Unless you are living in, say, Narnia, you have likely noticed the Unicorn theme going on in the food world. There are rainbow-colored everythings, from cupcakes and cookies to noodles and sushi. I know of one person who got on a waiting list for $60 rainbow bagels…that reportedly “tasted like dirt.” And now, to punctuate the moment, Starbucks comes out with the Unicorn Frappuccino, an unnaturally bright, pink-to-purple, sweet-to-tart-morphing frozen beverage.
I tracked down the Unicorn Frappuccino at its source at a Starbucks in JFK, amidst a long line of bleary-eyed redeye survivors and dawn patrol flyers. Although nobody was ordering one at that hour, I got a few customer reviews of the mango flavored frozen slurry including: “Disgusting, with gross sweet tarty sugar on top,” or, as Stephen Colbert put it, “a sugary affront to God.” This, my friends, is where Unicorn Food has, like the Fonz, jumped the shark, effectively creating “the moment when a brand, design, franchise, or creative effort’s evolution declines, or when it changes notably in style into something unwelcome.”
The unicorn food craze started out as a creatively wholesome pursuit, with unicorn toast. This is essentially cream cheese tinted with natural dyes from beet juice, freeze dried strawberry powder, turmeric root, chlorophyll, spirulina powder and freeze dried blueberry powder. Those little pots of fantasia, whimsically swirled on toast and garnished with star-cut vegetables, was innocent enough. Then Pinterest took over and things took a decidedly unnatural turn.
The trend must say something about a need for escapism (I am the Unicorn of Your Confidence, after all), or about the number of people on Pinterest with too much time on their hands.
Whatever nefarious marketing ploy may be at the heart of this trend, one must concede that, throughout picnic season at least, rainbow colored food is a legit thing. If you want to bring your A Game to the table, you need to have unicorn food technology in your skill set.
A far safer, healthier, cheaper and more educational starting point—than ponying up $5 for 420 calories and 59 grams of sugar (the equivalent of 6 Krispy Kreme donuts and 22 Weight Watcher Points) for a Uni Frapp—are unicorn noodles. The basic recipe involves little expense and no fancy ingredients or techniques. As a bonus they involve a little bit of science. This is not Mentos in Diet Coke explosion excitement science, but acid (lemon juice) meets anthocyanin (cabbage mojo) color-changing science.
All you need to be trendy is some red cabbage, some lemon juice, and some clear rice noodles. (If you crave another white carb, make rainbow rice as featured in this unicorn sushi.) Once you have made the noodles, the challenge is finding something appealing to put on them. Peanut sauce? Not so pretty. Marinara? No grazie. Considering the lemon juice already at work, I went with olive oil, capers, parsley, salt and grated parmesan cheese (thank you Patti G!). Really any blanched or grated vegetables would work. Indigo Kitchen goes full Yellow Brick Road Technicolor and plates the noodles with every fresh vegetable and fun sauce on the planet, like this and this. I feel healthier and kind of magical just looking at these creations.
So here is the basic recipe, tightened up from Indigo Kitchen. If nothing else, just bring it to a friend’s house as a conversation starter. I mean really…unicorn side at the pot luck—you win!
- Chunk Red cabbage
- lemon or lime juice
- toppings, mix-ins, fairy dust, etc…
Boil some water (enough to hold the amount of noodles you want) with the red cabbage. The amount of water used and the time you soak the noodles will affect the shade of blue your noodles will be. Less water/longer steep time= deeper color.
Turn off the heat and add the noodles. You can use basic white or clear noodles, but glass/clear noodles will get you the prettiest shade.
Let the noodles soak for about 5 to 10 minutes, depending on how deep you want the color to be. Remove the noodles and place them in a bowl.
Here comes the magic, and the chemistry lesson. Take a lime or lemon and squeeze some of the juice wherever you want it to be pink. Watch the noodles change color in front of your eyes. Hint: Bring the kids in here. Be a hero.
Purple cabbage has a pigment called anthocyanin, that changes color when it makes contact with something acidic or alkaline. When you cook a few pieces of purple cabbage for a short time in some water you’ll get a nice blue shade. Cook it for bit longer with a bit more purple cabbage for a nice purple shade. Add something acidic (lemon or lime juice) to the blue colored noodles and the pigment from the purple cabbage will react and take on a bright pink color. It really happens. Try it! If you are not impressed, there’s always Starbucks.