Playing With Fire

Food is simply more fun when you can set it on fire. Don’t believe me? Clearly, you need more saganaki in your life.

What Is Saganaki?

Although most people associate the word saganaki with gooey cheese that’s pan fried and served hot, the word itself actually refers to the cast iron pan itself. A wide variety of appetizers, or Greek tapas, if you will, fall under the category. Given the popularity of molten cheese though, 9.5 times out of 10, this is the version most people think of.

Fire isn’t a mandatory or even traditional ingredient. It was first presented with this theatrical flare at the Parthenon Greek Restaurant in Chicago, Illinois. Given the opportunity to set food on fire, however, why would you chose anything else?

How To Make Vegan Saganaki

Vegan saganaki is made just the like classic by simply swapping out the dairy. Of course, there’s no direct non-dairy translation for traditional kasseri cheese, but plenty of respectable substitutes. Plant-based feta is your best bet, since it melts reasonably for that satisfying gooey interior, has a strong flavor that can stand up to the alcohol infusion, and is widely available in most markets. My favorite vegan feta options, in order, are:

  • Violife
  • Trader Joe’s
  • Daiya

The key is to buy only full blocks, not crumbles or cubes, and nothing tofu-based which is impervious to melting. Of course, meltability is both an asset and a flaw for this preparation. Instead of staying firm but gooey, like a runny brie at room temperature, vegan feta tends to lose all structure and form, liquefying into a rich, creamy dip with a glorious toasty surface. Plant-based saganaki is possibly an improvement over the original, because this version has further applications, such as:

  • Pasta sauce
  • Pizza topping
  • Spanikopita filling

What To Serve With Saganaki

Flaming cheese alone doesn’t make a meal, but it can become a central facet of a well-curated array of savory bites. Whether this is the prelude to a full entree or the main event itself is all in the portions. Classic accompaniments and serving suggestions include:

  • Crusty bread, toast, or crackers
  • Pita wedges, grilled or warmed
  • Olives
  • Dolma (stuffed grape leaves)
  • Hummus
  • Mediterranean or shirazi salad
  • Raw crudites, like sliced cucumbers, carrots, or celery
  • Roasted or grilled vegetables, like red bell peppers, zucchini, or eggplant

Tips For Success

  1. Any high-proof spirit will work in this recipe. Try ouzo to keep it Greek, or use vodka for a more neutral flavor.
  2. Safety first! Turn off stove and remove the pan before adding alcohol. Use a long lighter to ignite the cheese, or light the end of a piece of dried linguine or spaghetti first to act as a conduit.
  3. To make this recipe gluten-free, use your favorite gluten-free flour blend instead of all-purpose.
  4. Make a smaller batch by cutting your feta in half or even quarters, and adjusting the remaining ingredients accordingly. It’s more about the technique than exact measurements.Like moths, we’re all inexorably drawn to the flames. When you want to start an event with a bang, impress someone special, or just play with fire, this will be your new favorite party trick.

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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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Hot Tots

So bad that they’re good; unwanted scraps that everyone can’t get enough of; terminally uncool to the point of being a new trend. Tater tots live in a world of conflicting extremes, forever at odds with themselves and the public at large. We have Ore-Ida to thank for the innovation in 1951, when new French fry cutting technology gave birth to immaculate shoestrings while leaving mountains of potato slivers and small pieces in its wake. That excess became the foundation of tots as we know them, formed and fried into something entirely new.

Any kid growing up in the 90s had more than their fair share of the crispy potato bites, piled up on cafeteria trays and smothered with ketchup, in lieu of any other vegetable-like matter. I remember my first encounter in first grade, when I got to the front of the line and found the paper boat of tots before me. These weren’t the thick potato wedges I wanted, and not even the smooth mashed potato puree that I tolerated. With great trepidation, I took a microscopic bite, chewed once, chewed twice… And spit it into the trash. For the rest of the day, I languished in the nurse’s office, convinced I was sick, and that those demonic tater tots had done me in.

Drama aside, I came to learn after many years that tots were not all bad. Don’t expect too much and you won’t be disappointed. Consistent, reliable, affordable, and ageless, they’re an accommodating neutral base for toppings and dips of all types. Now that Millennials are “grown up” and seeking solace in their kitchens, tater tots are finally reaching their full potential. No longer reject spud shards but genuinely worthy starters and snacks, I, too, have come around to the ways of the tot.

That said, I don’t crave them. I wouldn’t go out of my way to try them, nor are they my first, second, or third choice on a menu. It needs to be something really special to catch my eye… Like the cauliflower tots served at Better Half Coffee & Cocktails here in Austin. These savory nuggets are square, fried to crispy perfection, and served alongside a silky purple beet ketchup. Sadly, they’re not vegan thanks to the generous application of eggs and cheese, but I couldn’t get them out of my mind after one visit. They certainly made a more lasting impression than the date I was on at the time.

I could sell these as a healthier, lower-carb option that’s naturally gluten-free and higher in protein, but this isn’t about getting the most nutritious snack. Let’s be honest: No one eats tater tots for the health benefits, so caulitots shouldn’t try to be anything other than delicious. That is where they truly excel. The outsides are browned to a satisfyingly crunchy finish, while the interiors remain moist, creamy, and slightly gooey thanks to the inclusion of vegan cheese shreds.

For a recipe worth more than nostalgic value, caulitots truly elevate the humble bar snack to a new level. Though you could serve them with regular old ketchup, BBQ sauce, plant-based honey mustard, or even ranch dressing, give the beet ketchup a try, at least once. It’s better than your average dip, and these upscale tots deserve the best, as do you.

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The Duchess and the Pea

What could be more proper than a decorous English tea sandwich? Filled daintily but not overstuffed, crusts carefully removed, each mouthful is an architectural feat, rendered in an edible medium. History has spared no detail on this stately creation, giving full attribution to Anna Maria Stanhope, seventh Duchess of Bedford, who felt the sharp jab of hunger midday, while dinner was still many hours off. A well-mannered lady could not simply pilfer scraps from the kitchen- Heavens, no! Fashioning these elegant little two-bite affairs to serve with tea, no one needed suffer the embarrassment of an uncontrolled appetite in civilized company.

Why, then, has it taken so long for contemporary cooks to realize the potential of another British staple, the English pea, when crafting a perfectly proper filling? Tender, sweet green pearls that sing of spring’s bounty, they’re an even more esteemed asset than the common cucumber.

While we’re on the subject of names and origins, I must wonder why there isn’t more tea involved in a rightful tea sandwich? Of course, like coffee cake, the moniker intones what should be served with the food at hand, but I find myself unsatisfied with that explanation. In my remodeled bread building, stunning butterfly pea tea powder grants lightly tangy cream cheese an arresting blue hue.

In less formal settings, the pea spread could become a dip for any variety of fresh vegetable crudites, crackers, or chips. In fact, it could be swirled through strands of al dente spaghetti for a savory seasonal treat, too. However, something about the full combination of elements, complete with effortlessly yielding soft sandwich bread, really makes it shine. Do give it a go; it’s only proper to try.

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Stuffed to the Gills

Some vegetables were made to be stuffed. Open, empty cups, yearning to be filled, they’re more than just an anonymous vehicle for egregious amounts of dip. Meaty caps to really sink your teeth into, even simple little button mushrooms can transform the average appetizer into an elegant canape.

Popularized around the mid 20th century, these fun guys have a relatively short gastronomic history, but have been the life of the party ever since. No matter what savory delights you find packed into the center, a warm, roasted mushroom with concentrated umami flavor can do no wrong. Bonus points for being a naturally compact finger food, self-contained and perfectly portioned.

Lightening the load of what tends to be a very rich heap of cheese, cream, breadcrumbs, and/or sausage, these baby bellas are filled with everyone’s favorite culinary chameleon: Cauliflower! Simmered until meltingly tender, a quick mashing makes them indistinguishable from less healthy fare. Redolent of vibrant lemongrass and basil, it’s hard to resist eating straight out of the pan by the forkful. Truth be told, you could easily serve this stuffing in place of mashed potatoes, but mushrooms really do take it to the next level.

This recipe was inspired by Kevin’s Natural Foods Lemongrass Basil Sauce and is my entry into the “Eat Clean. Live Happy. Blogger Recipe Challenge.” Like all of these products, my recipe is proudly paleo, keto, gluten-free, and sugar-free. You can get more information and inspiration on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.

Don’t wait for a special occasion to make stuffed mushrooms. Even if you’re just throwing a party for one, the small amount of extra effort will really make your taste buds dance.

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Lump Sum

The first time I heard the term “lumpia,” I thought it was a quirky insult. As in, “yo mama’s so lumpia…” and fill in the blank. The real insult is that lumpia aren’t well known throughout the US to begin with. Culinary trendsetters keep proclaiming that Filipino food will be the next big craze, year after year, but I just haven’t seen it take hold as promised. While you can’t walk a full city block without passing at least one pizza parlor or sushi bar, you’d be lucky to stumble across a single Filipino restaurant in an entire metropolitan area.

What gives? Why aren’t kids begging their parents for sizzling platters as a Friday night treat? Where are all the long-simmered stews and punchy, vinegar-spiked sauces? So many of the classic staples share Malaysian, Indonesian, Indian, Chinese, Spanish, and even American influences, so why don’t they translate the same way overseas?

Lumpia should be considered the gateway dish, an easy introduction to this true melting pot of flavors. Like common spring rolls or egg rolls, the concept itself is highly flexible. Fillings can be either sweet or savory, bundled together in thin wheat wrappers, and served either fresh or deep-fried. Let’s be real though: The best, and most popular sort are fried to crispy, golden-brown perfection, and dunked into a sour, salty, and savory dip of vinegar and soy sauce.

This particular recipe comes from Chef Reina Montenegro of Nick’s Kitchen, one of the very few vegan Filipino eateries I know of, boasting two locations in San Francisco proper. Traditionally, the most popular sort of lumpia combines vegetables like bean sprouts, string beans, and carrots with cheap cuts of meat, but you’d never miss the animal addition here. Mushroom powder makes up for the umami essence in spades, and honestly, any filling would be delicious once anointed with bubbling hot oil.

Take a bite while the rolls are still steaming hot, caramelized exteriors instantly shattering upon impact, and you’ll immediately understand the appeal. You can eat with your hands, call it a snack or a meal, and easily convince picky children to eat a rainbow of vegetables.

If this is your first introduction to Filipino cuisine, welcome to the party. Next up should be Chef Reina’s famous, unbelievably eggless tofu sissig silog for breakfast,… If I could ever needle that secret formula out of her. You work on those lumpia, and I’ll work on that subsequent recipe.

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