BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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Best of the Booch

Once referred to in hushed tones, it was the health nut’s moonshine, fermented in dark cellars and secreted away from the general public. Authorities railed against its commercial production as controversies erupted over the surprisingly potent alcohol content conspicuously absent from printed labels. Kombucha, the ancient fermented tea, has finally unshackled itself from overzealous legislation and a litany of misunderstandings, bubbling over into mainstream acceptance. Now touted as a probiotic superpower, this fizzy refreshment has a lot going for it, but as far as I’m concerned, flavor should always come first.

Dozens, if not hundreds, of brands are now agitating to come out on top, and over 50 of those are located in California alone. Even for a place as big as the Golden State, that’s a whole lot of booch! Taking into account all of the restaurants offering up various blends on tap and in bottles, you’d be forgiven for losing count. What’s a thirsty kombucha devotee to do when seeking new watering holes that also serve superlative vegan eats?

It is with great pride that I present the highlights from my adoptive hometown, from the east bay and San Francisco proper, in the Kombucha Hunter‘s Kombucha Guide to California. The very best places to find the most bubbly brews just happen to be some of my favorite restaurants to begin with, so it wasn’t hard to whip up some delicious recommendations to contribute. Uncovering gems up and down the west coast, locals and visitors alike will find a bottomless glass of temptations worth traveling for.

The guide is available for free at Lento Market in Echo Park and can be shipped anywhere in the US for a donation of any amount to Farm Sanctuary. Stay tuned for the digital version, coming soon!

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Simmer Down Now

Sweet dreams beget savory cravings. Balancing out long days of baking that spill over into visions of sweets well into my waking hours, the first thing on my mind in the morning is anything but another sugary meal. Spice, zest, acidity; anything to wake up my taste buds without another saccharine treat. Syrup-drenched pancakes still beckon, as does that comforting crunch of frosted cold cereal flakes, but an innate yearning for bolder seasoning pushes me further into the pantry for alternative options.

Bleary-eyed and barely conscious, finding any shortcut for satisfying that gnawing hunger is a merciful windfall. I’m certainly not above lazily throwing a slice of bread under the broiler and calling it a day, but when it takes only a few minutes longer to whip up a truly satisfying, savory meal, why not make something a bit more special? Perusing the usual pantry options after one particularly brutal wake up call, finding a packet of taco simmer sauce was like uncovering the holy grail right in your own backyard.

Recently released by Simply Organic, their ingenious Southwest Taco Simmer Sauce promises warm notes of chili peppers, tangy tomato, rich cumin, and savory oregano, and it doesn’t disappoint. Claiming that it’s best with beef and positioned merely as a taco night aid struck me as rather shortsighted, though. Maybe it was the sleep-deprived delirium that inspired my unconventional #OrganicMoments, but all I could think about was a fresh, spicy take on French Toast.

Thickly sliced country bread takes a dip in a rich bath of coconut milk, infused with this delicately nuanced blend, coming together almost instantly. A crisp sear on the outside locks in a rich, savory custard interior, a perfectly proportional contrast to delight the taste buds. No sugar need apply for this bold new breakfast option. Best of all, such a unique palate of flavors means that it needn’t be confined to the AM hours; ideal for brunch or dinner as well, the concept easily transcends traditional mealtime boundaries.

Toppings are hardly necessary when you start with such a brilliant base, but it’s impossible to resist a few generous slices of luscious avocado, at the very least. Pepitas add a hearty crunch, and the brightness of simple pico de gallo perfects the meal for me, but the sky is truly the limit. Dream up your own #OrganicMoments with a wide range of savory finishes, such as vegan cheese or sour cream, sliced tomatoes, grilled corn, shredded cabbage, or black beans. On the other hand, simply going au naturel and digging right in wouldn’t disappoint.

This post was made possible thanks to sponsorship by Simply Organic.

Savory Tex-Mex French Toast

3/4 Cup Full-Fat Coconut Milk
1 Packet Simply Organic Southwest Taco Simmer Sauce
1 Tablespoon Arrowroot
1 Tablespoon Nutritional Yeast
4 – 6 (1-Inch Thick) Slices Hearty Country Bread

To Serve:

Sliced Avocado
Pico de Gallo
Toasted Pepitas

In a large, shallow dish, whisk together the coconut milk, simmer sauce, arrowroot, and nutritional yeast. Once smooth, dip the first two slices of bread into the mixture, allowing the pieces to soak for about a minute before flipping them over to the opposite side. You want to saturate the slices without having them disintegrate into the liquid.

Meanwhile, begin heating a large skillet over medium heat. Use nonstick or lightly grease any other material. Once hot, gently place the saturated bread onto the sizzling surface, and let cook, undisturbed, for 3 – 4 minutes. Peek to check on the underside; if it’s nicely golden-brown, go ahead and give it a flip. Cook for another 3 – 4 minutes on the opposite side.

Transfer to a serving plate and top with as many of the suggested garnishes as desired. Repeat with the remaining bread, and enjoy!

Makes 2 – 3 Servings

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Short and Sweet

Good things come in small packages. Navigating the world as a vertically challenged person, this particular truism is one that I hold close to heart. Height, or lack thereof, should never be viewed as an obstacle, but rather celebrated for all the unique benefits it provides. Leg room is never an issue when flying, even on a cut-rate coach ticket, for example, and it’s effortless to slip in (or out) of a crowd. I’d like to think that a smaller size means that all the good things inside are merely condensed and intensified to fit, amplified into a more pure form. Although that can’t be said for all people, that’s certainly the case for strawberry shortcake.

Modern interpretations of this sweet biscuit sandwich stretch the definition, often towering higher than a modest layer cake, but at its core, the concept remains short and sweet. Today, I’m here to push the boundaries further, albeit in the opposite direction. Flattening out the assembly into one thin plank, this confectionery rendition measures less than a centimeter tall, dazzling with flavor rather than lofty aspirations.

Encased in darkly caramelized toffee, crispy quinoa stands in for cake or biscuits, adding just the right cereal note to support the star players. Strawberries, dried and sliced, are both beautiful and flavorful; removing the excess water creates a far sweeter treat than fresh fruit, while simultaneously extending their shelf life to suit any season. Whipped cream is out of the picture, handily replaced by a luscious drizzle of white chocolate instead.

Although shortness often carried negative associations, like being short-tempered or getting short shrift, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t celebrate the more compact things (and people) among us. There’s no need to drone on and turn this into a long post; let’s keep it short and sweet, starting with a morsel of strawberry shortcake toffee, shall we?

Strawberry Shortcake Toffee

1/2 Ounce Freeze-Dried Strawberries, Divided
1/3 Cup Crispy Quinoa Cereal or Crispy Rice Cereal
3/4 Cup Vegan Butter
1 Cup Demerara or Turbinado Sugar
1 Tablespoon 100% Grade B Maple Syrup
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract

3 Ounces (1/2 Cup Chips or Finely Chopped Pieces) Vegan White Chocolate, Melted

Line an 8 x 8-inch baking pan with aluminum foil, lightly grease, and sprinkle half of the freeze-dried strawberries along with all of the crispy cereal over the bottom, as evenly as possible. Set aside.

Grind the remaining dried strawberries down to a fine powder in a coffee or spice grinder. Combine it with the vegan butter, sugar, maple syrup, and salt in a medium-sized saucepan and set over moderate heat. Stir just to moisten all of the sugar, and then keep your spatula out of the mixture until the very end. Instead, swirl the pan gently to mix the contents, which will help prevent premature crystal formation.

Allow the margarine to melt and sugar to dissolve before clipping a thermometer to the side of the pan. You’ll want to bring the sugar to a steady boil, until it turns a deep amber brown color and reaches 300 degrees, which is also known as the “hard crack stage” of candy making.

Turn off the heat, carefully stir in the vanilla as it may sputter angrily, and immediately pour the mixture into your prepared pan. Try to pour it evenly over the goodies within so as not to displace the goodies at the bottom.

Let cool completely before snapping into more manageable pieces. Drizzle with melted white chocolate, and let set once more before handling. Store in an air-tight container at room temperature.

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Take It Easy

Clear, defining factors that separate Creole from Cajun cuisine are difficult to tease out of each bubbling hell-broth of boiling gumbo, but the difference between typical low country cooking and the offerings at Easy Creole are unmistakable. Born on the bayou, seafood is practically synonymous with the traditional fare, and a love of wild game means that no offal is too awful for inclusion. Uprooting the concept and bringing it to Northern California, this one-of-a-kind kitchen populates half of the menu with entirely vegan options. Though an unthinkable compromise to some, it takes only a taste to realize that no concessions are made when it comes to the underlying flavor, heart, or soul.

Original inventions like Thai Peanut Etouffee meet classic Mahattan Maque Choux or Mushroom Stroganoff, all on the same plate and served over white or brown rice. Unfamiliar with these bold compositions? Don’t be shy, just ask for a taste! Unfailingly friendly servers readily dish out samples, as if doling out tasting spoons at an ice cream parlor, until you strike upon the perfect stew to suit your mood.

An endlessly evolving menu brings a new excuse to drop by every day, but makes it difficult to recommend any particular dish, for fear of heartbreak or disappointment. Luckily, a few of my favorites have proven to be returning staples, enjoyed on many occasions in the past and no doubt many more to come.

Spinach and Mushroom Etouffee is a personal favorite, a creamy and deeply savory combination that hits all the right notes when I’m craving a bite of comfort. It’s a dish that can pull me out of the house at a moment’s notice, as soon as it appears on Easy Creole’s Instagram feed. Considering how often I fall victim to that siren song, perhaps it would be wise to stop following that endless stream of temptation. That said, falling into that delicious trap time and again over the course of two years has yet to disappoint.

Most medleys are quite mild, designed to accommodate for all tastes and all hot sauce preferences, of which the choices are downright mind-boggling. Over two dozen bottles of fire water populate each table, right alongside a generous shaker of nutritional yeast. You know you’re in the right place when you see those golden yellow flakes in ample supply, mixed in with the other condiments as if it was no big deal. Though the cheese and sour cream toppings are out, raw onions are always a good choice to add crunch and cut through the richness of any of the luscious, rich stews. Don’t forget to finish the meal with a side of perfectly crisp garlic bread, satisfyingly greasy in all the right ways.

One constant, at least, is dessert. Dairy-free Rice Pudding is served chilled year-round, spiked with unexpected flecks of citrus; a zesty contrast to the predictable cinnamon-spiced approach. Fruits may vary, but expect soft stewed apples or simmered raisins in most cases. Dive in with an open mind and don’t sweat the details. As promised by the restaurant’s name, it’s easy to fall in love with.

Easy Creole
1761 Alcatraz Ave.
Berkeley, CA


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Fit for a Fiesta

Funny how holidays tend to sneak up on a person, even when the date is baked into the name itself. Cinco de Mayo is largely an excuse for day drinking here in the states, but it would truly be a shame to let it pass without indulging in a bit of edible hedonism as well. Someone who was more prepared, or at least aware of the rapidly advancing calendar, might have shared something suitable with enough time to plan, prepare, and lock down a party game plan before the actual date.

I am not that person.

However, I don’t need to be, and neither do you! Not only are these spicy appetizers compulsively munchable, they’re effortless to throw together at the drop of a sombrero. Modeled after meatballs but inspired by tacos, each bite-sized morsel turns the classically meaty, spicy, typically messy dish into dainty finger food. No more crumbly taco shells dumping their contents all over your white pants; crushing tortillas into a crunchy coating allows them to remain perfectly crisp, yet intact and firmly adhered from plate to palate.

Clear your schedule, call up all your friends, and start crushing ice for a boatload of frozen margaritas; there’s a party brewing as soon as you preheat the oven.

Taco Bites

1 12-Ounce Package Vegan Beef Crumbles or Crumbled Tempeh
1/2 Cup Black Beans, Roughly Mashed or Refried Pinto Beans
2 Tablespoons Tomato Paste
1 Clove Garlic, Finely Minced
1/4 Cup Yellow Cornmeal
1 1/2 Teaspoons Chili Powder
1 Teaspoon Smoked Paprika
1 Teaspoon Ground Cumin
1/4 Teaspoon Dried Oregano
1/4 Teaspoon Crushed Red Pepper Flakes
1/2 Cup Aquafaba
1/3 Cup Fresh Cilantro, Minced
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/2 Cup Finely Crushed Tortilla Chips

Salsa, to Serve

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silpat.

Place your meatless crumbles of choice in the food processor, along with the beans, tomato paste, garlic, cornmeal, chili powder, paprika, cumin, oregano, and red pepper flakes. Pulse briefly to combine, but be careful not to over-blend. You want to break down the crumbles a bit but still leave a lot of texture here. Introduce the aquafaba, cilantro, and salt next, pulsing once more to incorporate. Blend just until you achieve a cohesive, meaty dough.

Scoop out balls the size of walnuts and roll them in the crushed tortilla chips, completely coating the exteriors. Place each ball on your prepared baking sheet and repeat the process until you’ve used up all of the central mixture.

Bake for 25 – 30 minutes, until the balls are firm and evenly browned. Serve hot, alongside your favorite salsa and an icy cold beverage.

Makes About 20 Bites

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Stud Muffins

More than mere eye-candy, these fine specimens are potential suitors with real substance. Undeniably dark and handsome, it’s hard not to fall for their good looks even at a glance, but there’s so much more to love in each tempting crumb.

Want a partner who won’t insult your intelligence? These fellas are a smart choice, made of high-fiber coffee flour and bolstered by whole wheat, staying with you all morning when so many flaky pastries will let you down. Seeking a bit of adventure in the everyday? Subtly fruity, nutty, and lightly scented with rich cinnamon, each bite provided a flavorful departure from the typical breakfast baked good.

Prepare to meet your perfect match, at least when it comes to sweet muffin romance.

Coffee Flour Crumb Muffins

2 Cups White Whole Wheat Flour
1 Cup Coffee Flour
2 Teaspoons Baking Powder
1 Teaspoon Baking Soda
1 Teaspoon Ground Cinnamon
3/4 Teaspoon Salt
1 1/2 Cups Plain Non-Dairy Milk
1/2 Cup Dark Brown Sugar, Firmly Packed
1 Teaspoon Apple Cider Vinegar
1/2 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract
1/2 Cup Olive Oil
1/2 Cup Pitted and Chopped Dates
1/4 Cup Toasted and Chopped Pecans

Crumb Topping:

2 Tablespoons White Whole Wheat Flour
2 Tablespoons Coffee Flour
3 Tablespoons Dark Brown Sugar, Firmly Packed
2 Tablespoons Toasted and Chopped Pecans
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Cinnamon
1 1/2 Tablespoons Olive Oil

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease 12 muffin tins.

In a large bowl, sift the white whole wheat flour, coffee flour, baking powder and soda, cinnamon, and salt. Stir to combine and thoroughly distribute all of the dry goods throughout the mixture.

Separately, mix together the non-dairy milk of your choice, brown sugar, vinegar, and oil. Pour the liquids into the bowl of dry ingredients, stirring lightly just to bring the batter together. Add the dates and pecans last, folding them in gently. A few errant lumps in the dough are perfectly fine.

For the crumb topping, simply stir together all of the ingredients with a fork until the mixture clumps together in large pieces, approximately the size of peas.

Distribute the muffin batter between your prepared tins, mounding them generously towards the center. Sprinkle the crumb topping over each one as evenly and equally as possible.

Bake for 20 – 24 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center pulls out clean. Let cool completely before enjoying!

Makes 12 Muffins

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