with the woodsy notes of liquid smoke, it’s the kind of thing I’d gladly eat straight out of the mixing bowl. Look out, plain mashed potatoes; this one might just beat you to the table next time.

Inspired by another one of my favorite potato pastries, samosa spices enliven this curry-scented knish polka dotted with toothsome green peas. Truth be told, if you merely wrapped the dough differently and tossed them in the deep fryer, they’d be identical with the Indian appetizer. Now that’s fusion fare I can get behind.

Finally, defying the odds, and perhaps common sense, I couldn’t leave you without a sweet treat to end the meal on. Yes, you can have knishes for dessert, too! Buttery brown sugar batter riddled with gooey chocolate chips evokes the nostalgic flavors of cookie dough. Mini chips ensure equal distribution of the chocolatey goodness, though you could also chop up your favorite dark chocolate bar for a variety of different sized chunks.

No matter how you define a feast, or what your personal interpretation looks like, there should always be room on that table for at least one knish. If seven varieties is too grand for this unique season, feel free to multiply just one filling that strikes your fancy by seven. There’s no shame in loading up on only your favorite flavors. That could still be considered a plentiful feast, too.

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Next-Level Latke

Scaling down holiday plans for socially distant celebrations will require a number of sacrifices, but certain things are not negotiable. If nothing else, there absolutely must be latkes. Trimming a standard recipe down to two or three servings would be simple enough, but the trouble is the amount of effort the process still demands. My parents go through great pains to make the very best latkes, which strikes me as an entirely overwhelming ordeal to go through for one solo meal.

I’m taking it easy for Hanukkah and making a single, giant latke that takes far less work than your typical potato pancake. Frozen hash browns are the real power players here, cutting prep time and reducing the number of dishes by at least a quarter. Using a liberal amount of oil to properly honor the biblical miracle, the whole mixture goes into the skillet all at once.

Practically cooking itself without any fuss, it takes only one decisive flip, searing to a darkly golden, impeccably crispy finish on both sides. Tender potatoes flecked with onion bind together in this grande galette, which might alternately be considered a torte, rosti, or a jumbo hash brown. At least for me, it strikes the pitch-perfect notes for latke nostalgia.

Slice into wedges to serve as a side, or use the whole thing as a base to pile high with all the toppings your heart desires. Beyond the main festive event, it would be great as a breakfast option, lavished with some carrot lox. You could even serve it a bit later in the month as New Year’s hors d’oeuvres, sliced into elegant, thin fingers and crowned with vegan caviar.

There is one good thing to come of these solitary celebrations… No need to share.

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