Smart Sweets

March is National Nutritional Month, which focuses not on good or bad foods, but emphasizes the importance of making informed food choices. This is an approach I can fully support. As a vegan with a huge sweet tooth, alimentary harmony is all about balance, which isn’t black and white. No single diet is best for everyone, but society at large would no doubt be happier and healthier with greater awareness of exactly what they’re eating. That all starts with simply reading the label!

Plant-based eaters are already seasoned pros at packaging interrogations, but it’s a skill that everyone can benefit from. Knowing which nasties to avoid goes a long way. Questionable ingredients like artificial colors and flavors, high-fructose corn syrup, and trans-fats should be on the permanent no-fly list for every conscious consumer. It might surprise you which brands do and don’t fit the bill. Voortman has been baking treats tirelessly since before superfoods were trendy or keto was a thing, but their consistent commitment to quality makes their cookies an ideal example of healthy indulgence.

Speaking of trends, charcuterie boards are all the rage these days, capitalizing on human nature to snack, graze, and nibble through the day. It’s a simple approach to hosting friends without putting out a full dinner menu, while still satisfying with a wide range of delights. Of course, there’s the stunning visual impact made by so many shapes, colors, and textures. Composed of simple staples that may not wow by themselves, the collection of complementary bites add up to far more than you would expect.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be all about meat and cheese. Dessert boards are where it’s at!

Dessert charcuterie is the new fun way to serve dessert. You don’t need to be a baker, spend a ton of money, or squander your precious time to assemble your own. In fact, you probably have everything you need already on hand!

Balance is the key, like anything else in life. Truly anything goes, and having a wide array of options ensures there’s something for everyone. Crisp wafer cookies are the most important feature for me, which guides the selections that follow. Voortman has so many bold flavors, I like to use one or two to get the party started. From there, I’ll match corresponding fresh fruits, pair dips that both contrast and heighten those flavors, and fill in the gaps with some additional treats. Your only limit is the size of your board!

In truth, you don’t need to spend a minute in the kitchen for this show-stopping composition. Just remember, it’s all about balance! Wholesome fresh ingredients, decadent chocolates, and healthy treats create a harmonious, natural union.

There’s a lot to be said for chocolate hummus if you wanted to go all-in on desserts with benefits, but I’m a fan of darker cacao endowment here, given the other lighter components. You can whip up this dip in one minute flat, and it’s great on ice cream, too.

Another crowd-pleaser is cheesecake, which graciously accommodates any flavors you can throw at it, while still retaining a tart, tangy vigor. More than just vanilla, it provides the light and lemony contrast to the darker, earthier additions.

Rounding it all out with something nutty, peanut sauce is often seen as a spicy topper for Thai food, but makes a rich addition to the final course, too. A touch of maple syrup and a pinch of salt is all it takes to flip the script over to the sweeter side.

A lot is said about the path towards health and wellness, but for me, it’s one that must still lead to dessert. At the end of the day, I’ll always crave something sweet, so I’m careful to stock only smarter choices. It’s all about creating a happy balance that starts on the plate, or in this case, charcuterie board!

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Schmear Campaign

Whoever first looked at a cashew and thought, “Hey, I think this could taste like cheese!” deserves some kind of gold medal, if not a Nobel Peace Prize. Though this tropical nut has quickly been adopted as the staple ingredient to many dairy-free delights, it truly shines brightest when blended to a creamy consistency and inoculated with savory cultures. Something about the fermentation process brings out all the best flavors, not to mention the probiotic benefits, locked away inside those unassuming beige kernels. Recipes have flooded cookbooks both print and digital within the span of just a few years, and you don’t have to look very far to find evidence on the grocery store shelves, too. Just take the new line of schmears from NuCulture for example.

Based in the Columbia River Gorge region of Oregon, I was lucky enough to stumble upon these fresh blends while visiting Seattle for the VegFest this past spring. Availability is still limited, but growing at a steady clip, as more savvy consumers catch on and get hooked. Very rich and buttery, each flavorful option is so much more than just plain pureed cashews.

Garden Herb is the best entry point for the uninitiated; think of it as an upgraded cream cheese, simply begging for a bagel. Scallions take the lead here, bringing onion flavor to the fore, while gentle notes of parsley, thyme, and oregano play backup in perfect harmony. For whatever reason, it’s the thickest of the three, making it less of a contender as a silky smooth dip, but still perfectly creamy and spreadable.

On the other hand, to all you nostalgic southerners out there, your pitch-perfect pimento cheese dip dupe has arrived. Paprika Pimento bears a mild kiss of red bell peppers, lending a gentle warmth without a bite. An irresistible savory spread with subtle, balanced sweetness, it was the first to disappear when the snacks hit the table.

If you like it hot, though, Bacony Chipotle has your number. Beware that it’s not a treat for the meek! This one is packing serious heat. It starts with a smoldering, smoky, meaty flavor but quickly progresses into a blazing finish. The fire definitely builds as you eat, which can catch up quickly if you’re a serial snacker, unprepared to face the flame.

For all you keeping score at home, mark this one down as yet another win for cashews. Though currently a regional specialty, I hope that the love of this nutty schmear will continue to spread through all 50 states soon, and beyond.

Mac Daddy

Passover has mercifully passed on by without incident, the week without leavened bread already a distant memory. Jumping right back into the typical glutenous routine as quickly as pizza crust can crisp and brown back to life, the cupboards miraculously refill with wheated treats, and boards of matzo just as suddenly disappear. Still, its influence lingers, the drive to create kosher eats still strong and the inspiration of past successes just as compelling.

One of my strongest food associations with the holiday, right after matzo ball soup, of course, is coconut macaroons. Sad to say, it’s a regrettable negative mental link, once correlated to the stale, mummified nuggets found at the bottom of an ancient tin can, likely the very same guest invited to a decade of celebrations. Sinewy, overly sweetened strings of processed coconut were woven throughout, like sugary balls of yarn, obliterating any genuine flavor, natural or otherwise.

It needn’t be this way. Coconut macaroons are effortless to make from scratch, suitable for all diets and palates, but many prepared options exist that can deftly carry the torch, too. Coco-Roons first hit the market years ago with a modest selection of standard flavors. Since then, the family has expanded to include more innovative offerings.

Chocolate and vanilla, the mandatory classics, are presented with a bit more flare as Brownie and Vanilla Maple. While such fanciful monikers may be a bit more hype than truth, there’s no arguing that these macaroons are far and away a huge upgrade over the sad leaden lumps that haunt my childhood memories. Vanilla Maple tastes surprisingly more of rum than maple; subtle, unexpected alcoholic notes play among the tropical coconut flavor, surprising but not unwelcome. Brownie offers adds a nicely rounded, robust cocoa taste to the mix, although I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s equivalent to a decadent fudgy square. For some slightly more avant-garde options, Salted Caramel is a standout, dazzling with warm, toasted notes, heightened by that extra bit of seasoning. Lemon Pie does indeed bear an impressively creamy, custard-like lemon flavor; bright but not tangy, it falls firmly into the sweet camp, rather than sour.

More importantly than the individual flavors though, each tiny morsel is moist, soft, and sweet. Very fresh, full coconut flavor, they employ short strands of flaked coconut to create a more pleasing texture, while still remaining relatively faithful to the original script. Traditionalists would undoubtedly enjoy the modern upgrade, and the fact that they happen to be gluten-free, vegan, and raw are just added bonuses.

Going Green

Green isn’t just good; green is great. Green is downright glorious. Green represents health, wealth, freshness, and rebirth. When it comes to food especially, every green in the visible gamut indicates a potent source of nourishment, and this is especially true as those tones grow increasingly saturated. Spirulina is a prime example, packing an unbelievable battery of vitamins, minerals, and proteins into every molecule. Potent even in the smallest doses, spirulina enjoys the rare ability to enhance average recipes, both visually and nutritionally.

Consider that scant pinch of spirulina powder nature’s food dye, with some added health benefits. With St. Patrick’s Day upon us and green eats popping up around every corner, there’s never been a better time to ditch the bottle of FD&C Green No. 3, titanium dioxide, modified corn starch, sodium benzoate, and potassium sorbate.

The funny thing is, the original St. Patrick himself was actually associated with a particular shade of royal blue, not green, contrary to popular belief. That particular hue came to represent the holiday thanks to the shamrock, which was picked to adorn one’s lapel as a vibrant, living symbol of the holy trinity. Curious what a bit of time and mythology can do to tradition.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s still perfectly fitting to pay homage to the “Emerald Isle” with another round of green goodies. If anything, it’s even more appropriate to employ the tinting powers of blue-green algae with this knowledge! It’s the best of all worlds, especially from a flavor standpoint.

Crisp, compact bites for munching solo or pairing with a light dip, you’d never know that these shamrock-shaped crackers are such healthy snacks. A gluten-free base of green pea flour contributes a distinctly nutty, roasted flavor which pairs perfectly with the subtle savoriness contributed by the spirulina. Bold additions of fresh mint, lemon, and black pepper sparkle brightly against the contrast of that dark green backdrop, yielding an invigorating combination well suited for spring festivities, and beyond.

Best of all, the basic formula is infinitely adjustable to your tastes. Green pea flour is still slightly esoteric, I’ll admit, so you can just as easily swap it for standard garbanzo bean flour instead. Herbs and seasonings are entirely flexible, too. Think fresh dill for another seasonal taste, or try cilantro with lime zest to pull the profile in an entirely new direction. As long as it’s green, it’s all good.

Gluten-Free Minted Pea Crackers

1 Cup Green Pea Flour
1 Tablespoon Spirulina Powder
1/4 Cup Packed Fresh Mint Leaves, Finely Minced
1 Scallion, Finely Minced
1 Teaspoon Lemon Zest
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
1/4 Teaspoon Baking Powder
1/4 Cup Water
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and line a baking sheet with a piece of parchment paper or a silpat.

In a large bowl, mix together the green pea flour and spirulina, stirring thoroughly to ensure that the spirulina is thoroughly distributed throughout. Add in the finely chopped herbs, zest, salt, pepper, and baking powder next, tossing to incorporate. Finally, pour in the oil and water together, and mix very well, until you create a smooth, cohesive dough. It will be very thick and you may need to use your hands bring everything together, so don’t be afraid to get in there and get messy! There’s no danger of overworking the mixture since there’s no gluten, so give it your all.

Shape the dough into an even rectangle and pat it out fairly thin by hand before moving on to the rolling pin.

Avoid using an excessive amount of additional flour, but use a tiny bit of extra flour on your work surface to prevent the dough from sticking. I had the best results when rolling it between two separate pieces of parchment paper. Roll out the dough as thinly as possible to yield the crispiest, crunchiest crackers; aim for about 1/8 of an inch. Use a small cookie cutter of your desired shape, approximately 1 inch or so in diameter, and punch out the individual crackers. Transfer the shapes carefully to your prepared baking sheet. No need to space them out too much, since they won’t spread. Just give them enough room to breath and bake evenly.

Bake 15 – 18 minutes, or until crisp and no longer shiny on top. It can be difficult to tell when they’re fully cooked due to the dark green color, but they should at least appear dry. It’s always better to err on the side of caution and pull the crackers earlier to prevent them from burning. They will continue to crisp as they cool, and if you’re not fully satisfied with the texture at that point, you can always return them to the oven for a few more minutes.

Let cool completely before snacking or stashing in an air-tight container for up to a week.

Printable Recipe

This post was is sponsored by Spiral Spring, but all content and opinions are entirely my own. To enjoy a 20% discount on all Spiral Spring products, enter “Sweet20” upon checkout.
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