Lettuce Eat Celtuce

“Excuse me? Hi, yes, thank you. I know it’s been a while since my last visit, but I don’t see the Chengdu-style fava beans on the menu. Am I looking in the wrong section?”

Spoiler alert: I was not looking in the wrong section. Those supple pods bathed in fiery red oil, kissed by the heat of a blazing wok, were gone. In light of all the new, exciting eateries opening up everyday, few spots warrant repeat visits whenever I return to my hometown on the east coast, but Shu always drew me back in no matter how brief the trip, for another round of those inimitable fava beans. Now, bereft of my essential staple, I scrambled to amend my order. What could possibly take the place of this rare delicacy?

Not one to play it safe, naturally, my eyes drift to the most unusual option I can find. Vegetarian chicken with lettuce. Lettuce? Really? Described merely as an entree containing peppers, wood ear mushrooms, and scallion in a white garlic sauce, I pressed the waiter for details, to no avail. Not even Google translate could help, alternately suggesting that the Chinese characters might be indicating a type of celery, or asparagus, or an unidentified stem. It was perfectly peculiar.

Thus, I accidentally discovered celtuce, the greatest uncelebrated Asian vegetable to take root in Chinatown. The entire thing can be eaten, but is often sold with the leaves separated from its white stems. More versatile than your average tuber, it can be eaten raw, with a crisp texture similar to jicama or water chestnuts, or cooked, be it steamed, boiled, pickled, grilled, roasted, or sauteed, yielding a more tender bite. The flavor is mild but subtly nutty, with a slight woodsy, smoky piquancy, almost reminiscent of broccoli stem or kohlrabi.

Celtuce is almost too versatile, making it hard to narrow down the options for preparation at home. After much deliberation, I landed on a simple dish that is equally adaptable. Keep it cold and you’ve got a refreshing salad. Give it a little saute and you’ll be enjoying a hot stir fry in minutes. Toss with pasta, like al dente bucatini or spaghetti, and it’s a whole new meal.

Simple, fresh, full of crisp seasonal produce, it could become the star of your next potluck picnic. Spring is just around the corner, no matter the weather right now! Introduce your friends to celtuce with this compelling little salad, be it hot or cold.

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Noshtalgia

Nostalgia (nos·​tal·​gia):
1 The state of being homesick : homesickness
2 A wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition

Nosh (näsh):
1. Food
2. To eat enthusiastically

Noshtalgia (nosh·​tal·​gia):
Longing for a food you can no longer eat

Every time I return to my hometown on the east coast, I’m hit by a wave of noshtalgia that could drown the strongest Olympic swimmer. Driving by the space where my culinary roots originally grew, at Health in a Hurry, I’m suddenly yet predictably swept out to sea. The taste memories come flooding back; the white bean delicata, the almond pate nori rolls, and oh, the beet marmalade! What I would give for just one more bite.

Slowly, painstakingly, I’ve begun to reassemble the recipes by sheer force of will, powerful cravings, and a touch of good luck. All previous formulas have been lost to time, but some were so powerfully ingrained through repetition of preparation and consumption that they reemerge from their decade of slumber fully intact, unharmed.

As if they had been written down on the backside of a napkin that I finally thought to turn over, I find the formula instantly, without any revisions nor concessions made.

Welcome back to the world, Lemon Curry Rice Salad.

Arguably our most popular dish, I must admit that its charms were lost on me at the time. Adding raisins to a savory entree was still unappealing to my immature tastes, and the base composition was so basic.

Rice, curry vinaigrette, some vegetables and scallions, tossed and dished out. Sure, I ate plenty of it given the opportunity, and made gallons at a time to fill the front cases, but I never thought it would be something I yearned for when it was gone.

Older, wiser, and hungrier than ever, one bite of the grain and vegetable amalgamation brought me right back to those early years, blending up batch after batch of dressing, thinking for sure it was more than we could ever use and yet discovering that somehow, it still wasn’t enough to feed the hordes that arrived for their fix.

Warming, well-seasoned but not spicy, the golden elixir brightens a riot of textures, from the crunch of toasted cashews to the toothsome grains of rice, crisp carrot strings to the tender green peas and chewy dried fruit. It’s a daring, seemingly discordant combination, a diverse set of distinctive characters, that somehow manage to work together in delicious harmony.

Now I get it. Now, after reducing quantities to a more manageable amount, it would have been wise to double up, at least.

When you fall in love with the warming, tangy, and sweet blend, rest assured that it’s well suited to scaling up. Double, triple, quadruple, or more; feed an army or just keep some on hand to arm yourself against sharp pangs of noshtalgia. Trust me, you won’t regret it; this one has stood the test of time.

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Crunch Time

“Mmm, raw broccoli, my favorite!” …said no one, ever.

Despite being well aware of this and sharing the general sentiment myself, still I set forth mowing down a crown of fresh, green, utterly uncooked broccoli with aplomb. Sometimes you’ve gotta go with your gut, and mine was telling me to embrace the grassier, fresher side of this ubiquitous staple. Something about the crunch, the more herbaceous, slightly pungent bite was calling to me.

Pairing that assertive flavor with an equally bold, punchy dressing was necessary. Hot, peppery mustard, bearing a subtle burn right in the back of the throat, kicking the sinuses like a good dose of horseradish, would do just the trick. Taming the flame with the sweet contrast of maple syrup and chewy morsels of dates brought everything back into satisfying harmony.

Fold in some crisp pieces of smoky meatless bacon, nutty toasted pepitas, and a little extra pepper for good measure, and you’ll start craving the raw cruciferous vegetable too.

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Americas Made

When is a bean more than a mere legume? Arguably, all pulses, big and small, have their own stories to tell, but some would spin epic tales encompassing history, heritage, and a whole lot of heart, if only they could talk. The oldest-known domesticated beans in the Americas were found in Guitarrero Cave in Peru, and dated to around the second millennium BCE. Can you imagine what those tiny seeds might say? Though we still lack bean-to-human communication, the best translation you might find today would be through Fillo’s. Born of two brothers determined to share some of the beloved Latin American foods from their childhood with a broader audience, each savory selection speaks clearly and boldly through the convenience of modern packaging. Celebrating the unique character of each bean and their diverse origins across the continent, you might be surprised by what tiny pulses are capable of with just a bit of time, gentle seasoning, and love.

Placing equal value on authenticity and convenience without sacrificing either, each flavorful blend is fully shelf-stable and ready-to-serve, filled with fresh vegetables, olive oil, beans, water, and spices. Otherwise known as sofrito, this cooking method extracts bold flavor and nutrients. Clocking 10-16 grams of plant protein per pack means that they’re ideal, complete meals on the go. What sets this pouch apart from others is the fact that it’s actually built for ease and accessibility. Fully microwavable, there’s a top notch to tear and pour, and a second, lower notch that can turn the entire thing into its own bowl; nothing more than a spoon needed.

Celebrating the cultures responsible for so many of our favorite foods today, there are six different options to shake up the bean routine in an instant.

Cuban Black Beans dazzle with savory notes of cumin and bay leaf simmered into every tender, toothsome morsel. The taste immediately struck me as a perfect pairing with chips, like a chunky dip, straight out of the bag. Adding freshly diced bell pepper to harmonize with those stewed within, the harmonizing flavors yet contrast of textures was simply sensational. This brilliantly simple combination is clearly a party-starter waiting to happen.

Mexican Mayocoba Beans shine the spotlight on a lesser known legume, bathing the creamy, if not downright buttery beans in a waterfall of onions and garlic, accented by piquant ancho chile and epazote. Swaddled in soft corn tortillas, they turn any day of the week into a flavorful fiesta, not just Taco Tuesday.

Puerto Rican Pink Beans, spiked with achiote and a hint of cilantro, are unbelievably rich, satisfying comfort food cravings without using excessive oil or salt as a crutch. Adding a scoop of steaming hot yellow rice alongside was merely a ploy to soak up every last drop of that thick, velvety gravy.

Peruvian Lentils manage to maintain an ideal half-dome shape, not mushy nor unpleasantly crunchy, which is quite a feat for this fickle little legume. As a meal in frequent rotation now, a touch of zesty aji verde enlivens the umami medley stuffed into a ripe avocado. If I had one shred of patience come mealtime, this has the makings of the ultimate avocado toast, but I’d rather just skip straight to the good stuff. An extra slice of bread would just be unnecessary filler here.

Tex-Mex Pinto Beans invites a punchy smattering of jalapenos to the party alongside the warmth of chili powder. Though mild, they’ve got a zesty kick that plays beautifully with the earthy flesh of baked sweet potatoes. Loaded with an extra punch of fresh, fiery pepper confetti on top, it’s a cozy yet invigorating union that will keep you on your toes.

Panamanian Garbanzo Beans ranked as one of my personal top picks, though it’s hard to really rank favorites when all the options are winners. Adding just a touch of vegetable broth created a rich stew that tasted as if it had been on the stove, cooking for hours. These particular beans have a subtle tomato undertone carrying notes of verdant oregano, perfectly al dente, in a way I can only dream of when cooking from dried stock. I was so thoroughly inspired by these chickpeas that I couldn’t leave well enough alone. After downing two or three packages straight, I had to take them into the kitchen to play.

Traditionally tinted a blushing pink hue with steamed and sliced beets, Ensalada de Papas is the Panamanian answer to potato salad. Incredibly popular for special occasions and everyday meals alike, there’s no bad time to break out a bowlful of this creamy dish. Simply adding a pouch of Fillo’s garbanzo beans transforms it into potential entree material, while still remaining flexible enough to serve as a side. My version adds the crisp bite of water chestnuts for variety, but at it’s core, all you need are potatoes, beets, and beans. The key is to keep it simple to allow the ingredients to speak, like Fillo’s Americas Made does in the first place.

Fillo’s is available online and in many retail stores such as Whole Foods, Jewel Osco, and more, but I want to share the legume love with you directly. Generously provided by the folks at Fillo’s Americas Made, you have an opportunity to win a full set of beans! Get a taste of each unique bend with a variety pack including one pouch of each flavor. To enter, all you need to do is fill out the form below and tell me your own little legume story in the comment section: What is your favorite bean, and how do you like to prepare it?

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Ful of Fava Beans

Who talks about fava beans after the thrill of spring has long since faded from memory? The initial excitement over anything green and vital pushing through barren, frosted earth can’t hold a candle to the thrill of lush summer tomatoes growing heavy on their vines, tumbling past one another in superabundance. Preserved, fava beans remain widely available year round, unsung and largely unseen, yet essential to the Mediterranean diet for centuries. Bean-eaters of Tuscany (Mangiafagioli) were way ahead of their time, and I’m not just talking seasonally.

Food trends and superfood darlings be damned, legume love served the ancient Romans well, long before hashtags and selfies, to say the least. Spreading their influence far and wide across the western European states and beyond, some of the same dishes pop up across multiple cultures. Changed by the journey in varying degrees but always recognizable, many cultures ended up with “accidentally” vegan leanings, long before it was cool.

That’s where Vegan Mediterranean Cookbook, written by my good friend and culinary luminary Tess Challis, picks up the thread, and continues weaving it into a greater tapestry encompassing an entire plant-based lifestyle. Even for someone relatively indifferent to the dietary components of the approach like myself, the recipes are pure gold. Seasoned by all countries touched by the eponymous sea, the flavors of Italy, Greece, and Crete are strongly represented here, bearing scores of fool-proof classics that have stood the test of time. Where would any of us be, as a global society, without hummus, dolmas, and couscous, after all? It was the simple, understated recipe for Ful Medames (page 33) that caught my eye at first glance, and simply would not let go.

Typically made with long-simmered dried or canned fava beans and served hot, it’s especially prevalent in the middle east, but pops up all across the spice route, buoyed by fragrant cumin and the brightness of fresh herbs. Tess’s version skips the long smoldering boil, and in fact, cooking process altogether, opting for an effortless combination resulting in something more like a bean salad than a stew. Reading over the brilliance of that simplification, it suddenly occurred to me that I had just the thing to continue this modern evolution, this recipe renovation: Fresh fava beans.

Painstakingly shelled, peeled, and frozen in the height of spring salutations, the compact little container remained at the back of the freezer, waiting for an opportunity to shine. Transforming this hearty, hot dish into one suitable for light appetites, picnics, and lazy summer days, it proves the versatility, and timelessness, of the concept. Firm yet supple, buttery and verdant, fresh fava beans lend a punchier, more vegetative flair to the classic combination.

Vegan Mediterranean Cookbook doesn’t officially hit stores until September 24th, but I’m not one to tease, especially about something as serious as food. Lucky enough to get an early pre-release preview myself, I want to share that same gift with you, too! Enter for your chance to win a copy of your very own by entering your details in the form below. What I want to know is: What is your favorite Mediterranean (or Mediterranean-inspired) dish? Leave me a comment to secure your submission, and find many more ways to win bonus entries after that!

Everyone really is a winner though. Keep scrolling for the recipe for my adapted Fresh Fava Bean Ful. You’ll want to make this one right away, with or without the book in hand.

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Oceans of Inspiration

Culturally inseparable from its crunchy breaded or battered exterior, the default notion of calamari unfailingly involves deep frying. Even adventurous omnivores typically balk at the idea of eating naked squid, approximating both the look and chew of thick elastic rubber bands. That makes it delightfully easy to replicate in myraid plant-based forms; it’s hard to go too far wrong with anything crispy, still hot from a bubbling cauldron of oil, and lightly salted.

If you’re so lucky as to randomly find ready-made vegan calamari while idly shopping around Austin, TX, however, such a rare delicacy demands greater finesse for proper appreciation.

Yes, I’m that oddball who treats grocery stores like museums when traveling, with the added benefit of being able to eat the art if it resonates. Essentially seasoned rings of seitan, it would be easy enough to replicate on your own, but the novelty factor is what sold me. Stripped down and freed of breaded boundaries, the toothsome wheat spirals afforded me the opportunity (and inspiration) to consider a fresher, lighter side to this cruelty-free creation.

Gaining in popularity due to profusion of poke eateries opening up around the country, chuka ika sansai is a traditional Japanese salad made of thinly sliced squid and an assortment of tender vegetables, marinated in vinegar and ginger. Served as a side or a feature in rice bowls, the gently oceanic flavors satisfy a craving for seafood like nothing else.

Tomorrow, June 8th, is World Oceans Day. The importance that our oceans play in everyday life cannot be overstated, and yet rarely do we consider the greater implications of this fragile ecosystem. A vegan lifestyle is the best way to make a positive impact right away, everyday. With so many great alternatives, there really should be more fish in the sea, and fewer on the plate.

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