BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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Worth Its Salt

Considering my legacy of dessertfocused cookbooks, it might surprise some to know that my salt tooth often speaks louder than my sweet tooth. Call it an inevitable balancing act, brought on by years of saccharine excess, but it seems that there’s not enough salt in the world to compensate for my reckless, sugar-coated youth. I’ll still dive head-first into a bowl of ice cream or a plate of chocolate chip cookies, but there’s a good chance I’ll spike each serving with a pinch (or two) of coarse salt before indulging.

Clearly, I’m not alone on this impulse. Gourmet salts have taken off in a category all their own, exploring new territory with different flavors far more adventurous than the classic mixtures of herbs and spices. San Francisco Salt Co. is one of the leaders of that pack, blending gourmet ingredients with high quality sea salt for a luxurious finishing touch. While various flavors of smoked salts have been a mainstay of the brand for many years, their newest release offers something unique to this crowded, salty category. Whisky Smoked Sea Salt elevates the concept to a lofty new realm, utilizing empty barrels once employed to age Teeling’s Irish Whiskey to lend deep, oaky aromas to this most humble of seasonings.

Dusty grey and fine as soft beach sand, the powerful scent that emerges from the package is stunning. Earthy and downright primal, like a carefully tended campfire, there’s no liquid smoke nonsense going on here. It’s the truly natural, unmistakable aroma that even the most advanced flavor labs could only dream of synthesizing.

The flavor is naturally a bit more restrained when paired with food. Unless you add a heaping teaspoon of salt to every meal, it’s only natural that it would take a backseat to the taste of the food itself. That doesn’t mean that it disappears into the scenery by any means. As with any good finishing salt, it serves to accentuate those savory morsels, adding subtle notes of smoke that add depth and character otherwise impossible to achieve in a single bite.

Frosting the rim of a tall, icy glass of Bloody Mary, there’s no better way to get a full-frontal hit of this richly smoked salt. Regardless of your final destination on either sweet or savory route, it’s one unmistakable, inimitable condiment that’s definitely worth its salt, and then some.


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Ben & Jerry’s – The Inside Scoop

Blinking sleepily, stupidly at the gate, it took a full ten minutes for the meaning of the digital scrawl to sink in. My cross-country, red-eye flight had been further delayed, now rescheduled to depart sometime in the predawn hour of 2AM. A punishing schedule already awaited me upon arrival, complete with a second plane to catch and events lined up from the moment the wheels hit the tarmac. For all this tumult, I would only be in Burlington, Vermont for a two days all told. What on earth could possible be worth that kind of suffering?

Ice cream. And not just any ice cream, but Ben & Jerry’s new 100% vegan line of almond milk frozen desserts. It’s the one food news story that the whole world is buzzing about lately, omnivorous or otherwise, and I was given the rare opportunity to see the birthplace of this extraordinary creation.

Though the dead of winter would be my last choice for when to visit this picturesque east coast town, the white carpet of snow and cozy blanket of clouds were not without their charms. If only I had an extra day, or perhaps even an extra hour, I would have loved to explore the myriad vegan restaurants just around the corner, but I was here on a bigger mission.

Along with a select group of exclusive, top drawer food bloggers, I was treated to an incredible adventure in the Ben & Jerry’s factory and test kitchen. Our main objective, of course, was to get the goods on the buzz-worthy new pints, developed both for the sake of hungry customers demanding dairy-free options, and to decrease the deleterious environmental impact that goes along with milk production. It was made very clear that these four initial flavors are only the beginning of that pursuit. Although it took 3 years and between 70 – 90 trials in development, there are promising hints that pending the success of this launch, we may eventually have even more flavors tempting us on store shelves.

Delicious and ambrosial as the tasting session was, my highlight of the trip was getting the opportunity to play around with the almond milk base to fabricate a “limited edition” frozen dessert. So exclusive that you will never see it in production, it was still a joy to mix up a big batch of the creamy concoction with any and all the chunky mix-ins my heart desired. Working in teams, my group was responsible for unleashing the “Drunk’n Pumpk’n Pie” upon the party, complete with toasted marshmallows, graham cracker crust pieces, and a generous splash of bourbon. Each spoonful had a whole lot of spirit, but alas, it was no match for the truly superlative “Southern Roots” dreamed up by the competition.

Ben & Jerry’s, if you’re listening: Please put this one on the official line up! Outrageously thick ribbons of caramel swirled through every square inch of the creamy peach bourbon jam base with a hint of cinnamon, intertwining with crunchy chunks of toasted pecans. Within our small, secret sampling society, this creative and unabashedly indulgent mix was a hands-down winner.

But… What about the REAL dairy-free offerings now hitting grocery store shelves and scoop shops nationwide, you ask?

For the full scoop on the flavors themselves and my personal tasting notes, head over to my official review on Go Dairy Free.

This post was is sponsored by Ben & Jerry’s, but all content and opinions are entirely my own.


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For the Love of Chocolate

Chocolate is a gift that is always in style, matches with everything you already own, and always fits. It should come as no surprise that it’s the Valentine’s Day token of choice, ranking well above the typical flowers, cards, and unintentionally tragic stuffed animals. Let’s keep it that way, and let’s keep it classy, folks. No dollar store mockolate to show your sweetheart how bad you are at planning ahead, please. Considering the explosion of high-quality options now on the market, there’s no excuse not to go the extra mile to seek out something special. Those efforts to find a truly transcendent box of cacao decadence will be repaid in full with just one bite.

Amore di Mona is part of the new wave of contemporary chocolatiers that stands apart from the rest. Committed to producing exceptional treats that can be enjoyed by all, every exquisite morsel they produce is vegan and gluten-free.

Even the gold wrapping and immaculate box of the Connoisseur Collection exudes opulence and indulgence. It’s clear from square one (no pun intended) that these are no average candies. Impeccably molded, dipped, and decorated, each piece glistens in the sunlight and snaps firmly under pressure. Seven entirely unique flavors are included in the assortment, ranging from solid chocolate hearts with various accouterments to dipped and drizzled caramels. Unsurprisingly, the chocolate itself is exceptional: Dry, smooth, intense dark chocolate, but not the least bit harsh, it’s very easy to eat without risking either palate fatigue or a sugar coma.

Finding good vegan caramels can still be challenging at best, but this box may very well end the search. Each “caramela,” as they are called, possesses a firm bite, soft chew, and subtly nutty, toasted sweet flavor. Although I must admit that I found myself craving a tiny extra pinch of salt at times, there’s really little to fault about the final execution. Favorites will only be a matter of preference, because you can do no wrong with any of the options. Pieces containing cranberries shine with tartness from the dried fruits, bitterness of the chocolate, and just the right amount of sugar to smooth out any hard edges. Meanwhile, those that incorporate whole coffee beans are predictably bold, in all the right ways; the coffee flavor never overwhelms, only delights with an extra crunchy texture.

Each morsel is a handcrafted work of edible art. Beautiful to look at, and even more enjoyable to eat. Valentine’s Day is a good excuse to spoil someone you love or simply yourself, but don’t forget that chocolate is always in season.


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Blender Bender

To anyone who’s ever eyed their rapidly growing collection of kitchen equipment and shrinking counter space with dismay, there comes a point when only the most essential tools can still make the cut. A blender will always be at the top of that list, but even so, are you really making the most of it? Wonder no more, because The Blender Girl Cookbook by Tess Masters will keep you happily spinning away from breakfast to dinner, and everything in between. Tess is the unrivaled guru of all things blended, blitzed, and pureed as far as I’m concerned, which makes it all the more shameful that I’ve withheld a proper review of this book for nearly two years. Her blog is an invaluable resource for eaters of all tastes and cooks of all skill levels. She understands the zen of a spinning blade like no one else I’ve met, combining her expert knowledge with a trained palate and penchant for crafting unique recipes. I never feel as though I could do proper justice to all her skills, but instead of sitting this review for another year or worse, I hope this small sample of my experiences might inspire others to go out and try more for themselves.

When my enthusiasm for a mango sale left me with a considerable surplus, I turned to Tess for some suggestions. A smoothie would have been too obvious, too ordinary, so the Magic Mango Massage salad immediately caught my eye as an intriguing approach to managing this embarrassing excess. Though it didn’t strike me as a necessarily harmonious pairing on paper, the fruits’ naturally sour edge matches the gentle bitterness of the dark leafy greens beautifully. Light, sprightly herbal notes add freshness while the tangy, spicy dressing, tempered by the sweet mango chunks and creamy avocado, completes the picture with a flourish. Simple but so well balanced, the whole assembly is a shining example of what ordinary ingredients can do when combined in just the right proportions.

Goma Dofu, a study in subtlety and a delicacy when correctly executed, is done proper justice by this easy recipe. It ultimately comes down to only 3 main ingredients when all told: tahini, vegetable stock, and kuzu starch. Wobbling like a softly set custard, its unassuming appearance belies rich sesame flavor. Nuances of umami whisper gently throughout, leaving the lucky eater with a surprisingly rich impression. Creamy, cool, and refreshing, it would be an ideal appetizer to enjoy on a hot day.

Though the juicing trend has failed to spark my interest, to say the least, I can still fully appreciate a tall glass of vegetable juice when the mood strikes. Thus I found myself drawn to the Spicy Gazpacho Grab, which is really more of a sippable soup than a thin, unfulfilling drink. This ruby red elixir sparkles with just the right accent of spice, reminiscent of V-8, only so much brighter and bolder. Both thirst-quenching and satisfying, I would even be tempted to leave the blend slightly chunky next time around, serving just as I would for the traditional chilled tomato soup.

If The Blender Girl Cookbook doesn’t restore your blender to a place of honor in your kitchen, nothing will. Since publication, Tess hasn’t stopped dreaming up new recipes for even a minute, unleashing a full book focused on smoothies and a companion app as well, with no sign of slowing down. Rumor has it that another cookbook is in the pipeline as we speak. In the meantime though, this wealth of fool-proof formulas will keep me blending smoothly for months, if not years, to come.


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From Blog to Book

No longer is it a rare feat to see talented bloggers bridging the gap between online text and printed, published prose, but it still takes an incredible amount of determination to successfully make the leap. Considering the wealth of creativity that exists out there in the blogosphere, I can’t imagine a better place to start scouting new authors. Among all of those young hopefuls, Richa Hingle of Vegan Richa always struck me as particularly deserving, so much so that I recall pestering her many years ago about creating her own cookbook already! Pulling from a seemingly inexhaustible trove of inspiration, her recipes stood out as being both familiar, with delicious reference points that were easy to understand, while simultaneously forging a new culinary path. Buffalo Chickpea Pizza? Cauliflower Sandwich Bread? Why didn’t I think of that?

Now showcasing her unique flare for the Indian cooking that began her passion for food, Vegan Richa’s Indian Kitchen is a breath of fresh air on the crowded bookshelf of new cookbook releases. Humbly claiming to have no formal culinary training, this very approach is what makes Richa’s recipes so compelling. They don’t put an on airs or devolve into confusing procedures with unknown ingredients. While Indian food is still somewhat intimidating to the casual cook, Richa does wonders to demystify the complex flavors of myriad curries, easily guiding the willing reader to all new edible delights.

Kicking things off with a hearty breakfast offering, the Savory Oat Hash (Kanda Poha) on page 27 was just my speed. Oats always make an appearance at day break around here, regardless of seasons or holidays. There’s no reason why the whole grain staple needs to be plain and dull, though. Richa’s approach kicks up the classic to a whole new level; spicy, savory flavors reinvent the old fashioned oat. Textural issues can be one of the biggest pitfalls to preparing this temperamental grain, but none of that struggle was evident here. Comforting, easy to eat, but not the least bit mushy, it was an invigorating change of pace to the typical morning routine.

Seeking ways to use up a considerable stockpile of quinoa, the Potato Quinoa Patties (Aloo Tikki) on page 40 immediately leapt out as a “must make.” Employing red quinoa rather than white, the results were as visually impressive as they were crave-worthy. The spud-based batter was surprisingly easy to work with, holding together beautifully all through the process of pan frying and effortlessly developing a crisp, golden crust around the edges. An incredibly moist, tender interior lurked just beneath the surface, boasting a nuanced, harmonious blend of spices, much more complex than I would have managed solo with my default mix. Paired with a simple chickpea curry, I had myself a complete meal in no time at all. This recipe is a definite keeper, to be made again many times over.

Intrigued by the unconventional blend of curry and puff pastry, I simply couldn’t resist giving the Makhani Vegetable Pot Pie on page 132 a try. Though I feared that the filling appeared impossibly soupy at first, a terrible miscalculation of liquid additions, it thickened beautifully after cooling. For anyone with a more timid palate, or those still uneasy about exotic flavors, this should be the gateway to Indian cooking. Mild overall and subtly sweet, the melange of spices, rich coconut gravy, and fresh vegetables should make this an easy crowd-pleaser, no matter the audience. Plus, when using frozen puff pastry to crown the dish, you’d be hard-pressed to craft a quicker, more impressive meal.

Granted, perhaps you should take my words with a grain of salt, and a big pinch of cumin while you’re at it. Richa has been a dear blog buddy for longer than I can recall, and her cookbook was offered to me free of charge. Why should you take my words of praise at face value? Quite frankly, if you missed out on the opportunity to taste even a single dish from Richa’s Vegan Kitchen, you would be doing yourself, and your taste buds, a terrible disservice.


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Sharp Relief

Ask any chef about the most important tool in their arsenal, and despite constant influx of new cooking technology, their response is invariably the same: The chef’s knife. It’s not the only ingredient in a properly equipped kitchen, but without it, nothing is possible. It’s a shame then that it’s so frequently taken for granted. Used every day without a second thought, abused on hard coconut shells and allowed to grow pitifully dull, I’m just as guilty as anyone. My Global knife has served me well for years, but when I was approached by Ergo Chef with the opportunity to try a new blade, I quickly realized that even at the same price point, all knives are not created equal.

The Crimson Series, so named for the rich red fiberglass handles, boasts a truly beautiful 8-inch chef’s knife that is nothing short of a delight to hold. Living up to the promise of an ergonomic design, it feels as though it was made for my hand, comfortable enough to slice and dice for hours on end. The whole piece is incredibly well balanced too, bearing down with a solid heft without actually feeling heavy. Perhaps most importantly, that blade is sharp as a razor, effortlessly slicing through any foodstuffs in its path without any drag to speak of.

When the most mundane of tasks like chopping vegetables can become a genuine pleasure, it revolutionizes the whole cooking experience. A simple knife upgrade can do that, and this is definitely one worth investing in.


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Prepare for the Worst, Expect the Best

As the holidays grow closer by the minute, everyday meals can sometimes take a backseat to party planning. Thankfully, Nava Atlas is here to save the day, or at least the dinner, with a guest post sharing some handy tips on meal planning. This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the breadth and depth of the kitchen wisdom packed into Plant Power. For more advice, and of course, more delicious recipes than a hungry eater could imagine, you simply must check out the book for yourself.

As an early holiday gift, Nava and her publishers have kindly offered a copy to give away to one lucky reader. To log your bid, all you need to do is read through these prime tips below and add your own meal planning pointers, or perhaps your favorite meal to prep in advance, in the comment section. As per usual, make sure you leave your name and email in the appropriate boxes. This giveaway is only open to those with US addresses. You have until Friday, November 28th at midnight EST to enter.

And now, without further ado, take it away, Nava!

7 Simple Meal-Planning Strategies for the Plant-Based Kitchen

Here are some of my tried-and-true meal-planning tips for making cooked-from-scratch meals a daily reality, even after the most exhausting days. You’ll find much more detail on how to accomplish all of these strategies, plus lots more of these kinds of tips in Plant Power: Transform Your Kitchen, Plate, and Life with More Than 150 Fresh and Flavorful Vegan Recipes by Nava Atlas, from which this was adapted (©2014, published by HarperOne, reprinted by permission). Photos by Hannah Kaminsky. Back when my kids were growing up and I still was in the midst of the classic juggling act, I was a lot more disciplined about meal planning. I found that it really did buy me time and sanity. For our family of four, I planned three meals per week. If I made ample quantities, I could count on leftovers for three more dinners. And leftovers can always be tweaked so that they’re slightly different the next day. For example, today’s salad can be tomorrow’s wrap; tonight’s soup-and-wrap dinner can become tomorrow’s soup-and-vegan-quesadilla dinner. What do you see as your ideal meal-making style? Decide whether you want to make different meals every night or most nights and rotate them through the season or whether you want to try the three-meals-with-leftovers strategy. If you want to be a seat-of-the-pants cook, more power to you. For that kind of spontaneity, you’ve got to have an especially well-stocked pantry and fridge as well as the imagination to look at a bunch of ingredients and envision what they can become.

  1. Plan three full meals for each week. From those meals, you can plan two nights of leftovers, which makes life easier—though this is challenging if you have hungry teens or athletes at home. Don’t think of leftovers as boring. They can be repurposed in ways that might not make it into the culinary hall of fame, but with a few tweaks they can be as tasty as the original preparation. For instance, leftover chili can become Cincinnati chili mac.
  1. Plan meals before going shopping. Planning your meals before you go food shopping will ensure that you don’t waste time, money, and energy running back and forth to the store all week. A mere twenty to thirty minutes of meal planning per week will simplify your life immeasurably, especially if you have a tight schedule, young children, or both.
  1. Plan meals after going shopping. What? Didn’t I just say to plan meals before going shopping? Sometimes it’s good to think outside the box. When farm market or CSA season is in full swing—or during the summer and fall harvest season in general—and you’re getting basket loads of fresh produce, it may be wiser to retrofit your meal plans to your fresh food finds.
  1. Prepare a few basics for the week ahead. On whatever day or evening is the most home- centered, prepare a few basics for the days ahead. Sunday afternoons and evenings are ideal as you’re looking to the coming week, but do whatever is good for your schedule. Even the simplest things can ease weeknight meal preparation immeasurably.
  1. At least once a week, prepare a big one-pot or one-pan meal. This kind of meal can stretch to cover at least two nights. Such meals include hearty soups and stews, bean dishes, abundant pastas, and casseroles. You’ll find many such recipes later on in this book. Double the quantities if you need to, especially if you have a large family. Then you need little more than salad and fresh whole-grain bread to accompany the meal.
  1. Develop a weekly repertoire. Make slight variations on your standard recipes each week so that meals don’t get boring. For example, Friday dinner has long been a pizza and salad meal, but within this basic framework, there are endless variations!
  1. Create a seasonal repertoire. An alternative to a weekly repertoire is a seasonal repertoire, consisting of ten or fifteen basic meals that you like best. These ten tasty meals— one for each weeknight for two weeks—are repeated as needed throughout the season. Weekends can bring a heavenly leftovers buffet. That doesn’t sound too daunting, right?

UPDATE: The entry period has now ended and with the help of my favorite random number generator, a winner has been chosen…

Lucky commenter number 6 happens to be Terri Cole! Congratulations Terri, and thank you so much to everyone else who shared their smart, thoughtful, and helpful meal planning tips. Stay tuned for the next big giveaway, coming up soon!

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