New School

For young scholars across the globe, going back to school undoubtedly looks a bit different this year. Having a sharp new haircut, the freshest pair of shoes, or the coolest backpack on the block may not mean as much when classes take place just a few feet from where you woke up. Packed lunches aren’t going anywhere outside the home when lessons take place over Zoom, within arm’s reach of the fridge. However, that doesn’t negate the importance of meal planning! In fact, even greater emphasis should be placed on advanced prep, when easily accessible snacks beckon at all times.

Even under stay-at-home orders or quarantine conditions, the show must go on. Weekdays are still busy as ever, and the last thing you want to do is waste precious time wondering what to eat. Don’t stress yourself out by try to cobble together a passable meal out of cold leftovers while the clock is ticking. Prep ahead, divide, and conquer your day.

From this point forward, barley will be your new best friend. Unlike plain white rice, pearl barley is an excellent source of fiber and protein, to keep you full and energized longer. Plus, it’s toothsome, chewy texture holds up to reheat much better than more fragile starchy grains, which makes it the perfect base for advance prep.

Traditional risotto is finicky, demanding constant attention while cooking and immediate service the minute it’s done. Let it cool, and the whole pot of silky, al dente rice will turn into a gooey, over-cooked mess. Perish the though of saving leftovers, unless you plan to deep fry them the next day.

Barley risotto, or barlotto as I like to call it, offers an endlessly adaptable foundation to build any seasonal meal around. Mix and match based on what’s in the fridge, what’s in the market, or what’s on your mind. My default approach is to riff off classic barley soup, complete with some hearty meatless beef and bold aromatics. I would argue that mushrooms are essential for their meaty texture and umami essence, but there are no hard and fast rules here. Let’s save those for the school teachers, shall we?

Designed to stay creamy yet toothsome over the coarse of subsequent re-heating opportunities, there’s no reason to get locked into the same eating experience, meal after meal. Get younger kids (or the young at heart) on board by transforming the leftovers into finger food! Think of hearty, baked arancini, and you wouldn’t be too far off. Anything you can pick up and dip has an added fun factor, making it a painless way to explore new whole grains. Plus, you can justify a bowlful (or a more measured cup) of marinara on the side, you know it’s going to be a good day.

Let’s spoon and dip our way into the next chapter of this strange true story. Stay at home or take it to go; stay safe, and always well-fed.

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Taste the Rainbow with Popit!

Chia pudding is a perennial staple around here, appearing on the menu as breakfasts, snacks, lunches, and desserts alike. For a quick fix full of fiber, protein, and brain-boosting omega-3’s, the tiny seed just can’t be beat. Of course, plain old vanilla does get dull after so many big bowlfuls. That’s where a bit of meal planning wisdom comes in, with a bit of help from our friends at Popit!

Big batch advanced prep is a big part of the appeal for chia pudding. Mix it up en masse, chill, and enjoy as desired for a full week. Cool and creamy, it’s an ideal healthy treat to eat on the fly, straight out of the fridge or on the go. By breaking it down into separate, single-serving containers, you get that same convenience with the flexibility to infuse each sweet spoonful with completely different flavors. While the effortless base starts the same, the end results are uniquely delicious.

The Popit! Baby Food Storage Set is ideal for making a full rainbow of bold chia puddings to suit every mood. Each BPA-free container holds 3 ounces with a patented lid and hollow silicone seal system to lock in freshness and prevent leakage. These are just the right size for a light snack or healthy treat, anywhere, anytime. The most difficult decision here will be deciding which one to eat first!

Starting with some bakery inspiration, Red Velvet gets its alluring hue from pureed beets, but tastes only of buttery cake with a touch of cocoa. Lightly sweetened yogurt swirls throughout to take the place of more sugary icing. Pitaya Princess Cake paints the Swedish pastry with a shock of bright pink pitaya puree. Nutty almond extract gives it a marzipan-like quality, paying homage to the traditional decor. Carrot Cake takes shape with naturally sweet carrot puree, warm spices, and chewy raisins mingling throughout the mix.

Moving on to more fruity flavors, Orange Zinger is guaranteed to wake you up with energetic, zesty orange zest, spicy crystallized ginger, and a dash of sunny yellow turmeric. Lemon Drop is another option made for citrus lovers, keeping it simple with fresh zest and a tangy, creamy vanilla yogurt. Banana-Nut will sooth any cravings for quick bread or muffins, with mashed banana and sticky peanut butter blended in, crowned by even more crunchy toasted nuts. Don’t forget the pinch of salt that really makes it sparkle.

Painted with the cool color spectrum and offering some cold comfort, my personal favorite, Mint Chip is like a spoonable milkshake without the sugar rush. Crunchy cacao nibs add textural contrast to this minty treat, although you could always go for chocolate chips or chunks instead. Blue Moon uses alluring butterfly pea tea for a naturally brilliant hue, with blueberries to add substance beyond mere style. Everyone’s favorite purple tuber, Ube makes an appearance alongside toasted coconut flakes, tasting like a little tropical getaway in a jar.

Taking a more decadent turn for the final three, I’ve got a whole Latte Love for the combination of instant coffee AND whole ground coffee for a serious midday perk. When I’m really craving dessert, this pudding-based Devil’s Food provides a sinless way to get my fix, with a serious dose of cocoa and rich chocolate curls on top. Finally, dark as night, with a mysterious allure, Black Sesame offers a uniquely nutty, lightly gingered flavor that’s sure to satisfy the more adventurous eater.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with taking comfort in consistency. If you fall in love with one flavor and want to make the whole batch to follow suit, simply multiply those ingredients by 12 and of course, omit the other optional additions.

What will be your top chia pudding pick?

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Ice Cream ‘Wich Craft

As July draws to a close, the holidays are fast approaching. Are you ready for the coming festivities?

I’m not talking about Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Diwali, Las Posadas, or Festivus. As if anyone could forget, there’s an even more momentous event right around the corner. August 2nd is National Ice Cream Sandwich Day!

As an avowed ice cream advocate, this is my kind of day. I don’t feel the need to justify or rationalize my indulgence, but as a source of inspiration, the thematic suggestion is always welcome. Sandwiches, one of the earliest frozen novelties, remain one of the simplest. While scoops have gone wild with flavor innovations and popsicles crystallize in every color of the rainbow, most ice cream sandwiches are still plain Jane vanilla.

In the United States, the term typically conjures up visions of a bland slab of beige ice cream, wedged between two thin chocolate wafers that blur the line between cookie and cake. I’m not looking to push the envelope here, but what if we expanded our understanding of the assembly to be a bit more accommodating? Just as there’s more than one way to churn ice cream, there’s more than one sort of wafer in the world.

The wafer I’m most fond of, for example, is the type that’s light as air, crisp like a cracker, and stacked up in slender rectangles with sweet cream filling. This biscuit is essentially synonymous with Voortman Bakery, masters of the edible art form since 1951. Only theirs will stand up to the summer’s heat, and freezer’s chill, without wilting under pressure. In fact, I tend to store them in the freezer when the temperatures climb, not to prolong freshness, but to provide an invigorating, refreshingly cool contrast to a sweltering hot day.

Connecting the dots between these treats and the holiday at hand, it wasn’t a big leap to re-imagine the average sandwich as something remarkable. That is, remarkably delicious AND remarkably easy to make.

Right up front, I must confess: Even by the most generous interpretation of the term, the center of these sandwiches is not ice cream. Set to a frosty, creamy consistency and festooned with colorful sprinkles, you could easily fool the average eater, without anyone feeling betrayed. Based on ingredients and technique alone, it’s more like frozen frosting, but that also means there’s no churning, no cooking, and almost no work required to whip up these treats. In a world where cauliflower can be called rice and zucchinis are noodles, can’t we stretch the definition a bit here?

Sparkling with zesty citrus through and through, thin ribbons of fresh orange peel undulate within a tangy cream cheese base, flecked with real vanilla bean for a rounded, floral sweetness. Flanked by tender orange creme wafers, there’s nothing to interrupt the full-bodied fruity flavor. If you’ve ever craved a good old orange creamsicle, these handheld treats are even better than a dream-come-true.

Such a highly successful experiment really got my wheels turning. Since Voortman makes wafers in just about every flavor you can imagine, the sky (or your freezer space) is the limit. Next time, I might start with strawberry wafers with vanilla ice cream and roll the edges in mini chocolate chips for a modernized neapolitan. There are also banana wafers that are crying out for caramel cream and a quick dip in chopped nuts for a bold new take on the classic banana split. What about trying chocolate hazelnut wafers with chocolate filling and toasted hazelnuts, for all the Nutella-lovers out there?

Trust me, I’m just getting started. There’s never a bad time for frozen treats, but this might just be the best time to join the party.

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Shell Shock

Everyone in my family is a fidgeter, a picker, or a combination of the two. We simply can’t sit quietly, motionlessly, and we certainly can’t keep our hands still. As if possessed, they move with minds of their own, searching and groping into empty space for something to latch on to, work through, touch and feel.

If not for knitting, I would have long ago torn my nail beds to utter ruin, all without realizing precisely what those devious hands were doing. I’ve noticed that my mom often tries to redirect that energy into more positive channels as well, typically working knots out of yarn or twisted lengths of jewelry, impossibly tangled by yours truly. My sister’s gift, however came as a complete surprise. It turns out, she’s a gifted and endlessly enthusiastic sheller.

Failing to locate shelled pistachios for a recipe in need, I resigned myself to a frustrating night of cracking open about a million half-smiling green nuts, their tiny smirks mocking me from the safety of their hard cocoons. Somehow detecting the need for help, my sister was there in an instant, popping them out left and right, until only a pile of clean, perfect pistachios remained. Stunned, I could only stare at the heaping bowl of nuts, dumbstruck. This girl hates nuts, had never willingly or knowingly eaten a nut of any variety, and yet relished this horribly monotonous duty to free them from their shells.

Of course, this discovery came years ago, when we all lived together under one roof. Now separated by hundreds of miles, I can’t help but think of this moment wistfully as a new heap of nuts sits before me, cocooned in their impenetrable cloaks.

In the times of quarantine, though, it’s not the worst way to pass the endless hours. Any project that ends with a delicious result is a worthwhile investment in time.

Most cream of [fill-in-the-blank] soups are good only as ingredients, possessing little redeeming culinary value alone, but this pale green pottage was designed specifically to fly solo. Lush toasted pistachios are blended to both flavor and enrich the silken brew, dazzling with simplicity and subtlety. Glorious spring greens enhance the color, of course, while adding a light, peppery bite. Fennel, typically a bit player, is essential for this unique concert of seasonal flavors, not to be overpowered by the standard array of aromatics.

If you don’t start with shelled pistachios, it will definitely take a minute to prepare, to which I say: All the more better. Consider it an act of productive meditation. Don’t rush the process, but embrace it instead.

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Greetings from Plumland

Named for the dense woodlands of tall and mighty oak trees in the 19th century, come summertime, I sometimes wonder if Oakland should be called Plumland instead. Most of those original oaks are long gone, cut down to make space for the growing city, as pavement invaded the landscape like a thicket of unrelenting weeds. Now it seems like the dominant flora comes in the form of plum trees.

Sprouting along sidewalks and leaning over backyard fences, as if peeking out to say hello to passersby, they go largely unnoticed through much of the year. Just another leafy plant, unremarkable from the next, you might never notice their silent invasion… Until summer hits.

Like the flip of a switch, buds blossom and transform into fruit overnight. Suddenly, fruit begins pelting the streets below with splatters of tiny plum grenades, painting them with a sticky patchwork of yellows, reds, and purples. Even for those with a voracious appetite for the juicy stone fruits, it can feel like a plum-pocolypse, or plum-demic this year, I suppose.

Friends from all corners of the city have been foisting their excess upon me at every turn. Make no mistake, I’m not complaining about such kindness; it’s a truly wonderful problem to have too many locally grown, organic, impeccably fresh plums. I just sometimes kick myself for accepting another five pounds or so, while I still have at least as much threatening to over-ripen in the fridge.

After making a few rounds of plum jam, peppered plum sorbet, a luscious brown sugar plum crisp, Plum Good Crumb Cake, and indulged in untold plain plum snacks, I turned to my reliable Facebook family for help. Suggestions poured in as fast as the fruit, but what really stood out was a suggestion from Craig Vanis, Chef and founder of Austin’s one and only Bistro Vonish. Drawing inspiration from his Czech heritage, he offered plum dumplings (Svestkove Knedliky) without missing a beat. Never having experienced sweet dumplings before, the mere concept was a revelation to me. I had to try it.

Butchering his recipe right off the bat, I wasted no time mangling every last ingredient until it would be completely unrecognizable to any of the chef’s predecessors. My sincerest apologies, Craig. It’s the inspiration that counts, right?

Traditionally made with a potato-based dough, purple sweet potato takes the place of a plain starchy spud for a bit more flavor and of course, a vibrant new hue. Wrapped tenderly around whole plums, it’s soft like pillowy sheets of gnocchi, melting into the juicy, sweet flesh. The pitted plums seemed so empty, so hollow and sad, I couldn’t leave them bare. Refilling the centers with whole, toasted almonds, that crunchy surprise inside added textural contrast to create a more satisfying treat.

For serving, some prefer the dumplings simply tossed with melted butter, while others might add toasted breadcrumbs, poppy seeds, cottage cheese, or my suggestion, cinnamon sugar. Since there’s no sugar in the dough, that sweet finish is just the right touch, especially if your plums have a gently tart twang.

Welcome to Plumland, where everyday is fruitful and the residents are very sweet.

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Sush-Easy

To anyone who can proclaim to dislike sushi, I can only shake my head in wonder. You don’t like rice? While the term has come to imply raw fish in modern usage, the actual translation of the word only refers to seasoned rice. Mouthfuls of lightly vinegared grains never hurt anyone, so why the animosity? If the paper-thin sheath of seaweed is still too briny for your liking, plenty of alternative wrappings are at your disposal for more colorful, flavorful containment. Beyond the predictable and traditional, there’s a bold new world of fillings to wrap up and roll out.

Let’s start with some Italian fusion with some Caprese Sushi. Mix herbaceous basil pesto into cooked and cooled sushi rice for a bold green backdrop. Press it into place along a paprika soy paper wrapper and line the center with vegan mozzarella, fresh heirloom tomato slices, and sun-dried tomatoes. Roll tightly, slice into a few thick pieces, and drizzle balsamic glaze across the plate before placing your fresh futo maki on top.

Traveling now to the jungles of Indonesia, Satay Sushi is a spicy, crunchy, savory treat that’s even better than anything on a skewer. Turmeric soy paper is the golden foundation for this one, with plain sushi rice cradling shredded carrots, grilled or sauteed meatless chicken, a thick smear of crunchy peanut butter, and everyone’s favorite hot condiment, chili crisp. You could always serve peanut sauce alongside, since I tend to encouraging going at least a little bit nuts.

Back to my own roots in New York City, Everything Bagel Sushi really is everything I could ask for in a mere maki. This one employs a sesame soy wrapper, of course, layered with the standard sushi rice, luscious lashings of vegan cream cheese, crisp cucumbers, minced red onion, dill, and a heavy sprinkle of everything bagel seasoning. Who needs the bread when you’ve got a compact roll ready to grab and go?

Finishing out with the next big blue plate special, Benedict Sushi promises to shake up the brunch routine with style and substance that would make the average English muffin crumble. It all starts with a spinach soy wrapper, rolling up around rice, blanched asparagus, vegan scrambled egg, and meatless ham. Slice and serve with a rich pool of hollandaise sauce for dipping, or dunking, as you see fit.

What’s your favorite way to wrap and roll? Do you stick with the traditional, understated vegetable maki, or shake things up with more unconventional fillings? While it’s hard to argue with the instant gratification of restaurant takeout, I promise you won’t find options nearly so fresh, fun, or fanciful as in your own kitchen.