If it Ain’t Got That Spring, Then it Don’t Mean a Thing

Fleeting warm breezes tease on cool mornings, while sporadic rays of sun manage to break through cloud cover, gently kissing still frozen earth. Tempting, taunting, spring arrives in maddening snippets too short to savor at first. Right when you begin to peel back layers of heavy sweaters and fold up thick comforters, winter rages back in with a vengeance, more brutal than before, crystallizing budding sprouts into frosted popsicles or piling on a fresh coat of ice, depending on your locale. Every time it seems certain that the seasonal shift has taken place, hopes soar high on those fresh winds of change, and crash hard like a kite with no string, back down into the forbidding frozen tundra.

For the first time in recent memory, the calendar date actually seems to align with the weather. Spring resonates through dewy grasses, shouting its arrival from the rooftops of micro gardens across the urban landscape. At least in the bay area, the changing of the guard has officially occurred, and I’m more than ready to reap the benefits.

Spring is all about fresh greens in so many forms. Tender, sweet curlicues branch out from between soft pea leaves, one of the best if underappreciated parts of the whole plant. Though it’s a tough sacrifice to cut these vines down in their youth, before pods appear bearing those toothsome green caviar, the greens themselves are a true delicacy that are worth a splurge. Typically found in Asian cuisine, stir-fried very simply with a splash of wine and a handful of garlic at the most, their full potential has yet to be realized in western culture.

Borrowing inspiration from Spanish tapas, the term “cazuela” simply indicates the terra cotta cooking vessel for the dish, much like you would refer to a tagine. Contents of that pot vary widely across countries, always encompassing some sort of vegetable, though sometimes meat as well. The version from Barcelona Restaurant, based on spinach and chickpeas, inspired my springtime spin-off.

Deceptively rich and complex but full of verdant, simple vegetables, think of it like a warm spread that falls somewhere between hummus, pea puree, and spinach dip. Masses of fresh pea leaves wilt down into a concentrated tangle, amplified by the fruit of the pods themselves with a garlicky, cumin-forward taste that will linger with each bite.

If Mother Nature remains stubbornly resistant to embracing a timely spring conversion in your area, sunflower sprouts or baby spinach might just be able to suffice in a pinch… But the best things remain for those who wait. Ask around at local farmers markets, search ethnic markets for dòu miáo (豆苗,) or head to the backyard and get growing. Though it may sound like great lengths to go for just a handful of tiny sprouts, you’re only 1 – 3 weeks away from the best taste of the season, and it won’t get any fresher than that.

Continue reading “If it Ain’t Got That Spring, Then it Don’t Mean a Thing”

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World Renowned, Locally Loved

How many chain restaurants can draw lines everyday, from opening to closing, numbering well into the dozens on a “slow” day? What about an outpost that can claim a Michelin star? If you haven’t already heard of Din Tai Fung, there’s a good chance you’ve felt its impact on the overall culinary landscape whether you realize it or not. Born in Taiwan originally as a cooking oil purveyor, Din Tai Fung transitioned into the restaurant business in 1972 and has taken the world by storm ever since. Based primarily in Asia, the west coast has been blessed with a handful of these hallowed outposts, each one drawing rave reviews at a fevered pitch typically reserved for rarefied fine dining. Making a taste of the extraordinary accessible on a mainstream level is just one of their many triumphs.

It’s been said that their xiao long bao, otherwise known as soup dumplings, are the absolute pinnacle of perfection; the very best example of the art, executed with the exact same mastery every single time despite being made by hand, in volumes that would boggle the sober mind. Unfortunately, that’s not a debate I can weigh in on, as vegan soup dumplings are about as common as three-legged unicorns. Why bother with the wait, which can range from a minimum of  one to three hours, then? Well, there’s a whole lot more to this menu than just dough-encased parcels of pork.

Keenly aware of their local audience, Americans are treated to clearly labeled options for vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free dishes. Even without modification, overwhelming choices unfold with the turn of the page, particularly for vegetable-lovers with a penchant for spice.

Vegetable and Mushroom Dumplings surely can’t compare to their plump, porky brethren, but offer a highly competent, crowd-pleasing combination of springy wonton wrappers and tender umami fillings. The same can be said for the Vegetable and Mushroom Bun, which simply replaces that thin and chewy exterior with a puffy, fluffy cloud of steamed white bread. Essential for enjoyment is the DIY dip you’ll concoct from slivers of fresh ginger and black vinegar, mixed to taste.

No, that alone would not bring me running back to the Westfield Valley Fair mall where this Santa Clara locale has set up shop, of all places. It’s the starters and sides that make this meal. Like Thanksgiving dinner, side dishes are the stars of this show.

Go with a crowd and order every single plant-based appetizer because I can’t imagine leaving without just a bite of each transcendent taste lingering on my tongue. Soy Noodle Salad, a cold composition of shredded bean curd, is an absolute necessity. Deceptively simple on the surface, masterfully balanced flavors play on every delicate strand, sparkling with gently salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and savory notes in such perfect harmony that one can’t be fully separated from another. The Cucumber Salad arrives at the table like a statuesque work of edible art. Columns of stacked cylinders are crowned with a single clove of marinated garlic, which is a prize you’ll want to fight for, by the way. Wood Ear Mushrooms in Vinegar Dressing may not resonate as universally, but for fungus fiends, this is slippery plateful of earthy bliss.

Flip over to the section on greens and dig in deep. Every single dish here is completely vegan! Picking here comes down to personal preference, but don’t sleep on the Sauteed String Beans, lightly blistered from the kiss of the wok and dripping with sizeable garlic chunks. Taiwanese Cabbage gets a similar treatment, providing one of the few great examples of the concept this side of the seas.

Dessert buns stuffed with red bean paste or taro also tempt for a sweet plant-based finish, but I can’t personally vouch for these treats. Undone by an unreasonable attempt to eat through the full range of vegan specialties, I left feeling quite like an overstuffed dumpling myself.

Though you may go for the dumplings, you’ll inevitably come back for the vegetables.

In Crust We Trust

In a rapidly changing world, there are certain constants we can depend on. Mathematically speaking, we have Euler’s number, Archimedes’ principle, and the Pythagorean theorem, of course, but for someone as nonacademic as myself, there’s little comfort to be found in such jumbles of numbers, no matter how concrete in concept.

Pie, on the other hand, immediately soothes the mental strain of of the scholarly and simple-minded alike. Also reliable is the knowledge that Pi Day will always fall on March 14th (3.14 of course), celebrating the golden ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. Pie itself, however, should really be honored everyday.

This time, I propose we all cozy up to an everyday sort of pie. Mini pies, actually, easy to prepare, perfect quick snacks or last-minute desserts, they can even be prepared in advance, frozen, and thawed on demand. Warm out of the oven or reheated after a quick blast in the toaster oven, tender chunks of apple mingle with a soft, almost gooey peanut butter filling, infused with the warmth of cinnamon and lavished with a sweet crumb topping.

The combination is nothing earth-shaking, nor should it be. It’s a universally satisfying combination that’s stood the test of time, and will reliably treat you to a taste of nostalgic comfort in every mini morsel.

Yield: Makes 24 Mini Pies

Mini Peanut Butter Apple Pies

Mini Peanut Butter Apple Pies
Enjoy a tiny little bite of nostalgia with these cute mini pies! Nutty, fruity, and full of comforting cinnamon spice, they're best eaten warm.

Ingredients

Crust:

Peanut Butter-Apple Filling:

  • 1/2 Cup Creamy Peanut Butter
  • 1/4 Cup Dark Brown Sugar, Firmly Packed
  • 1/4 Cup Plain Vegan Yogurt
  • 2 Tablespoons All-Purpose Flour
  • 1/2 Teaspoon Ground Cinnamon
  • 1/2 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract
  • 3 Medium Granny Smith Apples, Peeled, Cored, and Chopped (About 3 Cups)

Crumb Topping:

  • 3 Tablespoons Dark Brown Sugar, Firmly Packed
  • 3 Tablespoons All-Purpose Flour
  • 2 Tablespoons Vegan Butter, Melted

To Serve:

  • Confectioner's Sugar (Optional)

Instructions

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees and lightly grease 2 dozen mini muffin tins.

Roll out your prepared pie dough to about 1/8th of an inch in thickness and use a round cookie cutter, about 2 1/2 inches in diameter, to cut out the crust pieces. In a pinch, the top of a drinking glass could work as well. Gather scraps, re-roll, and cut again as needed.

Ease the pieces into the greased pans, pressing them to fill the bottoms and up the sides as evenly as possible. There will likely be some overlap, but try to smooth out the edges to keep things neat and consistent.

Place the unbaked crusts in the fridge to chill while you turn your attention to the filling.

In a large bowl, mix together the peanut butter, brown sugar, yogurt, flour, cinnamon, and vanilla until smooth. Toss in the chopped apples and stir to incorporate, covering the fruit thoroughly with the peanut butter mixture. Set aside.

For the crumb topping, simply combine all the ingredients in a medium bowl and use a fork to combine. Continue stirring until the mixture is coarse, chunky, but cohesive.

To assemble, fill the chilled pie shells with the peanut butter and apple mixture and top each with about a teaspoon of the crumb topping.

Bake for 15 - 20 minutes, until the crusts and crumb are golden brown. Let cool for at least 15 minutes before removing from the pans and serving.

If desired, sprinkle confectioners sugar over the top very lightly just before enjoying.

Notes

To save these for a rainy day, let them cool completely before storing them in an airtight container, seperated by layers of parchment or waxed paper. Stash in the freezer for up to 4 months, or in the fridge for up to a week.

Nutrition Information:

Yield:

24

Serving Size:

1

Amount Per Serving: Calories: 72 Total Fat: 4g Saturated Fat: 1g Trans Fat: 0g Unsaturated Fat: 2g Cholesterol: 3mg Sodium: 36mg Carbohydrates: 9g Fiber: 1g Sugar: 6g Protein: 2g

Expo West Exposé

Natural Products Expo West is like Christmas for food professionals and obsessives alike, bearing wilder, bolder, and more brilliant new products than one could have dreamed possible just the previous year. Science has come to meet the art of cooking, marketing, and cravings all at once, giving us more than mere eye candy to look forward to. It would be impossible to share everything that caught my eye for this round, but a few bold trends definitely emerged from the pack.

Beans are the New Rice: It’s no longer enough to have certified gluten-free whole grains anymore. Transforming legumes into higher protein alternatives is the latest and greatest side dish to grace the dinner plate, offering a range of nutritional and culinary advantages over plain starches. Made much like their gluten-free pastas, Banza features garbanzo beans, while Pedon uses an assortment of peas, lentils, and chickpeas to make their colorful new options. Seapoint Farms has taken a different approach with their Riced Edamame, simply chopping it into a coarse meal, it much like you would expect from cauliflower “rice.”

Meat Your Maker: If it bleeds, it leads. Such is true of journalism and the race to create increasingly authentic facsimiles for meatier, beefier burger patties. Impossible Burger set the trend, but the exciting rumor I picked up on here was that it would be coming to grocery stores soon, rather than being available only as a finished entree in select restaurants. Beyond is keeping up with the race quite admirably, unveiling a ground beef made of the same stuff as its famous patties. Mega brands MorningStar and Lightlife have entered the ring as well, but a standout in this fight for me was Sweet Earth, offering a stunningly “authentic” experience with superlative texture in their new Awesome Burger. Danish import Naturli’ Foods is looking to take the US by storm with its line of Minced fresh grounds, based on peas, while Good & Green stands out in the field by slicing unimaginably accurate renditions of prosciutto and carpaccio out of humble beans.

 

More Fish in the Sea: At last, what I’ve long regarded as the final frontier of veganism, seafood alternatives are reeling in accolades across the board. Good Catch is swimming upstream through the guppies and tadpoles, presenting a soy and pea protein blend that might just taste more like tuna than the fish itself. Category veterans Loma Linda, Worthington, Vegetarian Plus are all staying afloat admirably through this sea of change, with their Tuno, Plant-Powered Vegan Tuna, and Vegan Tuna Rolls, respectively. Sophie’s Kitchen continues to offer the only alternative Smoked Salmon for sale, in addition to their fishless lineup of faux shrimp, scallops, crab cakes, and fillets. Going where few frozen foods have before, Sol Cuisine is slinging a Lemon Dill Salm’n Burger that’s ready to grill and thrill.

Better Butter: Bake, melt, and schmear to your heart’s delight, because there have never been so many superlative spreads. Miyoko’s has been the leader of the pack but now faces stiff competition from New Barn, Milkadamia, Naturli’, Medlee, Wild Brine, Wayfare, FabaButter, and Riot Eats. Whether you’re seeking something soy-free, nut-free, palm oil-free, cultured, or seasoned, you’ll suddenly find a rich range of choices.

Knee-Jerk Reaction: The question is no longer “Will it blend?” but “Will it jerky?” It seems like the answer from retailers is a resounding: “YES!” Plant-based jerky is popping up in a variety of savory flavors, most notably on a more diverse range of chewy proteins, fruits, and vegetables than ever. For high-protein savory snacks, Upton’s is slinging seitan Jerky Bites in tropical flavors, Unisoy and Myrte Greens keep it classic with soybean-based Vegan Jerky. No Evil Foods will soon be expanding their range of refrigerated wheat meats to include some shelf-stable jerky snacks with unconventional seasonings such as Pastrami and Al Pastor, among others. Taking the “plant based” concept to the next level, Wild Joy Goods is crafting Banana Jerky from- you guessed it- good old bananas, while Cocoburg favors coconut strips, and Pan’s Mushroom Jerky packs an umami punch with soft and chewy shiitake slices.

Ditching Dairy: Big brands are now looking for milk money by different means. Nestle has rocked the baking world by unveiling Simply Delicious White Chocolate Morsels, which are free of the top 8 allergens, making them the very first vegan option on the mainstream market. Reddi Wip has begun embracing coconuts and almonds as fluffy whipped dessert topping to fill their iconic aerosol cans. Following suit, Coffee Mate has expanded their line of Simply Natural creamers to include these two top picks, along with a creamy oat milk option. Presenting one of the only options for non-dairy kefir, Lifeway has unleashed Plantiful, pea-based probiotic beverages. Arctic Zero is not just offering dairy-free options, but has converted its entire line of light frozen desserts from a whey to pea protein base.

1, 2, 3, CBD: This is not a passing trend, this is an all-out takeover of the traditional food, beverage, and cosmetics industry. Anything and everything is being infused with CBD now, from the predictable gummies and tonics to cakes, teas, air fresheners, dog biscuits, and beyond; there are genuinely too many products and brands to list. Brace yourself for (but also, chill out about) the CBD inundation.

Have you seen any of these edible innovations on store shelves yet? What are you most excited about? It’s a brave new world out there for vegan eaters, allergy suffers, and gastronomes alike.

Raise a Stink

With a name like “stinky tofu,” the deck is already stacked against this polarizing snack. Granted, the title is entirely well-earned, accurate if somewhat blunt, and not merely a result of cultural misunderstanding. The aroma will hit you a block away, wafting through night markets like a pungent homing beacon for those in the know. Tenaciously clinging to hair and clothing, the distinctive perfume follows you home, infused simply through proximity, whether or not you chose to partake. To the uninitiated or unadventurous, the scent is not exactly one you’d want to bottle and put in a diffuser. Rotting garbage, overflowing toilets, and decaying fish are sometimes cited as less favorable comparisons, yet fervent fans will travel an hour or more to reach their favorite hawker, slinging only the most odoriferous options imaginable.

Verified vegan stinky tofu  from 家湘涼麵 in Shilin Night Market

Do you like kombucha? Okay, then what about blue cheese? If you can stomach that, how do you feel about durian? Funky, fermented cubes of tofu is an acquired taste that may not be for everyone, particularly for western palates unaccustomed to such ripe stank. Though most flavor is discerned through our olfactory experience rather than our taste buds, the best renditions taste relatively mild in contrast to the assertive, pervasive stench.

Before sniffing out this controversial staple, be forewarned that most stinky tofu (written as 臭豆腐 or chòu dòufu) is not vegan. Traditionally fermented in a brine made with spoiled milk, fish innards, and/or dried shrimp, this “secret sauce” tends to be a closely guarded family secret, never to be disclosed under threat of death (or disownment.) In Asia, if you don’t speak the language fluently, your best bet is to start at dedicated veggie or Buddhist establishments. In the US, where dietary restrictions are the norm rather than the exception, you should be able to discern if there are any dairy or seafood additions, if not a full list of ingredients.

Texture is almost as critical as the infamously musty, gamey taste. Preparations run the gamut from practically raw to fried within an inch of their lives, but my favorite sort is deep fried, resoundingly crunchy on the outside, firm and meaty yet almost silky on the inside. The softer the tofu, the funkier the flavor, so it takes a bold eater to spring for those barely steamed squares instead.

Eating stinky tofu in Taipei, as is typically served in a plastic bag with wooden sticks

Condiments play an essential role in taming this tofu, each seasoned with an equally heavy hand to provide sufficient contrast. Fiery hot sauce and kimchi, sharp black vinegar, sweet and salty pickled vegetables, and crunchy garlic are all common and all highly recommended. Intense, bold flavors envelop your entire consciousness, punching harder with every subsequent bite, demanding your full attention from start to finish. It’s no passive grab-and-go snack, but a noteworthy event, even if it becomes a daily indulgence. .

In China and Taiwan, stinky tofu is classic comfort food, cheap and satisfying, great with (or after) a few drinks, and readily available all day, any day.

Stinky tofu from Dragon Gate Bar & Grille in Oakland, CA

Close your eyes, take a big bite, and breathe it all in. You may love it, you may hate it, but everyone should try stinky tofu at least once.

Long Live the Short Stack

From puritanical health food to reviled processed junk and back again, granola has gone on a wild ride in terms of public perception over the years. Toasted whole grains, enriched with fruits and nuts, it’s not hard to understand the appeal of the basic concept, or why it’s had such staying power despite unpredictable shifts in nutritional decrees. Indulgence needn’t be linked to unsavory ingredients or wanton disregard for sound dietary advice, though. Granola can be smart way to treat yourself, without any sacrifice.

Shrove Tuesday, also known as Fat Tuesday or Pancake Tuesday suffers from a similar image problem. Pancakes were originally singled out as the culinary splurge of choice because the traditional inclusions of eggs, sugar, and fat would be forbidden during the Lenten fast to follow. Using them up to make fluffy, sweet short stacks would make sure they wouldn’t simply go to waste. Why can’t we have our [pan]cakes and eat healthfully, too?

Boost your breakfast with a sweet yet smart way to celebrate. Fluffy pancakes meet the unbeatable combination of toasted oats, crunchy nuts, and chewy dried fruits with the simple addition of ready-made granola. This satisfying morning meal proves that with the right recipe, any food can not only taste good, but be good for you, too.

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