Pot of Gold

Tell the truth: How many times have you purchased a new product based largely on the container it came in? There’s no judgement here since it’s a marketing ploy I’ve fallen prey to more often than any reasonable shopper should, and I have shelves full of various empty jars to prove it. Insidious yet obviously effective, product packaging is a considerable factor for success in businesses both big and small. It conveys quality, makes a brand memorable, bolsters its presence on the shelf by setting it apart from the pack. For many years, that’s precisely why I knew about Petit Pot, enviously eyeing those shapely glass bottles stacked high in refrigerated cases. I know, you should never judge a book by its cover, but I had nothing else to go on since all of the luxuriously decadent contents were all dairy-based. Until now.

In a radical departure from the original line of French pot de creme offerings, the brand new Riz au Lait Coco is their very first non-dairy and fully vegan treat on offer.

Loosely set, erring much more on the side of a lightly thickened sauce than rich custard, this very quality lends it a deceptively light texture on the palate. For such a heavy, typically fatty main ingredient, this is both a marvel and a rarity. Tender grains of rice swim in a pool of coconut milk, accompanied only by a hint of cane sugar and salt. Dainty, unexpectedly delicate, the thinner texture creates a delightfully refreshing overall experience.

Coconut-forward but not aggressively so, each spoonful bears a lightly toasted tropical flavor but keeps things very simple. Perfectly fitting the definition of comfort food, there are no challenging flavors or surprises concealed in these attractive little containers. What you see is what you get, delivering on the high quality such packaging has always conveyed. Serve them absolutely chilled, straight out of the fridge and unadorned, for an ideal summer snack or dessert.

Locally made in San Francisco and sadly limited in availability nationwide, I’d like to think that this is just the start for a blossoming young company. After all, there’s clearly ample demand for more non-dairy desserts; the proof is in the pudding.

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Red is the New White Rice

History tends to repeat itself and predictably, what’s old is new all over again. Dubbed one of the hottest food trends emerging for 2018, ancient grains are being lauded as the latest superfood darlings that you’ve never heard of. Though the exact varieties are novel additions to the daily American diet, their roots go far deeper than the inexplicable attraction to all things rainbow-colored or bacon-topped. In fact, these staples are more commonplace than peanut butter and jelly. Triticale, einkon, freekeh; their names sound like snippets of poetry to the lyrically-inclined ear, and their flavors are equally enchanting. Distinctive in character, they fell out of favor in the early years of the industrial food revolution, when refined consistency (read: homogeneous blandness) was the benchmark of sophistication. All things earthy, coarse, and distinctive fell by the processing plant wayside.

Celebrating heirloom edibles is just a small indication of the healthy food revolution that’s been brewing for years, catapulting one slice of the past into mainstream awareness at a time. Now that the media has focused its lens on grains and pseudo seeds of bygone eras, carbivores the world over have a reason to rejoice. Even those less enamored of the macro-nutrients should be cheered by the greater availability of more diverse options, introducing a bold new palate of colors with which to paint the dinner plate. You needn’t step too far outside your comfort zone to capitalize on this newfound, old-school inclination. Bhutanese Red Rice is just one option that offers a savory departure from the common white variety.

High in fiber due to the residual crimson bran, red rice cooks much faster than the familiar brown grain but retains just as much savory, nutty flavor, if not more.

Visually inspired as always, the stunning burgundy hue guided my recipe experiments as soon as I got my hands on these soft, tender grains. Though I could have easily just eaten a plain bowlful with a pinch of salt, it would be a shame not to pump up the volume on that ruby rice with further red flavoring. Wine was a natural pairing, infused right into the grains as they cook to soften the alcoholic edge but emphasize the deeper, nuttier, grassier notes. Caramelized onions were a given, although now I’m kicking myself for not adding roasted red peppers into the mix as well. Luckily, I have a feeling that this staple crop will now be an essential ingredient in my pantry as well, so there should be many more opportunities to paint the kitchen red.

Red, Red Rice Pilaf

1 Cup Bhutanese Red Rice
2 Tablespoons Coconut Oil
1/2 Cup Diced Red Onion
2 Cloves Garlic, Finely Minced
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1 Teaspoon Whole Cumin Seeds
1 Teaspoon Whole Black Mustard Seeds
1 1/2 Cups Dry Red Wine
1/2 Cup Vegetable Stock
1 Bay Leaf
1/4 Teaspoon Crushed Red Pepper Flakes
1/2 Cup Toasted Sliced Almonds
1/2 Cup Frozen Peas, Thawed

Rinse the rice with cold water and thoroughly drain. Set aside.

Melt the coconut oil in a large saucepan over medium heat and add the onion. Saute for 2 – 3 minutes until translucent before adding the garlic. Turn down the heat to medium low, season with salt, and slowly cook, stirring periodically, until caramelized; about 30 minutes. Add in the cumin and mustard seeds, lightly toasting for 2 – 3 minutes until aromatic.

Introduce the red rice next, sauteing for just a minute or two. You’re not trying to sear the grains, but coat them in the oil and aromatics. Deglaze the pan with the red wine and vegetable stock, scraping the bottom to make sure that nothing sticks or burn. Add in the bay leaf and red pepper flakes, cover, and bring to a boil.

Reduce the heat to low and maintain a steady, gentle simmer. Cook for 20 minutes, until the rice is tender but still toothsome. Keep covered for 5 – 10 more minutes for any remaining liquid to absorb.

Stir in the almonds and peas last, fluff with a fork, and serve while steaming hot.

Makes 4 Servings

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Treasure Chestnuts

Inspired by the Japanese kuri gohan, the beauty of this side dish is its simplicity, highlighting the seasonal delight that is freshly roasted chestnuts. Harmonizing with the naturally nutty flavor of brown rice, those toothsome grains cling to each tender morsel for an incredibly satisfying bite. Though chestnuts are sadly hard to come by when winter ends, you’ll find yourself craving this combination all year long.

Chestnut Rice

2 Cups Short Grain Brown Rice
2 1/2 Cups Water
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1 Cup Roughly Chopped, Roasted and Shelled Chestnuts (About 20)
2 Tablespoons Vegan Butter or Coconut Oil
1 Tablespoon Toasted Black Sesame Seeds

My favorite way to prepare this dish is in an electric pressure cooker since it’s so crazy fast, but it can just as easily be made on the stove top. If working with a pressure cooker, simply toss in the rice, water, salt, chopped chestnuts, and butter or oil. Lock in the lid and set it to 20 minutes on high pressure. Once that time has elapsed, quick release by opening up the valve to immediately discharge the built up pressure. Stand back and cover with a dish towel to prevent any spray or steam burns. Let the rice stand for 5 more minutes before uncovering.

For stove top prep, combine the water, salt, and butter or oil in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Add the rice and chestnuts, cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer gently for 45 to 50 minutes, until the liquid has fully absorbed. Let stand for 5 more minutes.

Top with sesame seeds right before serving.

Makes 4 Servings as a Side Dish

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Taste the Rainbow

On paper, one year appears laughably brief. 365 days out of a lifetime is but a flash in the pan, a blip on the radar. Taken into the context of history, millennia in the making, it’s not even worth mentioning. Time continues slipping through our fingers unimpeded even as we speak, turning the most recent set of months into a shockingly short memory. It feels like no time has elapsed at all since I officially set down roots here on the west coast, and yet my calendar tells me that I’ve reached this first milestone, seemingly out of the blue.

Though many more months and a string of variably sketchy apartments in the bay area preceded this count, it’s been one full year that I’ve been parked in the same place, calling the address my own. You know it’s official when you finally set up shop and invest in a stand mixer, after all. Home is where the heavy kitchen equipment is.

While I felt it was essential to commemorate this first anniversary, it couldn’t be with any recipe that took itself too seriously. That just wouldn’t do for the occasion, or for the place. No, I wanted to create something that spoke of San Francisco’s modern whimsy and free spirit; the place that I know, not the place it used to be.

California rolls are something I’ve wanted to make for a while, and with the name of the state built right in, the easy pun was irresistible. Though it’s likely that this American maki originated a bit further down south, with this contemporary reinterpretation, I do hereby propose that we of the bay area reclaim it as our own. To create something truly San Franciscan, nothing short of a rainbow would do.

“Traditional” crab filling is replaced by fishless shredded jackfruit, spiked with vegan fish sauce and a touch of sriracha, if you so desire. This unique, oceanic addition would normally be the big selling point for any sushi roll, but it’s clearly the colors surrounding it that steal the show. 100% natural hues are derived from plant-based sources that are probably sitting around in your pantry or fridge right now, to tint plain sushi rice and transform it into something truly special.

Cheers, San Francisco! Here’s to many more vibrant, colorful years together!

San Francisco, California Sushi Rolls

Crabby Filling:

16 Ounces Young Jackfruit
2 Scallions, White Parts Only, Finely Minced
2 Tablespoons Finely Minced Roasted Red Bell Pepper
1 Tablespoon Vegan Fish Sauce or Soy Sauce
1 Tablespoon Lemon Juice
2 Teaspoons Nutritional Yeast
1/2 Teaspoon Garlic Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Onion Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Celery Seeds, Ground
3 Tablespoons Vegan Mayonnaise
1/2 – 1 Tablespoon Sriracha (Optional, for Spicy Rolls)

To Assemble:

2 Ripe Avocados
2 Persian Cucumbers, Thinly Sliced Lengthwise
8 Sheets Roasted NoriAdditional Sriracha, if Desired

Rainbow Sushi Rice:

2 Cups Sushi Rice
2 1/4 Cups Water
2 Tablespoons Rice Vinegar
2 Tablespoons Mirin
1/4 Teaspoon Salt

Red: 1 Tablespoon Beet Juice
Orange: 1 Tablespoon Beet Juice, 1/2 Teaspoon Ground Turmeric
Yellow: 1/2 Teaspoon Ground Turmeric
Green: 1/2 Teaspoon Spirulina Powder
Blue + Purple: 1/3 Cup Diced Red Cabbage, 1/2 Cup Water, 1/8 Teaspoon Baking Soda (Divided)

It may look like a lot of ingredients, but it’s really quite simple to create your very own sushi rainbows. Prepare the filling first so that it has time to sit and marinate. Shred and/or chop the jackfruit coarsely to break it up and approximate the texture of shredded crab. Add in all of the remaining ingredients and stir well. Cover, place in the fridge, and let sit for at least 1 – 3 hours for the flavors to fully meld. This can also be prepared well in advance; up to a week if stored in an air-tight container.

The real fun comes with the rice. Rinse and thoroughly drain the rice, washing away the excess starch, before bringing the water to a boil. Add the rice, stir once to break up any clumps, and reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. Cover the pot and let cook for 14 – 18 minutes, until the liquid has been absorbed. Mix together the vinegar, mirin, and salt in a separate container before pouring it into the hot rice, mixing thoroughly to incorporate. Keep the rice covered and let steam until fully cooked and tender.

Allow the cooked rice to cool until you can comfortably handle it; about 30 minutes. Divide it equally into 7 bowls (yes, you’ll end up with a lot of dishes to wash, but it will be worth it!). Mix in the designated coloring agent for each individual hue, stirring until the grains are more or less evenly dyed. The only colors that aren’t entirely self explanatory are the blue and purple, which take a little bit more effort to extract. Combine the cabbage and water in a small saucepan and simmer, covered, for 10 – 15 minutes, until the water is a pleasing shade of purple. Strain out the actual cabbage pieces and use 2 – 3 teaspoons of the liquid to create your violet rice. To the remaining water, whisk in the baking soda, and watch the dye magically turn blue. Just as before, mix in 2 – 3 teaspoons to make the blue rice.

Finally, to assemble, lay out thin strips of each colored rice on a sheet of nori in rainbow order, leaving about a 1 1/2-inch span of nori clean. Press down lightly to adhere and even out the lines. Top with the marinated crabby filling, thinly sliced cucumber, and plenty of avocado. If you really like it hot, go ahead and add an extra squirt of sriracha in, too. Carefully roll the whole bundle up as tightly as possible, pressing everything together gently but firmly as you go. Lightly moisten the clean strip of nori to seal the end.

Slice into 6 – 8 pieces and repeat with the remaining ingredients. Serve with soy sauce for dipping and go ahead, taste the rainbow!

Makes 8 Servings

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The Pouch Principle

No matter what the actual dish in question is, prepared, shelf-stable meals are often labeled  across the board as unhealthy, or even worse, unpalatable. To cast such a wide net across this vast category of edibles only does a disservice to the eater, putting scores of undiscovered flavors firmly out of reach. Sure, fresh is indisputably best whenever possible, but between busy schedules, budgetary constraints, and unreliable kitchens, this alternative becomes a prime option. Especially for the traveler with little more than a microwave at best, such handy shortcut meals are an absolute godsend.

One company producing pouches of higher quality than most is Tasty Bite, a staple in the vegan and vegetarian marketplace for almost a decade. Offering East Asian delights across countless country borders, it’s an easy introduction to the unique palate of spices that perfumes these unique cuisines, without needing to hunt down a restaurant willing to go without their ghee. Although there’s typically a package or two stashed away in my pantry in case of emergencies, I had no idea that Tasty Bite made more than just entrees until they landed on my doorstep. Now delving into the world of sides, there are scores of flavorful starchy options to pair with your punjab, if you so wish.

One of my favorites has always been the Channa Masala, a mildly spiced chickpea stew found on any Indian menu that’s worth reading through. This particular rendition bears incredibly tender, creamy chickpeas in a lightly tangy tomato sauce. More flavorful than hot, the pepper is played down while the sweeter, warmer spices perfume the dish. Whole spices lend occasional pops of flavor; toasted cumin or coriander seeds add concentrated bursts of flavor into different bites, keeping the eating experience exciting.

Plated on a bed of Thai Lime Rice, I was taken aback by just how delicious those unassuming grains were. A focal point in its own right, the rice leads with a strong punch of lemongrass, enhanced by the richness of coconut milk. Granted, the texture fell a bit more on the side of mushy than I would prefer, but for a dish that’s merely nuked for a minute and ready to go, you can’t beat that complex flavor.

Punjab Eggplant, another common stable of Indian cooking, tortures me to no end. Though I long to dig in with abandon, eggplant does still make my throat burn, so I passed the torch over to my mom for this taste test. She noted that the spice level was high enough to make her nose run, although there was still a notable sweetness about the sauce. The greatest failing here was the largely homogenous, pulpy texture, perhaps something that could be remedied with a pairing of crunchy crackers or flatbread instead of rice.

Of course, I just had to go the more traditional route and add Ginger Lentil Rice into the mix. Though this rice has the same soft qualities as before, the lentils poses a pleasantly surprising firm bite. Dyed a brilliant yellow thanks to the turmeric-imbued curry powder, aromatic ginger essence does take the lead, just as promised. Much more interesting than your average “bean and rice” side dish, I would venture to say that it could even be considered a full meal in itself, thanks to the effortless combination of nutritious proteins and starches.

Previous unbeknownst to me, Tasty Bite has also begun serving up Asian noodles in their iconic pouches. Sampling the Kung Pao Asian Noodles with high hopes, I’m sad to report that the noodles themselves proved predictably overcooked, well past the stage of aldente. Painted in a tangy, punchy sauce, toothsome peanuts and water chestnuts do introduce a bit more character to the combination, if not quite the structure I so craved. Balancing sweetness, saltiness, and spiciness, it’s nothing too complicated or challenging; easy comfort food for the harried eater. However, I can’t say I would readily venture into the realm of noodle pouches again in the near future. There’s still a way for the technology to go to prevent the texture downfalls inherent in the pasta.

Sharing a world of flavors that will satisfy hunger pangs in a minute flat, it doesn’t get any easier than a quick meal whipped up courtesy of Tasty Bite. Just fire up the microwave and dig in.

Eau de Risotto

Perfume is one of the greatest public threats, especially when lavished with careless excess. Smelling good is an admirable desire, one to be encouraged for sure, but the chemical cocktails that some hapless souls feel compelled to bathe in are far more offensive than a little B.O. Sensitivity to scents is on the rise, perhaps from overexposure, but the average cologne has simply never appealed to me, always too pungent and completely unfamiliar. If I ever wanted to smell like something other than myself, it wouldn’t be an indescribable aroma defined only by a brand name, but something edible. Anyone who knows me probably saw this one coming, but food scents are a completely different story, literally adding a welcome spice to the day.

For years, vanilla extract was my perfume of choice; a dab on the wrist and behind the ears set me in the right mood for a day at school. Floor cleaner is best in lemon, that bright citrus simply screaming out “I’m clean!” far clearer than any product touting itself as ocean wave, or the equally mysterious “fresh rain.” Likewise, my hand soap smells like tomato vines and body lotion has notes of cucumber.

Call me scent-sensitive, but these omnipresent aromas affect not only my mood, but also my cravings in a big way. That fact became abundantly clear as soon as a new grapefruit facial scrub was incorporated into the daily beauty routine. Within just a few washes, I found myself yearning for a taste of that bold, sour, sprightly flavor. Never mind that it had been years since I last sampled this blushing citrus fruit- I suddenly couldn’t get enough, eating them straight and incorporating the segments into just about everything.

That’s where this highly aromatic risotto came in. Perfumed with grapefruit, juicy chunks of the flesh are sprinkled throughout, bursting with bitterness that perfectly cuts the rich, creamy base. Accented by the spice of wasabi and a topping of peppery watercress, it’s a lively savory side that may very well steal the show at dinner time. Don’t fight those strong flavors, but pair it with a more mild protein, such as tamari-baked tofu or a simple chicken-style seitan cutlet. Otherwise, feel free to turn it into a one-pot meal by adding in a can of rinsed chickpeas, or 2 cups of shelled fava beans for a real seasonal treat.

No matter how many offensive scents you may encounter in your daily trials and tribulations, the aroma of this risotto bubbling away on the stove will surely set you right.

Grapefruit and Wasabi Risotto

2 Tablespoons Avocado Oil or Olive Oil
1 Leek, Thoroughly Washed and Thinly Sliced (White and Light Green Parts Only)
2 Cloves Garlic, Finely Minced
1/4 – 3/4 Teaspoon Salt
1 Cup Sushi Rice
3 – 4 Cups Low-Sodium Vegetable Stock, Warmed
1/4 Cup Mirin
2 Tablespoons Nutritional Yeast
1 Large Pink Grapefruit
1/2 Cup Plain, Unsweetened Vegan Creamer or Coconut Milk
1 1/2 – 3 Teaspoons Wasabi Paste*

To Finish:

1 Medium Ripe Avocado
1 Tablespoon Lemon Juice
2 – 4 Ounces Watercress
Avocado or Olive Oil (Optional)

*The amount of heat that wasabi paste packs varies greatly depending both on brand and age. Most are still mixtures of horseradish and vinegar, but what’s more concerning is the occasional inclusion of milk-based additives, so read labels carefully. The longer you keep a tube in the cupboard, the less spicy it will taste, so keep that in mind as you begin to incorporate it into your cooking and adjust the quantities accordingly.

Set a large saucepan over medium heat and warm the oil before adding in the leek and garlic. Saute for 5 – 8 minutes, until softened and aromatic, before stirring in 1/4 teaspoon salt to draw out more of the vegetables’ moisture. Incorporate the rice, stirring to coat, and cook until translucent; about 3 – 4 minutes.

Pour in the first cup of warm vegetable stock, mirin, and nutritional yeast, reducing the heat to medium-low, keeping the liquid at a gentle simmer. Stir periodically, scraping the bottom and sides of the pot with your spatula to prevent the mixture from sticking and burning. Once the liquid has mostly absorbed into the grains, add in another cup of vegetable stock.

Meanwhile, zest the grapefruit and hold the zest off to the side. Supreme the fruit, lightly chopping the segments into bite-sized pieces.

After about 25 minutes of cooking, the liquid should have absorbed into the rice, and the rice will be creamy but tender. Turn off the heat and add the creamer, grapefruit zest, and 1 1/2 teaspoons wasabi paste, stirring thoroughly. Gently fold in the chopped grapefruit pieces, being careful not to smash them or break them up further. Add more salt or wasabi paste to taste.

To serve, thinly slice the avocado and toss it in the lemon juice. Spoon out the portions of risotto into bowls and top each one with a few slices of avocado and a generous handful of watercress. Drizzle with an additional drizzle of oil if desired. Enjoy immediately while piping hot!

Serves 3 – 5 as a Side Dish

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