BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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Dig In

Unless referring to the planet itself, “earthy” is a descriptor of dubious praise. Much like the ambiguous label of “interesting,” such a word can be interpreted in many ways- Mostly negative. Mushrooms and beets can be earthy, and for as fervently as their fan clubs will tout the word as praise, their detractors just as quickly adopt it as evidence for their disdain. Telling someone to “eat dirt,” is a fairly clear insult, on the other hand, although I have no qualms recommending charcoal, ash, or lava for your next meal. Still, the mental imagery of picking up a handful of soil and chowing down inevitably leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth.

This was the war of words I battled when agonizing on this new recipe’s title. Designed as a celebration of spring, gardening, and new growth, the original title was simply “Dirt Dip.” The dirty truth of the matter is that each distinctive strata was inspired by nature; worms, dirt, pebbles, and grass. Appetizing, right? Perhaps honesty is not the best policy here. Let’s start over.

Bursting forth with vibrant flavors ideal for celebrating the vernal equinox, I present to you my layered garden party dip. A base of savory caramelized onions sets a deeply umami foundation upon which this dynamic quartet is built. Fresh lemon and mint mingle just above in a creamy yet chunky black bean mash. Briny black olive tapenade accentuates these bold flavors, adding an addictive salty note that makes it impossible to resist a double-dip. Sealing the deal is a fine shower of snipped chives, lending a mellow onion note to bring all the layers together. Make sure you really dig in deep to get a bite of each one!

4-Layer Garden Party Dip

Caramelized Onions:

1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1 Large Red Onion, Halved and Thinly Sliced
Salt and Pepper, to Taste

Lemon-Mint Black Bean Dip:

1 15-Ounce Can (or 1 1/2 Cups Cooked) Black Beans, Drained and Rinsed
3 Cloves Roasted Garlic
1 Tablespoon Lemon Zest
2 Tablespoons Lemon Juice
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
3 Tablespoon Fresh Mint, Finely Chopped
1/2 Teaspoon Smoked Paprika
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper

Tapenade:

1 Cup Pitted Black Olives
1 Tablespoon Capers
1 Clove Garlic
1 Tablespoon Red Wine Vinegar
1 Tablespoon Fresh Parsley, Chopped

Garnish:

1/2 – 1 Ounce Fresh Chives, Finely Chopped

The caramelized onions will take the longest to prepare, so get them cooking first by setting a large skillet over medium heat. Add the oil and sliced onion, tossing to coat. Once the pan is hot and the onions become aromatic, turn down the heat to low and slowly cook, stirring occasionally, for 30 – 45 minutes until deeply amber brown. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Remove the pan from the heat and let cool.

Meanwhile, make the bean dip by either tossing everything into your food processor and pulsing until fairly creamy and well-combined, or mashing the ingredients together in a large bowl by hand. You want to leave the dip fairly coarse for a more interesting texture, so stop short of a smooth puree if using the machine.

The tapenade is made just as easily. Either pulse all of the components together in your food processor or chop them by hand, until broken down and thoroughly mixed.

Finally, to assemble the dip, select a glass container to enjoy the full effect of your work. Smooth the caramelized onions into the bottom in an even layer, followed by the bean dip and then the tapenade. Sprinkle chives evenly all over the top. Serve at room temperature or chilled, with cut vegetable crudites, crackers, or chips.

The dip can be prepared in advance if stored in an air-tight container in the fridge, for up to a week.

Makes 8 – 10 Servings

Printable Recipe

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Got Greens?

Milk mustaches are out; juice mustaches are in. Unlocking a world of flavor and liquid nutrition that dairy could only dream of, it’s no surprise that fresh pressed produce has taken up the torch in this race for beverage dominance. Green Mustache is one of many companies making a splash with blended fruit and vegetable smoothies, all built upon a foundation of leafy greens like kale and spinach. Inspirational though unexceptional in this burgeoning field, the differentiating factor in their origin story is that these drinks are blended with younger tastes in mind, palatable for both kids and adults alike. More importantly, they don’t neglect the need for more traditional snacks with more mainstream appeal, which is what first sparked my attention- And appetite.

Though not green in color or overt taste, Mustache Munchies “Cheddarish” Crackers quietly sneak a serving of vegetative goodness into these adorable handlebar crisps. Tanned to a gentle golden hue, these aren’t the screaming florescent orange wafers of similar mainstream competitors. Instead, they’re a study of careful balance and nuance, bearing a subtle nutty undertone and light but naturally cheesy essence. Each piece is a perfect little bite, ensuring no crumbs nor mess to contend with later when munching on the run.

As a serial granola bar-eater, sweet snacks start to lose their appeal early on in the day, which makes these satisfyingly crunchy crackers an ideal alternative. I never thought a mustache might look good on me, but these lightly salted morsels could add stylish new flair to any smiling face.


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Bursting with Flavor

It was a warm summer day, just like any other, when I boarded a plane in Austin with a bomb in my luggage.

No, scratch that: Dozens, if not hundreds, of tiny little bombs, all packed neatly in my carry-on bag. Rest assured that security was no slouch, pulling me aside to examine the explosive contents, but still I slid through without much incident. Before I incite mass panic here, let me clarify that these bombs were only of the edible variety, bursting with energy and flavor, rather than actual firepower.

Returning home from a food-focused convention, I still felt like I was getting away with robbery, if not a greater crime of terrorism. Enjoy Life Foods had been one of the very few vegan sponsors and at the end of the event, unloaded nearly their entire supply of uneaten samples into my hungry hands. Yes, untold numbers of the brand new ProBurst Energy Bites were now mine to savor, if only I could transport them back across state lines. Though the physical weight was considerable, there’s nothing I won’t do for good food… Even if the x-ray results looked mighty questionable, and TSA cross-examination is never a fun addition to the travel agenda.

Think of the classic Larabar composition of a blended nut-and-seed bar but considerably less chewy, chop it up into bite-sized pieces, and drench the whole thing in chocolate, and you might get a vague idea of the goodness that goes into each little nugget. Each of the four flavors straddles the thin line that separates dessert from snack, pulling in impressive nutritional numbers while handily satisfying the most demanding sweet tooth.

Adventurous flavor combinations further distinguish these treats from the wide variety of energy bars already flooding the marketplace. Mango Habanero and Cranberry Orange are slightly less conventional pairings, yet there’s not a loser between them. SunSeed Butter offers nut-free peanut butter doppelganger, and my personal favorite, Cinnamon Spice, adds a balanced warmth to the dark chocolate foundation.

Although it seemed like an absurd haul at the time, guaranteed to last a lifetime for any reasonable snacker, it was a sad day when my supply finally ran dry. Thank goodness these bites are finally available for retail purchase– Especially if it means I won’t need to secretly smuggle them back home in bulk anymore.


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Spread Hope

Once relatively unheard of in the US, the popularity of hummus has risen to astronomic new heights within the condiment hierarchy. Now rivaling longtime champions ketchup and salsa for top honors, it’s more noteworthy when you can’t find this beloved dip at any establishment selling food. No where is the craze made clearer than in the mainstream marketplace, where even corner store bodegas are likely to carry at least one or two brands. For that matter, there’s a good chance you can even scrounge up a package of the creamy chickpea puree at your local drug store, right alongside the emergency rations of plain saltine crackers and white bread. It’s impossible to escape, as if anyone would ever want to, but such an overwhelming abundance of options does make it challenging to weed out the winners and losers in the field.

Hope Hummus sets itself apart from the pack by blending up unique yet approachable flavors that offer a delicious departure from the average bean dip. Sure, there’s still the austere plain and garlic options for the traditionalist, providing a solid standby for the pickiest palates, but greater gustatory adventures await the more intrepid eater. Heat things up with Thai Coconut Curry or Sriracha hummus, or explore new territory entirely with sweet Dark Chocolate hummus.

Though I can’t claim to have experienced the full range of inventive combinations, it’s only a matter of time before I can hunt them down, since my initial experiences have proven so gratifying. Picking favorites is never easy, but I need to give a special shout out to the Kale Pesto hummus, which combines everyone’s favorite leafy green superfood with basil pesto, lending vibrant, fresh flavor to this coarse blend. Primed for any party platter, it also strikes me as a promising candidate for enlivening creamy pasta sauce or topping a bowlful of piping hot tomato soup. Speaking of hot, Spicy Avocado hummus lights a smoldering savory flavor with piquant jalapeno peppers, tempered by creamy avocado. Though not nearly a five-alarm fire, it certainly boasted a well-defined spice that would appease any heat seekers in the crowd.

In this booming category, surprisingly few variations can be found on the classic staple, despite increasing demands. Hope Hummus is one company clearly thinking outside the plastic tub while always emphasizing high quality, organic ingredients. For a quick fix snack, consider branching out and trying their fresh twists on hummus next time.


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Lady Marmalade

Batten down the hatches and hide the good porcelain; the holidays are here again. Ready or not, Thanksgiving hits in just over a week, throwing cooks and eaters across the country into a predictable annual frenzy. If your menu is already planned and locked down, you’re probably sick of reading the incessant recipe suggestions churning out of every food publication, online, in print, on TV, over the radio waves, and beyond. If you’ve been remiss in your advanced preparations, your blood pressure is probably spiking to greater heights with every mention of yet another overly complicated, time consuming new dish to consider adding to the elaborate affair.

Let’s take it back a step, shall we? Eight days is still plenty of time from either perspective, whether you need to get your act together or just stick to the script. No matter what, you’ve still gotta eat in the meantime.

There’s enough to stress about without adding another random recipe into the mix, so I’m not saying this is one for the Thanksgiving table. It does just happen to fit the theme beautifully, incorporating seasonal root vegetables into an easy condiment that would be just as home atop crackers as it would alongside your festive roast of choice. Ruby red, it glistens with the same luminosity as cranberry sauce, but shines with an entirely unique earthy yet sweet and zesty flavor. Beet marmalade was one of our top selling items at Health in a Hurry, and it remains a nostalgic favorite of mine. It’s the one single dish that I can point to that finally converted me from beet hater to lover.

I deeply regret not writing down that secret formula before the restaurant closed, but the good news is that it’s such a simple concept, it doesn’t take much effort to recreate a very close proxy. Caramelized onions lay down a rich, savory baseline, while jazzy orange peel hits the high notes, complimented by the sweetness of maple syrup. Perhaps an unlikely combination on paper, the final flavor sings with a resonance that far exceeds the sum of its parts.

I’m not saying you should save it for Thanksgiving… But I’m not saying it would be a bad guest at the table, either.

Beet Marmalade

4 Medium Red Beets
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1 Large Red Onion, Sliced
1 Large Orange, Zested and Juiced
2 Tablespoons 100% Grade B Maple Syrup
1/2 Teaspoon Salt

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Wrap the beets up in aluminum foil so that they’re completely covered, and roast for about an hour, or until fork tender. Let cool before peeling. If they’re cooked properly, the skins should just rub right off with a bit of pressure.

Meanwhile, heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium-low heat and add in the sliced onion. Cook gently, stirring frequently, for 30 – 40 minutes, until deeply caramelized and almost silky in texture. Add in the orange juice about halfway through, and reduce the heat if necessary to prevent burning.

Roughly chop the cooked beets and place them in your food processor along with the orange zest and caramelized onions. Add in the maple syrup and salt. Lightly pulse all of the ingredients together until broken down and thoroughly combined but still quite chunky.

Serve warm or chilled, as a dip or topping for crackers, a condiment on the dinner table, or as a spread with bread.

Makes about 2 Cups

Printable Recipe


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NuGo On the Go

The idea of going “back to school” has taken on a new meaning. Mere months after graduating, I find myself returning to campus bright and early each morning once again, eager to learn about the latest in photo technology. Now the difference is that instead of heading into the classroom, I plunge into the stacks of rental lenses in the equipment room, trying furtively to teach myself the intricate codes to their order and maintenance. These lessons are quite possibly even more difficult than those I grappled with as an undergrad, and while the days are long, the hours seem to evaporate in an instant. It’s the most I can do keep my head above water in the flood of paperwork, let alone steal away a full 30 minutes for a lunch break. After just a few hours in this position, I came to realize how little I appreciated those assiduous lab techs in my days as a student.

Times like these call for emergency sustenance; packable and compact, shelf-stable and easy to eat, healthy but of course, above all else, delicious.

The field of energy bars certainly has exploded over the past decade, expanding into a dizzying array of flavors, macro-nutrient combinations, and special dietary considerations. A blessing and a curse to those in need of quick snacks on the go, it’s difficult to discern when you’re actually picking up a cookie bar or sidewalk chalk dressed up in a shiny Mylar wrapper.

NuGo is a brand that’s been on the scene for ages, diversifying its offerings along different lines to accommodate shifting eater demographics. While their more old-school products contain milk and some admittedly questionable ingredients, their vegan NuGo Slim bars are more than enough to sustain the discerning herbivore. The company was kind enough to share a taste of their new Chocolate Mint and Toasted Coconut bars with me, and both were fine fodder for these busy days on the job.

Dressed in a cloak of dark chocolate, each one gives off the impression of a candy bar, but at half the sweetness, bear no threat of inducing a sugar coma. Although slightly dry, the texture is soft, with an easy bite that is not difficult to swallow- No pun intended. Imagine a very firm cookie dough binding together crispy rice cereal, and you’d come pretty close to the heart of these chocolate-covered protein bombs.

For those in need of a midday wake-up call, the mint option is the one for you. Sharp like spearmint rather than the more standard peppermint, it’s not messing around, leading with a fresh, bright punch of mint right from the first bite. Coconut, on the other hand, takes somewhat of a backseat to the chocolate, but still sings loud and clear with a comfortingly nutty resonance.

Though I can’t say either has instantly risen through the ranks to reach a new personal favorite, both are a boon to busy, hungry eaters of all stripes, with very impressive nutritional stats to boot. I’m certainly happy to have them on standby in my camera bag, ready in a flash when it’s time to go back to school all over again.


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Thai One On For Size

What is your personal litmus test when judging a new restaurant? Is it the spaghetti marinara at a place touting homemade pasta? The scallion pancakes at a dim sum joint? Hopefully it’s something common, found across all menus, to best compare, since the simplest dishes are the most telling. It takes attention to detail, consideration for ingredients, and true skill to make the basics stand out within a sea of similar options. Perhaps it’s unfair to appraise an eatery based on their drinks, but for me, Thai restaurants live or die by their Thai tea.

Traditionally made with copious amounts of syrupy dairy mixed in, simply finding a vegan brew can be quite a feat. If you’re willing to swap coconut milk and sugar for the sweetened condensed milk, you’ve already won a gold star by my assessment. Honestly, it doesn’t take much to convert this special treat, and yet surprisingly few think to offer such flexibility in the first place. It wouldn’t be such an issue if I could just whip up a big pot of it at home, but like all things that seem deceptively simple, hitting those same sweet, subtly spicy notes had proven elusive through exhaustive trials.

Mixes exist for those who want the authentic flavor without any of the extra work, but there’s no way around those pesky artificial colors. While I can’t promise that my unique blend would pass the standard litmus test, I’m quite pleased to say that it will do the trick when a craving hits.

That’s especially true when those same flavors enliven a cool and refreshing glass of chia pudding. Coconut milk thickened with yogurt and sweetened with a restrained hand top off this healthy reinterpretation, suitable for breakfast, snack, and dessert alike. Celyon or assam tea would be most traditional for this application, if you can get your hands on either, but let’s be honest: True “authenticity” goes out the window as soon as a home cook picks up the whisk. In this case, I’d argue that might be a very good thing indeed.

No one will think that this take on Thai tea came from the latest and greatest restaurant on the block, but it sure does satisfy the craving in a whole new way.

Thai Tea Chia Parfaits

3 1/2 Cups Water
1 Tablespoon Black Tea
1 Tablespoon Rooibos Tea
1 Whole Star Anise
1 Green Cardamom Pod
2 Whole Cloves
1/2 Teaspoon Tamarind Concentrate
1/8 Teaspoon Ground Turmeric
1/2 Cup Coconut Palm Sugar or Light Brown Sugar
1 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract
3/4 Cup Whole Chia Seeds

1/2 Cup Full-Fat Coconut Milk
1 Cup Vegan Vanilla Coconut Milk Yogurt
2 Tablespoons Light Agave Nectar

To make the pudding, you’ll first need to make strongly brewed of Thai tea. You’re welcome to use a prepared mix in place of the tea leaves and spices, but for anyone who doesn’t have access to such luxuries or doesn’t have it on hand in time to satisfy urgent cravings, this blend of black and rooibos tea will do the trick. Heat the water in a medium saucepan along with both teas. Lightly smash the whole spices with the side of your knife to help release their flavors before adding them all in, along with the tamarind concentrate and turmeric. Cover and bring the mixture just to the brink of boiling.

Stir in the sugar, turn off the heat, and keep covered. Let steep for at least 30 minutes, undisturbed. The longer the tea steeps, the more flavorful it will be, but let it sit for no more than 2 hours to prevent the more bitter compounds of the tea from being released.

Strain out the leaves and whole spices before stirring in the vanilla extract and chia seeds. Let the chia seeds begin to hydrate and absorb the liquid, and stir again after 15 minutes to break up any clumps. Divide the mixture between 4 – 6 glasses and place them into the fridge. Chill thoroughly, for at least 2 – 3 hours, before serving.

Right before serving, mix together the coconut milk, yogurt, and agave. Drizzle it over the top of each chia pudding and lightly swirl it in. Don’t blend it entirely for the most striking effect, and the most satisfying flavor contrast.

Makes 4 – 6 Servings

Printable Recipe