Compound Interest

You can’t live in Austin without developing a taste for queso. I do believe that at a certain point in your residency, if you don’t profess your undying love for the gooey cheese dip, the authorities will come and escort you out. Queso is a Tex-Mex staple that’s as abundant as the bats under Congress Bridge. It’s the glue holding together every menu, sometimes literally, as a stand-alone appetizer, side dish, and topping. Given the opportunity, I have no doubt that it would be blended into frosty margaritas, too.

All you need is liquid cheese with a bit of spice to have a passable queso dip. When you’re ready to take it to the next level, consider stepping up your game with Queso Compuesto.

Compuesto translates as “compound,” which means “made up or consisting of two or more existing parts or elements.” As such, queso is still the main attraction, but now you have a dollop of guacamole, pico de gallo, and sour cream in the same dish. Go all the way and hide a layer of cooked taco meat at the bottom, and you can basically call that a balanced meal.

How do you serve Queso Compuesto?

  • Queso is always a stellar party starter, served as an appetizer with thick, crunchy tortilla chips.
    • Pro tip: Warm the chips first to make them seem freshly fried and extra crispy. Just spread them out on a sheet pan and bake at 350 degrees for 5 – 6 minutes, until warm to the touch. Transfer the chips to a bowl so no one burns themselves on the hot pan.
  • Ladle or spread queso over tacos, inside burritos before wrapping, or use as instant quesadilla filling.

What are some tasty variations on Queso Compuesto?

  • Mix and match your favorite components to make this queso your own. Don’t like sour cream but love extra avocado on everything? Double up the guac and ditch the crema.
  • When you’re in a rush, there’s no shame in taking shortcuts. Use prepared guacamole, pico de gallo, and sour cream. Heck, you can even use ready-made vegan queso, if you just want to use this idea as a template to color by numbers.
  • Instead of meatless taco-seasoned grounds, stick with more whole foods like black beans or refried pinto beans for protein.
  • Switch out the pico de gallo for any other salsa, hot or mild, red or green, smooth or chunky.

What can you do with leftover Queso Compuesto?

This is definitely a party-sized serving, so if you want to have a fiesta for one or two, don’t worry about the extra going to waste. It’s an incredibly versatile addition to…

  • Pasta bakes
  • Pizza
  • Chili
  • Baked potatoes

Alternately, you could always divide the components into single servings. This is a great approach for portion control, planned leftovers, and simply preventing anyone from hogging the dish!

Some people still refer to this as “Bob Armstrong Dip,” attributing the creation to the former Texas land commissioner who allegedly asked for something different, off the menu, at Matt’s El Rancho in Austin, Texas. I think you can confidently name this one after yourself for improving upon the concept by making it far healthier, vegan, gluten-free, and even more flavorful.

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Pop On Over for Papadum

Culinary magic is the only way to explain how papadum are made. Ethereally thin and immaculately crisp, each fragment shatters upon impact like a flavor grenade straight to the tongue. Even after subsequent bites, palate fatigue never sets in because each piece is a little bit different, sparkling with both whole and ground spices embedded into the peaks and valleys formed by air bubbles while cooking. Calling them crackers or chips doesn’t do this classic Indian snack proper justice.

While plain versions do exist, the vast majority apply seasoning with a liberal hand. Why stop at just cumin and chili powder when you could further enhance your papad with umami? This is a job for Sugimoto shiitake powder, of course! It’s the ideal addition because it won’t clash or cover up other spices, but serves to further enhance their inherent flavors. That’s another kind of magic that seems fitting for such a captivating crisp.

What make papadum so special?

The basic ingredients that go into making papadum are spare, common, affordable pantry staples. Chickpea flour is the only non-negotiable in this recipe, although lentils, rice, and potato are traditional variants, so there’s certainly room for more experimentation. This legume base creates a delicate dough that’s not only high in protein, but also gluten-free.

It’s the technique that creates the alchemic transformation. After initially rehydrating the flour, the individual disks are dehydrated. At this stage, uncooked papads have such a low moisture content that they can keep for months in a cool, dry place. A quick and intense blast of heat brings them to life. This is the same principle at play for shrimp chips and chicharrones: the remaining water expands, stretching the dough and creating the fine matrix of bubbles just below the surface.

Tips for making perfect papadum:

  1. Use a stand mixer to bring the dough together. It’s extremely thick and dry which makes it difficult to effectively mix by hand. Resist the temptation to add more water, which will quickly transform the malleable dough into a sticky paste.
  2. Lightly oiled hands are much more effective at flattening the individual papad than a rolling pin. Just stretch somewhat like a pizza dough first before placing each one on a piece of parchment paper. Use your fingertips to gently press it out as thinly as possible. A rolling pin is much more likely to stick, tear, and generally make a mess. For the gadget lover: If you have a tortilla press or a pasta roller, those are other great alternatives for a more consistent, smooth surface.
  3. Thickness, or more accurately thinness, is critical for success. Aim for about 1/16 of an inch thick; thinner than gingerbread cookies, thinner than western crackers, thinner than you think is really possible.
  4. Dehydrate slowly and thoroughly. Traditionally, papad are simply left out in full sun for 2 – 3 days, but it’s important to control the drying rate accurately for long term storage. Excess moisture invites bacteria growth that will cause spoilage.

What’s the best way to cook papadum?

You have three options for that final step: Microwaving, air frying, and deep frying.

  • Microwaving is the quickest, easiest, cleanest, and arguably healthiest. In a matter of seconds, papadum spring to life with no oil at all. It’s safe for kids (or particularly accident-prone adults) to use by themselves for an instantly gratifying snack. The downside is that not all microwaves are created equal, so it may take some trial and error to find the sweet spot for timing, power levels, and placement.
  • Air frying is my personal favorite approach, reaping the textural benefits of dry, intense heat for quick cooking, with just a touch of added oil for a subtle extra depth of flavor. This sensation, the richness of fat, is known as kokumi in Japanese, which works in concert with the umami of the shiitake powder to create a more rounded, harmonious, and simply delicious experience.
  • Deep frying or pan frying is most traditional, harnessing the firepower of hot oil to make the crispiest, crunchiest, and quite frankly the most addictive food around. It’s fantastic on special occasions, but I hate the mess and peril that comes hand-in-hand with setting a bubbling vat of edible napalm on the stove.

Once you start making papadum from scratch, it’s hard to go back to store-bought. Detonating with a calculated barrage of spices, each wafer-thin bombshell blows the competition out of the water.

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Skirting the Issue

Fashion is not my forte, but I do know a gorgeous skirt when I see one. My favorite sort is lacy, delicate, so sheer that it’s borderline risqué. Though short, it covers everything important and never rides up.

Of course, this skirt is best worn by plump vegetable dumplings. All it takes is a simple slurry to elevate average frozen pot stickers into an unforgettable appetizer or entree. Presented with the skirt-side up in restaurants, the paper-thin, impeccably crisp crust sets the stage for a symphony of textures and tastes. A few sharp jabs with any nearby eating utensil will shatter the brittle webbing, separating the dumplings below.

What is a dumpling skirt made of?

Some people insist that only cornstarch will work; others concede that any starch is equivalent. Many use simple all-purpose flour, while yet another contingent blend flour and starch to get the best of both worlds. Truth be told, there’s no wrong answer here. Everything goes, and everything produces equally delicious yet different results. Some create a more open lattice, some form a consistent sheet, some don’t get quite as crunchy, and some don’t brown. Experiment or just use what’s on hand until you find the crispy skirt with all the qualities you’re looking for.

Personally, I like to keep it simple with just one binder, but neither starch nor wheat get my vote. I prefer plain white rice flour for a crispy, fool-proof skirt every time. All you need is water for the liquid, though a touch of vinegar for flavor is a nice addition.

Want to make your own dumplings?

I love dressing up store-bought dumplings using this technique for a special yet easy weekday dinner. If you want to go all out and start from scratch, I have plenty of dumpling recipes to suggest:

Bear in mind that fresh, homemade dumplings won’t need as long to cook as frozen, so adjust the timing as needed.

Compared to most skirts on the market these days, this has a distinct advantage: One size fits all.

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Love Triangles

Samosa will always have a place close to my heart. As a baby vegan, before I knew how to cook anything more complicated than plain pasta, frozen foods were my saving grace. One of my favorites was a frozen samosa wrap, an American-Indian mashup of a beloved potato pastry. Gently spiced, golden mashed potatoes gleamed from within a whole wheat tortilla, dotted with tender green peas for an ideal toothsome bite. They could be eaten toasted, microwaved, or simply thawed, which suited my haphazard meal planning perfectly. Though not the most authentic introduction, it opened my eyes to the rich world of flavors unlocked by Indian cuisine.

From that time on, samosas were always my safe food when eating out. When friends or family wanted their tikka masala or tandori, I knew I could count on the humble spud to fill buttery fried pastries, and in turn, my stomach. Little did I know that the original samosas, introduced to the Indian subcontinent around the 13th century by traders from Central Asia, had nothing to do with the starchy staple. In fact, the original samosa was stuffed primarily with sauteed onions, ground meat, peas, spices, and herbs. Sometimes pistachios, almonds, or chickpeas might enter the picture as a nod to their middle eastern inspiration, but there was not a single potato to be found.

Wondering what I might have been missing all those years, I was curious to get a taste of this protein-packed variant. It would be easy enough to take a traditional recipe and swap in a hyper-realistic vegan beef substitute, but I prefer to start from scratch. Naturally, I’m building the flavor foundation with Sugimoto shiitake, minced finely to approximate the rich, savory flavor and chewy texture of minced meat. Crumbled tempeh carries that flavor with an equally umami, fermented base.

Building those layers of nuanced, harmonious, and craveable flavors starts with tempering spices according to Indian tradition, but certainly doesn’t end there. Japanese ingredients like soy sauce and shiitake create a truly irresistible taste sensation. Folded into flaky pastry triangles, there’s no better snack, starter, or entree around.

How can you make quick and easy samosa?

If you’re daunted by pastry dough, don’t worry. There are plenty of quick-fix solutions for that outer wrapping, such as:

  • Phyllo dough
  • Puff pastry
  • Pie dough
  • Spring roll wrappers
  • Burrito-sized flour tortillas

Alternately, you don’t need to create a crispy outer layer to contain all that meaty goodness in the first place. Other uses for the filling sans pastry are:

  • Bun samosa (sandwiched between fluffy hamburger or slider buns)
  • Pizza topping
  • Chip dip
  • Bolognese sauce

Want to make a healthier samosa?

Though they’re traditionally deep-fried, I like to pan-fry or shallow fry mine. You can easily cut down on the added oil and fat even further.

  • Air fry at 370 degrees for 15 minutes, flipping after 10 minutes, until crispy and browned on both sides.
  • Bake in a conventional oven preheated to 400 degrees for 20 – 30 minutes, flipping halfway through, until golden brown.

How can you serve samosa?

Like any properly constructed hand pie, samosa are designed to be eaten out of hand. Though brilliantly flavorful as is, it never hurts to add a simple dipping sauce, especially as a cooling temperature contrast to the hot pastry. My favorite options include:

If you’d like to create a well-rounded plated meal with samosa as the centerpiece, that’s a snap, too! Just add one or more sides:

  • Leafy green salad
  • Chopped cucumbers and tomatoes
  • Rasam (spicy tomato soup)
  • Lentil dal
  • Basmati rice

While the younger me might be horrified at the distinct lack of potato content, the older and wiser me knows better. Amplified by the natural umami of Sugimoto shiitake mushrooms, this is my new go-to comfort food. Being homemade gives it the edge over store-bought frozen options, no doubt, but the concept itself transcends such a simplistic view. Once you taste bite through that flaky, crisp pastry and tear into that decadently moist, meaty beefless filling, sparkling with a vibrant palate of bright spices, you’ll understand why it’s the staple food that changed Indian cuisine as we know it today.

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Snow Day in July

Snow is the stuff of both dreams and nightmares. Growing up on the east coast, I could anticipate at least two or three days off from school every year due to impassable, slush-covered, perilously icy roads. In those early days before driving or work deadlines were a concern, snow days were gifts better than any mandated calendar holiday. Something about their randomness made them more special; the element of surprise was part of the fun.

With age came a creeping dread of the unknown, intolerance for the cold, and overall distaste for winter. I spent all of my adult life running from it, moving to the warmest places possible to avoid snow days at all costs. Snow is much more acceptable from afar, enjoyed on a TV screen or within a controlled environment. Case in point: Snow cones will always be welcomed with open arms as the best type of blizzard possible.

Nothing takes the edge off of a scorching summer day like a heaping spoonful of freshly shaven ice, ground as finely as a powdery snowfall. It’s brilliantly easy to make this refreshing treat at home! Special equipment is helpful for the best results, but you can absolutely get by with what you have, IE, a food processor or blender. A shave-ice machine will give you a fluffier texture while this alternative method will create a denser texture, more like a packed snow ball.

How To Make Snow Cones without a Machine

  1. Chill the canister of your blender or food processor in advance to prevent the ice from instantly melting upon contact.
  2. Use at least 2 cups of ice cubes per batch, but no more than 4 cups to make sure everything is evenly ground.
  3. Pulse rapidly to break down the ice into smaller pieces, pausing to quickly scrape down the sides of the canister if it’s not all being incorporated.
  4. Continue until the ice is finely ground and looks like snow, with no remaining lumps. Listen closely because the sound will change from loud clattering to a quieter, more even whirring.
  5. Immediately transfer the powdery ice to a container and stash it in the freezer until ready to use.

The only thing more important than the ice is the flavoring! There’s no limit to the possibilities here, whether you want to work with only fresh, whole fruits or go avant-garde with extracts. Add more flair with natural food coloring, which could come out of a bottle or straight from nature. Just as a brief refresher course…

Quick and Easy Natural Food Coloring Options Include:

  • Beet Powder or Beet Juice = Red
  • Carrot Juice = Orange
  • Turmeric = Yellow
  • Matcha, Powdered Spinach or Kale = Green
  • Butterfly Pea Tea Powder AKA Blue Matcha = Blue
  • Ube Extract = Purple

Bear in mind that any liquid colors should replace an equal measure of water to keep the sweetener ratio accurate. These will also be more likely to contribute stronger flavors, so make sure you’re ready to embrace those vegetal tastes or use stronger extracts to cover them up.

When you want a treat with no added sugar, snow cones are just the thing! Prepared sugar-free syrups are an easy, instant fix. For something homemade, just start with ripe, super sweet fruit, and accentuate the flavor with a touch of stevia or monkfruit as needed.

Is it possible to make snow cones or shaved ice without syrup in the first place?

Don’t let syrups limit your imagination. You can start with a full-flavored base by freezing juice, smoothies, and beyond to use as the finely shaved ice going into your cone. An added benefit to this approach is that the ice crystals stay lighter and fluffier since they’re not weighted down with extra toppings, while melting a little less slowly as well.

Minted Matcha Snow Cone
In this minted matcha snow cone, the solids settled at the bottom of the ice. I think that’s a good thing because it makes a uniquely variegated mixture, so every bite is a little different.

Instead of plain water, try freezing any of the following:

  • Brewed and cooled coffee
  • Matcha
  • Fruit juice
  • Smoothies
  • Drinkable yogurt
  • Non-dairy milk (plain, vanilla, chocolate, etc)

Snow cones are truly the best way to enjoy a snow day. They’re naturally vegan, gluten-free, and dairy-free, with easy options for making them sugar-free, keto, and paleo-friendly. Best of all, you can enjoy your flurries while chilling poolside under the warm summer sun.

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New Novelties

Summer should be a care-free time of late mornings followed by slow, unhurried afternoons. When the heat becomes unbearable, a brief cat nap in the shelter of leafy, shaded canopy is more than just socially acceptable, but practically mandatory. When fireflies appear along with the onset of nightfall, the warm evenings seem to stretch on forever, infinite as the number of stars brightening the dark sky.

Summers are precious. Don’t force yourself to work when every fiber of your being wants to play. While some commitments are unavoidable, there’s so much more extraneous noise that we could tune out. That’s why I’m happy to spend less time in the kitchen to make those moments count.

This is a quick snack I originally devised to feature a favorite vegan ice cream brand, taking their chocolate-covered raspberry-acai ice cream off the stick and into a fresh parfait. The shatteringly crisp dark chocolate shell gives way to a silken frozen custard filling. Chopping it into cubes makes each layer instantly accessible, without the fear of drips or mess to spoil the snack. Nestled on top of a super fast, fruity chia pudding, the combination is much more substantial than the average novelty to stave off hunger through the most vigorous match of yard darts or pickle ball.

Unfortunately, that brand is no longer the magnificent purveyor of plant-based indulgences I originally fell in love with, so those bars are off the table. Many more have stepped up to the plate, however, making such a simple concept that much more accessible overall.

What brands make the best dairy-free chocolate-covered novelties?

There’s no hard and fast rule that you must use a chocolate-covered pop, but it’s that textural contrast that makes it so compelling. Mix and match flavors at will, swapping in seasonal fruits based on availability, add nuts, sprinkles, or chocolate chips, and most importantly, don’t overthink it. It’s a stretch to call this a full recipe, but for the sake of convenience, here’s the basic blueprint so you can bookmark it for later.

Now get back out there and enjoy the sun. Summer only comes once a year.

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