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On the Town No. 4: Greetings from Oaxaca

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Heya! I don’t have a recipe for you this week because I’ve been in Oaxaca soaking up all the textiles, mezcal, chocolate de agua, paint, plants, and politics I can manage in only a handful of days. Folks who have been reading for a while know that Mexican food traditions are my absolute favorite to draw from when putting together my own meals, so this first trip to the nation is a long time coming for me.

I won’t do a long Oaxaca post (I mean, unless y’all really ask for it), but please know I’m sending this digital postcard(*) with much love and masa. Back to normal scheduling this week, all going well.

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(*so to speak—I’m actually just back home now, sigh)

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Dead Simple Zucchini Toast with Avocado, Lemon Zest & Coconut Bacon

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I'm on a minor mission to work more fresh veggies into my diet, and it seems particularly satisfying to be able to squeeze some in during the first meal of the day. Enter this wholesome toast topped with shredded zucchini. Bonus: this works with sourdough, whole wheat, pumpernickel, whatever—maybe even an everything bagel? So, hey, variety is built right in.

It's worth noting that since this is such a simple dish, the more flavorful your zucchini, the better this toast will be, so keep this one in mind when summer's finest is overflowing at the market. But you won't rely entirely on your zucchini for flavor, of course. You'll enrich your shredded veg with a little mashed avocado, a sprinkle of salt and black pepper, lemon (both zest and juice), and to finish with extra satiety and salt, a generous dose of coconut bacon. Good morning, right?

And note that you can prepare the coconut bacon in advance to make this recipe extra morning-friendly.

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Dead Simple Zucchini Toast with Avocado, Lemon Zest & Coconut Bacon

Print the recipe

serves 2

1 small-medium zucchini, washed and ends trimmed

4 slices bread of choice

1 ripe avocado, halved and pitted

1 lemon

1/4 tsp fine sea or kosher salt

freshly cracked black pepper, to taste

1 recipe Stovetop Coconut Bacon, recipe follows

Grate zucchini until you have 2/3 cup, loosely packed. Add zucchini to a mixing bowl and set aside.

Toast or grill bread. Meanwhile, roughly score the avocado flesh, still in the skin, into dice. Scoop flesh into mixing bowl. Rather than cutting the lemon in half, cut off just one third and set the larger portion aside. Measure out 1 tsp of juice from smaller portion and add to mixing bowl. Add salt to mixing bowl and use a fork to mash the avocado, mixing in the zucchini and seasonings as you go.

Divide zucchini mixture evenly among toast. Crack pepper generously over top, to taste. Zest larger portion of lemon generously over top, to taste (the lemon can be juiced after zesting, so reserve for another purpose). Divide coconut bacon evenly over toasts and serve at once.

Stovetop Coconut Bacon

yields 1/4 cup, adapted from Colleen Patrick-Goudreau

1 tsp reduced-sodium tamari

1 tsp liquid smoke

1/4 tsp maple syrup, grade B preferred

1/4 cup shredded unsweetened coconut

Heat a nonstick skillet over medium heat. In the skillet, combine tamari, liquid smoke, and maple syrup. The second it begins to boil, sprinkle coconut over and stir until thoroughly mixed. Continue cooking for a few minutes—stirring every 30 seconds—until coconut absorbs all liquid, the skillet becomes dry, and coconut just begins to crisp in spots. Your nose is your best guide. When it smells deeply toasted and just shy of burning, quickly remove from heat and immediately transfer to a plate, spread out in a single layer. Coconut will continue to crisp as it cools. Store leftovers in an airtight container with a clean absorbent cloth (to keep it from going soggy).

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Ten-Minute Breakfast Tacos

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Okay, full disclosure: the first time you make these breakfast tacos, they might take 12 or 13 minutes. But that's because you're reading the recipe and getting familiar with what to grab from the fridge and pantry. Once you've made them once or twice, it's smooth sailing. You grab your tortillas while the skillet heats, grab the tofu while the tortillas warm, then grab the spinach and slice the avocado while the tofu cooks, and before you know it, a fresh hot breakfast is helping you greet the day in style.

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With that out of the way, these guys are seriously easy to love. Fluffy crumbled tofu and a little fresh spinach wilted in a mix of sesame oil and tamari make for a light but flavorful combination. Top it all with ripe avocado slices doused with hot sauce, and that lovely mess is fully ready to be hugged in a warm corn tortilla. As a bonus, it takes only a few minutes longer to feed four as it does one (because the tofu will take longer to brown in a more crowded skillet), so this recipe scales decently.

Perfect and fast enough for breakfast, you may find yourself adding a side salad and a Bloody Mary to make these guys into brunch, or a side salad and cold Pilsner for dinner in a snap. Don't say I didn't warn you.

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Ten-Minute Breakfast Tacos

Print the recipe

serves 1

2 six-inch soft corn tortillas

1/3 block firm or extra firm tofu

1/8-1/4 tsp (to taste) fine sea or kosher salt

freshly cracked black pepper

2 tsp nutritional yeast

1/2 ripe avocado, pitted

1 tsp sesame oil

generous handful fresh baby spinach

1 tsp reduced-sodium tamari

hot sauce, to serve [see note]

Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Heat oven on warm setting.

Place tortillas in skillet. Heat for a minute on each side, or until tortillas are pliable and beginning to puff in spots. Transfer tortillas to oven rack to keep warm.

Crumble tofu into hot skillet. Sprinkle salt, pepper, and nutritional yeast over top. Let cook, undisturbed, two minutes. Meanwhile, slice avocado half while still in its skin.

Reduce heat to medium-low, toss tofu, and let cook one minute, undisturbed. Toss again and let cook one last minute. Remove tortillas from oven, transfer to serving plate, toss tofu again and spread evenly over tortillas.

Return skillet to heat. Add sesame oil, then spinach. Pour tamari over spinach and cook until wilted down, stirring constantly. Divide between tacos.

Scoop avocado slices from skin with a spoon and divide between tacos. Top with hot sauce and serve at once.

[Note: these benefit from an acidic finish, so if you do not like hot sauce, squeeze a lime wedge over tacos before serving.]

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Blackberry and Rose Water White Wine-Lillet Blanc Sangria

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Your next spring afternoon pitcher has arrived.

This white sangria—sweetened with a syrup flavored with blackberries and rose water—is an easy-going affair. Choose a dry white, maybe something grassy (such as a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc). You'll add Lillet Blanc (a French fortified wine) to add depth of flavor. I'm currently in love with Lillet-spiked white sangrias. They have more depth than a wine-only recipe, but aren't as stiff as one with liqueur added. Add frozen raspberries and a couple of ice cubes, and get ready to sip away in the sun.

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Blackberry and Rose Water White-Lillet Blanc Sangria

Print the recipe

serves 6

750 ml dry white wine, chilled

1 cup Lillet Blanc, chilled

1/4 cup Blackberry-Rose Syrup, recipe follows

1 sweet apple, diced

frozen blackberries (not thawed), to serve

rosemary sprigs, to garnish

Combine wines, syrup, and diced apple in a serving pitcher. Stir to combine. To serve, add two ice cubes and a handful of frozen blackberries to a wine glass. Pour in sangria and garnish with a sprig of rosemary.

Blackberry-Rose Syrup

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 cup water

1/2 cup frozen (or fresh) blackberries

1/8 tsp rose water

Dissolve sugar into water, stirring occasionally, in a small pot over high heat. Bring to a boil and immediately add berries. Bring back to a boil, cover, and reduce heat to low. Cook at a low simmer for 30 minutes. Strain, reserving stewed berries for another purpose. Stir in rose water and let cool before using. Store leftover syrup in the refrigerator.

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Creamy Orzo and Chickpea Bake (from the Pantry)

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This dead-simple baked pasta is going to solve all your early-spring meals. It starts out as a welcome hot dish for gray, blustery days. But it also eats fine at room temperature. Leftovers served as chilled pasta salad make an instant lunch on sunny afternoons. Whatever spring throws your way, this dish has you covered. And it comes together in a snap: you chop the pepper and quickly blend the sauce while the orzo cooks on the stove top. Then the whole thing goes in the oven, and done.

This pasta and bean number is homey and comforting, thanks to cooking the orzo in veggie broth with a sprig of rosemary. Then you'll bathe the pasta and chickpeas in a creamy, high-protein sauce of silken tofu blended with herbs, a little white wine, and a good dose of spring onions. Green peas and diced roasted red peppers add welcome color and gorgeous little pops of sweetness. Plus, with frozen peas and jarred red peppers, you can keep the ingredients for this guy on hand to toss together on any given evening.

And if you're in the mood for something a little richer, feel free to top the whole thing with some panko crumbs tossed in oil and a little salt.

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Creamy Orzo and Chickpea Bake (from the Pantry)

Print the recipe

serves 2-4

2 cups water

2 no-salt-added vegetable bouillon cubes

1 fresh rosemary sprig

1 cup orzo

1 15-oz can chickpeas

1 large jarred roasted red pepper (or freshly roasted, if preferred)

6 oz silken tofu (half an aseptic pack)

1/4 cup dry white wine

4 scallions

2 TBSP canola oil (or other neutral oil, but olive oil is not recommended [see Note])

1/2 tsp dried thyme

1/2 tsp dried oregano

1/2 tsp fine sea or kosher salt

freshly cracked black pepper, to taste

1/2 cup frozen peas

Add water and bouillon cubes to a medium pot over high heat. Dissolve cubes and bring to a boil. Add rosemary sprig and orzo. Boil 9 minutes (or according to package directions), stirring frequently to prevent sticking. Do not drain. Discard rosemary sprig.

While the pasta cooks, heat oven to 375. Drain and rinse chickpeas in a sieve and set aside to let drain thoroughly. Chop pepper into small dice.

Next, prepare the sauce. Add tofu, wine, white and firm pale green portions of scallions (reserve tops for garnish or for another purpose), oil, thyme, oregano, salt, and black pepper to a food processor. Blend until smooth.

Add chickpeas, diced pepper, and frozen peas to the orzo pot. Stir to combine. Add sauce and mix thoroughly. Transfer contents to a  1 1/2-quart baking dish (shallow, app 8"x12") and bake 20 minutes. Let cool five minutes before serving. Garnish with sliced scallion tops, if desired.

[Note: food processors and immersion blenders can turn olive oil bitter. I found that to be true when processing this sauce with olive oil and had good results using canola oil instead.]

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Pineapple, Black Bean and Poblano Salsa Fresca

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All this unseasonably warm weather in Knoxville has awoken cravings for water-rich fruits. But it's still February, so let's raid the citrus and frozen aisles of the grocer to scratch that itch.

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This guy is really a cross between a salad and salsa fresca, since it gets a bona fide dose of dressing. But no matter. It still eats great on a corn chip. So, to your totally satisfying base of sweet-tart pineapple chunks, earthy black beans, gently piquant poblano, and fragrant green onions, you'll add a dressing of cilantro and mint, which pairs wonderfully with fruit. To really drive that home, you'll use a base of orange juice (also some lime), then give the whole thing a little body with olive oil and a little pine nuts. It's simple, fresh, criminally easy to make, and entirely lovable. Get munching.

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Pineapple, Black Bean and Poblano Salsa Fresca

Print the recipe

serves 4-6

For the salsa:

1 15-oz can black beans

2 cups frozen pineapple chunks, thawed (or use roughly 1-inch fresh chunks)

1 medium poblano pepper, trimmed, seeded, and de-veined

2 scallions, trimmed

zest of 1/4 orange (app 1/2 tsp)

fine sea or kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper

For the dressing:

1/4 cup tightly packed cilantro

1/4 cup loosely packed mint leaves

2 TBSP pignoli (pine nuts)

3 TBSP orange juice

2 TBSP olive oil

1 TBSP lime juice

1/4 tsp fine sea or kosher salt

Drain and rinse beans in a sieve. Set aside to let drain thoroughly.

Meanwhile, chop pineapple chunks into roughly 1/2-inch chunks and transfer to a serving bowl. Chop poblano into small 1/4-inch dice and add to bowl. Finely slice tops and bottoms of scallions and add to bowl. Grate orange zest (before juicing the orange), add to mixing bowl, and set aside.

Make dressing by puréeing all ingredients until well blended, about 20 seconds. Add dressing, to taste, to mixing bowl and stir to combine thoroughly. (You may have a few tablespoons of dressing left over—if so, it works well as a green salad dressing, too.) Season to taste with freshly cracked black pepper and, gently, with salt (if serving with salted chips, you may not want to salt further at all).

Salsa can be served at once, but benefits from an hour's rest in the fridge for the dressing flavors to come together and season the fruit, veggies, and beans.

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Orange, Dill, and Fennel Chickpea Salad with Essential Fluffy Tahini Spread

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There may be nothing handier than having a batch of chickpea salad hanging out in the fridge. Plus, making your own convenience foods gets you instant meals that are made to suit your tastes. Like this simple and flavorful little chickpea salad that will fill you up whether on a plate of munchies with crackers, tucked into a loaf of pita, or scooped atop big tender lettuce leaves. Mash up your chickpeas, stir in some dill, orange zest, and a little fennel seed, and you're set.

Well, almost. First, you whip up this simple tahini spread. Which is currently the favorite sandwich spread in the MSV kitchen. It's lemony and satisfying, and hangs onto a sandwich without running all over the place like thinner tahini sauces. And it's all thanks to pureeing in just a little bit of silken tofu. Did I mention handy?

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Orange, Dill, and Fennel Chickpea Salad with Essential Fluffy Tahini Spread

Print the recipe

serves 4-6

2 15-oz cans chickpeas

2 TBSP fresh dill

zest of half an orange (about 1 tsp)

generous pinch fennel seed

1/3 cup Essential Fluffy Tahini Spread, recipe follows

fine sea or kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper, to taste

Drain and rinse chickpeas. Set aside in a sieve to let drain thoroughly while you prepare the other ingredients.

Transfer chickpeas to a mixing bowl and mash roughly with a potato masher. Stir in all other ingredients and add salt and pepper to taste.

Essential Fluffy Tahini Spread

yields about 1 cup

1/3 cup tahini

1/4 cup silken tofu (from an aseptic pack)

1/4 cup water

3 TBSP lemon juice

1 small clove garlic

1/2 tsp fine sea or kosher salt

Blend all ingredients until smooth. Spread can be used immediately, but will firm and fluff up a bit after chilling in the refrigerator.

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Herman (1999-2018)

I lost a friend a couple weeks back, which is why I haven't been around.

                                   portrait of Herman by Matthew Everett

                                 portrait of Herman by Matthew Everett

I have been dreading writing this post, but also really want to have it up. So, let's power through, shall we? Then we can get to the photos of this adorable cat and be done crying for the day, maybe.

My husband, Matthew, brought Herman to live with him seven years before we got together. After making the move to Knoxville (from Alabama), Herman would move to two other cities with Matthew before settling back here. Early in our relationship, Matthew once demonstrated how readily Herman came to him when his name was called. I probably single-handedly eroded that neat trick—though surely not their long-lasting bond—with the torrent of ever-evolving names I called Herman. It started simply enough when Matthew, a fan of the television series Arrested Development, began jokingly calling him "Hermano" from time to time. I ran with it. Hermano became Hermanito, Hermansquito (goofily pronounced hermanskweeto), then devolved into just Squito, Squito-Bido (yes, skweeto-beeto), and finally landed pretty hard on plain Bido, which most commonly extended into Bido-san. You know, to show respect. I guess.

That definitely wasn't it, though. He was also any number of terms of endearments: cutie pie, cutie pants, fuzzy pants—all sorts of pants, really, including his longest and silliest name Reyito Hermanito de los Pantalones. Also frequently "noodle"—my catch-all for (non-human) animals I want to address affectionately—including "noodle head" and, most perplexingly but also most frequently, "noodle butt."

He was also regularly called Little Buddy. Herman called my husband Big Buddy. (He called me Big Buddy's Girlfriend/BBGF for most of his life.) I made that cat talk so much. A ridiculous amount.

Bud and Herman are closely tied in my memories, because they were both already on the scene when I met my now-husband. As I wrote in Bud's memorial post, that dude was some kind of special. Everybody knew it, too. But almost no one knew Herman. He'd had a rough first year of life before he got to my husband, and he did not rise out of it an alpha cat. He was frightened of almost all strangers and took to a secure hiding place should one come through his front door. (He grew out of this a little bit in his last couple of years as an old man who had run clean out of fucks, which was pretty cool). Herman was a super-anxious little guy, concerned that he would not get what he needed in this world, and handled Bud's illness with what I will generously call a lack of grace. I always liked to think that Bud and I were a little kindred, taking in the big picture while living in the moment, but the truth is, I know there's a lot of Herman in me. There's a lot of Herman in all of us: just trying to make it through without being hurt, and acting out of fear more than we need to.

Herman wasn't only a little shit, though. He was also curious, playful, and way engaged with the world around him. Every box, paper bag, and open kitchen cupboard held a new surprise for him, and he explored them all. Given the chance, he liked to think he would've proven himself a stone killer (just ask the pigeons on the fire escape protected by window glass), but he channeled those skills mostly into drowning rubber bands in his giant water fountain, which he adored. Man, did he love that fountain. He was one enthusiastic jumper in his younger years.

He also trusted my husband and me entirely. He never hesitated to walk up, look me in the eye, and yell when he was hungry. His verbal communication left nothing to misinterpretation. I'm so glad he trusted us enough to boss us around. I'm happy to have waited on him hand and foot. We loved him so very much. We are much bereaved.

Herman spent much of his life, and every possible moment of the winter months, on my husband's lap.

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My lap, on occasion, would do until Matthew's became available.

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He tolerated and even encouraged an absurd amount of petting and nuzzling from me, though he would suffer no one to hold him, not even Matthew, for more than a few seconds.

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On the rare occasions Matthew left town without me, I relished the extra snuggling I got from Bido.

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He was appallingly handsome. He had a perfectly round little head and a dignified snout.

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He begged for coconut milk when I baked, and I have a habit of getting flour in the floor when I bake. His face got in the way one day.

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We're so lucky to have lived with him.

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I miss you, Bido-san.

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Thank you all for bearing with me. I'll try my best to get back in the swing of things here on MSV soon.

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Blueberry, Lemon and Thyme Granola

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Good granola is a real treat, and this easy stove-top version is so very nice. Start with plenty of oats, of course, and dress them up with lemon zest, fresh thyme, and a heap of gorgeous dried blueberries. The result is wonderfully fragrant and irresistible. Eaten for breakfast, it's a seriously lovely way to start your day. Try it on tofu mousse for instant morning meals—you won't be sorry.

Because dried blueberries are so expensive, using seeds (here, sunflower and pumpkin) instead of nuts (and canola oil instead of pricier fats) maintain satiety while keeping the cost down a little. But follow your bliss and customize your toss-ins to include whatever you love best. And of course, a little goes a long way.

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Blueberry, Lemon and Thyme Granola

Print the recipe

yields one quart

1/2 cup hulled unsalted pumpkin seeds (pepitas)

1/2 cup hulled unsalted sunflower seeds

2 cups rolled oats

1/2 cup dried wild blueberries

1/2 cup dried unsweetened shredded coconut

zest of one lemon

1 tsp fresh thyme leaves

1 TBSP canola oil

2 TBSP brown rice syrup

1 tsp vanilla extract

generous pinch fine sea or kosher salt

Heat a large, dry, nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add pepitas and sunflower seeds. Dry toast, tossing every minute or two, until pepitas begin to lighten. Add oats, blueberries, coconut, lemon zest, and thyme leaves. Continue to toast, tossing every minute, until the oats are toasted.

Meanwhile, whisk together oil, syrup, and vanilla (measuring the oil before the syrup will help the sticky syrup slide out of your measuring spoon). When the granola mixture is toasted, pour wet ingredients over and stir to combine thoroughly. Let cook two to three more minutes, stirring frequently.

Transfer mixture to a parchment-lined baking sheet and spread out. Sprinkle salt evenly over the whole thing. When cool, break apart and store in an airtight container.

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Balsamic Tempeh, Oranges and Haricots Verts

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The sour and sweet of balsamic vinegar is a great match for nutty tempeh. And since it also pairs well with all manner of green veg, why not toss in some long, thin green beans to contrast those dense little chewy tempeh squares?

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That's already a recipe for success, but where this dish really stands out is by throwing in fat, juicy orange segments to cook with the balsamic and a bit of bitter and savory toasted sesame oil. The juice from the orange scents the dish (further helping that tempeh out), but the fruit itself is knee-shakingly lovely—gorgeously flavorful orange wedges you can periodically pick up and eat with your paws for a rare finger-licking veggie experience. So good. (And probably not a first-date meal. You're also gonna want to floss after. Totally worth it.)

Seriously satisfying when served with a mixed-potato and cauliflower (s)mash seasoned with plenty of nutritional yeast.

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Balsamic Tempeh, Oranges and Haricots Verts

Print the recipe

serves 2

1 TBSP olive oil

8 oz frozen green beans (preferably thin variety, may be labeled haricots verts)

8 oz tempeh, cut into 1/2-inch dice

1/4 tsp salt

freshly cracked black pepper

1 orange, unpeeled, cut into 8 wedges

2 TBSP balsamic vinegar

1 tsp toasted sesame oil

Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add green beans and cook, stirring frequently, until the frost is knocked off, about three minutes. Add tempeh, salt, and pepper, and let cook two minutes. Toss. Repeat, tossing every two minutes, until tempeh is golden brown and beans are seared in spots, about 12 minutes total. Transfer to a plate and set aside.

Return skillet to heat and add orange wedges and balsamic. Cook, tossing frequently, until orange flesh softens, about five minutes. Add sesame oil and toss to coat.

Return tempeh and beans to skillet. Cook another three minutes or so to let the orange scent the dish and ensure the tempeh and beans are heated through. Serve at once.

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The Basics No. 6: Jumbo Savory Chickpea-Rice Pancake

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Happy 2018, friends! If you're struggling with a return to routine, let me introduce you to one of the easiest, most reliable dinners out there: this huge, fluffy, savory pancake made from chickpea and white rice flours. It's tasty, filling, and ready in minutes. It's made entirely from things you keep on the pantry shelf and studded with frozen peas that keep for ages in the freezer.

Whatever project you have going on, all you need is a 10-minute break to make sure you're fed and nurtured. Let's get cooking.

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Anyone who's ever had a dosa knows how pleasantly crispy white rice flour cooks up in a hot skillet. You'll get that great magic on the edges, but the bulk of this guy is soft from the combination of rice flour and chickpea flour, seasoned with nutritional yeast and—for bananas-convenient flavor—a little spoonful of vegetable broth powder (check your local co-op's bulk section). You can always toss in some garam masala or garnish with fresh herbs, but the basic recipe is good to go.

Like the jumbo buckwheat and blueberry pancake, this recipe halves perfectly. Make the whole thing for an express dinner, split it with a pal or make half if you're in the mood to pair it with a hearty salad or soup, or just make a half-recipe if all you need is a solid snack (or for a savory breakfast if you don't have a big appetite in the morning).

Finally, don't skip the sauce. You'll find this pancake just a touch dry, which is a feature, not a bug. It welcomes a generous amount of hot sauce, a mild pureed salsa, or whatever else you feel like drizzling on or dipping in without getting soggy.

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Dead Simple Jumbo Savory Chickpea-Rice Pancake

Print the recipe

serves one generously, or two as a snack or meal component

1 tsp olive oil

1/4 cup chickpea flour

3 TBSP white rice flour

1 TBSP nutritional yeast

1/2 tsp vegetable broth powder [see Note]

1/4 tsp baking powder

1/2 cup water

small handful frozen (or fresh) peas

Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Meanwhile, add chickpea flour, rice flour, nutritional yeast, broth powder, and baking powder to a bowl and whisk to combine.

When the skillet is hot, swirl the oil around the skillet to coat. Add water to dry ingredients, whisk to combine, and immediately add batter to skillet. Sprinkle the peas over the surface. Cook until the bottom is golden and the edges are visibly cooked at least 1/4-inch in (and up to 1/2-inch, being careful not to burn—this allows for easy flipping, even with the very large pancake), about 3-4 minutes. Flip with a wide plastic spatula and cook until cooked through and browned on the pea side, another 2-3 minutes.

Serve at once with hot sauce, salsa, or other sauce of choice.

[Note: salt content will vary depending on the brand purchased. Season to taste after cooking, if needed.]

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Party Animals No. 57: A Table of Munchies for Xmas Eve (or Whenever You Need)

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I host both Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve at my place for our tiny family. After the big November meal, my husband requested more of a cocktail-party setup for December. We still served ourselves buffet-style for ease. If you need a festive spread for NYE or any other time, may this generous little spread help you with inspiration.

Beverages:

  • Kir Royale
  • spiced Assam tea Toddy (substituting grade A dark/robust maple syrup for honey)
  • for non-alcoholic, spiced tea with hot soy milk and a little extra maple

The munchies menu:

  • fresh grapes
  • pear chips (pear slices pressed in sugar and baked at low temp for a couple hours)
  • rosemary mixed nuts
  • spiced oat cookies with espresso glaze
  • toasted french bread slices and whole-grain crackers
  • smoky almond pâté
  • veg cream cheese (Kite Hill recommended) with dill and capers
  • ginger fig jam (store bought)
  • freshly cracked black pepper
  • coconut bacon

Happy entertaining! Here's to the days getting longer and the table being full. Happy New Year's to you all, and thanks so much for hanging with me in this totally bananas year. Onward!

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Chickpeas, Artichokes, and Capers in White Wine Tomato Sauce over Polenta

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It's December, which means pantry-cooking season has officially begun. Enter this perfect weeknight bowl of creamy polenta topped with a mix of tomatoes, chickpeas, artichoke hearts, and capers all simmered with a little dried herbs and dry white wine.

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The combination is a great one. Polenta provides heft (and starchy absorbing properties) so the tomato sauce doesn't have to be cooked to death, just long enough to let the wine, shallot, and herbs infuse. Capers add a salty punch that communicates comfort without adding weight. The artichoke is another great, light foil for the polenta while chickpeas offer protein for extra satiety. What's more, with canned goods and quick-cooking polenta, you have a killer dinner ready in just about half an hour. Plus leftovers.

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Chickpeas, Artichokes, and Capers in White Wine Tomato Sauce over Polenta

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serves 4-6

For the topping:

2 TBSP olive oil

2 shallots, thinly sliced

1/2 tsp fine sea or kosher salt

1 28-oz can diced tomatoes

1 15-oz can artichoke hearts (or 6-8 frozen hearts, thawed), drained and chopped

1/2 cup dry white wine

1 TBSP turbinado

1 tsp dried basil

1/2 tsp dried oregano

1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes

2 15-oz cans chickpeas

2 TBSP drained capers

For the polenta (see Note):

1 cup quick-cooking polenta (or grits)

1/2 cup blanched almond meal

1 tsp fine sea or kosher salt

1 tsp freshly cracked black pepper

3 cups unsweetened soy milk

3 cups water

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Cook shallot and salt for a few minutes, stirring frequently, until shallot turns translucent. Add tomatoes (with liquid), chopped artichoke, wine, turbinado, basil, and oregano. Bring to a steady simmer, cover, reduce heat to medium-low (or lower, as needed) to maintain simmer, and let cook 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, drain and rinse chickpeas. Set aside in a sieve to let drain thoroughly. Measure dry polenta ingredients into a bowl and whisk together.

After the 15 minutes is up, add chickpeas and capers to tomato mixture. Stir, increase heat to medium, and let cook at a strong simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until flavors have melded, 10-15 minutes.

While the tomato mixture finishes, combine soy milk and water in a pot over high heat. When it begins to steam, begin whisking while pouring the dry polenta mixture into the pot in a thin, steady stream, whisking all the while. When all is incorporated, be sure the mixture is bubbling, cover, and reduce heat to low. Cook five minutes, covered, carefully whisking the bubbling mixture well once each minute.

Divide polenta among shallow bowls and top with chickpea-tomato mixture. Serve at once.

Note: because this polenta is served soft, it's best to make only the amount you will need at this serving. The polenta recipe scales down perfectly, so feel free to make a quarter of the recipe to feed one (quite generously), or make the full recipe to feed up to six.

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Dead Simple Black Bean Nachos with Chipotle Pumpkin Sauce

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Food doesn't get much more fun than nachos, even non-traditional ones like these guys. And what better time for an autumn-flavored pick-me-up than now, when the days are about as short as they get (if you're in my part of the globe, anyway).

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So, grab a handful of chips and douse them in a pumpkin sauce spiced up with chipotles en adobo for a dead-simple, totally flavorful dish. It all comes together in a snap thanks to the convenience of canned pumpkin, beans, and chiles.

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You'll pop all that in the oven to get everything warmed and mingled, and meanwhile, you'll chop a few fresh elements to balance the salt and spice (namely, crisp red pepper, fresh cilantro, and creamy avocado). Then nothing left to do but pour yourself a cold one and get munching.

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Dead Simple Black Bean Nachos with Chipotle Pumpkin Sauce

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serves 4-6

For the black bean and chipotle pumpkin sauce:

2 15-oz cans black beans

1 15-oz can pumpkin puree

1/2 cup water

1 no-salt-added vegetable bouillon cube

1 chipotle en adobo

2 TBSP nutritional yeast

1 TBSP canola or grapeseed oil

1 generous pinch fine sea or kosher salt

1 generous pinch Mexican oregano (optional)

To assemble:

tortilla chips

diced red bell pepper

chopped cilantro leaves

chopped avocado

flaked sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat oven to 375 (if assembling nachos right after making sauce)—see Note.

Drain both cans of beans, but do not rinse. Add to a medium pot and set aside.

Add remaining sauce ingredients to a food processor and process until very smooth, 30-60 seconds.

Add pumpkin mixture to pot with beans and bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce heat slightly to medium-medium low. Cook, stirring frequently, until heated through and thickened a bit, about five minutes.

To assemble, pile tortilla chips snugly in a low mound in a baking dish and pour sauce over top, leaving a small border of chips uncovered (the chips touching the sauce will absorb it and soften, but the chips below and to the side will leave some crunchy chips that can scoop up toppings). Bake 15 minutes.

Remove from oven, top generously with diced pepper, cilantro, and avocado. Sprinkle top of dish gently with flaked salt and then generously crack black pepper over top. Serve at once with forks.

Note: once the sauce is done, nachos can be assembled immediately in any desired quantity. Leftover sauce can be refrigerated for days and reheated as desired to make a batch.

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Party Animals No. 56: Thanksgiving 2017

Just a quick pop-in to run over the all-vegan MSV Thanksgiving for the year.

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Which was pretty much exactly the same as last year. The family has decided this menu is not broken and should therefore not be fixed. There was a little freedom to play with the welcome cocktail and dessert, though, so here we go.

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Raspberry lambic and creme de cassis topped with brut cava and garnished with a rosemary sprig-skewered branded raspberry made for a fruity and lively drink to toast the day.

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Dessert was a dead simple apple crisp (based on this recipe), served warm with (Coconut Bliss brand) vanilla ice cream and topped with those brandied cranberries.

Hope everyone who got a long weekend enjoyed it. As ever, thanks so much for being here.

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The Basics No. 5: The MSV Waffle

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For a basic recipe, this isn't a standard waffle. But it's my standard waffle, the recipe I make when I make waffles. These guys start with all-purpose flour, but get an assist from cornmeal, which adds extra flavor, color, and a mildly rustic texture. And this recipe isn't a quick batter: these waffles get their loft—not to mention even more flavor—from active dry yeast.

They're still dead simple to throw together, thanks to the fact that the yeast batter sits overnight to develop. Which also means you're measuring your flour out the night before instead of first thing in the morning, which I consider a bonus, too.

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Finally, there's the faintest hint of warmth from the addition of ancho liqueur, and it's matched by an equal amount of orange liqueur. The effect is seriously subtle (you might never have noticed it if you didn't know it was in there).

All of these tweaks are gentle—the cornmeal, the yeast, and the liqueur. So when you get ready to drizzle on the maple syrup and tuck into these waffles, you still feel like you're sitting down to a pretty classic breakfast dish. Just with more notes than toasted wheat and syrup. If you have a mild sweet tooth, especially when it comes to breakfast, then you may make this your go-to waffle, too. If not, give it a shot when you find yourself in need of a twist.

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The MSV Waffle

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yields 12 waffles, adapted from Mollie Katzen's Sunlight Cafe

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup cornmeal

1 TBSP natural cane sugar (evaporated cane juice)

1 tsp active dry yeast

1/2 tsp fine sea or kosher salt

2 cups unsweetened soy milk

6 TBSP canola oil

2 TBSP Ancho Reyes ancho chile liqueur

2 TBSP orange liqueur, preferably Grand Marnier rouge

In a mixing bowl, whisk together flour, cornmeal, sugar, yeast, and salt. Whisk in milk. Cover with plastic wrap and transfer to refrigerator. Let sit overnight.

In the morning, heat your waffle iron. (If your waffle iron does not have a nonstick surface, grease the iron before adding batter.) When ready, beat canola oil and liqueurs into batter. Add one-quarter cup batter to each square of the iron and cook according to the manufacturer's directions, until crisp and deeply golden on the outside. Serve at once. (If you need to wait and serve the waffles all at once, hold finished waffles in a warm oven to keep them crisp while you cook the rest.)

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Party Animals No. 55; On the Town No. 3: A (Calcotada-Inspired) Backyard Barbecue

Another hasty photo essay:

My pal Elaine hosted a great-big onion-grilling party (inspired by the Catalan calcotada tradition). For you fellow East Tennesseeans, consider this a suggestion for celebrating ramp season come March. I co-hosted the cookout, insofar as I helped make some stuff and invited some friends. My contributions:

1. Bread! Crusty, beautiful boules from the famously tried-and-true Sullivan Street Bakery recipe.

2. White wine-braised white beans and garlic, served in adorable mugs along with that bread.

3. Miso-marinated, thinly sliced portobello mushrooms topped with lemon zest, pistachios, and arugula—highly recommended.

4. Vegetables roasted whole, served alongside the grilled onions with a romesco-type sauce and Elaine's beautiful mixed-herb sauce.

After munching on the veggie courses out of doors, we were driven inside by light sleet and the disappearance of the last ray of sun. And thus officially began the indoor-party season. Happy November, and I'll be back soon with a new recipe.

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White Wine-Braised White Beans and Garlic

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All my fellow bean lovers, get ready to have a new favorite meal. Dead simple and gorgeously garlicky, these beans are destined to be a new staple. We're going way classic here: just beans, garlic, white wine, olive oil, salt, pepper, and marjoram. They all hang out, all day, in the slow cooker, where the beans will get bananas-creamy without completely breaking down. The best part, though, is that the slow-and-low heat effortlessly turns those garlic cloves to deeply savory pulp that you'll stir through the mixture so that it permeates the whole dish. Finish it with fresh parsley for a pleasantly green foil, add a crusty side of bread or a nice square of cornbread, and dinner is served.

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Bonus: these guys are surely good enough to entertain with (more on that next week). They're ready to be mashed onto baguette slices as part of a mezze platter—or as a quick afternoon snack—or served as a side dish with a larger spread. Any way you serve them, these beans are one seriously satisfying plate.

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White Wine-Braised White Beans and Garlic

Print the recipe

2 15-oz cans cannellini beans

6 cloves garlic, crushed

2/3 cup dry white wine

2 TBSP olive oil

1/2 tsp dried marjoram

1/2 tsp fine sea or kosher salt

freshly cracked black pepper, to taste

small handful parsley, chopped well, to serve

Drain and rinse beans. Set aside in a sieve to let drain thoroughly. Meanwhile, add remaining ingredients, except parsley, to slow cooker. Add drained beans, stir, and cook on low eight hours. Use a wooden spoon to crush the garlic cloves, which will be cooked to a pulp by now, and stir to incorporate fully.

Transfer to a serving dish, sprinkle with chopped parsley, and serve.

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Party Animals No. 54: Vegan Hot Sipping Caramel for MSV's Fifth Anniversary

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MSV has turned five, my friends. Thanks ever so much for being here. To recognize the occasion, I'll just pause to mention that this blog remains a labor of love. There are no ads here. I come back week after week, driven by the deeply held beliefs that cooking tasty food for yourself has tremendous value and that many of us can thrive without centering our diets around exploiting creatures that can and do suffer. I can only hope I've helped some other people come to the same conclusion, even if only for one meal.

Five years—more than 250 weeks—of trying to accomplish that very thing feels worthy of light celebration. So! Let's toast to all those chickpeas gone by, shall we? And since we have a milestone on our hands, let's toast with something extra rich—namely, sipping caramel.

This is a simple and extraordinarily satisfying adaptation of the hot sipping caramel recipe from Anu Apte via Imbibe. I started with that sweet, decadent template and started loading in flavor accents. You'll use coconut milk with its dreamy richness in lieu of the dairy products used in that recipe. Coconut isn't the first thing you'll taste in the drink, though its flavor does come through, and if there was any doubt that it plays fabulously well with the toasted notes in caramel, worry no more. In fact, I'd argue that even if you consume dairy products, I suspect you'd be better served by making this switch.

That leaves nothing to tinker with but the booze. The original recipe calls for calvados, which is probably delightful, but felt a little on the nose for my current mood. To make the whole thing a little more obviously complex, in goes a jigger of Branca Menta. (If you aren't familiar, it's a bitter herbal liqueur with a decided sweet mint character—far more approachable than most amari but far more complex than creme de menthe.) Then to really gild the lily, you'll add a little dark rum to your whipped coconut cream garnish to loosen it a bit and complement the lighter sugar and mint flavors. That may sound like a lot, but it goes down easy (and pleasingly boozy).

When the weather finally turns cool, you know what to do.

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Vegan Coconut Hot Sipping Caramel

Print the recipe

serves 4, adapted from Anu Apte via Imbibe

1 1/4 cups full-fat canned coconut milk, such as Thai Kitchen brand, divided

2/3 cup natural cane sugar (evaporated cane juice)

1 TBSP coconut oil (use unrefined for a hint of extra coconut flavor)

1/2 tsp fine sea or kosher salt

1/2 cup unsweetened soy milk

6 oz Branca Menta

4 TBSP Rum-Whipped Coconut Cream, recipe follows

Warm 3/4 cup coconut milk over low heat in a small pot. Meanwhile, heat sugar in another pot over medium heat, stirring very frequently, until melted and deeply golden, about 7 minutes. (Be very careful not to let either pot become too hot—if either begins to boil, you'll end up with hard candy stuck to your pot instead of silky caramel. The coconut milk should only be warmed, and if the sugar starts getting hot, reduce heat to avoid boiling.) Stir warmed coconut milk into melted sugar along with coconut oil and salt.

When the caramel sauce is ready, add remaining 1/2 cup coconut milk along with soy milk over medium heat. Stir to combine. Add 1 1/2 oz Branca Menta each to four mugs. Continue to warm the caramel mixture, stirring very frequently, until heated to your liking. Divide among mugs and stir to combine. Garnish each with one tablespoon rum-whipped coconut cream and serve at once.

Note: caramel sauce can be made days in advance and chilled in the refrigerator until ready to use. To serve, warm chilled sauce with milks until the mixture is silky and uniform and proceed with recipe as written.

Rum-Whipped Coconut Cream

yields about 2/3 cup

1 can full-fat canned coconut milk, such as Thai Kitchen brand, chilled 24 hours

2 tsp powdered sugar

1 TBSP dark rum, such as Myers's Original Dark

Scoop firm cream off the top of the can of chilled coconut milk and add to the bowl of a stand mixer. Add sugar and rum and whip with the whisk attachment until fluffy.

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Party Animals No. 53: Fig Paste, Fig Syrup, and Instant Pantry Entertaining

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We have some catching up to do, don't we? Let's get to it.

I missed two weeks in a row, which is a first on MSV. It's a bummer but couldn't be helped. First, briefly, there's a cat in the MSV house feeling poorly.

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What's more, that cat feeling poorly is nearly 18 years old. Yeah. I don't wanna talk about it.

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Additionally, I have been busy with Libacious. Specifically, we had a couple of jobs that wanted a bunch of original development—much more than would usually go on. First, there was a masquerade murder-mystery birthday party for 12 and 13-year-olds at Westwood, complete with pomegranate sours shaken up for the kiddos. I was not about to miss the chance to design something to pour into a coupe glass for this event.

Also, I got to wear a masquerade mask.

  photo by  Casey Fox

 photo by Casey Fox

So much fun.

That was overlapped with/immediately followed by serving the signature cocktail for Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum's Green Thumb Gala. Meet the Barn Raiser.

There's a bunch of stuff in here: Assam tea spiced with allspice, black pepper, and cinnamon; fig-turbinado syrup; lemon juice; vodka; orange bitters; and orange blossom water—all garnished with sage leaves pinned to dehydrated orange slices and star anise.

I built the Barn Raiser from scratch, beginning with a single cocktail and scaling it all the way up to 380 servings. It was both nerve-racking and ultimately confidence-boosting, and, happily, brings us to today's recipes.

The fig-turbinado syrup is totally lovely. It obviously works in drinks (alcoholic or otherwise), but you can also drizzle it over vanilla ice cream or use it to jazz up breakfast.

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New waffle recipe coming very, very soon, by the way.

What's more, when you finish making the syrup, you'll have some rehydrated figs on your hands, which means you're only moments away from a seriously dreamy batch of fig paste.

Which brings us to a note on instant entertaining, in case it helps anyone. Lots of tips you find online for items to keep on hand for surprise guests involve animal products, so it seems worth noting that a vegan platter does not have to be a chore. I hosted a business meeting on short notice (with Libacious' wildly talented graphic designer, Tricia Bateman), at which I knew we'd be having some special celebratory cocktails all the way from Edinburgh (brought back, thoughtfully, by my business partners).

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And I never feel entirely comfortable serving drinks without something to nibble on. I had only about 20 minutes to get something onto the table. If I'd had just 15 or 20 minutes more, an almond pâté log would definitely have been the savory spread on the table, but them's the breaks.

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Clockwise from left: lemony chickpea, artichoke, and red pepper spread; two cracker varieties; fig paste; and rosemary mixed nuts.

The artichoke hearts, chickpeas, and red peppers all came straight from the pantry to combine with olive oil, lemon-infused grapeseed oil, a little lemon juice, salt, and dried herbs. That's it. The mixed nuts were purchased roasted and salted. Then there was nothing left to do but briefly toast them on the stovetop with a small amount of olive oil and fresh rosemary.

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Tiny crispy fried rosemary needles are hopelessly irresistible, you know.

And, finally, the fig paste. I grabbed a handful of rehydrated figs from the comically large batch on hand from syrup testing and blended it up with a little brandy, dried sage, orange exract, and a touch of orange blossom water (since the figs absorb syrup, not just water, the mixture is plenty sweet already). The whole thing still tastes like spreadable figs, but the additions give the paste a very subtle depth that keeps it from being one-note.

For instant entertaining, you do not have to have pre-soaked figs on hand. Begin your preparations by rehydrating figs (or any dried fruit you have in the cabinet). They will soften while you arrange everything else, then you can finish by blending them up into your paste (sweeten gently, to taste).

It's also especially nice baked into fig bars (instant breakfasts!) or dolloped on a cracker atop Kite Hill cream cheese.

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Dead Simple Fig Syrup and Fig Paste

Print the recipe

yields about 10 oz syrup and a scant cup paste

For the syrup:

1 cup water

1 cup turbinado/demerara sugar

1 cup packed dried figs [see Note], roughly chopped

For the paste:

1 tsp brandy

1/4 tsp dried rubbed sage

1/4 tsp orange extract

pinch flaked sea salt

two drops orange blossom water (optional, or substitute with a pinch orange zest)

Begin by making syrup. Heat water and turbinado in a medium pot over high heat, stirring to help dissolve sugar. As soon as it begins to boil, add chopped figs, and bring back to a boil. Remove from heat, cover with a clean kitchen towel, and let steep one hour. Strain, pressing gently on figs to extract some of the absorbed liquid. Chill syrup in an airtight container.

To make the fig paste, transfer steeped figs to a food processor bowl. Add all other paste ingredients and process to a uniform paste. Store fig paste in the refrigerator, but it's best served at room temperature and will readily soften if heated briefly in the microwave.

Note: either Calimyrna or black mission figs may be used. The former will give a gentler flavor and sweetness that is particularly nice alone, while the latter will come through a bit bolder and makes a wonderful, traditional-feeling fig bar. Both are tasty, so follow your bliss.

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