Bite Me

In times of extreme stress or trauma, regression is a real concern. Young children run for cover under previously discarded blankies, while dogs can forget their training when nature calls indoors. Training wheels snap back onto bikes, lessons once mastered must be retaught. After so many steps forward, it’s time to take a few back. That very same impulse drives otherwise reasonable adults to abandon all pretense of balance and seek solace in the comforting foods embedded into happy childhood memories. Attracted to the nostalgia as much as the taste, there’s no way of knowing just what will bubble up from bygone days.

Here’s an unexpected flashback from elementary school. Miniature chocolate chip muffins, you know the ones, beckoned in neat little plastic packages at the end of the hot lunch line. Truly unfrosted cupcakes, each sweet, squishy morsel seemed to melt away effortlessly, dissolving into a sticky morass of artificial buttery crumbs and waxy chocolate. My parents would have never condoned such nutritionally void treats, but when I could trade for such treasures, there was no stopping me.

Comforting in their simplicity, reassuringly easy to both make and eat, it’s the kind of junk food I might normally rail against. Just eat a slice of cake, or have yourself a proper bran muffin! This wishy-washy excuse for some rational middle ground is just a way to feel better about eating dessert for breakfast. Relative to the austere bowl of oatmeal in the morning, they’re loaded with sugar and white flour, and you know what? That’s exactly what we all need sometimes.

Regression is not permanent. Like so many other things in life, the urge to crawl inward, revert to the safety of nostalgia, is outside of our control. We’re all doing the best we can to survive; be kind to your inner child, plan to grow up another day. A little bite of indulgence certainly wouldn’t hurt right about now.

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Bar None

As the antiquated adage goes, when it rains, it pours. When in drought-stricken California however, what falls from the sky is not a deluge of precipitation, but of citrus. Yes, you heard me right: Fruit is showering the city streets at this very moment, heavy with juice and blown asunder by the most gentle gusts of wind. Every variety you can imagine, from the average lemon and lime to more exotic mandarins, yuzu, pomelo, even Buddha’s hand litter the pavement. Dash out for a quick walk around the neighborhood, eyes to the ground, and you can take care of your vitamin C needs without spending a dime.

Urban foraging has kept my fruit bin full of these tart, tangy, sour, and sometimes sweet gems. Oranges are real treasures, eaten straight out of hand, sometimes before even returning home, but the most plunder is the venerated Meyer lemon. Popularized by Alice Waters of Chez Panisse fame, it’s no surprise that this particular specimen that’s come to represent so much of California cuisine now thrives up and down the coast, and is especially concentrated so close to home.

Thus, lemons have been on the menu at every turn lately, when alternative acids and groceries in general are scarce. Large pitchers of lemonade sit chilled, at the ready as the days grow warmer, threatening to skip right over spring and straight into the summer season. Fine flecks of zest sparkle in simple vinaigrettes, lavished over everything from greens to grains. Jars of marmalade use up every scrap of peel, preserving the harvest for countless slabs of toast to come.

For dessert, of course, you can do no better than homemade lemon bars.

Luscious, silken curd dazzles like a semi-sold bite of sunshine atop a buttery, pleasantly sandy shortbread crust. Tender and yielding, each square trembles gently in the hand, melting the instant it hits the tongue. Avowed lemon-lovers and fair weather friends alike can agree that a properly baked lemon bar can even surpass the appeal of a beguiling chocolate cake.

Finished with a flurry of powdered sugar, this classic, unassailable treat suits every occasion, every season, every craving, as far as I’m concerned. Even if lemons aren’t literally falling into your lap, do yourself the kindness of splurging on a generous surplus. Trust me, you’ll find a way to use them up without any difficulty, especially with this sweet serving suggestion on deck.

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See-Food

Cooking during quarantine has forced me to get a bit more creative than usual for my daily sustenance. All those years of looking for unconventional substitutes is paying off, in ways I could never expect.

No more tomato paste? Well you’re in luck, because I just found a few packets of ketchup in my bag! Bottle of soy sauce ran dry? There’s miso for that!

It’s also done wonders to clean out my stock of specialty goods, the rare, random oddities that caught my eye while shopping, but seemed too precious to simply consume without fanfare.

So, as supplies dwindle and lines to enter grocery stores continue to wrap around the building and down the block, this day seems like just the special occasion to dig in. The time has finally come to thaw out the strange, slippery, bouncy jumbo prawns to make something great.

What does one make with chewy konjac-based seafood and a limited pantry? Luck was on my side, as I had just the idea waiting in the wings. Simultaneously cleaning out my digital pantry, this was a concept I had outlined ages ago, saved away in the “to-make” folder, and promptly forgotten about. Though I didn’t have the anticipated crowd of party revelers to impress, when my long-forgotten formula for meatless shrimp toast finally came to fruition, it was no less magnificent to behold.

Hatosi (蝦多士 in Cantonese) literally translates to “shrimp toast,” a beloved party bite or snack enjoyed as a savory happy hour staple, and beyond. Traditionally made with crisp sandwich bread cradling a layer of shrimp puree flavored with ginger, garlic, and scallion, it’s coated in sesame seeds before being deep-fried. Briny, umami, with just the right amount of salty-greasy satisfaction, such a foolproof preparation could appeal even to seafood haters.

Nothing against the conventional approach, but I’m not about to pull out a bubbling vat of oil for this party of one, so I baked mine instead. Healthier, easier, and more economical, since I can keep my reserves of oil full for another day.

While shortages remain a very real fact of life across the globe, I realize that this recipe is pie in the sky for the large majority of readers, no matter how bottomless your food stockpile. Even on a good day, it’s a kind of crazy amalgamation of quirky ingredients. All we can do is work with what we’ve got, and right now, this is what’s keeping me cooking. Rather than offer up alternatives that won’t even come close to the intended effect, I want you to read this with optimism, as a promise of more to come. Save it for better days, keep growing your “to-make” folder, and keep dreaming of unrestricted abundance. Sometime soon, I hope we can all raise a triangle together, and literally toast to good health for all.

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Working for Peanuts

Grazing my way through the day, it can be hard to sit down to a proper meal. Time constraints often create an imposing barrier to reasonable meal prep, leaving me at the mercy of my pantry when hunger strikes. Granted, there are just as many instances where my only excuse is a basic, child-like craving for snack foods, conventional lunch or dinnertime fare be damned.

For anyone else affected by these same cravings, take heart in knowing that you’re not alone, and that there is a cure.

Peanut sadeko, a Nepalese appetizer that satisfies like an entree and tastes like a snack, doesn’t translate easily to a typical American eating agenda. Some call it salad, but of course there are no leafy greens and scant vegetables, so my best advice is to enjoy it with an appetite for adventure, anytime it you see fit.

Biting, lingering heat from pungent mustard oil envelops warm peanuts, mixed with a hefty dose of ginger, jalapeno, and chaat masala for a savory, spicy blend. “Sadeko,” sometimes romanized as “sandheko,” simply refers to the basic seasoning that blends these sharp, distinctive, yet somehow harmonious flavors together, infusing a wide range of recipes throughout the Himalayas. Though nontraditional, crispy roasted edamame join the party in my personal mix for a resounding cacophony of crunch in every mouthful.

Unexpected, undefinable, yet undeniably addictive, it hits all the right notes for instant gratification.

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Emergency Rations

Warranted or not, panic wrought by the coronavirus has spread to pandemic levels, faster than the illness itself. Food scarcity is a concern that most city dwellers have the luxury of ignoring, but suddenly doomsday preppers are wiping grocery shelves clear of dry beans, grains, and spices. It’s the end of days for the avid baker caught off guard. Surely it’s a temporary state of affairs, but when dire cravings strike, what’s one to do without easy access to ingredients previously taken for granted?

Lucky for you, I’m terrible at planning on a good day, so I have years of experience working with a limited pantry. Skipping past all the fancy flourishes and contemporary conveniences, you can still make superlative sweets, comparable to the most indulgent high-end baked goods.

Just plain flour, oil, sugar, and cocoa are at the heart of these treats. Embellish with nuts and chips if available, but it’s far from necessary. These basic staples hit high marks for every category; soft and tender, crisp around the edges, sweet with a touch of salt to accentuate deep chocolate flavors, they’re ready for you at the dawning of the apocalypse. The world at large may turn into a hellish land populated by zombies and shut-ins, but at least there will be dessert at the end of the day.

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Udon of a New Day

Instant noodles are the staff of life. Globally, they sustain wild swaths of the population, satisfying picky children to discerning adults, proving a quick fix for the hapless homemaker and the harried office worker alike, fitting the bill for both impoverished college students and affluent entrepreneurs. Curly bricks of ramen, dried, fried noodles, make the world go round.

There’s so much more to slurp, though, with considerably fresher appeal. Udon, thick as double-braided nylon rope, make ramen look like limp spaghetti by contrast. Dense, chewy, substantial wheat noodles, it’s hard to improve upon the classic soup base.

That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, of course.

With just a bit of quick knife work, cut cubes plunge into bubbling hot oil rather than plain water to meet a crispier fate. Compulsively munchable, savory, and salty, these noodles are more than a last-minute dinnertime staple. Serve them with drinks for a new happy hour hit, pack them up for snacking on the go, or toss them into green salad as upgraded seasoned croutons.

Up until recently the best varieties could only be found frozen, flown in from Japan. Now the edible art form is available in the refrigerated aisle, made right here in the US by Fortune Noodles. Offered with a mushroom seasoning specifically and boldly labeled as VEGAN right across the front, they come out with the perfect texture and balanced yet bold umami broth every time.

Check out more inspiration from JSL Foods via Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. Plus, if you join the Noodle Club, you’ll be rewarded with a high-value freebie coupon right away at Stater Bros, Safeway, Von’s, Aldi, Lucky’s, SaveMart, Food Maxx, Food 4 Less, or Raley’s.

There will always be a place in my heart, and my pantry for instant ramen, but no one noodle can do it all. Fresh udon makes greater snacking opportunities possible.

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