BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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Sari Sari, Not Sorry

It was the final food frontier, as far as my personal gustatory limits were concerned. After squandering the first half of my life as an unrepentant picky eater, my path had veered drastically into wild, unpredictable terrain to have reached this point. Plain pasta, hot dogs, and grilled cheese sandwiches dominated my food pyramid for those sad, early years, but going vegan proved a turning point that opened up my palate like nothing else. When naysayers taunted about how restrictive such a diet would be or how I would be deprived of so many edible thrills, I took it as a challenge. From that point forward, as long as it was vegan, I would try anything at least once.

Slowly, bite by bite, long-held prejudices fell by the wayside. Gnarled, earthy beets became sweet and lovable. Brussels sprouts no longer inspired fear with their rotten stench. What was once disgust gradually morphed into delight. Determined now to eliminate all food biases, just a scant handful of truly loathsome edibles stood in my way. Throughout it all, despite numerous valiant efforts, bitter melon remained my Achilles heel. No way, no how, could I find a way to tolerate that offensive flavor.

They don’t call it bitter for nothing. An arresting acrid taste is its claim to fame, and yet I was (and remain) convinced that absolutely anything can become delicious when cooked properly. After many more failed attempts than I’d care to quantify, it turns out that there are a few tricks to taming that harsh tartness.

  1. It all starts with the bitter melon itself. Pick younger, smaller specimens that are a bright lime-green color, as these vegetables grow only increasingly acerbic with age.
  2. Be certain to remove not only the seeds within, but also all of the spongy membrane. Much like the pith of an orange, it contains even more concentrated sour flavor.
  3. Salt aggressively. The salt will draw out moisture and bitterness, making it both tastier and easier to cook with.
  4. Blanch in boiling water, and for longer than most vegetables would be able to withstand. You may lose a little bit of structural integrity, but I found that about 8 – 10 minutes of boiling made a huge difference in overall palatability.

Got all that? Good! Like magic, the much maligned bitter melon can now contribute a balanced tartness to any savory dish.

Sari sari is a classic Filipino dish featuring the bitter melon, but no two cooks will prepare it the same way. Traditionally loaded with pork, shrimp, and all sorts of other mystery meats, few vegan versions exist. Though my take is far from traditional, needless to say, replicating the savory and seafood-y flavors were a breeze thanks to the abundance of umami found in wakame seaweed, fermented black beans, and everyone’s favorite Asian seasoning, soy sauce. Don’t skimp on a single one of those secret ingredients, or the stew will suffer. Such a simple combination of vegetables requires love and attention to shine, which is exactly the lesson I took away from working with bitter melon.

If you truly can’t stand bitter melon, I certainly won’t judge. It’s still bitter no matter how you slice it, and it can be an acquired taste. Try substituting chayote, or if all else fails, the humble zucchini, instead.

Sari Sari

1 Medium Bitter Melon
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
4 Garlic Cloves, Finely Minced
1-Inch Fresh Ginger, Peeled, and Finely Minced
8 Ounces Seitan, Torn or Chopped into 1/2-Inch Chunks
2 Medium Tomatoes, Diced
2 Medium Filipino/Long Eggplants, Sliced into 1/2-Inch Rounds
1/3 Pound String Beans, Cut into 1-Inch Pieces
2 Tablespoons Fermented Black Bean Sauce
2 Tablespoons Rice Vinegar
2 Tablespoons Tomato Paste
2 Tablespoons Soy Sauce
5 – 6 Cups Vegetable Broth
1 Tablespoon Instant Wakame Flakes

You’ll want to start preparing the bitter melon first, since it requires the most time and labor. The rest of the stew assembly will fly by!

Slice the bitter melon in half lengthwise and use a large spoon to scoop and scrape out the seeds. Remove any additional inner membrane as well, and discard. Slice the seeded gourd into 1/4-inch half moons and toss them in a large bowl with a generous pinch of salt. Don’t be shy because it will be washed away later on; go for 1/2 teaspoon at least. Let sit for at least 20 minutes while you slice and chop the remaining vegetables.

Bring a medium pot of water up to a roiling boil. Add in the salted bitter melon and cook for about 10 minutes. Drain and immediately rinse with cold water.

Return the pot to the stove over medium heat and add the oil. Once shimmering gently, begin to saute the garlic and ginger. After two minutes, introduce the seitan. Stir frequently and cook until the mixture is aromatic and the chunks of seitan are lightly browned all over; about 10 minutes. Add in the rest of the vegetables together, sauteing for an additional 5 – 8 minutes.

Pour in the first 5 cups of vegetable broth along with all of the remaining ingredients. Mix well, reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer for about 20 minutes, until all of the vegetables are fork-tender. Add more broth if you’d prefer a soupier stew, and serve steaming hot! Pair with sticky rice to complete the meal.

Makes 5 – 6 Servings

Printable Recipe


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Ranch, Reinvented

“Obsession” is a good way to describe the level of devotion for many otherwise easy-going eaters across the US. Inspiring a following that borders on fanatic, it makes an appearance on over 25% of menus across the nation. That’s all restaurant menus, in all states, so while it may not sound especially impressive at first, consider the diverse number of cuisines found coast to coast, including the the chefs who wouldn’t touch the stuff with a 10-foot stalk of celery. I’m talking about ranch dressing; the tangy, herbaceous condiment that has become inextricably linked with edible Americana. Even back in the days of my vegetable-hating youth, I too succumbed to the creamy comfort of pale, iceberg salads smothered in enough ranch dressing to sink a ship. Stealthily consumed under the pretense of eating a healthy serving of vegetables, I could empty out those family-sized bottles at an alarming rate.

Ranch has been re-imagined and revitalized in striking new ways since then, appealing to many previous detractors with brighter, bolder flavors and countless bases that cater to more wholesome diets. The concept itself has become so prevalent in popular culture, in fact, that it’s transcended that original format to become a wholly unique flavor. No longer a mere condiment, anything can be ranch-flavored.

That’s where Biena Chickpea Snacks come in with the introduction of their new Rockin’ Ranch Chickpeas. Crunchy garbanzo beans are the new bacon, as far as I’m concerned, proliferating in the snack aisle and home kitchens alike in a rainbow of flavors. The key to their success is their versatility, not only as stand-alone snacks, but also components in other dishes. The most obvious approach to incorporating these nuggets of crunchy goodness into your daily diet is to simply throw a handful into any green salad, replacing those tired old croutons with invigorating new zest. Especially true of these particular gems, the ranch flavor is ideal for perking up even the barest bowl of leafy greens. Bold and tangy notes of vinegar provide the first wake-up call; assertive but not aggressive. Savory garlicky undertones come through with each and every crunch, appealing to a wide range of palates. Despite being generously coated with spices and seasonings, this flavorful dusting won’t cake on your fingers or turn them fluorescent colors should you choose to simply munch out of hand. Overall, the flavor is remarkably ranch-y, yet sure to appeal even if ranch isn’t exactly your dressing of choice.

It would have been easy to plow through a full bag (or two) as fuel for marathon study sessions, but I wanted to make more out of these crispy chickpea gems. My mind quickly went to the classic pairing of buffalo wings and ranch dressing, but with a heartier and more wholesome slant.

Simple and easy enough to suit the most hectic weekday dinner rush, this hearty stew combines all the best parts of a spicy buffalo wing marinade with a few basic pantry staples, elevating the concept well beyond standard bar fare. Thick and rich, each spoonful sparkles with just all the right spice to ring true. Who needs fried fast food when little more than a few humble beans can trump the whole flavor sensation? A cooling ranch creme serves to balance out the heat, and of course, a generous handful of those addictive crunchy ranch chickpeas adds the much-needed textural contrast to complete the picture.

Even as the days grow longer and warmer, this is one satisfying one-pot dish that will stay on my menu as a perennial favorite.

Buffalo-Ranch Chickpea Stew

Buffalo Chickpea Stew:

2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1/2 Large Yellow Onion, Diced
2 Cloves Garlic, Minced
3 Stalks Celery, Diced
3 Tablespoons Chickpea Flour
1 Cup Low-Sodium Vegetable Broth
1/2 Cup Tomato Puree
1 14-Ounce Can (1 3/4 Cup Cooked) Chickpeas, Drained
2 Tablespoons Hot Sauce, such as Frank’s Red Hot
Salt, to Taste

Ranch Crème:

1/2 Cup Vegan Sour Cream
1 Teaspoon Apple Cider Vinegar
2 Tablespoons Fresh Parsley, Finely Minced
1/2 Teaspoon Garlic Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Onion Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper

To Serve:

Ranch-Flavored Crunchy Chickpeas, Store-Bought or Homemade
1 – 2 Scallions, Thinly Sliced

Set a medium pot over moderate heat and add in the oil. Saute the onion, garlic, and celery together until softened, aromatic, and just beginning to caramelize around the edges. Sprinkle in the chickpea flour and stir well, coating the vegetables. Cook lightly, for just a minute or two, to gently toast and cook the raw flavor out of the flour. Slowly incorporate the vegetable broth, stirring constantly to ensure that it properly hydrates the flour without clumping. Once simmering, introduce the tomato puree, chickpeas, and hot sauce next, stirring well. Turn the heat down to medium-low and let simmer until the liquid has significantly thickened; about 10 – 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare the ranch crème by simply mixing together all of the ingredients in a separate bowl. Keep refrigerated until ready to serve.

Once the stew is thick and bubbling away happily, add salt to taste and ladle it out into individual serving bowls. Top with dollops of ranch crème, crunchy chickpeas, and sliced scallions. Enjoy!

Makes 2 – 4 Servings

Printable Recipe


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Unfussy French Food

Hunkering down, deep within the thick folds of a well-worn comforter that has served its time for over a decade of hard winters, even that soft fortress can’t block out all of the invading icy air. Slipping in through the cracks, falling like the snow itself and covering everything in an invisible weight, there are few ways to fight off this attack. Drawn to warmth like a moth to light, inevitably, I find myself standing in the kitchen, blankets cast aside, in search of something to thaw me from within.

I know, I know, yet another post about being cold! I promise I’ll stop complaining from here on out, but the truth of the matter is that winter is here and there has never been a better time for a seriously robust, restorative stew. Ironically enough, this particular red wine-soaked play on the classic French Boeuf en Daube started life as little more than photography fodder way back in the revitalizing, sunlit days of spring. Searching desperately through the archives for this soothing stew, a rich and hearty melange of savory mushroom essence, salty olives, and gentle spices, I found that the formula was mysteriously missing in action. How could it have been withheld for all this time? To tease that image and not share a recipe is downright cruel, and for that terribly oversight, I’m very sorry!

Plenty of “beefy” stews exist out there, so this is far from ground-breaking material, but trust me: This is the last recipe you’ll ever need. Simply prepared, easily frozen and saved for later, and of course, that complex, intensely savory flavor that can only come from layers of quality ingredients, care, and time. This is what comfort tastes like, steamy enough to cut through any deep chill.

Non-Boeuf en Daube

2 Cups TVP Chunks or Soy Curls
3 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1 Large Yellow Onion, Finely Diced
5 – 6 Cloves Garlic, Finely Minced
1 Cup Peeled and Diced Carrots
3/4 Cup Pitted Kalamata Olives
1 14-Ounce Can Fire-Roasted, Diced Tomatoes
1/4 Cup Dried Porcini Mushrooms, Finely Chopped
4 – 5 Sprigs Fresh Thyme
3 Small Bay Leaves
1 Cup Dry Red Wine
1 Cup Mushroom Broth
2 Tablespoons Soy Sauce
1 Tablespoon Date Molasses
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Cinnamon
Pinch Ground Nutmeg
1/4 Teaspoon Liquid Smoke
Salt and Pepper, to taste

Cooked Rice or Pasta, to Serve (Optional)

Bring enough water to cover the TVP or soy curls (about 2 1/2 – 3 cups) to a boil and let stand for 30 minutes. Once your protein of choice has fully rehydrated, drain the excess liquid thoroughly and set aside.

Coat the bottom of a large pot with the oil and set on the stove over medium heat. Add in the onions and garlic when the oil begins shimmering, and saute for 4 – 5 minutes until golden brown. Introduce the carrots and olives next, cooking for another 3 minutes or so before incorporating the diced tomatoes, including the liquid they’re packed in, and dried mushrooms. Give the mixture a good stir and it come up to a steady simmer.

Go ahead and add in all of the remaining ingredients at this point and reduce the heat to low or medium low, keeping the stew at a very gentle simmer. Continue cooking until the carrots are meltingly tender and the liquid has significantly reduced. This could take anywhere from 2 – 3 hours, so be patient! The resulting nuanced depth of flavor cannot be rushed.

Remove the bay leaves and sprigs of thyme right before serving. Ladle over your favorite starch for maximum enjoyment.

Makes 6 – 8 Servings

Printable Recipe


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Chili for Chilly Weather

I don’t mean to alarm you, but there is a very real threat to the whole northeastern area right now, encompassing hundreds of miles and countless souls. Snow, the frozen menace that has become the bane of my existence, has re-entered the conversation after months of blissful warmth. No longer can mere sunshine keep us safe from that fluffy white terror, as current predictions indicate a chance of flurries at any point this week. Sure, it’s nowhere near a definitive statement of fact nor are the conditions expected to be severe, but the mere suggestion has set me on high alert. Glancing up at the sky tentatively every hour or so, just to make sure that nothing is falling out there, I feel a bit like Chicken Little, having histrionics about an absurd implausibility.

Truth be told, the basic concept of snow is actually quite enchanting, especially the first snow of the year, lightly dusting the world like confectioner’s sugar atop a dense, dark bundt cake of earth. This vision of gentle elegance prevents me from hating it thoroughly and unconditionally. An intolerance of cold hits much closer to the heart of my vitriol- Visible, tangible flakes in the air are just easy scapegoats when the going gets tough and the temperatures plunge. Whether or not those ominous clouds decide to open up and let loose a wave of frozen precipitation, one this is certain: It will be cold.

A forecast that promises highs of no greater than 40 degrees at the most is my call to arms. Fighting off that assault is only possible by warming oneself from the inside out and thus, I return to the kitchen for ammunition. Only the heartiest, most rib-sticking dishes need enlist for the task. At times like these, nothing but a big bowl of chili will do.

Contrary to my usual approach of going heavy on the vegetables, this wicked red brew is a real meat-lover’s delight, made with vegan sensibilities of course. It also happens to be the easiest, quickest chili I’ve ever slapped together, thanks to the convenience of ready-to-eat spicy Andouille-style “sausages.” Not even beans are invited to this party this time, creating a rich, ultra-meaty chili that I’d like to think would make a pure-bred Texan proud. Packing in the heat with every fiery bite, it’s impossible to feel one degree of winter chill with this fortifying stew on your side.

Easy, Meaty Vegan Chili

1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1 Large Red Onion, Finely Chopped
3 Cloves Garlic, Minced
2 14-Ounce Packages Artisan Tofurky Adouille Sausages
2 Tablespoons Balsamic Vinegar
2 Tablespoons Chili Powder
1 28-Ounce Can Crushed Tomatoes
2 1/2 Cups Mushroom Broth
Salt and Pepper

Toss the olive oil and chopped onion into a large soup pot over medium heat on the stove. Saute for 4 – 5 minutes, until the onion has softened and is fragrant, before introducing the minced garlic. Cook for another 4 – 5 minutes, stirring frequently, until the aromatics are lightly browned.

Meanwhile, place the “sausages” in the work bowl of your food processor and pulse until coarsely chopped, much like chunky ground meat. If you have a smaller machine, you may want to do this in two (or even three) batches. Be careful not to overdo it, since “meat” puree is definitely not what we want here! Once properly processed, add the “sausage” crumbles into the pot along with the vinegar, chili powder, tomatoes, and 2 cups of the broth. Stir well to combine.

Turn down the heat to low and let simmer gently for 45 – 60 minutes, allowing plenty of time for the flavors to meld. Stir every 10 – 15 minutes to make sure that nothing is sticking and burning on the bottom of the pot, and add in the remaining broth when it begins to look too dry. Season with salt and pepper to taste before serving.

Makes 6 – 8 Hearty Servings

Printable Recipe


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Anything but Leftover

With about half the heaping mound still staring back at me, my enthusiasm began to flag. Fragrant, glistening vaguely in the afternoon light, it was some of the most genuinely meaty dumpling filling I had ever prepared, and yet I couldn’t muster the patience to keep stuffing it into those tiny little wrappers. The final total of “40 – 50” is admittedly a wild estimate, a complete stab in the dark if we’re being honest, because I never made it to either of those numbers. An extra set of hands would do wonders on a recipe like this; simple but time consuming, demanding few skills but undivided attention. Giving up on the project never crossed my mind, but it became abundantly clear that there would be leftover filling.

This is not what I’d call leftovers, bearing the negative connotations of unwanted extras. Before neatly packing everything away for a later date, the next recipe was already jumping about through my synapses, the full procedure and list of ingredients unraveling itself in my brain. Perhaps we can call this concept an alternative preparation, since it’s worth making the original filling to enjoy, with or without any dumplings in mind.

Mapo tofu won’t win any beauty contests, but someone who turns down this dish based on looks is making a terrible mistake. Packing in umami flavor with ease, the soft cubes of tofu bear a spicy bite, swimming in a meaty stew of chili-spiked seitan. Naturally, my approach is far from authentic, spanning a number of Asian cultures just through the ingredients. Malaysian sambal oelek brings the heat while a spoonful of Chinese fermented black beans add their characteristic salty and savory twang. You could jump borders again and opt for a Japanese soy sauce, if you were after a genuine cultural melting pot… But it would taste just as delicious no matter what. Mapo tofu is the kind of dish that a cook would really have to try to mess up. Go ahead, experiment with sriracha instead of the sambal, dark miso paste instead of black beans; after it all simmers together and melds as one, it’s all good.

Mapo Tofu

1 1/2 Cups Seitan Dumpling Filling

1 Tablespoon Toasted Sesame Oil
1 Tablespoon Finely Minced Garlic
1 Tablespoon Finely Minced Fresh Ginger
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
3 Skinny Scallions, Thinly Sliced on the Diagonal, Divided
1 – 3 Tablespoons Sambal Oelek
1/2 Cup Low-Sodium Vegetable Broth or Water
1 Tablespoon Cornstarch
3 Tablespoons Fermented Black Bean Paste
2 – 3 Tablespoons Low-Sodium Soy Sauce
1 Tablespoon Brown Rice Syrup or Light Brown Sugar
1 Pound Soft (But not Silken) Tofu, Drained

Prepare the ground seitan according to the dumpling recipe and set aside.

Heat the sesame oil in a medium stock pot or large saucepan over medium heat. Toss in the garlic and ginger once the oil is shimmering and quickly saute, just until fragrant and lightly browned. Add the prepared seitan mixture into the pan and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently.

Meanwhile, whisk together the black pepper, two of the sliced scallions, the first tablespoon of sambal oelek, broth, and cornstarch. Beat out any lumps of starch so that the liquid is perfectly smooth before using it to deglaze the hot pan. Scrape the bottom of the pan with your spatula to make sure nothing sticks or burns, and turn down the heat to medium-low.

Stir in the black bean past, first two tablespoons of soy sauce, and brown rice syrup. Let it cook and mingle for a minute or two before giving it a taste; add more sambal or soy sauce as desired, but as you adjust seasonings, don’t even think of reaching for the salt shaker. These are all very salty ingredients, and you’ll end up with something inedible if you don’t manage the sodium level very carefully.

Once you’re pleased with the flavors developing, cut your tofu into 1/2-inch cubes and gently lower them into the stew. Soft tofu is rather fragile, so don’t go haphazardly stirring the whole mixture and smashing them to bits. Rather, use your spatula to fold everything together.

Continue to cook until the liquid has thickened and reaches a rapid bubble. Let cool for a few minutes before topping with the remaining sliced scallions, and serve with white rice (or any other cooked grain) if desired.

Makes 3 – 4 Servings

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Take the Chill Off with Chili

When it snows, it blizzards. You’d think the east coast had never seen the powdery white flakes before, based on the panicked reaction that the most recent storm brought bubbling to the surface. Just short of mass hysteria, it’s true, it was not entirely unwarranted. Just the next town over from me, a few miles away at most, streets remained unplowed and impassable for a full week after the sky suddenly dumped three feet of frozen raindrops. Times like these call for a fully stocked pantry and a good instinct for comfort cooking.

Though this cranberry chili, equal parts spicy, tangy, and savory, could very well be the story of this harrowing tale, there’s just one small catch: I wasn’t home. In a fluke that couldn’t have been better timed had I known the forecast four months in advance, I managed to perfectly miss all the commotion while partying it up in Germany. The landing may not have been smooth on the return flight, but there were no delays, no disasters, and no damages for me to deal with. “Lucky” doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Thus, my thick and warming stew of hearty beans was not made just for the occasion, but it very well could have been. Considering all of the additional flurries still threatening to darken our days, it’s a recipe that will undoubtedly see more good use before the winter is through.

Cranberries are clearly an odd-ball ingredient here, but suspend disbelief for just a moment and hear me out. Every fall and winter, when bags of the fresh bog berries are on sale, I snap up a handful and toss them in the freezer. Always on hand but rarely called for, they turned out to be the perfect addition to the complex layers of flavor in this classic stew. Adding both their signature tart flavor and incredible thickening powers, they pull the whole dish together, without overwhelming the palate. The combination of both beans and bulgur are sure to satisfy, and with a handful of scallions or vegan cheese to help it all go down, no one will walk away from the table unhappy, no matter the conditions outside.

Cranberry Chili

2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1 Medium Yellow Onion
1 Small Carrot, Finely Diced
2 Stalks Celery, Diced
2 Cloves Garlic, Finely Minced
1 Ounce Dried Mixed Mushrooms,* Roughly Chopped/Broken, Re-hydrated in Water and Drained
12 Ounces (1 Bag) Fresh Cranberries
1 Fresh Jalapeno Pepper, Finely Diced
3 – 4 Tablespoons Chili Powder
26.5 Ounce Aseptic Box Chopped Tomatoes (or 28 Ounce Can)
2 Tablespoons Tomato Paste
2 Tablespoons Dark Brown Sugar, Firmly Packed
1 Cup Prepared Salsa**
4 Cups Cooked Cranberry Beans (AKA Roman Beans) or Pinto beans
1/2 Cup Coarse Bulgur
1/2 Cup Water
Salt, to Taste

Optional Topping Suggestions:

Thinly Sliced Scallions
Finely Diced Red Onion
Hot Sauce
Shredded Vegan Cheese
Vegan Sour Cream or Plain Yogurt
Crushed Tortilla Chips

*I used a combination of dried porcini, shiitake, black, and oyster mushrooms, but anything you’ve got will work just fine.

**Use your favorite! Ramp up the heat with a spicier choice or keep it more tame with mild salsa; it’s all good.

In a large stock pot, pour in the oil, swirling to coat the bottom of your vessel, and set over medium heat. Add in your onion, carrot, and celery, sauteing until softened and aromatic; about 5 minutes. Introduce the garlic next and continue cooking until the onions begin to look lightly golden brown. This should take between 7 – 10 more minutes, but you’re better off keeping an eye on it rather than timing it. Add a small pinch of salt if they begin threatening to stick.

Toss in the re-hydrated mushrooms next, along with the cranberries and jalapeno. Turn down the heat to medium-low, and let the cranberries soften a bit. After a few minutes, use the back of your spoon or spatula to crush the berries against the side of the pan, helping to break them down and release their pectin. Give them about 10 minutes, more or less, to get acquainted.

Starting with the lower amount of chili powder, sprinkle it in and stir well, incorporating it thoroughly with the other ingredients. Quickly add in the chopped tomatoes, liquid and all, to prevent those spices from burning. Scrape the bottom of the pan with your stirring utensil to properly deglaze and ensure that nothing is left sticking there. From that point, add in the rest of the ingredients except for the salt, taking care to first work the paste out so that it’s smoothly dissolved into the stew without any large blobs remaining.

Cover, reduce the heat just slightly again to keep it at a low simmer, and the chili gently bubble away for about 30 additional minutes. Stir and check for consistency periodically. Near the end of the cooking time, adjust the amount of chili powder and salt to taste. When it’s properly thick and the bulgur is tender, you’re good to ladle it up and enjoy! Top as desired, or of course, feel free to just eat it straight.

Makes 8 – 10 Servings (And Freezes Well!)

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Edible Heirlooms

You know those weirdos who get all excited about the simplest foods? Those people you see in the produce section, lunging for the first and most perfect pumpkin of the season? The shoppers playing bumper carts as they race down aisles, desperate to get the freshest, greenest head of kale? Yeah, I’m outing myself here: I’m one of them. Though the term “foodie” holds little meaning to me, I would gladly take the title of “food lover.” Spying a deal on favorite produce can make my day, and I have been known to literally jump up and down in the middle of a store upon finding a much sought-after edible.

Such was the scene in the early summer, when a brand new Whole Foods opened up practically down the street from me. Combing through the expansive bulk bin section first thing on opening day, a fascinating new selection of dry goods were right at my finger tips. Things I had only read about, like kaniwa, suddenly were within my reach. Right at the end of the line, as if saving the best for last, it was there that I came upon the 10 heirloom bean mix. Such a riot of colors and shapes seemed impossible to come from merely beans, those much maligned legumes that typically only came in varying shades of brown. Positively enchanted, I loaded up a bag full of the otherworldly bean blend, the smooth, dry skins clattering together gently as they slid off the metal scoop.

And then, they sat. Not quite forgotten, but with no clear destination, my pound-plus of gorgeous flageolet, orca, canary beans, and so forth remained squirreled away in the pantry, out of sight and definitely out of mind. Who wants to spend half a day bent over a boiling pot of beans in the heat of summer anyway?

Not a paltry handful of months could dampen my enthusiasm; Finally the heat broke, and those lovely legumes sprung back into my sights and finally onto my menu.

An ideal meal for a chilly fall or winter day, any sort of stew is perfect to warm the belly and sustain a difficult day of work. Or, fuel the mind for a long day of writing. Or simply provide comfort and nourishment for the worn and tired soul. Though the cooking process did undeniable dampen my rainbow of heirlooms, I’d gladly take the trade off of delicious, earthy flavor and creamy textures instead. Any sort of beans will do in this simple mixture, so don’t feel compelled to go out in search of a rare bean blend- Unless that sounds like your idea of fun, too.

Garlicky Greens and Beans Stew

1/4 Cup Olive Oil
1 Medium Red Onion, Diced
1 Whole Bulb Garlic (12 – 15 Cloves), Peeled and Finely Minced
8 Ounces Mushrooms, Roughly Chopped
1 Bay Leaf
1 Teaspoon Dried Basil
1 Teaspoon Dried Rosemary
2 Teaspoons Smoked Paprika
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Cumin
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Corriander
1/4 Teaspoon Red Pepper Flakes
2 Tablespoons Tamari or Soy Sauce
1 Cup Mushroom or Vegetable Broth
1 28-Ounce Can Diced Tomatoes
1 Large Sweet Potato, Peeled and Diced
3 Cups Cooked Beans (Heirloom 10 Bean Mix)
1 Bunch Kale (About 1 Pound), Cleaned, De-stemmed, and Chopped
2 Tablespoons Balsamic Vinegar
Salt and Pepper to Taste

Set a large stock pot over medium heat, and start by sauteing the chopped onion in the oil. Once softened and somewhat translucent, add in the minced garlic, and cook for about 5 or 6 minutes, until the onion just begins to brown around the edges. Introduce the mushrooms at that point, and allow them 3 – 5 more minutes to cook down slightly and become aromatic.

Add in the spices and seasonings, along with your broth of choice, tomatoes, and sweet potato. Stir well, bring to a boil, and cover the pot. Turn the heat down so that the stew is at a lively simmer, and let cook for 15 minutes. After that time has elapsed, add in the cooked beans, and continue simmering, uncovered, for another 15 minutes. Test the potatoes to make sure that they’re fork tender, and if they are, turn off the heat. Mix in the kale a few handfuls at a time, using the residual heat to wilt it down. Mix in the balsamic vinegar and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot, with a chunk of crusty bread or over a bowlful of rice.

Serves 6 – 8

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