Cutting Edge Cuisine

Let’s cut to the chase: Ceramic knives don’t get the respect, or the place of honor on the cutting board, that they deserve.

Ceramic may sound like a delicate, impractically fragile material to make strong, sturdy kitchen implements from, but it’s different from the dainty plates and coffee cups sitting in the cabinet. My top recommendation, Vos Knife, uses zirconium oxide, which is even harder than stainless steel or carbon steel. It’s more likely that your vegetables will shatter than the blade here.

Light as a feather, ceramic knives glide through fresh produce like a breeze, making them ideal for precision cuts, garnishes, and fine dices. The sharp edges, combined with such easy handling gives the user complete control. No more squished tomatoes or ragged, stringy celery. Instead, imagine slices of crisp apples so paper-thin that you could read through them. If you’re just getting started in the kitchen, they’re ideal for practicing knife skills.

Low-maintenance and long-lasting, ceramic knives retain a razor-sharp edge considerably longer than metal knives, which means they rarely need to be sharpened. As an added benefit, they’re almost impervious to stains and odors. Go ahead, chop those onions with abandon! Butcher your bloodiest red beets! It may look like a horror scene in the kitchen, but you won’t shed any tears over it.

The Vos Ceramic Knife in particular has a specially designed ergonomic grip, fitting like a glove in hands both big and small. The same can be said for all of their colorful, practical equipment. The ceramic peeler especially, as part of the 7-piece utility set, has quickly become an indispensable staple in my tool kit. Effortless zucchini ribbons, without busting out the bulky spiralizer? Sign me up!

Or, in this case, how about sweet potato fettuccine in a creamy melted onion sauce? Thin shavings of onion caramelize and seem to dissolve away into a rich cloak that fits the tender strands of spuds like a glove. This is where the chef’s knife really shines, making easy work on those onions without any tears. A sharp knife will damage fewer cells in the onion, thereby releasing less of the irritating oxalic acid into the air. Goggles, chewing gum, lighting candles, and other folk remedies can’t compare; the truth hurts, but that’s nothing to cry over.

Further expediting the caramelization process is a tiny pinch of baking soda. It’s the secret ingredient that softens, browns, and breaks down the onions in a fraction of the time.

Though simple in concept and effortless to prepare, the complex flavors could have anyone fooled. You could keep it straightforward and serve this dish as a side, or dress it up with crispy sauteed tempeh and toasted pecans for a dynamite main entree. If you just start with the right tools, half the work is already done.

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Fee, Fi, Fo, Fonio

Move over, quinoa; there’s a new ancient grain in town. Protein-rich, gluten-free, and quick-cooking, fonio is the best kept secret in wholesome superfoods. Though little known in the western world, this African staple has all the makings of the next big healthy craze.

Neutral yet subtly nutty in flavor like good old brown rice, fluffy like fresh couscous, and faster to whip up than a pot of pasta, the only barrier to mainstream adoration is distribution. Though the supply chain is especially stressed by the current pandemic, fonio has long suffered from inaccessibility. No one’s out there flying the fonio flag, demanding more, so most consumers and home cooks simply don’t know what they’re missing. They say ignorance is bliss, but this is more akin to an act of negligence, cruel and careless.

Uses for fonio know no limits. Receptive to marinades and sauces the world over, it thirstily drinks in the flavors of a stew while retaining toothsome tenderness. Use it cold in salad; serve it hot as a side; form it into patties and pan fry; blend it into batters, cakes, and cookies; don’t even bother cooking it, and use it instead of breadcrumbs; the only way you can do fonio wrong is to keep it off the menu.

For basic cookery, all you need is 1 part fonio to 2 parts boiling water. Combine and let rest for about 5 minutes, fluff with a fork, and enjoy. You don’t need a stove, a microwave, or even electricity; it’s really that simple. Your hard work will be rewarded with a nutritional dynamo, rich in B-vitamins, iron, and calcium.

That said, there’s no need to stick with the bare basics, of course.

Golden grains spring to life with savory aromatics and a touch of spice. It’s the kind of side dish that could very well steal the show, and considering the protein quotient, which is bolstered by tender chickpeas, it’s not a stretch to call it a one-pot meal all by itself. Kernels of corn enhance the sunny yellow appearance, but a bit of contrast would be a nice option, be it from green peas, red bell peppers, or even dark, chewy raisins.

Oh, little fonio, this is just the start. There are big things in store for this tiny grain. Just wait until the rest of the world catches on. Quinoa had better watch its back.

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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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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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