Friday, August 6, 2010

Southern-Fried Salad

I love a fried item. It's the southern in me, and I don't consider it a curse so much as a blessing, except when I've put on a few extra pounds that require me to make a choice between fried foods and more exercise. But regardless, I love that salty greasy taste so much that I can even turn an emerald green salad into a bowlful of hearty fried loveliness. Now that takes talent!

Two of my favorite things are chicken fried tofu and fried okra. A third, unrelated yet deliciously complementary, is bleu cheese dressing. But how to incorporate all this into something that's not so heavy that it will leave me Laz-y-boy chair bound? I had a date last night with the tennis court, and my family would not be amused if I left them in a state of stupor with a heavy Southern fried meal.

Southern-Fried Salad to the rescue! Leafy greens, crisp refreshing cucumber, and a pint of sweet grape tomatoes provide the base of the palate with jewels of fried okra and cubes of chicken fried-tofu providing just enough heft to make it substantial. Everything is finished off with a nice dollop of vegan blue cheese dressing. Y'all enjoy!

1 tub extra-firm tofu, drained and pressed, cut into 1/2 inch dice
2 cups fried okra - either prepared from scratch, or frozen, prepared according to directions
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/3 cup nutritional yeast
2-3 Tablespoons Vegetable Oil
1 head romaine lettuce, rinsed, dried and chopped
1 pint grape tomatoes, sliced in half
1 cucumber, peeled and sliced
Vegan Blue Cheese or Your favorite dressing (Ranch would do nicely here)


Prepare Chicken - Fried Tofu

1. Heat oil in non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. Add tofu cubes and cook for what will seem like hours until they're getting nice and crispy. (Probably 15 minutes or so).
2. Douse with soy sauce (I don't measure - I just sprinkle the soy sauce on liberally - but you're welcome to.)
3. Continue pan-frying until tofu cubes are nice and brown, another 5 minutes or so.
4. Sprinkle tofu with nutritional yeast and flip cubes to coat. You can add more soy sauce here, if needed to help the nutritional yeast stick.
5. Cook another 5 minutes til done and transfer to a paper towel lined bowl.

Assemble Salad
1. In large bowl, toss romaine, cherry tomatoes and cucumber.
2. Divide among bowls and scatter about half cup of tofu and half cup of fried okra on top of salad.
3. Douse liberally with vegan bleu cheese dressing (there's a great one in Alicia Simpson's Vegan Comfort Food) or dressing of your choice.
4. Enjoy!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

If I Could Only Eat One Cuisine for the Rest of My Life...

Dude, this is a no-brainer. The Italians get my undying love and cheek kisses for their cuisine. If I had to give up all others, I would miss creamy coconut curries, fresh guacamole with warm salty chips, and the soul-satisfying age-tofu roll that I get at Fuji Sushi about once a week. But those things all pale away into the culinary abyss when chummied up next to Italian food.

To me, the success of Italian food depends on the freshness of its ingredients. I actually don't find it a complex cuisine. The beauty is in its simplicity; the best flavors, blended together in holy matrimony. It is the zap of fresh ingredients combined with even fresher ingredients that makes it so addictive to me. Italian is comfort food at its finest. All comfort foods are laced with some kind of secret ingredient that makes you pause in silence to reflect on the fulfilling nature of what you just ate. Italian food does just that for me.

Many of my favorite ingredients are used judiciously in Italian cooking - What's not to love about huge bunches of basil, creamy cannellinni beans, balsamic vinegar, sun-ripened tomatoes, red wine, and olives?

Let me pause at the mention of olives. I love an olive. Hey, if it was good enough for the ancients, it's good enough for me. My idea of Mecca is the olive bar at Whole Foods, where I try hard not to rack up $20 worth of olives that likely will all be eaten on the car ride home. Olive oils are like wines to me, ready to be sniffed and savored. The pale green gold makes bread seem magical, salads glisten, and makes every vegetable more true to it's beautiful little vegetable self.

Many of my favorite dishes are Italian: eggplant parmesan, lasagne, homemade pasta of any kind, fresh-baked foccaccia or baguettes, grilled pizza, pasta puttanesca, freshly made pesto, pasta fagioli soup. I love to recreate traditional favorites and put my own twist on them, like lasagne layered with creamy cashew ricotta, chicken seitan cacciatore, or tofu marsala. Last night we had homemade Italian bread, oven-fried eggplant parmesan with a wine tomato ragu and a crisp romaine salad with red wine viniagrette. Mmmmm. I've got leftover eggplant in the fridge waiting to be warmed up and stuffed into a hoagie roll with some soy mozzarella for an eggplant parm sub.

For those interested, my foolproof go-to Italian cookbook is Nonna's Italian Kitchen by Bryanna Clark Grogan. It's all vegan and almost everything I've tried is delicious.

What is your favorite cuisine? What would you choose if you were forced to eat only one region for the rest of your life? Would it be Thai, Mexican, Indian, Southern Soul, Cajun, Japanese, Vietnamese.....What would keep you satisfied?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

5 Vegan Ingredients I Can't Live Without

What are the basic ingredients I turn to again and again to create vegan dishes? I have tons of fun using all kinds of obscure and interesting ingredients, but there are a handful that would cause me a mild panic attack if they weren't present in my household. These are the ingredients that many of my recipes call for. Without them, my cooking would be sad and not so spunky at all.

1. Nutritional Yeast I have a love affair with this stuff. I could say that I love it most for its high nutritional value but that would be a lie. I truly love the taste. I can not get enough of the slightly cheesy, salty, yeasty flakes. I buy it bulk at Whole Foods, $5 to $6 at a time. Our cat Stella the Fella is obsessed with it, too. If I leave the bag out on the counter, he tears into it like catnip. My favorite ways to use nutritional yeast? Chicken-fried tofu (cubes or slices of tofu coated in nutritional yeast pan fried in olive oil, sprinkled with soy sauce), nutritional yeast gravy (to smother the chicken-fried tofu with, of course), on popcorn with smoked sea salt, in vegan mac-n-cheese; the list could go on and on.

2. Lemons I go through about a bag of lemons a week. It seems that almost every recipe I use calls for them in some form. Cashew ricotta, Smoky Lentil Soup, Garlic Pasta with Cannellini and Arugula, Lemon-blueberry muffins, lemon Italian dressing. I think lemons enhance vegan cooking so well because of the brightness they impart. Vinegar also lends a brightness, but with a much stronger more distinct taste.

3. Cashews Though I always have a container of raw cashews in my fridge, I rarely eat them whole. I usually blend them in the food processor with lemons, tofu, garlic and salt to make the most delicious vegan ricotta. There's nothing I've found that works better to replace the rich creaminess of ricotta than cashews. I use the ricotta to stuff shells, layer lasagna, make pumpkin-baked ziti, and other Italian comfort foods.

4. Soy cheese products: Cream cheese, sour cream and cheese. While many vegans don't care for dairy analogs, I heart them big time. I didn't stop eating dairy because of it's taste, I stopped eating it because I didn't want to contribute to the suffering of animals. I use Tofutti cream cheese and sour cream exclusively because other products I've tried taste super foul. Like "I'm not sure how there's even any demand for the product for them to continue making it" kind of foul. I use cream cheese on bagels, in icing, to make the best caramel macchiato "cheese" cake, in potato salad, and to make a delicious Blueberry Cheesecake Icecream. I use sour cream to make seitan stroganoff, creamy chicken stew, or just with a package of Lipton's Onion Soup mix and a bag of Ruffles (total guilty pleasure, I know). Soy cheeses I'm a little picker about. I mainly use Follow Your Heart and Sheese. I really would like to try the cheese that the vegan community is raving about - Daiya - but no luck yet at my lil Jacksonville store carrying it. My favorite? The blue cheese version done by Sheese. Mmmmmm blue cheese dressing. I have half a block of it in my fridge now that I think I'm going to stuff the jalapeno peppers with that I got from the Farmers Market this weekend.

5. Tofu I know this is probably a no-brainer, but I love tofu the way white loves rice. I buy it by the ever lovin case at Whole Foods (did you know that buying 8 boxes earns you a 10% discount?). Tofu is magic and alchemic. You want a smooth chocolate mousse or a peanut butter pie? Tofu. A rich replacement for ricotta? Tofu. Chicken fried loveliness? Tofu. Grill night? Miso glazed grilled tofu. A smoothie? Tofu. I eat so much tofu that I'm certain I'm contributing singlehandedly to soil depletion by the amount of soybean crops they must grow to meet my insatiable appetite for soy. Eating 432 pounds of tofu a week can't possibly be good for you, though, so I'm currently trying to break my crack-like addiction and eat less of it.

There they are; the five ingredients I couldn't live without. What are yours?