Fun with coconut bacon: warm and smoky spinach salad

So, coconut bacon. Have you tried it? It’s one of those vegan foods you can buy pre-packaged or make from scratch, and I went the former route mostly because… well, because I saw an IndieGoGo campaign for Phoney Baloney’s Coconut Bacon, thought, “hm, sounds interesting,” and pledged a few bucks. I then promptly forgot about it until three bags of the stuff ended up on my doorstep.

I didn’t really know what to expect. How much could coconut taste like bacon, after all? Well, if you ignore the fact that I am probably the worst person to ask about what bacon tastes like, the answer is that it varies. It’s crispy baked coconut, which works really well as a bacon bit sort of deal as long as it is in a situation that allows it to remain crispy. It also is, you know, coconut, so there is a light coconut flavor lurking behind the intense salty/smoky coating. It strikes me as the kind of thing that would work in certain sandwiches, salads, and definitely breakfast or baked goods.

The mister, on the other hand, used it in a stir fry. And he added it kind of early on. While I don’t remember the specifics, I do remember that it tasted like an overall pretty decent dish except for the inexplicable pockets of soggy smoked coconut pieces. :| When I was cleaning up after dinner that night, I said, “If I save this will you eat it?” He laughed and replied, “I guess that means you won’t?” (We did not save it.)

On the other hand, sprinkled on this salad at the very last minute and enjoyed immediately, the bacon stays crisp. The light coconut flavor that shines through under the smokiness complements the salad rather than competing. It is good, and you should eat it. The end.

warm and smoky spinach salad

Warm and Smoky Spinach Salad
Adapted from Spinach Salad with Warm Bacon Vinaigrette by Smitten Kitchen

Serves 2 as a main, 4 as a side

5 ounces baby spinach
2 large white button mushrooms
1 large egg, hard cooked
2 tablespoons grapeseed oil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon honey
1/2 teaspoon smooth Dijon mustard
1/8 teaspoon smoked paprika
2 small shallots
1/2 cup coconut bacon (I used Phoney Baloney’s)
freshly ground black pepper to taste

First, prep your stuff. Slice your mushrooms very thinly. Slice the hard cooked eggs into slightly thicker medallions. Cut the shallot into thin slices. Then put the spinach in a large bowl, and top evenly with mushrooms and egg. Reserve shallots.

In a small skillet, heat olive oil over medium heat until shimmering. Whisk in vinegar, honey, dijon, and smoked paprika. Add shallots and cook for about 30 seconds. Remove from heat and immediately pour over the salad. Toss to combine, then evenly sprinkle coconut bacon over the top and toss again. Serve immediately.

Hot pickled asparagus for an easy and delicious spring canning project

Have you ever had one of those days when you find yourself at the grocery store with $40 worth of pickles in your cart?

No? Just me?

Not only did this happen, but when I posted about it on Facebook it got more “Likes” than anything else I’ve ever posted about in my entire Facebook career. I don’t even know what to think about this.

To be fair, I didn’t even have that many pickles to add up to that $40. What made it so ridiculous was two jars of rick’s picks. I don’t care. Worth it. I got home and promptly ate an entire jar of the mean beans for dinner. Salty, sour, crisp, and spicy. Almost a little too spicy, but not quite. Just perfect.

Except, uh, they’re $10 a jar.

So I’ve been thinking of making some of my own homemade hot pickled green beans, you know, to try to save some cash while still managing to accidentally pickle my internal organs from over-consumption of salt and vinegar.

But then I thought, waitwaitwait, it’s SPRING. And I kept seeing beautiful asparagus of all colors (green! purple! white!) show up in the farmer’s market and grocery stores. Why not pickle that?

I brought a jar to share with some lovely ladies after a group bike ride the other weekend. None of them had ever tried pickled asparagus before. One of them said: “I’d never even heard of pickled asparagus, but now I can’t imagine a world without it.”

In a word: YEP.

hot pickled asparagus

Hot Pickled Asparagus
Adapted from Pickled Asparagus by National Center for Home Food Preservation and Pickled Asparagus with Hot Peppers and Garlic by Dad Cooks Dinner

Makes 6 pint jars

7 1/2 to 8 pounds asparagus
4 1/2 cups water
4 1/2 cups white vinegar (5% acidity) *
1/2 cup pickling salt
6 cloves garlic
18 dried chili peppers
6 sprigs fresh dill
1.5 teaspoons black peppercorns
1.5 teaspoons whole coriander

* You can substitute some or all of the white vinegar with apple cider vinegar to your tastes. I went for all white vinegar in part because I was using my lovely blue glass canning jars, but using half apple cider vinegar gives delightful flavor. The important thing is to make sure it’s 5% acidity.

Equipment
6 pint jars, rings, and unused canning lids
boiling water canner with rack
jar lifting tongs
jar funnel (optional, but recommended)
clean dish towels

An important note: canning is one of those things where if you fool with established ratios you can die from botulism. Spices/seasonings can generally be changed around without worry, which is where you can get a little creative. You just don’t want to change types of vegetables or levels of brine acidity willy-nilly unless you are a food scientist with access to lab-grade pH testing equipment or something. If you’ve never canned before, you will probably want to study up on some basics before you get started. And use common sense when eating home-canned goods — leaking, compromised seals, weird growths, bad smells? Play it safe and throw that shit out.

To begin, prep your asparagus: wash and lay out on a dish towel to dry. Trim the stalks off so your spears fit upright in your jar — around 4 inches long.

(There will likely be some usable stalk left after you trim to size — cut that off and save for later use in stir fry, risotto, soup, etc.)

Peel and rinse garlic cloves. Rinse chili peppers. Rinse dill sprigs. Lay all out on a dish towel to dry.

Fill your canner so the water is at least an inch above the jars, and bring to a boil. (You might want to do this earlier depending on how long it takes your canner to come to a boil — I get mine started while I am prepping my asparagus.)

Sanitize your jars, lids, rings, and tools by boiling in water (or by using the sanitize setting on your dishwasher, if desired).

When you’re ready to pack, remove jars from boiling water. Put 1/4 teaspoon peppercorns, 1/4 teaspoon whole coriander, a clove of garlic, 3 chili peppers, and 1 sprig of dill in each jar. Then pack with as much asparagus as will fit, tips pointing up. You may not be able to fit all your asparagus into the jars, but better to have some leftover than not have enough to fill your jars, right?

In a large saucepan, bring water, vinegar, and pickling salt to a boil. Remove from heat, then ladle hot brine into each jar — a jar funnel makes this much easier, but if you don’t have one, just be careful. Leave 1/2″ headroom in each jar — it is okay if the tips of the asparagus are a little bit above the brine.

Wipe each rim with a clean, damp cloth. Center an unused, sterilized lid on each jar. Screw the rings over each lid until “fingertip tight” — that is, screwed on until you just start to get resistance, no tighter.

Using your jar tongs, place the jars on the rack in the canner. Wait for the water to come back to a boil, then process for 10 minutes (or up to 20 minutes depending on altitude — see this chart). Remove jars from canner, then place on a dish towel on the counter, not touching each other.

Leave undisturbed for at least 12 hours. Stay close by if you want to hear the satisfying “pop! pop! pop!” that lets you know you’ve succeeded.

Check that all jars have properly sealed by pressing down on the middle of the lid — if it moves and you hear a noise, put them in the fridge immediately and you can still eat them, but they will not be shelf-stable.

Remove the rings before storing if desired (they can sometimes rust or get stuck). Do not open for 3 to 5 days before eating to allow the asparagus to fully pickle. Store in the pantry for up to one year (hahaha yeah right, you’re eating these all within a month!). Then refrigerate upon opening, for up to one month.

A mouthful in more ways than one: Thai-incense smoked chocolate cheesecake cupcakes with coconut cream frosting

So, it’s been a really long time since I’ve posted. There’s not a real good reason, just a lot of little, shitty reasons. At least I’ve got something amazing to come back with. May I present to you:

Some marginally complicated but incredibly delicious cupcakes!

A major component of these cupcakes is the Thai incense candle, which you may be able to find locally if you’re lucky. I had to order mine online. I first read about these little guys in a recipe from Saveur — in fact, the flavor profile inspired these cupcakes. These candles are used to smoke sweets, usually cookies, with  an essence of  “various aromatic ingredients” such as ylang-ylang and frankincense. It’s kind of spicy, kind of smoky, kind of floral… it’s hard to explain without tasting it. But Saveur’s move of smoking a cheesecake with it was absolute genius.

Because I’m into the portability of cupcakes, I decided to see if I could transfer the experience of the cheesecake to something I could easily cart along to a board game night. And you know what? It worked. It really, really worked.

Thai-incense smoked black bottom cupcakes with coconut cream frosting

The chocolate cupcake was far more satisfying than the slip of a cookie crumb base in the cheesecake version. The smokiness of the cheesecake is still there, but not overwhelmingly so. When I made the cheesecake, I got some complaints of “too smoky” (not that I agreed with them). The cupcakes? No complaints whatsoever.

And the coconut frosting I devised is a little more aggressive than the coconut cream used on top of the cheesecake. I personally like to pipe just a little squirt of frosting on each cupcake instead of doing sky-scraping swirls — too much and it overwhelms the smokiness of the cheesecake into nothing. (This recipe will have a bit left-over if you also go the less-is-more route — the leftovers are great to add to an Oreo or Joe-Joe, for those times when eating a sandwich cookie isn’t unhealthy enough.)

After I made these cupcakes, my friend told her trainer that she ate two cupcakes which prompted her trainer to say, “I hope it was worth it.” Her response? “Oh god, yes. I cannot explain to you how worth it it was.”

I can’t think of a better endorsement.

Thai-incense smoked black bottom cupcakes with coconut cream frosting

Incense-Smoked Chocolate Cheesecake Cupcakes
Adapted from Black-Bottom Cupcakes by David Lebovitz from The Great Book of Chocolate
Inspired by Smoked Coconut Cheesecake by Saveur

Filling
1 8-ounce package cream cheese, at room temperature and cut into 1″ cubes
1/3 cup sugar
1 large egg, at room temperature
Thai fragrant incense candle

Cake
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
5 tablespoons natural unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch-process)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup water
1/3 cup canola oil
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Frosting
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, softened
6 tablespoons unrefined coconut oil (chilled if needed to solidify)
3 cups powdered sugar, sifted
3 tablespoons coconut cream
3 tablespoons heavy cream

Put a small, heatproof bowl inside of the bowl of your stand mixer. Put the cream cheese cubes in the mixer bowl around the smaller bowl. Light the incense candle, then put in the smaller bowl. Cover the mixer bowl tightly with a piece of aluminum foil. Let cream cheese smoke for 30 to 40 minutes, then remove the small bowl with the incense candle.

With the paddle attachment, beat smoked cream cheese and sugar until combined. Add egg and beat again until smooth. Refrigerate until needed.

Line 2 muffin tins with 16 paper liners and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Sift flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt into a medium bowl. Add brown sugar and stir to combine.

In a separate bowl, combine water, oil, vinegar and vanilla. Make a well in the center of your dry ingredients bowl and add the wet ingredients. Stir gently until just smooth — do not over mix.

Divide the batter evenly throughout the muffin tin — cups will be 2/3 full. Then divide the cheesecake filling among the cupcakes, about 2 tablespoons added to the center of each. (I used one of those cookie dough scoops with the spring loaded getter-outter part, which made things go a lot more smoothly.) You may have a little bit of cheesecake filling leftover.

Bake for about 25 minutes, until the cupcakes spring back if you lightly touch them. Set aside to cool completely before frosting — you can also refrigerate them for 2-3 days or freeze before frosting if desired.

To make the frosting:

Put butter and coconut oil in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Whip until fully combined.

Add powdered sugar about 1/2 cup at a time, beating to combine between each addition. Whip on medium speed until fully combined.

Add coconut cream and heavy cream, and whip again on high until frosting is light and fluffy, about 4 minutes.

Spread or pipe frosting onto each cupcake. I prefer a little squirt so as not to overwhelm the cake, but you can pipe on more as desired.

Refrigerate in a tightly covered container until ready to serve.