July 30, 2013

Recipe: Vegan Pad Thai

As much as I love cooking at home, I have to admit that I most definitely have a weak spot for take-out. When I lived in Michigan, my go-to was a tiny Chinese restaurant that made a great Kung Pao Tofu. Now that I'm in Seattle, my favorite take-out is a nearby Thai restaurant where the owners are nice enough to make an order of vegan Pad Thai on request. So delicious... and so not at all good for me. I haven't indulged since I started watching my weight four months ago. So far I'm down 20 pounds and up 1000% in Pad Thai cravings. Solution? Homemade Pad Thai. Pad Thai will never be health food, but made at home, it can be healthier food.

I'll be honest - until I started researching this recipe, I had no idea how to make Pad Thai. At all. I knew there was fish sauce. I assumed a wok was involved. And... that's all I had. I happened upon a "Pad Thai" episode of Throwdown with Bobby Flay and this fantastically informative Pad Thai for Beginners post on Chez Pim, and my education began. Along the way, I learned the following:

1. Pad Thai sauce should balance the four key flavors of Thai cuisine: Sour (tamarind pulp), Salty (fish sauce), Sweet (palm sugar), and Spice (Thai chili pepper).

2. The sour element in Pad Thai sauce is from tamarind pulp. You can find tamarind in an array of forms: whole pods, a rustic seeded pulp/block, or a fully-prepared, ready-to-use paste. I went with the latter for convenience.

3. There are a shocking amount of bad Pad Thai recipes floating around the internets. Like... really bad. Ketchup as an ingredient bad. Confession: I first attempted to make this recipe with spaghetti squash standing in for rice noodles - you know, to reduce the calories - and it totally ruined the both the Pad Thai's flavor and authenticity. Some substitutions just don't do a dish justice.

With that last point in mind, I was intent on creating a vegan Pad Thai that was healthy, authentic, and accessible. You'll be able to find everything in a grocery store with a well-stocked "Ethnic" aisle, a hippie-esque cooperative/Whole Foods, or your local Asian grocery. For the sauce, tamarind paste was the one non-negotiable - there is just no substitute for the tart, earthy flavor of those little pods. I deemed palm sugar too difficult to find, but discovered turbinado sugar to be a good approximation of the less-refined sweetener. Fish sauce posed the biggest challenge with its complex fermented flavor, but it turns out that soy sauce and red miso provide similar notes of salt and ferment-y "funk". Last but not least, I turned to good old Sriracha as a dependable stand in for Thai red peppers.

After a month of working on this recipe, I'm insanely happy with it. The flavor is so spot-on that I think it could easily pass for the real thing. On top of the yum-factor, one serving clocks in at a respectable 440 calories, making this a guilt-free way to satisfy any take-out cravings that may come your way.

Vegan Pad Thai
Servings: 4
Prep Time: 60 minutes to soak the noodles, during which you can prep everything else
Cook Time: 10 minutes for the sauce, 10 minutes for the Pad Thai

8 ounces thin rice stick noodles (often labeled "Chantaboon" or "Pad Thai" Noodles)
8 ounces extra firm tofu
kosher salt
cooking spray (or additional peanut oil if you prefer)
2 tablespoons peanut oil
4 ounces bean sprouts or 1 large carrot, julienned
1/2 cup chopped green onions, plus extra for garnish
1/2 cup Vegan Pad Thai Sauce (recipe below)
1/4 cup roasted unsalted peanuts, finely chopped
1 lime, sliced into wedges

Vegan Pad Thai Sauce
makes 1 cup, enough for 2 batches of Pad Thai

1/2 cup water
1/3 cup low sodium soy sauce
1/3 cup turbinado sugar
2 tablespoons ready-to-use tamarind paste (such as Aunt Patty's or Neera's)
1 tablespoon red miso
1 tablespoon Sriracha sauce

Prep the Noodles and Tofu: 
Cover the dried noodles in cold water and soak for 60 minutes, then drain well. In the meantime, you'll prep the tofu and make the sauce. Let's start with the tofu.

Drain the tofu, pat dry, and slice 8 ounces of the block into bite-size pieces. At this point, I really like giving my tofu a quick saltwater brine - a technique suggested by Andrea Nguyen. This step, while optional, really enhances both the tofu's flavor and its ability to form a super-crispy crust - I highly recommend trying it. Here's the deal: Bring 4 cups of water and 1 tablespoon of salt to a boil, then pour it over your tofu in a heat-proof container until tofu is completely covered. Soak in the brine for 10 minutes, then drain water and pat dry. Set aside until ready to stir-fry.

Make the Pad Thai Sauce:
It's hugely important to have your sauce ready to go before you start stir-frying, so go ahead and get this step out of the way while the noodles are soaking. In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, add the water, soy sauce, sugar, tamarind paste, red miso, and Sriracha. Whisk everything together and bring to a simmer. Simmer for 5 minutes, or until the sugar, tamarind paste, and miso have melted and the sauce has thickened to a fluid, syrup-y consistency (you'll end up with a tad over 1 cup of sauce). Taste for seasoning - I like my sauce to lead with a good level of salt and sour, rounded out by gentler notes of sweet and spice. Depending on the strength of your ingredients, you might need to tweak the sauce one way or the other. Remember that the sauce should taste over-seasoned in the pot - it needs that intensity to flavor the relative blandness of the noodles and the tofu once you put the dish together.

Make the Pad Thai: 
Cooking this dish is fast like lightening, so do yourself a favor and assemble your prepared ingredients - noodles, tofu, veggies, and sauce - within arm's reach from your stovetop. I also find it helpful to set a cup of water nearby, in case you need to loosen the sauce/noodles while stir-frying. Place a wok or stainless steel skillet over medium-high heat and let it get nice and hot. Test the temperature with a drop of oil - the oil should shimmer, but not smoke, immediately upon hitting the pan. Adjust the heat if necessary to hit your stovetop's stirfry sweet spot. Once you're there, add a bit of cooking spray (or oil), followed by the tofu. Let the tofu cook for a couple minutes on each side until golden and crisp, then transfer to a small bowl, toss with a couple spoonfuls of the sauce, and set aside.

Add 2 tablespoons of oil to your hot wok/skillet, followed by the drained noodles, bean sprouts/carrot, green onions, and the remaining Pad Thai sauce. Quickly toss everything together, breaking up any noodle clumps (feel free to add a splash of water as necessary), and cook until the noodles are tender but al dente, about 3-5 minutes. During the last minute of cooking, add the saucy tofu into the mix to reheat. Once the noodles are done, immediately remove from heat and portion out your servings. Top each serving with some green onion and peanuts, alongside a wedge or two of lime.

July 17, 2013

Recipe: Vegan Taco Salad with Tempeh Taco Meat

Cooking dinner in the summer is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, I have access to ridiculous amounts of fresh, local produce, guaranteed to make any dish an extra 100% delicious. On the other hand, the last thing I want to do when I come home to my hot, un-air-conditioned house is heat it up further by turning on the stove (or worse, the oven). Maybe you feel the same way? Here are my three go-to solutions:

1. Cook when your house is cool - early in the morning or later in the evening. This works best on or before a day off from work, when I have more flexibility in my schedule. I can choose more time-intensive recipes or make double-batches of meals to re-heat quickly later in the week, which is a nice convenience for time-crunched weeknights.

2. Fire up the grill. Keep the heat outside of the house entirely. Daniel and I have a classic Weber Charcoal Grill that we absolutely love.

3. Choose recipes that require little-to-no cooking - we're talking a few minutes on the stovetop at most.

Taco Salad belongs in the last category - 15 minutes on the stove, a bit of raw vegetable prep, and you're done. The Tex-Mex classic might not be gourmet, but it's a truly fantastic meal when done well. For me, the perfect taco salad consists of crisp lettuce topped with sweet corn kernels, bright salsa, creamy guacamole, crunchy tortilla chips, and savory, spicy tempeh taco meat.

Making vegetarian/vegan taco meat is as easy as it is tasty. Tempeh is crumbled and browned briefly in a skillet, then braised in a bubbly bath of Mexican beer seasoned with soy sauce, ketchup, and taco seasoning. That's it! You'll have tender, super-savory ground "meat" that packs a protein-rich punch of flavor to your taco salad without a trace of the grease so often found in its beef equivalent. The resulting salad is simultaneously light and hearty - a meal that promises to fill you up without weighing you down, all the while keeping your kitchen cool as a cucumber.

Vegan Taco Salad
serves 4-6

This salad has a few components but comes together quickly, especially if you prep the guacamole and vinaigrette while the tempeh taco meat is on the stove. Two personal preferences: First, I like to mix together the salsa and the corn before putting them on the salad, but you can absolutely leave them separate if you'd like. Second, I am a weirdo who likes a "dry" - as in dressing-free - taco salad, but I've included a recipe for vinaigrette should you be a normal person who likes a little dressing on their salad greens.

8 ounces chopped lettuce or mixed greens, washed and patted dry
1 cup prepared salsa
1 cup corn kernels (raw, boiled, grilled - all delicious, choose your favorite)
1 batch Tempeh Taco Meat (recipe below)
1 batch Simple Guacamole (recipe below)
6 ounces tortilla chips, crushed into large pieces
Optional: Chili-Lime Vinaigrette (recipe below)

To assemble each serving of salad: Place a bed of lettuce (dressed with vinaigrette if you prefer), on a large plate or salad bowl. Top with generous scoops of salsa, corn, tempeh taco meat, guacamole, and tortilla chips. Dig in!

Tempeh Taco Meat
serves 4-6

2 (8 ounce) packages tempeh
1 tablespoon olive or grapeseed oil
1 cup Mexican beer (I like Dos Equis Amber or Lager) or water
1/4 cup ketchup
2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
1/2 package Trader Joe's Taco Seasoning (about 2 tablespoons of seasoning)

Crumble the tempeh into small pea-sized bits. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat, then add the crumbled tempeh and cook until golden brown, about 3-5 minutes. Add the beer, ketchup, soy sauce, and taco seasoning, stir to combine, and reduce heat to low. Simmer the tempeh for 10 minutes, or until most of the sauce is absorbed, creating a thick tempeh mixture that is just saucy enough to hold together.

Simple Guacamole
serves 4-6

2 large or 3 medium avocados, pits removed and flesh scooped from skin
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 lime, halved
Tabasco sauce

In a medium bowl, mash the avocados with the garlic, a squirt of lime juice, a pinch of salt, and a few dashes of tabasco. I like my guacamole on the chunky side, but you can mash it as smooth as you'd like. Taste for seasoning and adjust to suit your taste, adding more lime juice, salt, and/or tabasco.

Chili-Lime Vinaigrette

2 tablespoons lime juice
1/2 teaspoon agave or sugar
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
1/4 teaspoon chili powder
1/8 teaspoon ground cumin
2-3 tablespoons olive oil

In a small bowl, whisk together the lime juice, agave, mustard, chili powder, cumin, and a pinch of salt. Slowly drizzle in the oil, whisking to emulsify the dressing. Taste for seasoning, and adjust if necessary.

July 10, 2013

Recipe: Vegan Morning Glory Bread

I'm not going to lie. When I wake up in the morning to go to work, I do not crave a healthful tofu scramble, bowl of oatmeal, or smoothie. Instead, my body cries out for a latte and a pastry. Loudly. My mind attempts to reason with it, voicing stern reminders of the importance of a wholesome breakfast. Most mornings they compromise on a soy latte (a non-negotiable), a piece of whole grain toast smeared with nut butter, and whatever fresh fruit I have on hand. But every once in a while about once a week, the call of the pastry quiets all reason and I indulge - gleefully - in a freshly-baked treat.

The funny thing about my homemade breakfast "indulgences" is that they're actually quite healthy. The recipes are always vegan and often call for whole grain flours. My perspective on fat and sugar is this: They are exquisite ingredients which, used wisely, are what make life worth living. A proponent of non-fat, sugar-free diets, I am not. But lower-fat, reduced-sugar baked goods? I can get behind that in the morning. Take, for example, these Grapefruit Ginger Scones. Perfection. Much like today's Morning Glory Bread.

This bread is vegan, 100% whole wheat, and completely freaking delicious. Think of it as the best of two classics: morning glory muffins and hearty banana bread. The bread is lightly sweet, with flecks of carrot and apple, warming cinnamon and ginger, and just enough fragrant coconut oil to create a rich, moist crumb. A generous sprinkling of sugar on top melts into a crackly, candied crust that I highly suggest you savor as your last bite.   

I'll see you soon, toast and fruit. But in this moment, there is only me, this bread, a latte, and the morning sun. It's going to be a great day.

Vegan Morning Glory Bread
Inspired by Joy the Baker's Coconut Pineapple Vegan Banana Bread
makes 1 (9x5-inch) loaf

3 extremely ripe medium bananas
2 medium carrots, grated (about 1 cup grated carrot) 
1 medium tart apple, grated (about 1 cup grated apple)
1/4 cup melted coconut oil
1/3 cup natural cane sugar, plus additional 1 tablespoon for dusting top of bread
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9 x 5-inch loaf pan with cooking spray or a bit of oil and set aside. In a large mixing bowl, mash the bananas well - the mash should be very smooth in texture. Add the grated carrots, grated apple, melted coconut oil, sugar and vanilla to the bananas and mix well to combine.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and ginger. Add the dry ingredients to the mashed banana mixture and gently mix together with a wooden spoon or spatula. The batter is going to be very thick - close to that of chocolate chip cookie dough - and it will take a minute or so  for the wet ingredients to absorb all the flour. I find that a folding motion works best to bring the batter together, as it prevents the batter from getting tough.

Once the batter is combined, scoop it into the greased loaf pan and spread out to an even thickness. Sprinkle the top of the batter with a tablespoon of sugar and bake for 45 minutes, or until a toothpick or knife placed in the center comes out clean. Do not overbake! Once the bread is done, let cool in the pan for 10 minutes before carefully turning out of the pan to finish cooling on a wire rack.

July 3, 2013

Recipe: Almond "Chicken" Salad with Pickled Grape Relish

Happy Fourth of July Eve! I hope your holiday is filled with friends, family, fireworks, and summery feasts. When I was growing up, my family's July 4th traditions included a fried chicken dinner and a large pan of brownies or magic cookie bars. We gathered with my mom's side of the family each summer, three generations sprawled out on a patchwork of old blankets atop a grassy Michigan field, eating and chatting and playing cards as we awaited the fireworks. Once we "grandkids" were older, the family started attending the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's outdoor concert at Greenfield Village, which quickly became a highlight of my childhood. You've not experienced fireworks until they are accompanied by Tchaikovsky's epic 1812 Overture and honest-to-goodness, soul-shaking cannon fire.

In case it's not yet clear, I love me some Fourth of July. I don't love over-heating in this crazy weather we're having. Holiday meal solution? A cooling, almond-based, vegan "chicken" salad with pickled grapes. It's a fun play on classic American chicken salad - chicken, mayo, grapes, tarragon - a recipe that turned 150 years old this year (Happy B-day, chicken salad!). Blanched almonds are simmered in water until slightly tender and plump, giving them a toothsome chew. The rich almonds, crunchy celery, and zippy dressing make a great salad on their own. But the pickled grape relish? That's the secret ingredient.

Here's the deal with pickled grape relish: red grapes are quartered and soaked in a brine of wine vinegar, cinnamon, mustard seeds, and black peppercorns for 12 hours, then drained. The relish is nothing short of magical, combining the sweet, juicy burst of fresh grapes with the pleasant pucker of a pickle, perfectly rounded out by the warming spice of the brine. Adding the pickled grapes to the salad creates a light, refreshing dish with huge flavor - perfect for a hot summer day. Happy Fourth!

Almond "Chicken" Salad
makes 2 cups

1 cup raw almonds
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 cup pickled grape relish*, recipe below
3 stalks celery, diced
1 medium shallot, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 cup vegan mayonnaise
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon dried dill
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper

*The pickled grape relish needs 12 hours of pickling before it's ready for eating. If you're pressed for time (or not interested in pickling grapes), you can definitely sub in 1/2 cup quartered red grapes. The salad will still be very tasty, just a little simpler in flavor.

In a small saucepan, combine the almonds, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and enough water to cover (about 1 cup should do) and bring to a simmer over medium-low heat. Simmer for 15 minutes, or until the almonds have absorbed most of the water - the almonds should be a bit plump, with a tender texture that has lost the "crunch" of raw almonds. Drain the almonds and set aside.

While the almonds are simmering, you'll have time to put together the dressing (and chop the veggies, if you haven't already). In a medium bowl, whisk together the vegan mayonnaise, lemon juice, dijon mustard, dill, pepper, and remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt.

Once the almonds have drained, add them to the bowl with the dressing along with the celery, shallot, garlic, and pickled grape relish. Toss everything in the dressing until well-combined. The salad will keep for 5 days in the refrigerator, and can be served in a sandwich, atop a bed of greens, or in a vegetable "bowl" of your choosing (lettuce/radicchio leaves or hollowed-out tomato halves are my favorites, though an avocado half is a decadent and delightful option).

Pickled Grape Relish
adapted from Molly Wizenberg's recipe, which was adapted from Susan Kaplan
makes 3 cups

1 pound red seedless grapes, removed from stems and rinsed
1 cup white wine vinegar
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons mustard seeds (yellow or brown)
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1 cinnamon stick (about 2 1/2 inches long)
1/4 teaspoon salt

Place a small saucepan over medium high heat and add the vinegar, water, sugar, spices, and salt. Cover and bring to a boil, then immediately remove the pickling liquid from heat and allow temperature to come down to room temperature.

While the pickling liquid is doing its thing, grab a cutting board and a sharp paring knife and prepare to quarter the grapes. This task could be seen as tedious, but I find it rather zen-like. Quartering the grapes took me about 10 minutes, and my knife skills are nothing special. You'll find it immensely helpful to have a crazy-sharp knife, because thin grape skin, much like tomato skin, can cause trouble when you go at it with a dull knife.

Quarter the grapes lengthwise and place in a glass container with a tight-fitting lid, such as a large Mason jar or a Pyrex storage container (I used a 4-cup round Pyrex with plastic lid, and it was the perfect size). Once the pickling liquid has cooled, pour through a mesh strainer (to capture the whole spices) into the container of grapes. If you'd like the spiced flavors to be more prominent, place the spices into a cheesecloth bundle and nestle the bundle into the pickling container (I did). Cover with lid and refrigerate for 12 hours.

After 12 hours, drain the relish of all the pickling liquid - you can reserve the liquid for another use if you'd like, or toss it if you've no further need of its pickling services. Store the relish in the storage container you pickled it in - it will keep for about a week in the fridge.