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.

The secret to eggy tofu scramble: Indian black salt

Tofu scramble is one of those dishes that every vegan and most vegetarians have in their back pocket. It’s quick, it’s healthy, it’s infinitely adaptable, it’s suitable for any meal, and it’s damn good eatin’.

But nobody who eats eggs would ever actually say an average tofu scramble actually tastes like egg. It’s a delicious way of preparing tofu. But it doesn’t taste like egg.

That’s not a problem, really. It’s tofu, not egg. But some folks hear the word “scramble” and they get… eggspectations.

I’m sorry.

Anyway, this is where Indian black salt comes in. It’s a mineral salt used frequently in Indian cooking which has a high sulfur content, and thus a distinctly eggy flavor. I picked mine up from a Tea and Spice Exchange that I happened into while on vacation, because I hadn’t been able to find it in my local Whole Foods and hadn’t made it to the Punjab grocery to check there yet. But good places to find black salt in general: Indian grocery stores, health food stores, specialty spice stores, and of course, the internet.

Now, I still wouldn’t say this tastes… eggsactly (*ducks*) like scrambled eggs. But for a vegan who’s really missing eggs? Or someone who has ideas about tofu being gross because it’s “always flavorless”? Black salt is a very nice touch.

As I mentioned, the nice thing about tofu scramble is that it’s infinitely adaptable. I used red onion and baby spinach because I had it, but feel free to substitute with anything languishing in your fridge (or even prepare it plain and top with cheddar Daiya for a childhood throwback).

black salt tofu scramble

Black Salt Tofu Scramble

Serves 2-4

4 teaspoons olive oil, divided
5 ounces baby spinach
1 small red onion, thinly sliced in half moons
1 14-ounce package firm tofu
1 – 1 1/2 teaspoons Indian black salt
1/2 teaspoon nutritional yeast
heaping 1/8 teaspoon tumeric
1/8 teaspoon garlic powder
freshly ground black pepper, to taste

While preparing the rest of your ingredients, press tofu to remove some excess water. I have this tofu press and I compress the tofu about halfway and let it sit for 15 minutes.

Heat a cast iron skillet over medium-low heat, then add 2 teaspoons olive oil. Warm until oil is shimmery and easily coats pan, then add red onion. Saute until slightly softened, about 5 minutes. Add baby spinach, toss to coat, and cover. Let wilt for 3-4 minutes, stirring once. Transfer mixture from skillet to a colander and squeeze extra liquid out, then set aside.

Again heat skillet over medium-low and add 2 teaspoons of olive oil. Warm oil, then roughly crumble pressed tofu (I just use my hands) into the skillet. Sprinkle with black salt, nutritional yeast, turmeric, and garlic powder and stir to combine. Start with a teaspoon of black salt — you can add more to taste after you add the veggies.

Continue to heat and stir until tofu is warmed through and broken up to your desired texture. Add reserved veggies and stir to combine. Taste, and if desired, add additional black salt for more saltiness (obviously) as well as more eggy flavor. Add freshly ground black pepper to taste.

Heat again until everything is warmed through and serve immediately.

More Beyond Meat experiments: autumnal chicken-free salad

So, remember Beyond Meat? Well, I found out that Roots Market is selling it in five pound food service bags. So you can guess what I picked up last week.

They sell the big bags frozen, which answers a question you may have had — yes, it freezes fine, so there’s no need to worry if you want to stock up. It’s still at a pretty high price point — I paid about $40 for the five pounds. But once they roll out nationwide I hope to see the price drop quite a bit.

With so much Beyond Meat at my disposal, I decided to tackle something I wasn’t all too optimistic about: chicken salad. I was worried that without cooking it into something, the Beyond Meat wouldn’t be up to snuff.

It’s not like I have a super refined chicken salad palate. I mean, I ate a ton of chicken salad as a kid. Just not good chicken salad. Canned chicken breast (blech) mixed with mayonnaise, salt, and pepper. That’s it. My dad stocked up on the canned chicken from Costco, so we had pyramids of it in the pantry. Mayonnaise lasts forever in the fridge. It was quick, easy, and we always had the ingredients.

Yeah.

Anyway, I promise this is way better than just fatty-salty. It’s got a lot going on; it’s creamy-salty-sweet-herby-tangy-crunchy. It’s an autumnal, Thanksgiving-y blend, with veggies and cranberries and pumpkin seeds all rounded out with a hearty dose of fresh sage and thyme. I even used Greek yogurt in place of some of the mayonnaise for a little bit of sass. And… the Beyond Meat holds up perfectly. I think it tastes delicious, but it’s been a while since I’ve had chicken. My omnivorous mister says: “It is a pretty good ringer for boneless, skinless chicken breast. It is nowhere close to a juicy roast.”

I’m cool with that.

autumnal chicken-free salad(Since this post was originally published, I have edited the recipe to reflect the slightly changed retail formulation of Beyond Meat after the national rollout.)

Autumnal Chicken-Free Salad
Adapted from Cranberry-Walnut Chicken Salad by Smitten Kitchen

Serves 6

1 3/4 pound Beyond Meat Lightly Seasoned Chicken-Free Strips, shredded
1-2 celery ribs, finely diced
1 medium shallot, finely chopped
3/4 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup hulled, roasted pepitas
1/4 cup plain Greek yogurt *
1/2 cup mayonnaise
 *
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, stripped off the woody stalk
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper

Fill a medium pot with water and bring to a boil. Add Beyond Meat Chicken-Free Strips and simmer for 5 minutes. Drain, then place in a medium bowl filled with cold water and ice. (Alternatively, let cool and then chill in the fridge if you are doing this ahead of time. You can also safely use the strips “raw”, but the texture is much better and they are easier to shred if you cook them.)

Once cool, shred the Beyond Meat strips with two forks (or your hands, I won’t judge).

Chop up your celery and shallots. The size of the dice is up to personal preference, but I like to go pretty fine for two reasons: the shallot benefits from having the flavor dispersed pretty evenly, and my mister is not a huge fan of raw celery so I have to chop it finely so it’s not too stringy.

So, toss your chopped veggies on top of the Chicken-Free Strips. While you’re at it, add the dried cranberries and pepitas.

Mix mayonnaise, Greek yogurt, vinegar, herbs, salt, and pepper in a small bowl. When you add the thyme, crush the leaves slightly with your fingers to get the oils going. Stir everything together until dressing is combined.

Pour dressing over the other stuff and toss until everything is fully coated. Give it a taste and salt and pepper to taste. I like to serve over a big bed of baby spinach, but it’s obviously equally at home in a sandwich, wrap, on crackers. Do what you do.

* Vegan substitutions: Instead of mayonnaise, use an equal amount of Veganaise or your choice of vegan mayonnaise. Instead of Greek yogurt, try So Delicious Dairy-Free Greek Yogurt. If you can’t find that locally, you can try straining your favorite plain soy yogurt to thicken it — start with double the amount of yogurt — or simply use more vegan mayo.

Mark Bittman is always almost perfect, as evidenced by this chik’n, lettuce and chive salad

So, do you have Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian? It’s quite the tome, but worth its real estate on the bookshelf. I highly recommend picking up a copy if you don’t have it.

In fact, do you want one of mine? Yes, both my mister’s mother and my little brother purchased this book for me. It really killed me with my little brother — he gave it to me second. You see, he’s not always the most thoughtful little brother. So when he gave me this book for Christmas and told me that he’d looked up all the reviews and decided that this was definitely the best vegetarian cookbook out there, it broke my heart that I already had it. Kid was spot on with this one.

The thing about Bittman is that I find a lot of his recipes to be almost perfect. I love his dishes as jumping off points, but I rarely make them as directed more than once. This salad, for example: it was likely meant as a side salad, was just screaming for some protein to make it a meal salad. That, and the first time I made it as directed, it had way too many chives. Perhaps that is more authentic. But if my mister and I were going to eat it, the chives needed to be seriously cut down.

Anyway. Love you, Bittman. Never change. Except just the teensiest bit.

chik'n, lettuce and chive salad

Chik’n, Lettuce and Chive Salad
Adapted from Lettuce and Chive Salad, Korean Style by Mark Bittman in How to Cook Everything Vegetarian

Serves 4

1/4-1/2 cup sweet chili sauce (you can totally make your own, but I used the bottled stuff)
6 ounces vegetarian “chik’n” bits (Beyond Meat, Quorn tenders, Morningstar strips — I only had time to go to the crummy grocery store so I made do with Morningstar Farms Grillers Chik’n Burgers, sliced) *
cooking spray
4 eggs *
2 tablespoons dark sesame oil
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 – 1/2 crushed red pepper flakes
1 small clove garlic, minced
9 ounces butter lettuce or butter lettuce mix
5 ounces baby spinach
1/2 ounce chives, chopped into 1″ pieces
toasted sesame seeds, to garnish

Put your “chik’n” into a bowl and cover with sweet chili sauce. Let marinate for about a half hour if you can, otherwise just marinate it as long as you can muster while prepping other stuff.

In a cast iron skillet over medium-high heat, toss your chik’n pieces in. Cook, turning occasionally, until browned and crispy. Remove from pan and set aside to cool.

Heat nonstick pan with cooking spray over medium heat. Beat eggs until combined, then dump in the pan. Cook until fairly dry, scraping constantly with a non-metal utensil to break up the eggs and prevent burning or over-cooking. Remove from pan and set aside to cool.

In a small bowl, stir sesame oil, soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, red pepper flakes, and garlic until fully combined.

Toss rinsed and dried lettuce(s), spinach, and chives in a large bowl. (A note about the chives: You should have about 1/2 ounce after they’re all trimmed up — if you’re growing your own or buying big farmer’s markety bunches rather than those terrible plastic clam-shelled chives [I know, I know], use a little more to account for the waste that you’re going to chop off the ends.)

Drizzle salad with dressing a little bit at a time until dressed to your preference. You probably won’t have to use it all. Add chik’n and scrambled eggs. Toss the whole dang thing to combine, then shake on some toasted sesame seeds for garnish.

* Vegan notes and substitutions: Obviously, use a vegan chik’n substitute, like Beyond Meat rather than Quorn. Pressed tofu would be great, as well. Omit the eggs, and add some more of your vegan protein to compensate. Alternatively, some roughly chopped peanuts or cashews would be a tasty way to add some more vegan protein.

Rosemary garlic potatoes soup, instead of binging on french fries

When I found this Sweet Potato and Sausage Soup, I initially set out to make a plain old vegetarian version of it. I figured I’d just omit the sausage and add some smoked paprika, throw in some hearty beans and call it a day. Sounds pretty good, right?

This is not what happened. As I was driving to the grocery store, for some reason I became fixated on the rosemary garlic fries I’ve eaten way too many times at a craft brewery/bar kind of near my ‘hood, the Brewer’s Art. There was nothing I wanted more at that moment than to stuff my face with those rosemary garlic fries.

I took a detour on my way to the grocery store to stop by this house a bunch of my friends live/have lived in. One friend planted a rosemary bush when she lived there; it’s now gigantic, and sadly I think only one current resident actually uses it, so I’ve been welcome to help myself as needed. So, I pilfered several woody, fragrant stalks. I may have received a few strange looks from passers-by for waltzing up to a house and rooting through the bushes, but oh well. It was necessary. For rosemary garlic fun times.

So, this soup isn’t exactly french fries. But that pungent, kick in the face rosemary-garlic combo that I was craving? Oh yeah. (“That’s more garlic than I would eat in a year,” my garlic-averse friend Emily said when I gushed to her about this recipe.)

Aside from the objectively awesome garlic overload (sorry Emily), the antioxidant/vitamin-rich sweet potatoes and spinach, and fiber/protein-filled white beans are an added bonus.

rosemary garlic potatoes soup

Rosemary Garlic Potatoes Soup
Adapted from Sweet Potato and Sausage Soup by Smitten Kitchen

Serves 4-6

4 tablespoons olive oil, separated
1 medium onion, chopped
6-8 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
2 medium sweet potatoes
2 medium Yukon gold potatoes
6 cups water
2-3 tablespoons not-poultry seasoning
1 15-ounce can white beans, drained and rinsed (I used Great Northern, but Cannellini or Navy beans are fine too)
5 ounces fresh baby spinach
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Peel your sweet potatoes. Quarter lengthwise, then slice into 1/4-inch thick slices. Slice up the Yukon gold potatoes the same, but go ahead and leave the skins on.

Heat 2 tablespoon oil in a large pot over medium-low heat. Add garlic and rosemary and saute for about 5 minutes, stirring often, until fragrant. Remove from pot and set aside. Raise to medium heat, then add remaining oil and onions, then cook for about 5 minutes, until translucent. Add sweet and white potatoes potatoes and cook, stirring often, until beginning to soften — about 12 minutes.

Add water, not-poultry seasoning, and half of garlic/rosemary mixture to the pot. Bring to a boil and scrape up any browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Reduce heat to medium-low and cover. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until potatoes are soft — about 20 minutes.

Using potato masher, mash up the potatoes to your preference. Add white beans to pot. Stir in spinach, drop the heat to super low, and cover. Remove from heat as soon as spinach turns a vivid dark green, just a minute or two. Stir in remaining rosemary/garlic mixture. Season with salt and pepper and serve.

Marinated squash and fig summer salad and my dirty little secret

I love to cook.

You would hope so, wouldn’t you? Since I’m documenting my recipes on the internet and all.

But here’s my dirty little secret:

I buy a lunch almost every day at work.

I currently work right across the street from a Whole Foods, and their salad bar, hot bar, deli, and other prepared foods are just too convenient.

I’m one of those people who snoozes the alarm eight times and sleeps until the very last minute before scrambling to get out of the house in the morning. So I’m pretty much incapable of bringing a lunch unless it has been prepared and packaged the night before. Sometimes this happens. But more often, I forget about this crucial task and instead spend my evening working on a project, watching Doctor Who, or harassing Smells McGee.

I rationalize my lunch habit to myself by saying that it makes me eat healthier; I try to stick to the salad bar (“though that doesn’t always happen,” say my pants). I tell myself that I like variety, and if I were to buy and prep all that fresh produce that I like to load up on my salad, it’d go bad before I used it all. I tell myself that it’s really not that expensive, because at least I’m not loading up my salad with a pound of chicken breast.

These excuses have been enough for me so far. I mean, I’m still eating lunch from Whole Foods pretty much every day. But in just over a month, I am being forcibly relocated from my beautiful downtown office across the street from Whole Foods (not to mention walkable to three sushi joints, the vegetarian sandwich shop/juice bar, the tea house, the pizza place, and occasionally the cupcake truck). I’m being relocated to…

An office park in the middle of the ‘burbs. With nothing you can get to on foot. WHYYYYY??

I guess I’ll have to start bringing my lunch more often. Maybe I’ll even bring this salad, which was loosely inspired by a dish on the Whole Foods salad bar. Obviously you should be taking advantage of the summertime nectar of the gods, fresh figs, if you can get them — if you’re not so lucky, just use dried ones.

marinated squash and fig summer salad

Marinated Squash and Fig Summer Salad
Serves 4 as a main dish

1/4 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, finely grated
1 heaping teaspoon fig jam
1 heaping tablespoon fresh thyme
1/4 teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper, to taste (I like a lot)
1 medium yellow squash
1 medium zucchini
5 ounces baby spinach
5 ounces arugula
1/2 cup slivered almonds
6-12 (depending on variety) fresh figs, quartered
shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano to garnish

Stir olive oil, lemon juice, vinegar, cheese, jam, salt and pepper into a storage container. Make sure the jam is fully dissolved. Remove the thyme leaves from the woody stalks, and crush slightly between your fingers before adding to the marinade.

Chop the ends off your zucchini and yellow squash, then cut lengthwise. Slice thin half moons (I like using the food processor slicing disc for this). Add to the marinade. Stir and shake to make sure all the slices are coated. Let marinate in the fridge for at least two hours, as long as overnight if you can plan that far ahead.

Mix spinach and arugula in a big bowl until integrated. Dump the marinated squash, almonds, and quartered figs on top, and toss to combine. I used Black Mission figs, which are pretty petite. If you’re using a larger variety of fig, you can use fewer and may want to dice them into eighths. Add more of the marinade as needed to fully dress the salad. Top off with some generous shavings of a good Parmigiano-Reggiano.

If you want to save leftovers to bring for lunch instead of buying your lunch out yet again: I would recommend preparing just as much as you are going to eat for the first meal. Then toss everything except the greens in a jar, and keep the greens separate to mix when you’re ready to eat.

Sweet Corn/Black Bean/Avocado Big Salad

Slicing sweet corn off the cob always reminds me of my great grandfather. He supported his family as a farmer in Iowa, growing soybeans commercially (sup farm bill). But when he retired to northern Minnesota, he kept a large “garden” which was really more of a mini-farm. His garden had no soybeans — he only grew the things he’d actually eat. Being in the midwest, of course he grew sweet corn. And whenever we ate that fresh corn, he always sliced it off the cob.

I thought this was the best thing ever, and so of course I had him slice my corn off the cob too. I liked not getting corn stuck in my teeth, but mostly I loved picking up the sheets of still-connected kernels and stuffing them in my mouth.

Of course, it wasn’t until much later that I realized why he sliced his corn off the cob; let’s just say, getting corn stuck in his teeth was not a problem for him.

sweet corn/black bean/avocado big salad

This is definitely a meal salad, not a wimpy side meant to be put next to the “real” food. The combo of greens, starchy sweet corn, and beans are a complete and healthy meal all on their own, and it’s a perfect summertime meal for when you can’t bear to turn the oven or stove on.

Sweet Corn, Black Bean and Avocado Salad
Inspired by Fresh Corn and Avocado Salsa by The Pioneer Woman Cooks

Serves 4

2 ears fresh sweet corn
1 ripe but firm avocado, diced
1/2 small red onion, diced
1/2 jalapeno, minced
1/2 red bell pepper, diced
1/2 of one 15 oz can black beans, drained and rinsed
1 lime
3/4 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
pinch of salt
fresh ground pepper
7-9 oz baby spinach
cilantro, if you’re into that sort of thing

Shuck, de-silk, and rinse your sweet corn, then carefully use a sharp knife to slice the kernels of the cobs. That’s right, we’re eating it raw. Trust me, it’s delicious. It helps if you cut a small slice off the top of the cob so you have a flat surface to balance it on while you hold it by the stem.

Dice your red onion to about the same size as your corn kernels, then put in a small bowl of ice water. Let this sit while you prepare the rest of your ingredients. This will help cut the sharpness of the raw onion which can be a little unpleasant.

Dice your red bell pepper the same size as your onion. Cut the top off of your jalapeno, and remove the ribs and seeds to your preference to dial down the spice. Cut it in half, then cut one half into thin matchsticks. Rotate your matchsticks and chop again so you end up with a very fine dice.

Cut your avocado into a medium dice — a bit bigger than your corn, red onion, and red bell pepper. This is where having a slightly firm avocado comes in handy — it will hold its shape better than a very ripe one. An easy way to dice is to cut that avocaddie in half, pop out the pit (carefully!), then score it with the knife while it is still in the skin. When you use a spoon to scoop out the flesh, it will come out already diced.

Dump the avocado pieces in a medium bowl, and juice the lime right over it. Depending on how acidic you like things, you might want to hold back a little bit on the juice — start with one half of the lime and work up once you’ve made the rest of the salad to taste. Toss well, making sure it is well coated — this will prevent the avocado from browning. Drain your red onion and dump it on top, along with the bell pepper, jalapeno, and half a can of rinsed black beans. Add the apple cider vinegar, sugar, salt, and pepper, and toss it up! You could conceivably add a bit of olive oil in there too, to make it more “dressing-y,” but I think the avocado is more than enough.

Let this bowl chill in the fridge as long as you can stand, at least 30 minutes. A couple hours is best, but who has that time on a weeknight? If I don’t have dinner ready within a half hour of when my mister gets home, he starts snacking. And nothing chaps my ass like pre-dinner snacking. (Of course, on his nights to cook I wait what I think to be very patiently, then get hassled for getting hangry. Which is actually completely legit.)

When it’s time to serve, dump the baby spinach in a large bowl, dump the corn on top, and toss until everything is beautifully intermingled. I suppose if you want to save a dish you can make the corn in a big bowl to start with, and mix the spinach in… but I always find that I end up with all the good stuff falling to the bottom no matter how much I toss.

Of course, this is the kind of dish that people want to put cilantro on. I realize this. So go ahead and do it. Just don’t put any on mine.