I fondly remember making holiday treats with my mom. An addictive and fantastically easy favorite, usually made for Christmas, were classic peanut butter balls. No doubt many of us remember those chocolate-coated treats with rice crispy cereal included for added crunch and texture. I never could resist peanut butter, and it often features in my no-bake treats and energy bites.
The only trouble with the classic ones I enjoyed as a child is that they are much too sugary for my tastes now. In addition to icing sugar, mom used not-so-natural peanut butter — you know the kind that isn't simply ground peanuts but instead a sugary spread. I loved them anyway, but over the years I've searched for healthier alternatives to satisfy my sweet tooth.
I've stayed true to the simplicity of the original recipe but left out butter, and used natural peanut butter and sweetener. I even bought a box of "healthy" sprouted rice crisp cereal, although I don't think that's really necessary — I shouldn't have felt guilt if I had used Rice Krispies, to tell the truth. But I dare say that this not-so-guilty version is even tastier and just as addictive as the original, and it also happens to be vegan friendly. Happily, if the urge to over-indulge is resisted, they are good for you too.
Just like the animals in the field (or the squirrels in the backyard, as the case might be), we humans feel the need to "stock up" on nutrients as fall turns into winter. For me and many other vegetarians, this often takes the form of thick, hearty and nourishing soups. And for me, these kinds of soups are a great excuse to load in the succulent mushrooms.
This mushroom and barley soup loaded with vegetables and seasoned with dried herbs and spices is just the thing to warm and nourish the body as the cold weather sets in. I call it a soup, but it can be prepared almost as a thick stew or in a thinner broth as you please — it simply depends on how much stock or water you use. Either way, it's delicious, pleasing and comforting.
In no way was I trying to mimic the actual flavor of bacon here. After all, I've been a vegetarian for over 20 years now, and I never was tempted to eat meat ever again once my decision had been made. At this point, I don't even remember what meat tastes like. In fact, the smell even makes me a bit queasy. Packaged soya products meant to "replicate" the appearance and flavors present in meat, such as wieners, ground "meat" or burgers never did interest me either.
But mushrooms on the other hand … I'm always curious when I come across a new idea for mushrooms, so smoky, crisped up and salty mushrooms did appeal to me. Dried meaty mushrooms surely couldn't disappoint. Depending on the type of mushroom used, the texture and baking time for these "bacon" strips will vary slightly. Another variable to keep in mind is the width of the mushrooms slices — the thinner, the crispier. Portobellos will yield a "fattier" version, and button mushrooms work well too. But I recommend king oysters if you can get them because they are long with a firm texture that stands up well under the heat. I wanted strips of mushroom bacon too, just because.
This might be my next quick bread obsession. Not too sweet, the bold lemony flavor of this cornmeal loaf studded with chia seeds stands up on its own, and lovingly complements a nice cup of hot tea. Or consider serving alongside a spicy curry for a refreshing taste experience. I found it went particularly well with a version of tarka dal I made recently. The meal was a memorable one, and a fine example of the elegance of simplicity.