Fresh bread, rice porridge, green plantains, or muesli. How will you start your day?
Did you know that there are some places where they actually sit down for breakfast? Where it’s not eaten on the run, on the go, or on anything but the table? And that some countries’ breakfasts are based on centuries of fine-tuning the grains, fruits, dairy, and yes, even meat, that are readily available on ample farmland and not on what marketers and advertisers have told them to eat? It’s true. These places exist!

In my quest to discover alternatives to the standard American breakfast, I asked questions of five people who spent the majority of their lives elsewhere–Bosnia, China, the Dominican Republic, Hong Kong, and Sweden–before moving to the States. My small study reinforced some of what I already suspected: other countries pace their meals, use less sugar than we do (especially at breakfast), and, for the most part, prioritize lunch.

Some of what I learned surprised me: there’s no fear of bread or dairy or meat or even sugar, as long as it comes naturally from fruit. Eggs seem a-okay, too, though I suspect they were from local farms, not massive operations. Some of what I learned harked back to things I’ve heard along the way: breakfast and lunch, not dinner, should be the bigger meals so your body has time to digest before going to sleep. There’s also a general antipathy toward cold water. (I had first heard this from my host mother during my study abroad in Spain, who told me that a king returned home from war, drank cold water, and dropped dead. Apparently, the country stopped drinking cold water after that.)

Overall, the international approach to breakfast seemed to be exactly what many American marketers and processed food companies have long been hawking but not necessarily delivering: balance. The traditional breakfasts can knock out several food groups in the pyramid without overdoing any of them. They trend toward savory or, at the very least, not sweet. They are designed to be savored at a table and not in the car or walking to work. They certainly aren’t meant to be ignored altogether.

How can we bring a little bit of the balance and tradition home? Read on.


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Be a Person Who Eats Salad at Home: The Vegend’s Mustard Dressing

My family sat down to dinner together almost every night when I was growing up. The food was always homemade and always bountiful–usually a meat dish, a potato, and some sort of steamed vegetable concoction from frozen food giant Birdseye. We lacked for nothing, except for one thing: salad.

We just didn’t have it.

Despite my mother’s attempts to serve up healthful and “cancer-fighting” foods like steamed Brussels sprouts, she never once put salad on the table. It’s not that she didn’t eat it–at restaurants, she’d have the blue cheese-slathered wedge salad that was de rigueur–she just didn’t serve it at home.

So I grew up thinking that salads were for restaurants, where they could source oodles of toppings–potatoes, fruit, beans, cheese, nuts–at scale, and where things like arugula, kale, baby spinach, and frisee were in the hands of specially-trained chefs.

I carried the no-salad-at-home tradition into adulthood until I met the Vegend, whose at-home salad skills far surpass any human’s. His base is almost always arugula, which can last quite a while in the fridge. (Plus, just before it’s gone bad, he whips it into unbeatable pesto.) His typical toppings include farro, roasted peppers, tomatoes, corn, chickpeas, and avocado. Hard boiled eggs, butternut squash, potatoes, and string beans also join in on the fun.

He tops off the salad with a mustardy dressing that’s so good you’ll want to dip it, spread it, and pour it onto everything you’ve got. We’ve described it here.
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The Only Hamentashen Recipe You’ll Ever Need

My list of “gateway goods” to this whole baking thing could be quite long. There’s the apple pie I made from way back during what felt like the advent of the internet. There are the rocky road brownies I baked with my mom, who guided me with a recipe handwritten on an index card. And those marshmallows I made from scratch, with gelatin, before I understood what gelatin was.

And then there are the hamentashen.

Hamentashen are triangular-shaped dough pockets (“taschen” is German for pockets) most often filled with fruit preserves. They’re eaten as part of the celebration of the Jewish holiday of Purim, which falls anytime between late February and mid-March. Nowadays, you can find hamentashen at many bagels places and supermarkets year round, especially in Jewish areas. I’ve eaten them in plenty of locales, including in Rome’s Jewish ghetto where they’re called Orecchiette di Haman, or Haman’s ears. (Haman is the bad guy in the story of Purim.)

Despite their availability, I have made over 200 hamentashen each year for the last 20 years. Let that sink in.

Each of those 4000+ hamentashen have been true to one recipe: the one on a ditto handed out by my nursery school over 30 years ago. When something is this simple, this buttery, and this satisfying, there’s no need to mess around.

Because of the butter, this version is more reminiscent of a shortbread cookie than those you might find at the local bagel shop, where they might use oil. If you’re following the laws of kashrut (Jewish dietary laws), you won’t want to serve these with a meat meal. The cookie is tender and melt-in-your-mouth crumbly, but sturdy, too. Importantly, the baked version freezes well for those times after the holiday when you need to get back into the Purim spirit. A 15-minute defrost on the counter will render them as good as freshly baked. (Note, bake extra and freeze!)
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The Best Guacamole (Yes, It Has Apple in It)


When I was 10 years old, I had one of those experiences that should have forever soured me on all football-related things–I was hit squarely in my left eye with a football that was kicked in the other direction. I’m certain that the football’s final destination was preordained and wherever I stood that day, it would have found me.

Because of that, I never developed a particular love for that particular sportball and still don’t really understand the appeal. But I can appreciate an occasion to gather with people and snack. This guacamole is, of course, perfect for your “Big Game” celebration but you really shouldn’t relegate your avocado consumption to just the one time a year when everybody’s doing it.

While the humble avocado has been blasted as the downfall of the millennial generation, it’s also brought good fat, potassium, and vitamin K to the under-40 set. The avocado’s allure is so strong that Amazon’s first order of business after buying Whole Foods was to announce to the world that they would be dropping avocado prices by 29%. What’s more, avocados sustained me for the better part of the last five years, when my sister and I would eat toast and avocado every. single. night.

Your perfect, ready-to-go avocado should yield slightly when you press on it and should require no more than a butter knife to cut through the skin. This is very important. Under-ripe, too-hard avocados fight back if you try to eat them too soon. Just ask three (three!) of my friends, who, within weeks of each other, sliced their fingers and ended up with hospital-level injuries. I was nowhere near them but I still felt guilty. I was sure that some of my avocado love influenced their decisions that night.
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Vegan Chicken Soup–A Deliciously Imprecise Approach

Vegan Chicken Soup

One of the biggest gripes about this whole plant-based thing is that food, in many families and in mine, means love. Therefore, when we give something up, it can also feel like we’re also giving up a little bit of the traditions and love that have passed through generations. The thinking’s not wrong–I’ve wrestled with the same feelings–but I do think that we can take the spirit of a dish, bring it up to date, and start the tradition anew.

Even my shtetl-born grandmother, whose American dream was realized with done-well briskets and too much food, was willing to adjust recipes to my ever-changing eating habits. After I gave up red meat, she willingly (I think) used turkey instead of beef for her sweet-and-sour meatballs. I can only wonder what she would have done with tempeh. (Actually, I’m fairly certain she would have said, “Oh, for God’s sake…”)

That an old-world bubbe would adjust to a newer world order said a lot about how much she loved me. It also showed me that traditions can morph and grow depending on the people around you. All is not lost because I no longer eat my grandmother’s meatballs; in fact, I can’t wait to figure out a vegetarian way to recreate them.

The Vegend initially set out to tackle a plant-based version of chicken soup one day last winter. His goal was to soothe my sick self while conjuring up the love and nostalgia we can feel from a pot of homemade soup (part of the healing process, to be sure). He considered the components of traditional chicken soup–chicken, veggies, dill–and how they each contribute to the overall dish. Without chicken, he wondered, what would flavor the soup?

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Brooklyn Blackout Cake (AKA Happy Birthday, Willa!)

Brooklyn Blackout Cake

My mother turned 70 a few months ago. That’s, like, a really big number. Since she’s made it this far, I decided that I’d make her a raft of desserts that she grew up eating and I grew up hearing about. Though the list is long–Slovakian crispies, Charlotte Russe, rugelach, and more–the one that’s come up again and again is Ebinger’s Blackout Cake, a three-layered chocolate cake coated in its own crumbs.

Ebinger’s was Brooklyn’s bakery of record before it closed in 1972, the very year my mother moved out of Brooklyn. (Draw your own conclusions.) Its cakes were legendary and history vaunted. I assumed that the Blackout Cake was relegated to history until I realized I could probably bake it.

To look up this recipe online is to step into a debate that, barring the invention of time machines, may never die. There are two components upon which everyone agrees: the layered cake is chocolate and it’s filled with pudding. The outside of the cake, however, is open to interpretation largely based on hazy, chocolate-addled memories. Many people swear that Ebinger’s version was coated in even more pudding, a delicious but less stable topping than, say, a frosting. Other recipes claim an outer shell of ganache.

For my version, the pudding won out. It was one fewer thing to make during an otherwise baking-intensive week and a simple clue about the original–it had to be consumed within 24 hours–led me to believe that there was no need for a shelf-stable outside.

I’ve combined the cake from Epicurious and the pudding from one of my favorites, Brown Eyed Baker, for the easiest rendition of this cake. This pudding doesn’t require eggs, which, to me, made it less likely that something would go wrong (ugh, curdled eggs). Make the pudding the day before so it has time to set.

The recipe bakes up two cakes, which you then split into four. Horizontally halving cakes has never been my strong suit so I was grateful to find that someone had invented these layer pans.*

This is now my most requested cake and the version pictured here is for one of my dearest friends. Happy birthday, Willa!
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Make Your Awesome #DeskLunch Just 14 Times A Year

Meal Prep

The Vegend and I each possess a trait that may drive others quite mad: we could eat the same thing every day for about a week before we really can’t look at it anymore. He tends to use this approach when food shopping–we have our staples like farro, peppers, arugula, nuts, and lemons–and I use it when conceiving of and cooking my desk lunches. I typically eat the same meal every day for a week and then do it all over again, with a different dish, the next week. Since I started my current full-time job in February 2016, I have missed maybe (maybe!) two days of bringing my lunch. I figure that this slightly nutty approach has saved me more than $4000 over the last 23 months. That’s serious stuff!

Here’s the good news: you can do this, too. The secret, like in many things, is in the prep.

Because the Vegend and I both cook and/or bake, one of us is always jockeying for the kitchen. And since I love being served his fresh, amazing, and healthful meals, I usually let him have it (I mean, have you checked INSTAGRAM for the things he’s made?). But that means that my time in the kitchen is often limited, especially during the weekend prime cooking time, when I’ve ceded the territory in exchange for an awesome brunch. As a result, I’ve condensed my desk lunch prep time to a single day or afternoon (including the food shop) and make meals for three weeks at a time. That means that I only think about the whole deal for a couple of days each month and I get to approach most Sundays with nary a care about what I’ll be eating for lunch that week. Plus, I only really have to clean up once.
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Vegan Lentil Soup with Sweet Potato and Spinach

Lentil Soup

Here’s the deal. This soup is good. Like really good. It’s got all the right things in all the right places: it’s sweet courtesy of a medium sweet potato (large if you’re feeling extravagant), salty and earthy from kosher salt and cumin, and colorful from the handful (or two) of spinach you add in at the end. It’s also full of fiber. Like beware-if-you-eat-too-much-of-it levels of fiber. Don’t let that scare you off though. It’s worth it.

Lentil soup is an easy one for the Vegend and me. He doesn’t mind swapping out vegetable stock for chicken stock (really, who could tell?) and it provides a stick-to-your-ribs feeling that, say, a bolognese might (I guess). It also freezes well in case we need a last minute dinner.

It’s an excellent recipe to play around with; in my opinion, most soup recipes are. Fiddle with the spices, the veggies, the herbs to create flavors all your own. We typically use low sodium or no salt vegetable stock so we can control the saltiness.

Do your best to chop things up as described but don’t worry all that much. This is a soup best left chunky. Continue reading “Vegan Lentil Soup with Sweet Potato and Spinach”

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