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.

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.

It’s time to start making vanilla extract for holiday gifts

I’m way behind the times on this one, but I finally remembered far enough ahead this year. I’m making vanilla extract to give as holiday gifts! And, of course, use.

There are instructions all over the internet for this, but the basic idea is: put vanilla beans in some liquor. Let it sit and shake it up sometimes.

homemade vanilla extract

There are some options regarding what type of liquor to use. Vodka produces the cleanest vanilla taste, but bourbon and white rum are popular choices too. I saw a post that suggested using the mini liquor bottles to try different types if you want to compare the differences, which seems like a pretty fabulous idea.

However, for my purposes I decided to use vodka, because a clean vanilla taste is just what I’m looking for. I’d like to be able to use this in anything — basically, to replace store-bought vanilla extract. And I decided to use a big bottle, so I can give it away for holiday gifts, as well as having a lot left to use myself.

Homemade Vanilla Extract

1.75 liter bottle vodka (I used Tito’s Handmade Vodka because it is corn-based, and I have a couple of gluten-intolerant friends, and because I am apparently susceptible to the ads in Readymade Magazine)
8 ounces vanilla beans (I ordered Marky’s Tahitian Vanilla Beans pretty much just because it was eligible for Amazon Prime shipping)

Transfer about two cups of the vodka to a measuring cup.

Using a sharp knife, slice down the middle of each vanilla bean. As you slice them, plop them into the bottle of vodka. I didn’t use the entire half-pound of beans — I saved several for other uses. If you don’t have anything else you want to use them for, just toss them all in.

Using a funnel, pour your reserved vodka back into the bottle until it is full. Find an interesting use for the rest of the vodka. I’m sure you’ll manage.

Put in a cool, dark place. I have it in the basement, next to her cage. Shake it up every few days or so to agitate the beans, and let it infuse for about two months. Feel free to pour off little nips here and there to “test” it, and add more vodka as needed.

So, just before Christmas, I will be straining and decanting them into little bottles to gift, as well as a slightly bigger bottle to use myself. I’ll write an update at that time, I’m sure. Any suggestions for a source for some cute little vanilla-extract-appropriate bottles?

My love letter to Old Bay (eggs in the Bay)

So, I really love Old Bay.

Old Bay Seasoning, invented by a German immigrant to Maryland in the 1940s, is a blend of  (allegedly) eighteen herbs and spices. Buuuut, the only ones listed are: salt, celery seed, spices (including red and black pepper), and paprika. Speculation about the others include bay leaf, mustard, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, cardamom, and ginger. The actual blend is anybody’s guess. The thing is, technically, it’s a crab and shrimp seasoning, which wouldn’t give me a whole lot of reason to use it, seeing as how I don’t eat meat. But… it tastes good on anything. And anyone who lives in or is from Maryland is likely to have one of those distinctive yellow cans in their cabinet.

All that said, I rarely meet people who are not from the Chesapeake Bay region express the same fervor of Marylanders (and specifically, me) for this delicious spice blend. It can’t be for lack of availability: Old Bay was purchased by McCormick in 1990 and they have nationwide distribution, so you can get it anywhere in the United States. But people I’ve met elsewhere generally don’t have it, or if they do, they don’t really use it. My mister’s mother has had the same can in her cabinet for “probably like twenty years,” which is just mind-blowing to me.

Sometimes I feel like an Old Bayvangelist — I tend to talk about it when I travel. I even brought a can to Amsterdam with me. I was there for four or five months, and I knew I’d need it. Although he was skeptical, the exchange student from Utah I met there admitted that the french fries I made him try, dusted generously with Old Bay and sprinkled with malt vinegar, were indeed very tasty.

That’s the thing, though: most of my Old Bay is consumed by being dumped on top of fries. Don’t get me wrong, this is delicious and I will never tire of it. But recently I’ve been thinking that there have to be some healthier ways to consume massive amounts of sodium.

I kept drifting back to a favorite dish of mine from Smitten Kitchen of eggs poached in a spicy tomato sauce. It’s kind of a perfect dish: quick, easy, cheap, tasty, fairly nutritious, and good for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. The SK version, shakshuka, has an Israeli bent to it, though it’s roots are apparently Libyan. There’s also an Italian version called eggs in purgatory. And of course it bears similarities to huevos rancheros. Versions of this dish just seem to pop up in a bunch of different cultures; this is my contribution to the collection, tweaked to express my heritage. As a Marylander who really, really, loves Old Bay.

So, if you have a can languishing in your cabinet somewhere, here’s a recipe to use it in. If you’ve never thought to buy it or perhaps have never even heard of it, here’s a reason to purchase a can.

eggs in the Bay

Eggs in the Bay
Adapted from Shakshuka by Smitten Kitchen

Serves 2-4

1 14.5-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes, undrained
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 jalapeno, seeded and finely chopped
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1 1/2 tablespoons Old Bay seasoning (low sodium if you have it)
1/2 cup water
4 eggs
1/4 cup sharp cheddar cheese, finely grated
1 tablespoon fresh flat leaf parsley, chopped

Dump your can of tomatoes (including liquid) into a bowl, or one of those giant measuring cups if you have one. Then squish ‘em up with your hands! Try not to squirt too much tomato juice on your light colored shirt, unlike me. Set aside.

In a medium skillet over medium-high heat, heat oil until shimmering. Add jalapeno and onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until browned and softened — about 5 minutes. Add Old Bay seasoning and garlic and cook until garlic is soft, stirring frequently — about 2 more minutes.

Pour your tomatoes and the water into your skillet and stir to combine. Lower to medium heat. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until slightly thickened — about 18-20 minutes. Give it a taste and add a touch more Old Bay if desired.

Carefully crack each egg into the sauce, evenly distributing them over the surface of the skillet. If you’re not a great egg cracker, you may want to crack them into a small bowl one at a time and pour them in to avoid any errant shell pieces. Cover skillet and cook about 5 minutes, until whites are set and yolks are just set. They’ll continue to cook a little bit once you serve it up, so err on the side of caution. Cut the heat and spoon up some of the tomato sauce to baste the whites with, then sprinkle the surface evenly with cheddar and parsley.

Serve up in bowls with a hearty roll on the side, or on top of a piece of toast. If you’re serving a salad or some other side, one egg per person is sufficient. If it’s the main meal, you’ll probably want two each. If you want to make this for more people, use a large skillet and a 28-ounce can of whole peeled tomatoes, and double everything else except for the water.

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.

Cheating on our no ice cream pact with honey vanilla frozen yogurt

So, I’ve mentioned that we’re trying to eat healthier as a result of my mister’s accident, and thus his botched training schedule for his ten mile race coming up in October. This led him to decide to temporarily cut out one of his favorite food groups: ice cream.

Less than twenty-four hours after he told me he was quitting ice cream, he sent me a message on gchat: “Do you think if I put a container of yogurt in the freezer, it would turn into frozen yogurt?”

I explained the whole ice crystal thing, suggesting that he could try making it with a method similar to a granita if he wanted — put it in a shallow pan, freeze for an hour, stir with a fork, repeat. He seemed disinterested in such an undertaking.

This discussion reminded me that I’d been mulling over an ice cream maker purchase for a while — I just couldn’t justify the space it would take up. Then suddenly, everything changed. Last week, I had dinner with an old friend. She mentioned that she’d been making a lot of ice cream lately, and said that I should get an ice cream maker. I explained my hesitance to get yet another appliance, and she said, “Oh, just get the KitchenAid attachment! That’s what I have.”

*record scratch*

There’s a KitchenAid ice cream maker attachment? Of course there is. Of course.

Never mind the fact that it’s not that much cheaper or smaller than a standalone ice cream maker. I was able to rationalize to myself that it would make my KitchenAid more useful, so I needed to purchase it.

So now I’ve got my ice cream maker. But I can’t make any actual ice cream until after October 21st.

But he had said he’d eat frozen yogurt, didn’t he? Slightly sweet, delightfully tart and tangy frozen yogurt. Yeah, I can get into that.

This frozen yogurt isn’t exactly what you’d call “healthy,” but it’s a significant cut in calories, fat, and saturated fat, as well as having more protein. Also, if you use a yogurt with live and active cultures you still get those benefits — freezing only makes them go dormant rather than killing them, so they’ll heat back up and do their thing once they get into your gut.

Hopefully this will hold us over until October 22nd.

honey vanilla frozen yogurt

Honey Vanilla Frozen Yogurt
Adapted from Vanilla Frozen Yogurt by David Lebovitz in The Perfect Scoop

Makes about 1 quart

3 cups plain full-fat Greek yogurt (I used one 24 ounce container of Greek Gods Artemis yogurt)
1/2 cup honey
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

In a storage container, stir together yogurt, honey, and vanilla extract until smooth and integrated. Make sure there are no sneaky pockets of honey hiding on the bottom of the container.

Chill for at least one hour in the refrigerator.

Freeze in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. It will be soft serve consistency when you are done with the ice cream maker. If you’d like a scoopable frozen yogurt, transfer to a storage container, smooth out the top, put a square of parchment paper directly on the surface, and put the lid on. Then pop it in the freezer for at least two hours.

A tip I picked up from the Amazon reviews of the KitchenAid ice cream maker attachment, if that’s what you’re using: Along with freezing the double-walled bowl as instructed, freeze your dasher to ensure that everything is as cold as it can be when you start churning.

Ensalada de lechuga con elotes, aka cheesy creamy spicy salty corn salad

One of my favorite ways to stretch a side dish is to eat it on a pile of greens and call it a salad. Bean salads, fresh salsas, potato or chickpea or egg salad — it all works, and since these dishes usually have some kind of dressing incorporated into the dish, there’s no need to worry about making something separate to drizzle on top.

In fact, I’ve already posted a few of these recipes here. Make a side, throw it on greens, and it’s a meal!

So when I saw a recipe for a salty and spicy Mexican street corn side dish, I knew what its fate would be.

elotes green salad

This is a very light meal, so if you want to make it a bit heartier, go ahead and amp it up with a bit of added protein. Quorn Chik’n Tenders or pressed cubed tofu, lightly pan fried, would be perfect in this. You’ll just have to add a bit of extra mayonnaise to stretch the dressing.

Ensalada de Lechuga con Elotes
Adapted slightly from Elotes Salad by Five and Spice

Serves 4

4 ears of fresh corn
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small lime, juiced
2 heaping tablespoons mayonnaise*
1 teaspoon chili powder
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 heaping cup cotija cheese, crumbled*
1 ripe but firm avocado, diced
8-9 ounces lettuce (butter leaf, green leaf, or an heirloom mix are all nice)
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
8 ounces Quorn Chik’n Tenders or cubed tofu (optional)

If you’re adding tofu or Quorn, cut into bite-size pieces if needed. Add a bit of olive oil to a cast iron skillet over medium heat. Pan fry, flipping occasionally, until lightly browned. Set aside to cool slightly.

Shuck and wash corn, then slice the kernels off the cob. Toss with olive oil and spread on a baking sheet. Broil for 5-10 minutes, stirring once or twice, until the corn is lightly browned and starting to get crispy. You’ll hear the kernels starting to pop in the oven — that means they’re getting good and ready. Once they’re browned, remove from oven and set aside to cool slightly.

Stir mayonnaise (use 3 tablespoons if you are using an added protein), chili powder, cayenne pepper, and lime juice together in a medium bowl. Add the corn and crumbled cotija and stir to coat.

Add diced avocado and fold gently to integrate. It’s good to use a fairly firm avocado in this recipe so it doesn’t turn to mush when you mix it in. Ripe, for sure, but just ripe. Give it a taste, and add salt and pepper to taste. I actually didn’t add any salt — cotija is a very salty cheese.

Rinse and dry lettuce, then tear into bite-sized pieces. Arrange on plates, and top with generous scoops of the corn mixture.

* To make this recipe vegan, substitute Vegenaise (or homemade vegan mayonnaise of your choice). For the cotija, substitute 1/4 to 1/3 cup of your favorite vegan parmesan alternative — cotija is basically Mexican parmesan. I imagine Daiya cheddar or pepperjack shreds would also work in a pinch. Or you can simply omit the cheese and add salt and nutritional yeast to taste.

Lentil taco filling

Whenever we go to the beach and have to cook for a crowd, I always go for lentil tacos. I bring my trusty taco seasoning, I cook up a mess of lentils and my mister cooks up a mess of meat, we have toppings galore, and everyone’s happy.

This lentil taco filling is high protein and delicious; even omnis will want to add it to their tacos. Not to mention, it’s quick and easy. You can easily double or triple it if you are cooking for a lot of veg*ns.

lentil taco filling

Lentil Taco Filling
Serves 5-6

1 cup dried lentils
2 cups water
3 tablespoons neutral oil (canola, corn, grapeseed)
1 tablespoon vegetarian Worcestershire sauce*
3/4 teaspoon liquid smoke
1 1/2 – 2 tablespoons homemade taco seasoning, more to taste
1/4 teaspoon salt, more to taste

Bring water to a boil over high heat. While waiting, rinse and sort dried lentils to remove any damaged legumes or debris.

When water has come to a boil, add lentils. Reduce heat to low so your water is just barely simmering. Simmer lentils for 12-15 minutes, until tender but not mushy. Older lentils may take longer to cook, so your best bet is to taste them as they’re cooking to see when they’re done.

Once tender, drain excess water from lentils and set aside.

Add oil to a cast iron skillet over medium heat. If you’re on the burner next to your partner who’s cooking a pan of ground beef, be sure to give him or her a withering look when they accidentally fling a piece of meat into your pan. Once pan is hot and oil is shimmering, add lentils. If you’re not sure, just toss one lentil in and see if it sizzles. If it does, you’re good to go.

Cook lentils, stirring frequently and scraping the bottom with a metal spatula, until oil is absorbed and the lentils have picked up a bit of color. You’re not browning them to a crisp, but a bit of color is delicious.

Add Worcestershire, liquid smoke, taco seasoning, and salt. Toss to combine, then taste. Add more taco seasoning or salt to taste as desired.

Toss on a tortilla and dress as desired. I like: freshly shredded sharp cheddar, chopped romaine, avocado cubes, oven-roasted corn, salsa, hot sauce, and a bit of sour cream.

*Bourbon Barrel is the best vegan Worcestershire sauce, but Annie’s is also good.

Note: I’ve tagged this post as gluten-free. This is only the case if you seek out specifically certified gluten-free versions of Worcestershire sauce, liquid smoke, and all the spices in your taco seasoning. Not to mention serving on a gluten-free corn tortilla. They are all out there, but they are not necessarily the default. If you are cooking this for someone with Celiac’s or gluten intolerance, please check all your labels!

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.