BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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Snap Into Spring

Snow peas used to be the only podded legume for me. Thin, delicate green planks that erupted across the miles of twisting vines that proliferated in our otherwise sparse garden, its sheer abundance meant there was never any reason to venture beyond this glorious green bean. The snow peas were always the first vegetables to emerge, welcome each new spring season, heralding brighter days and more bountiful harvests to come.

Now that garden of my childhood is thousands of miles away, sounding like little more than a dream. Farmers markets have come to replace those homegrown goodies, shaking up the standard bill of fare with their comparatively endless, irresistible range of fresh temptations.

Graduating to the thicker, juicier, dare I say, meatier podded delights known as snap peas, I relish snacking on them raw or simply seared. Tossed in a blistering hot pan with a splash of oil and a pinch of salt, their inherent sweetness truly shines through after a scant minute on the fire.

Inspiration to turn this simple concept into a more coherent dish struck while idly browsing through my favorite discount grocery outlet. Fancy pastas, typically out of reach and far out of budget, beckoned from a top shelf, boasting shapes I’d never before seen in semolina format. Though formally dubbed Foglie d’Ulivo, translated as “olive leaves,” I immediately saw noodle incarnations of my beloved snap peas. The two simply had to meet; it would have been criminal to walk away from this particular impulse buy.

It doesn’t take a recipe to explain how simple but satisfying this quick dinner for one turned out. One glance at the photo is likely enough to discern the formula, but in case you need addition reassurance, here’s the full rundown: Seared snap peas tossed with pasta, chickpeas, orange zest, and a handful of cilantro. Garnish with nasturtium blossoms for an extra peppery bite, if you crave a bit more embellishment.

Snappy Snap Pea Pasta for One

3 Ounces Olive Leaf-Shaped Pasta (Foglie d’Ulivo) or Bowties
1 Teaspoon Olive Oil
2 Ounces Snap Peas
1/4 Cup Cooked Chickpeas
1/4 Teaspoon Orange Zest
Salt and Pepper, to Taste
1/4 Cup Fresh Fresh Cilantro Leaves

Cook the pasta to your desired state of al dente; drain and set aside.

Heat up the oil in a medium skillet over high heat. Toss in the snap peas, cooking quickly on all sides until the pods are bright green and lightly blistered. Immediately stir in the pasta, chickpeas, orange zest, and salt and pepper. Season to taste before turning off the heat. Toss with fresh cilantro right before serving.

Makes 1 Serving

Printable Recipe


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I ♥ Nalo

Some things never change, like the soothing rhythm of the ocean, day in and day out, as waves lap against the shores of Oahu. Every visit seems to pick up right where the last left off, as if the whole island had been put on pause in my absence. There’s a timeless quality about the majestic rain forests; the towering mountains and their plunging craters; the flora and fauna buzzing, chirping, and making merry throughout it all. There’s a certain comfort knowing that no matter how long it takes me to return, Hawaii will remain as enchanting a place as the day I first met it.

And yet, in my heart, I know that this is a consolatory lie. Imperceptibly, without conscious intention, everything changes. You can never truly go home again if you’re expecting “home” to align with questionably maintained memories. However, in the case of Honolulu’s evolving food scene, this is a very good thing indeed. One of the newest and most buzzed about establishments to take root in the past six months is Ai Love Nalo, an unassuming outpost on the far-flung coast of Waimanalo. Housed in a former gas station, it would be easy to drive right on by without a second thought, as nothing from the outside hints at the culinary treasures within.

Despite the fact that it’s a considerably trek for city-dwellers, factoring either traffic or bus schedules into the equation, or both if you’re particularly unlucky, it’s a journey always worth taking. Hit Hanauma Bay along the way and make it a day trip; the only way to top those dazzling sights is to follow them with a stellar meal.

Boasting a menu composed of locally-sourced produce and entirely vegan options, you’ll want to take a number of friends for the best experience. Heck, get out there and make some new friends! Join one of the long communal picnic tables out back and introduce yourself; there are no friendlier folks on earth than those living in paradise, as far as I’ve seen.

That said, if there was only one dish to order, it would have to be the Oh WOW Laulau. Wow, indeed! No where else on earth have I found vegan laulau, let alone such a stellar rendition. Traditionally consisting of fatty pork and/or fish steamed in taro leaves, this version eschews the meat in favor of hearty root vegetables, adding creamy coconut into the mix for richness. Not to be overlooked is the Tofu Poke provided on the side, claiming to be spicy but really bearing just enough warmth to taste perfectly balanced. This was easily my personal favorite from the small sampling of dishes provided, but it’s a close call when all the options are so good.

Another front runner is the BBQ Portobello Sandwich. Mushrooms marinated in a bright, smoky barbecue sauce practically sing between two whole wheat buns. Coconut slaw tops off the assemblage with just the right amount of subtle sweetness to contrast the deeply savory flavors within.

Simpler but no less spectacular dishes include the Roasted Veg Platter and Roasted Veg Avocado Sandwich. The way that the vegetables are treated with respect, from the moment they’re harvested from nearby farms to the care taken when they reach the kitchen is evident with every bite. Cooked with care and proffered generously with each serving, even the basics make the trek out here worthwhile. I’m still trying to recreate that impossibly umami gravy offered on the side. It’s one of those things that are so astoundingly, inconceivably delicious, it’s impossible to deconstruct.

Each entree promises an ideal amount of food; satisfying diners without over-stuffing them. That said, you’ll still want to make room for dessert, especially when you see the towering bowls full of Outta This Swirled Soft Serve. Cool, naturally sweet spirals of banana-based soft serve are dressed to the nines with cacao sauce that hardens much like magic shell, granola and coconut flakes tumbling down the mountainous terrain, and fresh fruits that vary based on local availability- Expect papaya always to be in ample supply, based on the thriving papaya trees on premise. Each order is abundant enough to be a considered a full meal in and of itself.

Although it’s foolish to imagine that anything would remain impervious to the inevitable current of change touching all corners of modern life, Ai Love Nalo is one thing I hope will still dazzle in the same place, in the same ways, next time I come back.


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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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Fry, Fry Again

The title of “fried rice” is really a misnomer in most cases. Across a wide sampling of restaurant offerings from high- to low-end, this perennial takeout staple rarely, if ever, approaches a state close to being fried. Not deep fried, not pan fried, and in the worse cases, barely even sauteed. Merely warmed in a hot wok at best, it’s little more than a pile of stale, soy sauce-soaked leftovers tossed with a few limp vegetables if you’re lucky. While it’s true that even the worst fried rice is still reasonably satisfying, fulfilling the starchy component of a typically greasy meal in need of a carbohydrate foil, rarely does it stand out as extraordinary. Such a shame that this staple isn’t given just an extra ounce of respect to elevate it beyond the realm of mediocrity.

The trouble is, there’s a real art to crafting actual fried rice, complete with chewy clusters and crispy edges, and a certain brand of bravery required to crank up the heat to high. It’s not actually difficult, but demands a bit more finesse than simply tossing a bunch of grains into a skillet.

  • First of all, needless to say, rice matters. The number of varieties out there are as numerous and unique as snowflakes, but the best options for fried rice are sticky. Be it short or medium grain, sticky rice provides just the right amount of starch to sear nicely and create small, savory clumps.
  • It needn’t be day-old or leftover rice, but it’s certainly easier to work with if it’s not still hot. Freshly cooked rice is a perfectly fine candidate for frying, but let it cool a bit before throwing it back into the fire.
  • Give your ingredients room to breathe! Use a big enough wok or skillet to allow a good amount of direct contact across the grains; a 9-inch cooking surface can accommodate 2 cups of rice at most. When in doubt, break out the big guns.
  • Do not fear oil and use a good amount of it, even if you’re using a so-called “non-stick” pan. There needs to be a thin layer of it across the bottom, shimmering slightly, to make that golden-brown and crispy exterior happen.
  • Speaking of shimmering, your oil needs to be blisteringly hot before any grain ever touches it. Crank up the heat to high and get the pan so hot that it scares you. Start cooking and stop merely reheating that rice!

  • Once it’s in the pan, leave it alone. Don’t fuss with it, but give it some space to work its magic. Excessive stirring will prevent the starch from properly caramelizing or getting crispy. You can turn the heat down slightly if it’s starting to smoke, sure, but don’t move it for at least 15 minutes before flipping the rice over to cook the opposite side.
  • Add more oil if necessary. Do not fear having rice stick to the pan. Those will be the crunchiest, most delicious parts in the end.

It’s the kind of anything goes dish where no recipe is needed, and pretty much every vegetable addition tastes good. As long as there’s a healthy splash of soy sauce, perhaps a bit of sauteed garlic and ginger, you really can’t go wrong. The real beauty of fried rice is its versatility, no matter how you dress it up or down.


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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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Silent Sunday: Omakase

Sushi Plate, Featuring Smoked Beet Nigiri: Nitsume sauce, wasabi, shiso, sesame snow.

Abalone Mushroom Sunomono: Shredded and marinated abalone mushroom, accordion-cut cucumbers, wakame, daikon sprouts, and a tosa vinaigrette.

Cauliflower Kara-age: Marinated cauliflower fried in a light yuzu-kosho tempura batter, and served with yuzu aioli and dusted nori.

Soba Noodle Mazemen: Buckwheat noodles, nuka-pickled veggies, charred Tokyo negi, soy-pickled shiitakes, koji-cured carrot, tofu misozuke, and tempura wakame.

Soba Noodle Mazemen: Caramelized tare dashi poured tableside.

Strawberry-Matcha Cheesecake: Cashew-based cheesecake with strawberries and matcha layers. With macerated strawberries and matcha meringue.

Five course plant-based omakase dinner by Chef Kevin Schuder.


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Kept On Ice

UPDATE: Okay folks, I’ve let this go on for long enough… APRIL FOOLS! I’m sad to say, it was all a bit of fun in this name of today’s “holiday.” Although I thought everyone would figure it out immediately, I didn’t expect such an outpouring of enthusiasm and support. Instead of getting a laugh out of it, I ended up feeling more dejected that I wouldn’t be able to deliver on this artificial promise.

Rest assured, I do genuinely want to create this book, but I haven’t yet found a publisher willing to take it on. Right now, it’s just a pipe dream, but this whole affair gives me hope that it may still happen some day. Thank you, everyone, for providing such persuasive inspiration!

It’s no secret that I play favorites when it comes to dessert, and regardless of the season, my preference invariably points to chilliest option on the menu. Creamy and cool, a generous scoop of ice cream always hits the spot. Wrapping up production on Vegan a la Mode was one of the most difficult publishing decisions I made back in the day, still bursting with frosty inspiration but running up against the threat of harsh deadlines, a lot was ultimately left unsaid. Even worse, a lot was left unchurned.

For years now, since the moment that original tome hit the market, I’ve been pining for an excuse to revisit that file of unrealized potential. Well, the idea of making a sequel is no longer just an empty threat; it’s about to become a sweet reality.

Vegan a la Mode: The Second Scoop will pick up right where the first cookbook left off, with never-before-tasted flavors like Tamarind-Chile Ice Cream, Nesselrode Pie Ice Cream, and Butterbeer Ice Cream. Unique frozen confections will feature prominently this time around, bringing fun new serving suggestions like Neapolitan Spaghetti Ice Cream and Lava Flow Bombes to the table when you’re craving a real show-stopping grand finale.

Pushing ahead at break-neck speed to meet the imminent summer 2016 release, I simply couldn’t wait any longer to share the delicious news. Stand by for pre-orders and the final cover art, coming soon!