BitterSweet

Sweet Musings with a Bitterly Sharp Wit


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Great Grains

Farmers dutifully set up shop, week after week, hawking their fresh fare at the market no matter the conditions. A particularly stoic lot, they laugh in the face of adverse weather, forging ahead fearlessly where so many others would turn back. They find great bounty where most would see scarcity. Even during these lean, dark days of winter, life erupts from the soil in all rainbow hues, if only the rest of us would open our eyes wide enough to fully appreciate it.

While cravings for local berries are fierce at times, greater seasonal riches are available to quell that temptation. All it takes is a bit of care, pairing bright flavors with a range of textures, to satisfy while maximizing the available fresh produce.

Leaning more heavily on hearty cooked grains than frilly tender greens, this is a salad built to endure colder, less forgiving days. Toothsome, high-protein kamut, known in some circles as Khorasan wheat, is the backbone of this production here, another unsung hero that rarely garners the praise it truly deserves. Lest you write it off as just another one-dimensional side dish, consider the limitless possibilities it possesses for adaptation. Restorative and soothing when served warm, it’s just as satisfying prepared in advance and served chilled, for those unpredictable spikes in temperature as spring grows nearer. Transform it into a one-bowl main dish by tossing in cooked beans of any sort, and ramp up the rainbow of vegetables by adding thinly sliced radishes, shredded carrots, and/or diced avocado. Crowning the whole affair with a handful of crumbled vegan feta may be gilding the lily, but that small indulgence is the perfect foil to such a robust, no-nonsense foundation.

Having used this base as a starting point for countless culinary adventures already, I can vouch for all of these additions, but by no means are they your only options. Simply look to your local market with fresh eyes and see how many wonderful options still flourish and thrive, rather than the typical staples that may be absent. There’s still a wide world of flavor our there, ready to be discovered.

Kamut and Kale Salad

2 Cups Cooked Kamut*
6 Ounces Kale, Shredded
1/4 Red Onion, Thinly Sliced
1/4 Cup Fresh Mint Leaves, Minced
1 1/2 Cups Seedless Red Grapes, Halved
1 Pound Red Beets, Cooked, Peeled, and Sliced
Vegan Feta (Optional)

Vinaigrette:

2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1 Tablespoon Red Wine Vinegar
1 Teaspoon Lemon Juice
1 Teaspoon Dijon Mustard
1/4 – 1/2 Teaspoon Salt

*To cook kamut, I typically use the pasta method, which means adding about a cup or so of grains to a generous measure of water; at least 4 or 5 cups. Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook for 45 – 60 minutes until the grains are tender but still toothsome, and drain off the excess water. This ensure the perfect texture every time without the threat of having anything stick and burn on the bottom of the pot. Measure out what you need for the recipe and store any extra in an airtight container in the fridge for up to a week.

If you’d like to serve this salad warm or hot, begin assembly as soon as the kamut is fully cooked. Otherwise, chill the cooked grains for at least two hours before proceeding.

Preparation is very straightforward, and I have a feeling you could probably figure it out just by looking at the list of ingredients. In any event, toss the cooked kamut, kale, onion, mint, grapes, and beets together in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together all oil, vinegar, lemon juice, and mustard, adding salt to taste. Pour the dressing over the vegetables and grains, mixing thoroughly to coat. Top with crumbled vegan feta, if desired. Enjoy!

Makes 4 – 6 Servings

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Flying High on Plants

No one looks forward to being locked in an airborne tin can, strapped down at an unnatural acute angle for hours on end, and that’s to say nothing of the hoops to jump through to qualify for such abuse in the first place. Yet we all accept these offenses as the necessary evils of air travel; small, cumulative personal injustices that must be suffered for the prize of a new adventure. On the bright side, this mild form of torture makes the joy of arrival all the greater, if only for the relief that comes from getting out of that maddening contraption.

Every small pleasure found in this unpleasant process is thus magnified, savored with aplomb, in hopes of turning down the volume on the rest of that logistical cacophony. for this reason alone, it’s worth the extra hassle whenever I book a flight out of SFO, because that means I can at least find a good meal while waiting at the gate.

It’s true: There’s fresh, healthy, and satisfying food to be found in an airport! The Plant Cafe Organic lays claim to many outposts across the bay area, but ironically, this inaccessible, highly guarded location is the one I stop by most often. Every time, the only thing I ever want is a pile of delicious produce, and every time, the understated yet dazzling grapefruit and avocado salad delivers.

Thankfully, there’s no need to subject yourself to such pain for such gustatory gratification, nor schlep out all the way to that isolated airport terminal, either. It turns out that while the sharply unpleasant contrasts surrounding this small morsel of pleasure do enhance the experience to a degree, it’s even more enjoyable when eaten at leisure, sprawled on the couch at home, preferably clad in completely unflattering sweatpants and slippers.

Something about the acidic, subtly sweet citrus, creamy avocado, and crunchy macadamia nuts make this salad utterly unforgettable. Don’t just take my word for it, because I’m afraid I can’t do it full justice in a few short sentences. It’s just too good to fully explain in words. This simple, invigorating combination will brighten the darkest of post-daylight savings time evenings.

Avocado Grapefruit Salad

Macadamia Nut Dressing:

2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
2 Tablespoons White Wine Vinegar
2 Tablespoons Lemon Juice
2 Scallions, Sliced
1/4 Cup Raw Macadamia Nuts
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
1/8 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper

Salad:

8 Cups Arugula
2 Cups Thinly Sliced Fennel
1 Large Pink Grapefruit, Sliced into Segments
1 Large, Ripe Avocado, Sliced
1/3 Cup Toasted Macadamia Nuts, Roughly Chopped
Salt and Pepper, to Taste

The procedure is pretty much self explanatory once you glance through the ingredient list, but here goes. Toss all of the ingredients for the dressing into your blender or food processor and puree on high, until creamy and completely smooth. Toss the dressing with the arugula and fennel, and divide the greens between 2 or 3 bowls. Top with equal amounts of grapefruit, avocado, and macadamia nuts. Sprinkle with additional salt and pepper if needed, and enjoy.

Makes 2 – 3 Servings

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Oktuberfest

Who had the baffling idea to name the annual German beer and food extravaganza “Oktoberfest” when the majority of the celebration takes place in September? Perhaps it was a subtle method of throwing outsiders off the trail of free-flowing booze, because it certainly does succeed in disorienting me every year. No matter how carefully I plan, I can never seem to hit this moving target with an appropriately timed blog post- Despite the fact that it’s actually standing still. Maybe that clouded vision is just all the alcohol talking.

On this, the last day of the month, I’m here to say that at last, victory is mine! Best of all, the festivities are officially sanctioned to drag on for at least another week, so you have plenty of time to get into the kitchen and whip this one up. You’ll want to revisit the recipe well beyond the scope of drunken revelries though, so make sure you keep it on file well beyond these ambiguous dates.

Dreaming of all the most comforting foods to help soak up a pint or two and inspired by the German theme, potatoes were an obvious base for a suitably hearty accompaniment. Tender potatoes are served warm, tossed with meaty “sausage” crumbles simmered in a bit of the golden elixir itself, contrasted by the crisp bite of tart green apple and the satisfyingly sour foil of fresh sauerkraut. A far cry from your Aunt Betty’s mayonnaise-soaked picnic fare, I hesitate to ascribe it the title of “potato salad,” because this autumnal melange is truly a different beast altogether. Celebrate the humble spud, don’t hide it in that gelatinous white goop! A simple mustard vinaigrette brings everything together, without weighing the dish down.

Teetotalers are welcome to replace the beer with vegetable broth, to no ill effects. Even if you can’t ever place Oktoberfest in the correct month like me, you can still celebrate Oktuberfest any time of year.

Oktuberfest Warm Potato Salad

1 Pound Yukon Gold Potatoes, Diced
1 Pound Baby Red-Skinned Potatoes, Halved
1/2 Large Sweet Onion, Quartered and Thinly Sliced
2 Cups Vegan Sausage Crumbles
1/2 Cup Sauerkraut, Thoroughly Drained
3/4 – 1 1/4 Cup Beer
1 Tart Green Apple, Cored, Quartered, and Sliced
1 Tablespoon Whole Grain Mustard
1 Tablespoon Red Wine Vinegar
1/4 Cup Olive Oil, to Taste
Salt and Pepper

Bring a large pot of water to a boil before adding in the potatoes. Simmer gently to prevent them from breaking up, and cook until fork tender; about 10 minutes. Thoroughly drain but do not rinse.

Meanwhile, in a medium skillet, combine the sliced onion with the “sausage” crumbles, drained sauerkraut, and 3/4 cup of the beer. Simmer until the beer has been almost entirely absorbed, the onions are tender, and sausage crumbles are warmed through. Add more beer as needed if it cooks down too quickly, to prevent anything from sticking to the bottom of the pan and burning.

Toss the sliced apple into a large bowl with the cooked potatoes and sausage crumble mixture. Separately, whisk together the mustard, vinegar, and oil before pouring the dressing in as well. Stir thoroughly but gently so as not to mash the potato pieces. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.

The potatoes will continue to absorb the dressing as the salad sits, so don’t be afraid to add an extra tablespoon or two of beer into the mix if preparing it in advance.

Serve warm or at room temperature, with a frosty mug of beer on the side for maximum enjoyment.

Makes 6 – 8 Servings

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Ravishing Radishes

Pungent, peppery little orbs hidden beneath crowns of unruly leafy greens, the humble radish is all too often overlooked both in the garden and on the plate. Offering so much more than just fodder for antiquated garnishing techniques, these root vegetables were once so prized by the ancient Greeks that gold replicas would be crafted in their form. Though considerably less valuable but far more delicious, the plain old red radish deserves just as much reverence today.

Best when picked small and eaten moments after brushing away the soil that they grew in, nothing is needed to dress up the bright, spicy flavor concealed within each tiny tuber. The average supermarket radish is sadly so far removed from it’s original glory that it’s no surprise few people share any amount of enthusiasm for this once prized vegetable. Decapitated in the field, denuded of their glorious greens, and shrink wrapped to preserve shelf life, I wouldn’t want to do much more than carve these tasteless marbles into silly sculptures either.

Even if you’ve turned up your nose at radishes in the past, I implore you to give them another chance- Fresh, full of flavor, and treated with respect.

Tossed simply with a bold dressing highlighting its not-so-distant relative, the horseradish, the complimentary flavors sparkle across this crisp salad. Utilizing the whole vegetable, greens and all, this raw preparation comes together very quickly, ready to start off any springtime meal on a high note.

Totally Rad Salad

1 Bunch (About 3/4 Pound) Red Radishes
2 – 3 Persian Cucumbers
1 – 2 Tablespoons Fresh Grated Horseradish
1 Tablespoons Red Wine Vinegar
1 1/2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1 Tablespoon Fresh Dill Leaves, Fronds, and/or Blossoms
1 Scallion, Thinly Sliced
Salt and Pepper, to Taste

Trim off the spindly tips of the radishes and remove the greens. Rinse and reserve the leaves. Thinly slice both the radishes and cucumbers and place them in a large bowl. Combine all of the remaining ingredients in a separate dish, making sure to break up all of the horseradish so that it’s not ultimately clumped into one bite. Adjust seasonings to taste.

Pour the dressing over the sliced cucumbers and radishes, tossing thoroughly to evenly coat the vegetables. Arrange the reserved leafy greens on salad plates and top with the dressed veggies. Serve immediately.

Makes 2 – 4 Servings

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Weather or Not

Don’t talk about the weather. No one wants to read another dissertation on the current atmospheric conditions in their own immediate locale, let alone those in some irrelevant corner of the world. Not a single person out there could care less about the recent rainfall, temperature swings, or the balance of sun and clouds, and yet you’d be hard pressed to find two consecutive posts here that don’t bear at least a passing mention of one. Keep this up and you’ll have to convert BitterSweet to a weather blog. Of all the topics to open a conversation with, discussing the weather is absolutely the most boring approach, guaranteed to stop any casual interaction in its tracks. Please, I’m begging you, do not start another article based around the weather.

It’s a conversational dead end, a social death sentence, a trap that I’m well aware of and yet fall into every time. Weather affects countless facets of my daily life, making it impossible to merely push aside as though it wasn’t such a dominating force. That’s especially true when it comes to culinary inspiration. No other single element affects the food I crave and create more than Mother Nature, each dish an edible manifestation of her mischievous climate deviance or meteorological phenomenon. Shopping more often at farmers markets and less at traditional supermarkets only intensifies this connection. Given this overwhelming influence, how am I to introduce a recipe inspired entirely by seasonal availability?

Let’s just talk about the food, shall we? The latest gems sparking my interest have come straight from the aforementioned farmers markets, thanks to the brilliant program CUESA has assembled, featuring local chefs and produce every weekend.

Presented by Chef Ben Paula of Sauce, this colorful composition has been a delicious reminder of the brilliance in simplicity for many ensuing meals. A Pickled Beet and Braised Beet Top Salad may not sound like much on paper, but the lightly briny taproot adds a new dimension of flavor to the leafy greens. Utilizing the whole vegetable, each plate presents a complete and thoughtful study of the much-maligned beet. I would wager that even naysayers would find something to love in such a fresh approach.

For a sweet accompaniment that won’t weigh you down, I would highly recommend the Blood Orange-Carrot-Almond Dreamsicle from Neka Pasquale of Urban Remedy fame. Truth be told, the name itself is far more complicated than the actual recipe. Simply mixing together prepared juices and almond milk provides a smart alternative to juicing from scratch, and creates an unexpectedly luscious drink. All you need is equal parts carrot juice, orange juice (blood or orange or standard work equally well, I’ve found), and almond milk. Add the almond milk last to prevent it from curdling, and enjoy chilled. I’ve taken to mixing up the formula with beet juice as well, since I just can’t get enough of the ruby red orbs.

Even if your immediate outlook isn’t nearly so sunny, go ahead and leave the forecast off the menu. I’d argue that these spring-time treats needn’t require optimal weather for your enjoyment.


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The Scarcity Fallacy

Well beyond the distraction of holiday merriment, winter stretches out as far as the eye can see, like an interminable ocean that surpasses the horizon. We’re in it for the long haul, no safe havens to moor our ships for the night, completely at the mercy of a historically mercurial season. No longer are we reliant on stockpiles of homemade preserves and canned goods, but fresh produce is considerably less diverse, or at least, anything grown nearby and worth eating offers fewer inspiring options. Even in balmy California, farmers market tables once straining under the weight of plump tomatoes and juicy peaches look comparatively sparse, bearing dusty tubers and hearty greens instead.

It’s a rough transition, no doubt about that, but great abundance can still be found even in the depths of winter. A far cry from the scarcity faced by the average cook only a few decades back, the danger isn’t that one might go hungry, but that one might go with a boring dinner. Oh, such terrible sacrifices we must make!

Instead of seeing what the local markets lack, it’s just as easy to see what they have to offer. With an open mind and a pinch of creativity, cravings that once seemed impossible to fulfill now appear ripe with potential for innovation.

Tabbouleh is a staple dish when the weather turns warm, the simplest combination of fresh ingredients that absolutely screams “summer!” in every refreshing bite. Tomatoes and parsley make up the foundation, with a handful of cracked wheat acting as the mortar holding everything together. It’s the kind of combination that needs no formal recipe, depending entirely on the strength of those bare components to shine. I’d never dream of making tabbouleh in winter, when only mealy pink tomatoes shipped halfway across the globe can be found rotting on grocery store shelves. No, not traditional tabbouleh…

…But I would make tabbouleh built with some crafty seasonal substitutions in mind. Bear with me, because I know that it’s not a natural leap to replace tomatoes with persimmons, but it makes perfect sense the moment you taste them in this light, leafy salad. Their juicy, meaty texture and natural sweetness add volumes of complexity to the basic composition, elevating the final product to a truly noteworthy side. Pomegranate arils follow to lend tart, crunchy bursts of flavor, echoing the bright lemon juice and balancing the bitter greens. Parsley could be the sole herbaceous element if you so desire, but in an homage to the abundance of root vegetables and in protest of food waste, I felt compelled to toss in those unloved green carrot tops that are all too often discarded, rather than savored as they should be.

Even the longest winter can feel far more manageable with a good supply of fresh, simple recipes on hand. There’s definitely a time and a place for the heavy soups and stews typically associated with the season, but a bit of lightness and brightness goes a long way when there’s no sun, and little local produce, to make up the difference.

Winter Tabbouleh

1/4 Cup Bulgur
1/4 Teaspoon Turmeric
1/2 Cup Vegetable Broth
1 Fuyu Persimmon, Peeled, Stemmed, and Chopped
1/3 Cup Pomegranate Arils (Optional)
1 1/2 Cups Carrot Tops, Minced
1 Cup Fresh Parsley, Minced
2 Tablespoons Red Onion, Finely Chopped
2 – 3 Tablespoons Lemon Juice
2 – 3 Tablespoons Olive Oil
Salt and Ground Black Pepper, to Taste

In a small saucepan, combine the bulgur wheat, turmeric, and vegetable broth, and place over low heat. Stir well and bring to a boil. Cover, turn off the heat, and let stand for 15 – 20 minutes, until all of the liquid has been absorbed.

Meanwhile, prepare the fruits and vegetables accordingly and toss together in a large bowl. Add the cooked bulgur when finished and slightly cooled, followed by the lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper, adding more or less according to personal preference.

Cover and chill for at least 2 hours before serving to allow the flavors to marry.

Makes 4 – 6 Servings

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Posole for the Soul

Just like the changing of the seasons themselves, the life cycle of a garden is predictable, yet invariably astonishing. It seems so improbable that such tiny seeds could ever be filled with life and produce edible fruit that it truly takes me by surprise, every single year, when I can reach out and pop that first tiny cherry tomato into my mouth. It’s the most natural process on earth and still it tastes like magic.

The first few harvests repeat this very same process; the wonder, the amazement, and the adoration of such impeccably fresh produce growing right in my backyard. Doing anything more than just eating the little red gems raw, still warm from the sunshine, seems like a crime against vegetables. Then, like clockwork, the tomatoes start to take over. There’s never more than a half-dozen working vines out there, and yet they’re suddenly producing more tomatoes than I know what to do with. Now it doesn’t sound like such a bad idea to get them into the kitchen anymore.

Adding a short but intense blast of heat contributes a beautiful char to the tiny tomatoes, introducing a slightly smoky note and concentrating their inherently umami flavors at the same time. The midsummer heat makes it a bit challenging to enjoy hot tomatoes though, so after chilling them down, they became the star ingredient in a salad inspired by one of my favorite stews: Posole.

Admittedly, I had never eaten hominy cold before, or outside of the classic soup for that matter, but it proved a delightful addition to this Tex-Mex mixture. Flavorful like fresh corn but more toothsome like miniature gnocchi, those chewy kernels lent the blend a heartiness akin to pasta salad, without all the gluten.

Speaking of those predictably unpredictable seasons, almost as soon as I had my picnic set up and ready to enjoy in the great outdoors, the sky decided that was the perfect moment to open up and begin to pour. Thus, I can now speak from experience to say that this salad does indeed keep well, for up 3 – 4 days in the fridge, and it’s even tasty when eaten warm.

While tomatoes are still plentiful and at their peak, celebrate the season with a unique preparation. It may be tough to sacrifice such perfect specimens, but I promise that the leap of faith will pay off in even bigger flavors.

Posole Salad

4 Cups Cherry or Grape Tomatoes
1/2 Cup Red Onion, Diced
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1 Teaspoon Dried Oregano
1/2 (1 1/4 Pound) Savoy Cabbage, Shredded
1 (29-Ounce) Can Cooked White Hominy, Drained and Rinsed
2 Ripe Avocados, Diced
1 Jalapeno, Seeded and Finely minced

Cilantro Dressing:

1/2 Cup Fresh Cilantro
1/4 Cup Sun-Dried Tomatoes
1 Clove Garlic
1/4 Cup Lime Juice
1 1/2 Tablespoons Chili Powder
2 Teaspoons Ground Cumin
1 Teaspoon Light Agave Nectar
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 Cup Olive Oil

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees. Toss the cherry tomatoes and diced red onion with the olive oil and oregano, and spread them out in one even layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Roast for 15 – 25 minutes, until the tomatoes are blistered and beginning to burst. Let cool before proceeding to assemble to salad.

While you’re waiting for the tomatoes to cool, go ahead and prepare the dressing. Simply toss the cilantro, sun-dried tomatoes, and garlic in your food processor or blender, and slowly pour the lime juice in while running the machine on low. Thoroughly puree, pausing to scrape down the sides of the canister if needed. Once mostly smooth, introduce the chili powder, cumin, agave, and salt next. Run the motor again while drizzling in the olive oil to emulsify.

Finish the salad, by tossing together the blistered tomatoes and onions, shredded cabbage, hominy, avocados, and jalapenos in a large bowl. Pour the dressing on top, tossing to coat. Chill for at least an hour before serving to allow the flavors to fully meld.

Serves 8 as a Starter or Side Dish

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