Pearls of Wisdom

Some dishes just have no right to be so good. They’re too simple, too ordinary, too easy to yield such spectacular results. No matter how uninspired the ingredients look on paper, a jolt of bold flavor belies such humble components. It’s the kind of dish that makes you wonder what magic has conspired in the kitchen, or perhaps, some secret MSG is spiking the punch.

Such is the case for the curried couscous salad at Mendocino Farms. The creamy, golden yellow pasta pearls don’t even look vegan at a glance, but lo! Clear labels reassure eaters that it’s vegan mayonnaise carrying the torch.

Decadent to a degree that would make the average side salad blush, a large part of me wants to hate it on principle. One should never add sugar to a savory dish, and at such a lethal dose! Mayonnaise should be used sparingly at best, a breezy whisper across a slice of bread, barely detectable by the human eye. Then, to go ahead an add even more oil on top of that fatty spread sounds purely excessive, unnecessary, uncalled for, hedonistic in the worst kind of way…!

But, falling prey to the offer of a free sample, I cast all common sense to the wind, letting go of those ingrained notions of decency just long enough to get hooked. I can’t get enough, and I don’t quite know why.

Perhaps the appeal is exactly for all those reasons. It’s because it flies in the face of preconceived boundaries of health and balance, that somehow, it manages to simply WORK.

I can’t claim to understand the compelling appeal of the curried couscous salad, but I can’t deny it, either.

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Honey, I Shrank the Squash

If the current state of seasonal produce has you down in the dumps, dreading another farmers market haul of little more than potatoes and onions, take a closer look at the hardier squash. You might have missed one bright spot of culinary inspiration on the shelf, tiny as they are at no more than 6 inches tall. Honeynut squash look like miniature butternuts, but boast a remarkably intense sweetness beyond compare. Darker, creamier, denser, and overall richer, they’re everything you know and love in conventional gourds, amplified and intensified into a pint-sized package.

All it takes is a touch of heat to yield a flavorful side; even the skin is edible, if you so desire! The very best approach is to anoint with oil and perhaps a savory marinade before sending seeded halves through a blazing hot oven.

Of course, I can never leave well enough alone, and can’t resist the opportunity to take the name more literally. Brushing homemade vegan honey over wafer thin slits, allowing the nectar to penetrate the flesh in all its dulcet golden glory, takes only a tiny bit more effort that pays off in spades. Scattering a handful of crisp sliced almonds on top brings in a world of textural contrast, although I’d be tempted to try a more resounding crunch with chopped pecans or walnuts next time.

If you thought there was nothing to get excited about for wintertime harvests, stock up on these small squash. Just one bite will chase away the hibernal gloom.

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Bean Me Up, Scotty

Is there anything less glamorous, less thrilling than a pile of beans? Common beans, simply seasoned beans, just cooked and served, not even drained of the excess pot liquor. The humble staple food has kept many afloat in hard times, but it’s not exactly something to write home (or a blog post) about.

At least, that’s what I thought until I landed in Austin and had the pleasure of spending time there with born and raised Texans. They’d like the world to think that barbecue sauce flows through their veins and they cry tears of Big Red in agony, but in truth, these people are powered by pinto beans. Simmered for hours until meltingly tender with little more than salt and pepper, perhaps a chili or a bit of bacon, and for a really fancy flourish, a dab of sour cream can be found swirled on top.

As much as bread or a side of slaw, beans complete the meal. I was once told that if you find yourself at a picnic in Texas without any beans at the table, it’s not really a party; just a meeting at best.

Suspend disbelief, look beyond the humble, spare components, and you’ll begin to believe it, too.

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Stuff and Nonsense

Stuffing has always perplexed me. By definition, shouldn’t it be inside of something? The dictionary uses ambiguous terms, like “material used to fill,” be it cotton batting inside a teddy bear or beans inside a burrito. Please explain to me why, then, when Thanksgiving rolls around, we lose all sense of spacial relationships and present so-called stuffing as a standalone, completely exposed side dish?

Granted, I never grew up with the stuff, so my confusion stems from inexperience. My family was never much for casseroles or any sort of hotdish to begin with, which is why our festive holiday table followed suit. Separate rolls, roasted vegetables, and plenty of gravy their own distinct dishes? Of course. Combined together? On the plate, sure, but not in the oven.

Devotees might be aghast at my unstuffed childhood, but I actually consider it advantageous in my later years, as I have no frame of reference to constrain my reckless creativity. That’s why I connected the dots between stuffing and… Cheeseburgers.

Before you click away in horror, hear me out. This is no White Castle fast food abomination, but a humble celebration of Americana. You’ve got your classic aromatics and seasonings, enriched with meatless grounds for protein, and bulked up with a bit of bread. Beefy broth soaks in to bind it all together, and a quick sprinkle of cheese on top seals the deal. Now, that doesn’t sound so crazy, does it?

The end results are a little bit Thanksgiving, a little bit backyard BBQ, and 100% comfort food. It’s a dish you could serve as a side for your grand feast, or simply make as the main feature any day of the week. If you had to go and put a dab of ketchup and a pickle on top, well… Who am I to judge?

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Of Cabbages and Kings

How many people are genuinely excited to find cabbage on a menu? Not stuffed cabbage rolls or cabbage with corned beef, but just cabbage, dense green leaves alone, sans modifiers. In the US, I’d wager that number would fall somewhere in the lowest possible percentile rank, but that’s only because of inexperience taming the brassica. Take a trip out to Taiwan though, and you’d see very different polling results. Elevating a more diverse range of lesser loved greens as some might honor fine cuts of meat, the dining scene treats vegetables with much greater respect simply by default. Every crop is treasured, allowed to shine in their own rights, and that’s where I first truly discovered my affinity for the humble cabbage.

Stir-fried on the hot teppanyaki grill that stretches in a horseshoe around mad scrambling chefs in the center, huge piles of shredded greenery wilt down into compact piles instantly. Intense heat sears the bottom, locking in a light touch of char, smoky and dark, while the upper leaves steam into meltingly soft submission. With a front seat to the full show, I watched rapt, the drama unfolding hot and heavy before my eyes. In a sudden plot twist, no more than five minutes after placing the initial order, the hot foil in front of me was filled with steaming strands of silky greenery, theoretically keeping warm for prolonged enjoyment but devoured just as quickly as it had been completed.

How could plain, ugly old cabbage taste so good? It was almost infuriating how delicious this completely ungarnished dish was. There were no tricks, not even MSG to bolster it, and yet I had never experienced anything like it before.

Everything comes down to ingredients, of course. Since there are so few of them, every last addition makes a huge impact, right down to the quality of the beans going into the soy sauce. Most essential is selecting Taiwanese cabbage, which is different from more common savoy, white, red, or standard North American green. Flat, smooth, and the size of a small kitchen appliance, it’s not uncommon for them to weigh in at 6 pounds a head or more. Much sweeter and more crisp than most drab coleslaw fodder, it has the integrity to speak for itself in such a bold feature. Head to your local international market and ask for Li-Sun cabbage or Li-Sun Sweet cabbage if you’re struggling to pin one down.

From there, season with a deft hand. Remember that everything else is used to amplify the greenery here, not cover it up. It’s hard to explain the incredible depth of this dish without actually placing a few sizzling strands of it directly into your mouth, but I’ll resist. For that first, doubtful attempt, it takes a bit of blind trust, but you’ll understand that magnetic attraction once that alchemical transformation happens right before your plate.

Yield: 4 - 6 Servings

Stir-Fried Taiwanese Cabbage

Stir-Fried Taiwanese Cabbage

Cabbage like you've never tasted before. Tender, rich, and almost buttery, this fast stir-fry will change the way you think about the humble green leaves.

Prep Time 5 minutes
Cook Time 5 minutes
Total Time 10 minutes

Ingredients

  • 1 Tablespoon Avocado or Peanut Oil
  • 2 Cloves Garlic, Minced
  • 1 Pound Taiwanese Cabbage, Sliced into 1/2-Inch Wide Ribbons
  • 1 Tablespoon Light Soy Sauce
  • 1 Tablespoon Shaoxing Rice Wine Vinegar
  • 1 Teaspoon Sugar
  • 1/2 Teaspoon Crushed Red Pepper Flakes (Optional)
  • 1/4 Teaspoon Salt

Instructions

  1. Heat the oil in a wok or large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic, and cook for a few seconds until aromatic and lightly browned. Stir in the cabbage until all the pieces are thoroughly coated in oil before covering the pan. Let cook, undisturbed, for 1 minute.
  2. Sprinkle in the soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, red pepper flakes (if using) and salt all at once, increasing the heat to high, and cook until the cabbage is tender; 2 - 4 minutes. Serve immediately.

Nutrition Information:

Yield:

6

Serving Size:

1

Amount Per Serving: Calories: 50 Total Fat: 3g Saturated Fat: 0g Trans Fat: 0g Unsaturated Fat: 2g Cholesterol: 0mg Sodium: 276mg Carbohydrates: 6g Fiber: 2g Sugar: 3g Protein: 1g

Make Room for Mushrooms

Cornbread has near universal appeal, although the particulars can be quite controversial. I’ve clumsily fumbled my way through this timeless debate before, the perpetual feud between the sweet and the savory, typically erring more on the sweet side of the fence. Given my penchant for pastry, this should surprise exactly no one, especially considering the fact that it took me over 10 years of recipe development to finally launch a cookbook of full meals, not just desserts, upon the world. Now, older and at least a little bit wiser, I realize there’s room on the table for both sorts of a-maize-ing dishes.

Not just savory but full on umami and sparkling with warm spices, this new approach may just hold the key to cornbread harmony, or at least win over a few more fellow sweet-toothed bakers like myself. A bold departure from my typical approach, I found inspiration from the Mexican flavors in BLENDABELLA, a ready to eat seasoned mushroom mix. Tempting as it was to just open up a jar, insert a fork, and call it a day, those tender portabella pieces combined with tomatoes, peppers, and plenty of piquant chili powder were a perfect addition to this humble side.

Tender, fresh corn kernels would be another welcome inclusion, but honestly, there’s no need to get all dressed up and fancy for soulful home cooking like this. Each bite resounds with a comforting warmth, amplified by the natural, earthy richness of everyone’s favorite fungus.

Here’s hoping that critics will be equally compelled by this divergent take on cornbread, since I’m entering the recipe into the Summer Blogger Recipe Challenge! For more information and inspiration, check it out on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest. BLENDABELLA Mushroom Blends are available for purchase online. (Please note that the Rustic Tuscan variety contains dairy, but both the Zesty Mexican and Coconut Thai Blends are 100% vegan.)

Where do your loyalties lie in the great cornbread debate? Sweet or savory? Simple or spicy? Or… given this new path to explore, downright umami?

Umami Mexi-Cornbread

1 Cup All-Purpose Flour
1 1/2 Cups Coarse Yellow Cornmeal
2 Tablespoons Coconut Sugar or Dark Brown Sugar, Firmly Packed
2 Teaspoons Baking Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Baking Soda
1 Teaspoon Smoked Paprika
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1 Cup Zesty Mexican BLENDABELLA
1 1/4 Cups Plain Non-Dairy Milk
2 Teaspoons Apple Cider Vinegar
1/3 Cup Olive Oil

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and lightly grease a 9-inch cast iron skillet or round baking pan.

In a large bowl, mix together the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder and soda, paprika, and salt. Stir in the BLENDABELLA and toss to coat thoroughly with flour. This will help prevent all those luscious mushroom pieces from simply sinking to the bottom.

Separately, whisk the non-dairy milk, vinegar, and oil to combine before adding these wet ingredients into the bowl of dry. Mix with a wide spatula just enough to bring the batter together smoothly, although a few errant lumps are just fine to leave be.

Spread the batter into your prepared pan, smoothing out the top and lightly tapping it on the counter to release any air bubbles. Bake for 20 – 25 minutes, until golden brown on top and edges just begin to pull away from sides. A toothpick inserted into the center should come out cleanly.

Let cool for at least 10 minutes before slicing and serving. Enjoy warm or at room temperature for the most savory satisfaction.

Makes 8 – 10 Servings

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