BitterSweet

Sweet Musings with a Bitterly Sharp Wit


11 Comments

Top Nog

What is it about the holiday season that incites us to cast all common sense aside and engage in otherwise inadvisable behavior, with childlike glee, no less? Whether that means racing outside into giant piles of freezing snow, risking frostbite to all appendages without a second thought, or racking up credit card bills for the sake of tree dressings and silly ornamentation used only once a year, we all write off these aberrations as all part of a collective Christmas madness shared throughout society. What causes you to throw out the rule book and deviate from standard operations? What touch of insanity do you entertain to make it really feel like the holidays are here? For me, that would be buying every single vegan nog option available across three towns for the sake of comparison.

Yes indeed, it’s the most wonderful time of the year: The great Nog-Off of 2017, pitting past industry heavy weights against startups and newbies to determine which eggless nog reigns supreme. This round was the most impressive yet, bringing in no less that nine different beverages vying for the title of Top Nog.

Time is of the essence, with each of these elusive elixirs produced for a very limited time during the most festive of days, so let’s pour a glass and get started, shall we?

It was an extremely difficult, close race to judge, but last place was obvious right away. Sorry, not sorry, but Rice Dream Rice Nog will never be welcome at my holiday party. Inexplicably pink and quite watery, it utilizes aggressive sweetness to compensate for a distinct lack of flavor. Granted, it’s not outright dreadful, but not even close to “authentic” nog. On the plus side, the rice base will appeal to those with severe allergies, and the aseptic, shelf-stable carton means it will keep well… Possibly for years… Much like an unwanted fruitcake.

That said, this came as no surprise. My greatest disappointment was actually the second to last place finisher, the highly esteemed MALK Pecan MALK Nog. Tawny brown, it stood out with a distinctive darkness in a sea of pastel hues, owing to a unique blend of maple syrup and whole pecans as a base. The bottle isn’t kidding when it admonishes the drinker to shake “super” well; no stabilizers or fillers means that this stuff separates, which I can certainly appreciate from a stance of ingredient integrity and a commitment to quality. Scented strongly of cinnamon, the overall impression was surprisingly light, dangerously drinkable- Smooth and sweet, but not particularly thick or rich. Sadly, this made it more reminiscent of horchata than eggnog. It just couldn’t cut the mustard for that full-bodied eggless experience.

From there, things improve drastically. Luckily, you can’t go too far wrong with most selections available Nationwide, and in fact a number of these cartons could be interchanged without any guests being being the wiser.

Califia Holiday Nog and Silk Nog Original pull in the next rank up, tied for their close flavor profiles and consistencies. Silk is perhaps a touch sweeter, if anything. Though the former is almond-based and the later soy, both have a smooth, creamy pour equivalent to the average, slightly richer non-dairy milk. There’s a distinctive brightness at first sip that defies definition; almost like undefinable spice or burst of acidity, but without warmth or sharpness. Fine as an everyday, everyman sort of nog, a hit of bourbon or brandy would be a welcome addition to make things a bit more festive. Fairly neutral, without explicit nutmeg nor eggy notes, either would be inoffensive, if undistinguished, offerings on the drink buffet.

Fresh on the market, Trader Joe’s Almond Nog has already taken Instagram by storm, right along with the impressive array of new vegan options that seem to crop up on each new trip to the store. Smooth and mellow, creamy, and boasting a balanced sweetness, this blend presents a harmonious middle of the road option that should please all who imbibe. Satisfingly in thick, not overbearing nor weighed down by gums, a light hand on the spicing and very subtle nutty undertone explains why dairy-free drinkers are delighted by this new choice. No one would mistake it for the traditional brew, but no one would complain about the substitution, either.

Moving on up, it’s with sadness and joy that I must report that previous grand champion So Delicious Seasonal Coconut Holiday Nog has been dethroned! It’s a sad blow to the superlative brand, but a boon to veganism that there are even greater choices to pick from now. Still a genuinely delicious selection, true to the name, the coconut base is definitely rich, decadent, and bold. That said, it was all love and sweetness on the first sip, and then… A startling aftertaste of old latex bandaids came to the fore. Off-putting, upsetting, to say the least, this mysterious sour note almost put it on the naught list this year. Such missteps would certainly be forgiven with a splash of booze to smooth things over, but otherwise it was fabulous!

Another fresh face on the scene is making a big splash, pulling in a top spot with an unconventional flaxseed fixation. Good Karma Holiday Nog is the one and only flax nog on earth, to my knowledge. Glowing with the palest complexion of pastel yellow, the flavor profile is defined by a restrained sweetness, a bare hint of spice, and a subtle nutty, pleasantly grassy aftertaste. Smooth and creamy, but slightly sticky, it lingers on the palate in an indulgent sort of way that belies its impressively light calorie load.

In a big upset, my mainstream market nog of choice this year turned out to be Classic Almond Breeze Almondmilk Nog. Curiously absent from the official brand website and difficult to track down, it was a sleeper hit. So easy to drink, creamy and cool, it makes no bones about the almond base with an attempt to cover up the nutty influence, incorporating it harmoniously within the overall beverage instead. Vanilla plays a more prominent role in this blend, and although I do wish there was more nutmeg sparkling throughout the mix, this was the bottle I ultimately wanted more of when all were drained.

But that’s not the end of the story. There was one clear, standout winner here, rising far above the ranks of these more attainable options. The crown is well deserved, for its genuinely egg-like richness, sheer decadence, and clear holiday spirit. Though you may need to special-order it online, the efforts would be worthwhile for a true nog lover. The Urban Remedy No Egg Nog is in a class all its own. Rich and filling, with a clean finish, it has a very different texture from the rest of the pack, without gums or stabilizers. Though easily the most indulgent option available, it’s arguably the most healthy, owing to its simple, natural ingredients; whole almonds, cashews, and dates join forces in this nutmeg-centric and boldly spiced beverage that drinks like a meal. A considerable sprinkle of salt boosts the flavor up to eleven, making it entirely crave-worthy on a whole new level. This is what the holiday season is all about: a rare, special treat that breaks through the typical structure of one’s daily life, or daily diet, as it were. You wouldn’t drink it everyday, but you’ll miss it dearly when it’s gone.

To all those unfortunately out of driving or delivery range, the sweet folks at Urban Remedy have a generous holiday present to share. You can actually scope out their unique recipe, posted for all to enjoy and freely imbibe.

If all that noggin’ around doesn’t get you into the holiday spirit, I don’t know what will.

So, how did your favorites stack up? Do you agree with the 2017 Nog-Off results, or are you willing to pick a fight for your own personal winner? More importantly though, did I miss any other contenders for the next round?

Advertisements


3 Comments

True Gossip

Rumors are flying about the new taco spot in Nob Hill, but the buzz is so much more than mere gossip. Although that’s the translation of Chisme, the bespoke restaurant has already proven itself a worthy contender in a city teeming with Mexican eateries. Menu options are limited, focused on a short list of fillings to swaddle in soft, handmade tortillas, served two per order. Simple yet irresistible appetizer staples like chips and guacamole or fried potatoes do beckon, but stay focused here. Take a closer look at those taco options. Not only are the vegan choices clearly marked, but compared to the more meaty entrees, they dominate the colorful paper printout.

Fusion is the name of the game for these unconventional offerings, such as eggplant slathered in peanut mole, or plantains and black beans paired with a creamy coconut ranch dressing. Perish the thought of strained, unsatisfying attempts at “authenticity” here; flavor comes first, regardless of origin. Chisme caters to a different sort of crowd, and those customers seem to be eating it up.

Order at the front, grab a number, and take a seat at the communal table or benches. One might call the space spare and the service no-frills, but it’s warm and friendly, open and inviting, regardless. Besides, in a matter of minutes your surroundings will become irrelevant as a hot plate of food drops in front of you. If there’s only one dish to order, it’s the Jackfruit Taco. Marinated in a savory sauce and fried to crispy perfection, it remains juicy inside, with an impossibly meaty bite all the way though. Greens and cabbage are par for the course, adding a bit of freshness and crunch to the conversation, but the unexpected brightness of the mint verde sauce truly seals the deal. It sounds like a crazy combination, but trust me, it just works.

Don’t sleep on that fiery green hot sauce that comes on the side, either. It’s the sort of condiment that people would steal if it was put into bottles, or for those with more restraint, buy by the case if it was sold in stores. If the heat becomes overwhelming, cool down with a dairy-free coconut horchata for dessert. The sweetness of this cinnamon-spiked elixir could easily rival that of a proper milkshake, but is a welcome refreshment on a hot day.

Stop the gossip and get the facts. Chisme is the real deal.


20 Comments

Not-So-Secret Supper Club

There’s no sign out front. No two menus are ever the same. Walk-ins are not accepted. One would be hard pressed to call this arrangement a “restaurant” by the traditional definition, and yet the chef plays to a rapt audience, selling out tickets for almost every dining session. Bay area natives will likely know this poorly kept “secret” supper club well, striking up the band with Sound & Savor for over 13 years now. My first experience in this elusive underground establishment left a lasting memory, filled with the warmth of community as well as good food, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Attending dinners and classes almost as often as they’re offered, Chef Philip Gelb and I became fast friends in the process.

Known as much for his confidence with spice as his finesse with more delicate flavors, Phil has a style that doesn’t fit well into any predefined category, unafraid to cook to his own beat. Now he’s sharing that same approach with voracious eaters abroad, with the release of Vegan Underground: Improvisations on World Cuisines.

The contents transcend superficial cultural boundaries, seamlessly merging the defining characteristics of multiple distinctive cuisines into a brand new culinary adventure. Venturing boldly into unexplored territory, these recipes remain approachable, familiar for their original roots, recalling all the best flavor notes from high to low.

From Trinidad doubles to fiery mapo tofu, crispy fried okra to pistachio-walnut ice cream, the diverse range of delicious options promises appetizing options for all palates. Ramen remains a particular favorite of mine, and it’s a true pleasure to finally see other perennial crowd-pleasers like the green gazpacho and polenta peach cake in print.

Capturing the photos for this fresh compilation, I was lucky enough to experience these meals in person, as cooked by the master, but I can vouch for this home cook’s translation as well. Since not everyone, locals included, are lucky enough to snag seats for these limited engagements, I’m absolutely thrilled to give away a copy of Vegan Underground to four readers! Enter through August 10th by commenting below: Have you ever been to an “underground” restaurant, or have you dreamed of starting your own? Tell me about your experiences and ideas! Log your submission on the official giveaway page, and find additional ways to improve your odds there, too.

For as many cookbooks flood the marketplace every year, there are none that can match the creativity and sheer passion found within these pages. You won’t find Vegan Underground in mainstream bookstores or on Amazon.com, so don’t miss your chance to own a copy today.


13 Comments

Cracking the Eggless Code

Through the best of times and the worst of times, wealth and poverty, tofu has always been there. Soft as a pillow around delicate subjects but firm when more support is needed, that trusty soybean block can accommodate the wildest of culinary whims. How many other ingredients can claim such a rich history and vast repertoire of winsome dishes? An indispensable staple beyond just vegan kitchens, tofu has never enjoyed such wide mainstream acceptance before, and yet… Sometimes, simple bean curd won’t quite do. Scrambles, omelets, and fry-ups are top brunch treats, leading both herbivores and omnivores alike still demand more out of their mid-morning meal. Tofu, my dear friend, has finally met its ovoid match.

Follow Your Heart originally rose to fame over four decades ago, pioneering the vegan options for dressings and sandwich spreads, and continues to innovate to this day. The VeganEgg breaks new ground as the only complete whole egg replacer that actually behaves like an egg in both savory and sweet applications.

Tear into the dry mix and you’ll immediately be hit with a wave of familiar sulfurous aroma, the distinct calling card of kala namak. Whisking easily and smoothly into cold water, there’s no need to break out the heavy artillery (or blender) for assistance. The raw mixture may appear awfully thin at first, perhaps even alarmingly so, but all doubts will be instantly erased the minute that golden batter hits a hot skillet. Granted, it takes longer to cook than actual eggs, clocking in at 6 – 8 minutes for a single scramble, it does indeed form soft curds with a slightly bouncy yet creamy texture, easily yielding to the bite. Very mild in flavor, despite the initial aroma, it stays true to form as a good neutral base to build upon.

And build I did. Shakshuka calls for poaching eggs directly in spicy tomato sauce, a classic Middle Eastern preparation difficult to come by with vegan needs. The VeganEgg couldn’t quite hold its form in a pleasing round shape, but firmed up triumphantly in the bubbling red stew. Don’t expect anything as decadent as a rich, runny center, but the overall package is so satisfying, you won’t miss it one bit.

Reviving another previous eggy favorite, Chinese egg drop soup was next on my hit list. Thin ribbons of VeganEgg swim peacefully among the scallions in this simple broth, a flawless dupe for any takeout temptation. Its simplicity makes it the ideal comfort food, enjoyed in sickness and in health, effortlessly converted with a one-for-one swap from the original omnivorous formula.

For greater culinary ambitions, though, I’m delighted to report that tamagoyaki is finally back on the menu again! Lightly sweetened, slowly cooked in a square frying pan, and painstakingly rolled into a savory layered omelet, it’s an essential Japanese dish that can be eaten solo or sliced thin to top nigiri sushi. I haven’t quite mastered the technique, but with such promising initial results, you can bet it’s a recipe I’ll be revisiting, and soon.

But wait- What about dessert, you may ask? Though my approach to baking has never required a straight replacement for eggs, there are definitely a few recipes that don’t quite translate without that essential structure or flavor. Creamy custards such a flan are a perfect example; absolutely doable without any ovoid additions, but not quite the same, and rarely as easy to replicate. The VeganEgg makes the conversion effortless, and adds just the right subtle tasting notes without dominating the dish.

With that immense hurdle cleared, now there’s simply no excuse to reach for any animal products.

Easy Flan for Two

2 Tablespoons Dark Brown Sugar, Firmly Packed
2 Tablespoons Follow Your Heart VeganEgg
1/2 Cup Cold Water
1/2 Cup Non-Dairy Milk
1/4 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract
1/4 Teaspoon Finely Grated Orange Zest

Preheat your oven to 325 degrees and lightly grease two 4-ounce ramekins. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of brown sugar into the bottom of each ramekin and set aside.

In a large bowl, thoroughly whisk together the VeganEgg and cold water until completely smooth. Make sure there are no lumps remaining before proceeding. Add in the non-dairy milk, vanilla, and zest, and whisk again to combine.

Distribute the liquid mixture equally between the two ramekins, and place them in a larger baking dish. Place this in the oven and pour hot water into the larger dish to reach just about halfway up the sides of the ramekins. This will create a water bath to more gently cook the custards, and prevent them from cracking as they bake.

Bake for 45 – 60 minutes, until set around the sides and top, but still wobbly much like a cheesecake. Let cool completely before moving to the fridge. Chill for at least 2 hours or up to overnight. To serve, invert the flans on individual plates, and enjoy!

Makes 2 Servings

Printable Recipe


15 Comments

Dreaming of a White Chocolate Christmas

Gleaming in the early morning light, bright and luminous as freshly fallen snow, white chocolate is an irreplaceable staple for the holiday baker. Generous pans of fudge, slabs of peppermint bark, and boxes of cookies all shimmer with these sweet morsels, unrivaled in their versatility for ornamentation and flavor enhancement. The trouble, as every careful shopper knows, is that mainstream options contain far more dairy than cacao. White chocolate gets a bad rap for precisely this reason, to say nothing of the waxy hydrogenated oils that often bind the whole sugary messes together. While relatively limited vegan options exist on the market, the tides are slowly changing.

Homemade options are always a treat, and you’ll find boutique bars aplenty online, but what I’m talking about today are genuine chips, capable of holding their own in any dessert rather than functioning simply as a treat to eat out of hand. Right now, there are two types of vegan chocolate chips: Those that are good for melting, dipping, and drizzling, and those that maintain their shape, more resistant to the heat of the oven.

The newest chip off the block is somewhat revolutionary; 100% organic, no hydrogenated oils or questionable fillers in sight. Cocoa butter, rice milk powder, sugar, and vanilla are the only things that go into Pascha Chocolate‘s new rice milk white chocolate chips. For the obsessive label-readers or highly allergic eaters, this stuff is heaven-sent. Flatter than the traditional snowy peaks of conventional chocolate chips, they’re more like crisp white disks, ideal for melting down into creamy cacao creations.

Mildly flavored, they don’t beat you over the head with sweetness, but whisper gently of vanilla with a subtle buttery undertone. This nuanced approach is perfect for crowning more aggressively flavored baked goods, like these gingerbread bars pictured above, cutting their intensity without detracting from the overall experience. Although their more delicate composition means they’re more likely to pool and puddle when faced with a trip through the oven, they’re perfect for turning into white ganache or icing once your treats are fully baked. For your highest quality option with the cleanest label, Pascha Chocolate is your one and only choice.

If you’re craving a smattering of white chocolate freckles throughout your cookies or cakes, however, you still have one great option! While there are a few white chips out there designed for the kosher crowd, most of those taste of little more than wax and sugar, entirely eschewing cocoa butter and thus losing the essence of this simple sweet addition. Not so with the White Chocolate Chips offered by Chocolate Emporium. These are the little morsels of pale cacao goodness that I’ve been buying (and hoarding) in bulk for years.

Although they’re stubbornly resistant to melting down smoothly, that quality serves them perfectly for baked applications. They have a slightly softer chew right out of hand, but somehow manage to hold their own in the face of a 350 degree inferno. Their flavor would be described as subtle at best, but their main function should be to add sweetness, creaminess, and color contrast anyway.

When the chips are down, these two are your very best bets, and both should have a place of honor in your kitchen year round. Vegan white chocolate is still something of a rarity, so these sweet treats will undoubtedly elicit astonishment, wonder, and awe- Not to mention hunger.


9 Comments

Toast of the Town

Living in the land of the original $4 toast, it’s easy to become jaded about the countless open-faced sandwiches now infiltrating menus across the country. In fact, looking back at this story now, $4 seems like a remarkable bargain. It’s not uncommon to see a single slice of crusty bread command $6, $7, or even as much as $12 dollars if topped with half an avocado and paired with a frilly salad. Strange but true, the toast trend appears to be here to stay, and is only inflating alongside the inscrutable local economy.

Friends, it’s time to take toast back. I don’t mean that we should all be making Instagram-worthy edible artworks on thickly sliced, grainy artisan loaves, but that we should be able to take some average sandwich bread, throw it in a toaster, and spread something delicious on it. Is that so much to ask? I think that a lot gets lost in translation when it comes to the endless array of topping options, at least when ordering toast at a restaurant. When it arrives at the table with over an inch of spreads, vegetables, fruits, and nuts, it’s a wholly delicious creation, but don’t call it toast; you’ve gone well beyond those boundaries and into the terrain of tartines.

Getting back to home toast, all that really matters is starting out with decent bread and slathering on a quality topping. Pick out a sweet option and you could be looking at breakfast, snack, or dessert; talk about getting a real bang for your buck. Nocciolata Dairy Free will instantly cure even the most severe chocolate craving. A flawless dupe for the beloved chocolate-hazelnut spread known as Nutella, it’s sticky yet silky smooth, and honestly sweet enough to pass for frosting. It feels outrageously indulgent to pass for a morning meal, and yet somehow easy enough to rationalize as a healthy choice, thanks to all those wholesome hazelnuts packed into each jar. Don’t question that logic; just slather it on thick, and if anything, top only with a pinch of coarse salt for maximum enjoyment.

Plain nut butters naturally make for a more neutral base, but that doesn’t mean they should lack flavor. Vivapura’s raw pecan butter is a shining example of a superlative spread, positively radiating nutty aroma upon opening the jar. It’s hard to believe that something so luscious could be just so simple, containing only nuts and salt. Almond butter may be having a moment, but pecans have all that richness, and then some.

Many have decried the toast trend, pointing out blatant price gouging as if that wasn’t the case for every other dish on offer, but that’s not my MO. I just think we should start taking toast back; back into our own kitchens, and back to its more humble roots.


15 Comments

Hip To Be Shared

Puffed snacks represent the pinnacle of junk food innovation and technology. No matter how hard you try, there’s simply no way to replicate that characteristically light, airy, yet impossibly crisp texture at home; trust me, I’ve gone through the ringer in my own kitchen, to no avail. Coated in powdered cheese of varying fluorescence hues, the salty morsels have been staining fingers since the 1930s but never gained much traction among the nutritionally conscious. That should come as no surprise, since questionable oils and highly processed dairy ingredients have long been the “best” that these salty treats could offer.

Hippeas is a new company set to change all that, turning away from the traditional corn base and towards one composed of everyone’s favorite legume: the chickpea.

Much more substantial than your typical puffed snack, each kernel boasts a sturdy, satisfying crunch, backed by impressive protein and fiber values. Unlike the Styrofoam whips of yore, one serving really will do… Although the tempting flavors might convince you keep munching.

Six unique seasonings offer a different taste for every craving. Cheese is the gold standard, the essential foundation of the puffed snack hierarchy, so the Vegan White Cheddar has very high expectations to live up to. While the overall effect doesn’t disappoint, it doesn’t entirely deliver either. Evoking the flavor profile of creamy mac and cheese, it will certainly scratch that savory itch, but an incongruous sweetness detracts from the experience. Simply put, they’re highly enjoyable, but would never fool an omnivore.

Where Hippeas shine is in their more creative offerings that make no allusions to imitation. Delicious within their own right as a completely unique snack, the Far Out Fajita was the stand-out winner by my account. Cumin and coriander ring clearest out of the seasoning melange, imparting a Tex-Mex vibe. Further munching evoked the flavors of crunchy falafel, which made me think they would pair brilliantly with a bold tahini dip.

Pepper Power presents a strong showing for the most basic option. Thoroughly flecked with ground black pepper, each bite provides a nice balance of spice and salt, creating a subtle warmth that doesn’t overwhelm. By contrast, Sriracha Sunshine takes a bolder approach, but falls far short of its scoville target. The initial taste is of vinegar, with a timid heat following quietly, slow to build up steam. Excess sweetness brings down the spice considerably for these morsels, but in the case of Happenin’ Hickory, that same quality creates a pleasing balance. Accented with tomato, onion, and garlic, the overall effect delivers the impression of barbecue sauce more than pure hickory smoke, but is highly munchable nonetheless.

For those with a sweet tooth, Hippeas has something for you, too! The taste of Maple Haze rings true for pancake syrup with subtle buttery undertones. Take a bag with you to the theater next time; I think they’d make delightful alternative to caramel corn.

The full line of Hippeas aren’t perfect across the board, but one thing is for sure: They’ve mastered the elusive ways of the puff, and taken the “junk” out of this particular junk food favorite. There’s a whole lot to savor if you stick with the top hits.