Hot Take on Hot Lunch

Living in the moment is best way to experience life, unencumbered by past regrets and future concerns, but it certainly has its pitfalls, too. Wrapped up in summertime revelry, I didn’t even realize that we’re fast approaching doomsday for every child and young adult under the age of 18: The first day of school. Creeping earlier and earlier across the calendar every year, I feel a bit blindsided to learn that local school will be back in session as early as next week. What kind of cruel joke is that, to pull children out of the sun’s golden glow, away from the beckoning beaches and parks, stuffing them into stiffing locked rooms without windows, without joy, without apologies? Hopefully the transition isn’t as harsh as memory suggests, but it’s still a hard sacrifice to make for anyone yearning to squeeze the very last drops of sweetness out of this fleeting season.

If there was anything that could inspire any enthusiasm for this kind of sacrifice, it would have to be the promise of good food. Of course, that’s pretty much the opposite of what you can expect from any institutional cafeteria menu, which is why a properly packed lunch is essential. Though the dark days of school lunches are well behind me, the memories of soggy PB + J sandwiches and stale granola bars are indelibly seared into my memory. No one should have to endure such hardship, especially if they hope to put any positive energy into their education after noon.

Ages ago, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I was still in high school, I developed a compact little e-book entitled Lunchbox Bites, filled with all the sweet and savory morsels that got me from homeroom to sixth period. No longer available for sale, it’s been languishing among all the forgotten recipes gathering dust in my digital archive. It seems such a shame to waste this potentially helpful resource, as new generations of young vegans grow up with the same hunger for quality nutrition as I once did.

For the love of food, for the good of the community, I’m now making Lunchbox Bites completely free to download. Bringing back old favorites like Coffee Buzz Energy Bars and Root Beer Pudding, there’s plenty for students of all ages to enjoy. Even if you’re just a student of life, there’s never a bad time to enjoy a big batch of Hummus Crackers, too.

Forgive me, if you would, for the antiquated terminology and terrible photography. Consider it an heirloom, a relic of a bygone era. “Margarine” should be read as “vegan butter,” “soymilk” simply as “non-dairy milk” (any variety will do), and canola oil, while fine, would be better if replaced by a light olive oil, avocado oil, or rice bran oil. There’s still a whole lot of good to reap from these basic concepts, and I must admit, it’s somewhat charming to take in the full glory of this throwback to a simpler time.

Prepare yourself properly for a brand new school year; don’t show up hungry, and if you’re feeling particularly generous, make sure you bring enough to share with the class. Cafeteria food doesn’t hold a candle to anything homemade.

 

 

 

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Naan-Sense

Salads aren’t just wilted leafy greens and tired, limp carrot sticks. Stunningly diverse once you peel back that initial concept, it’s difficult to pin down one concise definition of the concept to encompass all of the culinary possibilities. Salads are most frequently thought of as chilled dishes, but they can also be served warm. Though generally the healthier option on the table, some salads can be real gut bombs. Heck, if you can call something with cookies in it a “salad,” then you, too, can be anything you set your mind to.

Today, while I have less lofty aspirations in mind, the results are no less impressive. Simultaneously inspired by the glorious fresh tomatoes and cucumbers at the farmers market and exhausted by the idea of the labor of real cooking, salads are given high priority in my daily diet on hot summer days. All I want is something fresh and satisfying I can cobble together out of the contents of my fridge with an absolute minimal commitment to genuine cooking. Toasting bread, sure, I can handle that, but all the rest feels like too much work after a full shift and long commute.

Unsurprisingly, this has led to some truly questionable salads. Nothing is off limits; cooked grains, nuts, fruit, vegetables are all fair game of course, but what about that loaf of bread sitting on the counter, growing more stale by the hour? Well, why not? There’s a long tradition of thrifty Italians inventing imaginative twists on panzanella, so that only stretches the imagination for the uninitiated. Expanding on that carb-based formula, consider the pita and all it does for fattoush over in the middle east. Thus, it stands to reason, naan should be a perfectly acceptable ingredient in this formula as well, right?

Garlic naan, a thing of beauty in and of itself, seems almost too good to sacrifice to the salad bowl. Chewy, tender slabs of gluten rich oil and pungent minced garlic, is a sadly rare treat to find in ready-made vegan form. Typically prepared with yogurt and or ghee (butter,) it’s one of the few Indian staples firmly off limits for the lactose intolerant among us. Now that California Lavash has expanded its range to include a completely dairy-free rendition, nothing is out of bounds. I’m tempted to bring a package with me even when eating out at top Indian restaurants, but resist the urge by doubling down on my naan consumption at home instead.

It was only a matter of time before I found a way to shovel this glorious flatbread into my mouth by the forkful. Lightly toasting it to a crisp exterior and bestowing it with a golden curry dressing, this is a combination I could eat on repeat all summer long, and well beyond. Feel free to expand upon the vegetable inclusions based on what you have available, or go crazy with your own creative add-ins. As we’ve established, a salad is anything you want it to be, if you just believe in it.

Curried Naan Panzanella

1/2 Pound (1 Pint) Cherry or Grape Tomatoes, Halved
1/2 English Cucumber, Quartered and Sliced
1/2 Teaspoon Salt, Divided
5 – 6 Ounces (1 Pieces) Garlic Naan Bread, Cut into 1-Inch Squares
2 1/2 Tablespoons Olive Oil, Divided
1 Tablespoon Lime Juice
1 Tablespoon Tahini
1 Teaspoon Madras Curry Powder
1/8 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
1 Cup Cooked Chickpeas
1/4 Cup Fresh Cilantro, Roughly Chopped

Begin by tossing the sliced tomatoes and cucumbers with half of the salt. Set aside for about 15 minutes to draw out some of the excess liquid. Drain the extra water they’ve given off before proceeding.

Meanwhile, combine the sliced naan with 1/2 tablespoon of oil and spread the pieces out in an even layer on a baking sheet. Run under the broiler in your oven set to high for 10 – 15 minutes, until toasted golden brown and crisp.

Simply whisk together the remaining oil, lime juice, tahini, curry powder, black pepper, and remaining salt to create the dressing. Toss everything into a large bowl, including the drained vegetables, toasted bread, dressing, chickpeas, and cilantro, and mix well to combine. Serve immediately; this salad doesn’t keep well once dressed as the naan will begin to get soggy.

Makes 2 – 3 Entree Servings; 4 – 6 Side Servings

Printable Recipe

Griddle Me This

Every dog has its day, and so, apparently, does every food. If I observed every national “holiday” assigned seemly at random to all the various dishes and ingredients on currently listed on the calendar, this blog would become nothing but a giant red-letter day reminder. National Grilled Cheese Day, however, deserves a special mention. Today, like any other day that ends with a “y,” is the perfect time to butter up two thick slices of your favorite bread and stuff them to the point of bursting with any gooey non-dairy decadence your heart desires. Such a sandwich is a staple across the globe, beloved by all and easy enough for even the most novice cooks to whip up with confidence. It was even one of the first foods I managed to create for myself in my tween years, before cooking or even eating roused my enthusiasm. Sure, back then it was plain whole wheat bread and florescent orange slices of unmelting crayon wax that passed for vegan cheese, smashed and warmed into submission via an electric sandwich press, but a strong attachment to the concept still took hold.

Thankfully, we can do better- So much better, and with barely any additional effort. That’s why the sandwich in particular is truly worth celebrating. Even in its most fanciful, fully decorated formats, it will still be piping hot and ready to enjoy in a matter of minutes, at most.

The cheese itself remains a slightly controversial subject, with diehard fans taking sides either for or against various mainstream options, but the good news is that now there are actually options, and scores of them! If you’re not up to the task of starting from scratch, even your average big box store in middle America will carry at least one reasonable alternative to get your grill on. Daiya is perhaps the best known, with shreds, slices, and blocks of many flavors, with their new cutting board shreds leading the pack. Follow Your Heart does indeed remain close to my heart, offering some of the most diverse flavor options that range from pepperjack to provolone. So Delicious is still more of an ice cream powerhouse than anything else, but their classic shredded cheese options are making quite a splash on the savory side of the grocery store. Chao is best known for its smooth, creamy melt and unique coconut/tofu base. New on the scene is Culinary Co, still a bit difficult to track down but fantastic eaten hot or cold, which is quite a feat for most dairy-free cheese. Similarly, Parmela shreds are found in very limited markets, but worth buying in bulk should you manage to locate a good supply. Violife is making a big splash with its US release, once available only overseas but now taking the North American market by storm. Truth be told, this is but a tiny nibble at the larger feast of non-dairy gooey goodness, but we haven’t even begun to dig into the actual savory additions!

  • It’s hard to beat the umami punch offered by your average sauteed mushroom, but you can one-up that basic approach with silky caramelized onions, a touch of garlic, and to really gild the lily, a pinch of truffle salt.
  • For a little sweet and savory twist, crisp slices of green apple add a crunchy, tart punch to the combination, which goes particularly well with a cheddar shred or slice.
  • Spice things up with a generous handful pickled jalapenos, and take your sandwich on a quesadilla-inspired departure with roasted red peppers, black beans, and tender summer squash.
  • Go green to ramp up the health factor by stuffing your bread with a serious serving of wilted spinach, kale, and/or arugula, and play up the fresh herbs like thinly sliced scallions, parsley, rosemary, oregano, and thyme.
  • Keep it classic with juicy ripe tomatoes, or sun-dried if out of season, and a few crisp slices of meatless bacon if you’re feeling particularly indulgent.
  • Consider a more spring-y approach with grilled asparagus and roasted beets ramping up the vegetable factor, and don’t forget a touch of lemon zest and ground black pepper to brighten the whole package.
  • Make something that an avowed carnivore would crave by loading up on cooked beefy crumbles, finished with a dollop of marinara sauce or fresh pesto.With so many fantastic culinary adventures to embark upon, the most difficult part of crafting an excellent grilled cheese sandwich is simply deciding on the flavor destination! Do tell: what’s your current favorite combination?

Spiraling Out of Control

Will It Noodle? Like the popular series inspired by one particular turbo-charged blender, challenging contenders to step up to the plate for possible processing, the answer is invariably an emphatic yes. Testing the limits of my trusty spiralizer has proven far more gratifying though, since these trials end with delicious strands of vegetables, rather than a pile of useless rubble. Zucchini tends to get all the fame and glory, shredding easily and blending seamlessly with any bold sauce, but there’s a wide range of unsung plant-based options, ripe for the noodling.

Scrounging through the fridge for a more reasonable dinner than greasy takeout or cold cereal, my intention was never to make something worth posting about, and yet the results were too beautiful to ignore. Spinning up an orange-fleshed spud instead of squash started out my bowl with a hearty, substantial base for a southwestern-inspired celebration of summer. What’s more important than the individual components, however, is the basic concept. There’s so much more than just green zucchini out there, perfect for spiralizing. Harder root vegetables can still be eaten raw, but depending on your preference, might be more enjoyable lightly steamed and softened. With that in mind, I would invite you to consider the following alternatives:

  • Sweet Potatoes/Yams
  • Beets
  • Daikon
  • Carrots
  • Parsnips
  • Broccoli Stems
  • Turnips
  • Jicama
  • Cucumbers

Don’t stop there. On the sweeter side of the menu, apples can turn into noodle just as easily, along with a full rainbow of more exotic fruits and vegetables. Once you’ve got a spiralizer, you have instant access to endless pasta replacements. Keep on whirling your way through the produce bin with abandon! There are just a few guidelines to determine the best bets for noodling:

  • Don’t use anything with a hollow or highly seeded core
  • Pieces should be at least 2 inches in diameter and 2 inches long to create full strands
  • Firmer, more solid-fleshed options will yield the best results

It feels silly to write out this formula as a full recipe; all quantities and ingredients are entirely adjustable. Not feeling corny? Lose the kernels. Prefer peas? Invite them to the party! In truth, I would have preferred pinto or black beans to fit the theme better, but chickpeas were the only canned legumes in the pantry at the time. Despite that shortcoming, I don’t think the end results particularly suffered. The most important takeaway here is that if you’re wondering, Will It Noodle?, there’s only one way to find out… And it’s almost always a delicious experiment.

Southwestern Sweet Potato Spiral Bowl

8 Ounces Spiralized Sweet Potato, Raw or Lightly Steamed
1/3 Cup Corn Kernels
1/2 Cup Chickpeas
1/2 Avocado, Sliced
1/3 Cup Cherry Tomatoes, Halved
1/4 Cup Salsa
1/2 Cup Shredded Lettuce
1/3 Cup Sliced Bell Peppers

Quick Chipotle Crema

3/4 Cup Raw Cashews
1/2 Cup Water
2 Tablespoons Lime juice
1 Chipotle Chile Canned in Adobo + 2 Tablespoons of the Adobo Sauce
1 Tablespoon Tomato Paste
2 Teaspoons Nutritional Yeast
1/2 Teaspoon Salt

Begin by tossing all of the ingredients for the chipotle crema into your blender and cranking it up to high. Thoroughly puree until completely smooth, pausing to scrape down the sides of the containing if needed. You will likely have more crema than needed for one portion, but trust me, you’ll wish there was even more leftover once you taste this stuff. In fact, feel free to double the quantities and save the sauce in an airtight container in the fridge for up to a week.

Spoon a generous dollop or two of the chipotle crema onto the spiralized sweet potato and toss to thoroughly coat the noodles. Place in a large bowl, and pile the remaining vegetables on top in an attractive pattern (avocado rose not required.) Dig in!

Makes 1 Serving

Printable Recipe

A Top Picnic Pick

“Summer is over, summer is over!” the masses cry, pointing to the calendar as the days advance past Labor Day, deeper into the heart of September. Sure, school is back in session and thoughts do naturally turn to the future, preparing for the changing of the seasons sure to come, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a done deal already. I don’t know about you, but for us east coasters back here in New England, the weather has turned more hot and humid than ever, finally feeling like the summer we’ve been anticipating for months. The thick, moist air, dense enough to swim through on particularly sultry afternoons, isn’t exactly my idea of perfect weather, but pouring rain will inevitably break through the clouds, washing away that oppressively muggy atmosphere for at least a few enjoyable hours. Seize those fleeting opportunities and make the most of the lingering sunshine- Now is the time to go for a picnic if there ever was one.

The most impressive picnic spread I’ve ever had the fortune to enjoy was lovingly composed by Cobi, the mastermind behind Veggietorials. Just about anything would have tasted divine while sitting on one of Oahu’s few white sand beaches, enjoying the perfect 80-degree afternoon in the middle of January, but her lavish spread far surpassed all prior picnic experiences. The highlight amongst her numerous fresh fruit and veggie options were the inari sushi, stuffed with tender sushi rice and richly umami braised shiitake mushrooms. Based on her classic recipe that originally called for quinoa, it set the standard for a whole new world of picnic fare in my mind, and got me thinking about additional alternative fillings. If the grain could be swapped out so seamlessly, why not shake up the flavors too? Nostalgic for Hawaii, there couldn’t be a more fitting filling than Mahalo Macadamia Quinoa Pilaf, guaranteed to inject a bit of sunshine into even dreadfully overcast days. Always well-received on the Passover table and beyond, Pistachio-Quinoa Pilaf cleans up quite nicely in these tiny tofu pouches, converting effortlessly into a grab-and-go lunch that’s more memorable than the norm. Summer Corn Salad shines with prime summer produce, foregoing the grains in favor of juicy, tender-crisp kernels of sweet corn. My so-called “Halloween Rice” could be a delightful way to transition into more autumnal flavors though, if you’re still convinced that fall is already upon us.

The possibilities are limited only by one’s imagination. Proper inari care and management is the key to success here. Although they’re designed to be edible straight from the can or plastic packaging, your dishes will fare much better with a tiny bit of additional prep work. Take the tofu pouches and simmer them gently in water for just 5 – 10 minutes, removing the tinned taste that canned food can sometimes acquire and draining off the excess oils absorbed by those porous soy sponges. For an extra savory punch, you can use vegetable broth instead, or add a touch of tamari to the cooking water.

It’s never too late for a good picnic, especially when you bring some irresistible edibles to share. No matter where or when you decide to partake, make sure you don’t miss your opportunity for at least one leisurely, luscious picnic lunch this year.