Wordless Wednesday: Memorable Meals

Beach’n – Tofu Scramble and Breakfast Burrito

Millennium – Cauliflower Steak and Peach BBQ Maitake Mushroom

Old Thousand – Spicy Cabbage Pickles and Kung Pao Brussels Sprouts

When we sit at the table, there is more going on than satisfying hunger. It is sad to think of those who eat simply to satisfy their hunger and who do not permit themselves to linger under the many spells offered by a good meal – the satisfaction of our hearts, our minds and our spirits.   –Leo Buscaglia

Ready to Pop

With enough creativity, anything can be a taco. Beyond hard or soft shells, salads and bowls, the satisfying spices and resounding crunch can be translated in any edible medium. That’s why I’m going for a much bolder base to celebrate National Taco Day on October 4th. Taco jalapeño poppers could just change this beloved Tex-Mex snack.

Typical jalapeño poppers are a bit boring for my tastes. Stuffed with plain cream cheese before being battered and fried, they’re tasty enough with a beer or two, but nothing to write home about. Take it to the next level with Hodo’s Mexican Crumbles to make an instant taco filling, perfect for stuffing into these peppery shells. This high-protein staple is ready to eat right out of the package, infused with chipotles, oregano, and a squeeze of lime, so all the hard work is done for you.

Bringing the taco theme home, finely crushed tortilla chips replace bland breadcrumbs for an extra crispy, lightly salted, and perfectly corny bite. You get all the best parts of a crunchy taco in one killer app, ideal for a party or midnight cravings.

Considering how decadent and crave-worthy they taste, it might be hard to stop at a single serving. Go ahead, indulge!

These poppers have the edge on the nutritional competition for many reasons:

  1. Air fried, not deep-fried. The only fat here comes from the cheese, not frying oil.
  2. Dairy-free cheese means zero cholesterol.
  3. Plant protein. One package of Hodo Mexican Crumbles alone has over 45 gram of protein!
  4. Full of fiber. Try to find another game day snack that can actually keep you satisfied from kickoff to overtime.

In fact, the versatility of this recipe goes well beyond the opening act.

You can make it the main event by pairing with any of the following serving suggestions:

  • Plain or seasoned rice
  • Pinto beans, black beans, or refried beans
  • Green salad or cabbage slaw
  • Tortilla chips and salsa or guacamole
  • Elote or esquites

Jalapeño poppers are a relatively new phenomenon, appearing on menus only a few decades ago in the early 90s. It’s not too late to redefine the dish with new flair and brighter flavors. Take inspiration from beefy meatless tacos to get the party started.

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Perfect Palak Paneer

Pearlescent white cubes floating in an emerald sea, the appearance of palak paneer is like nothing else. Sometimes the green might be a more muted, or even downright swampy hue, but somehow it still shines all the same. Instantly recognizable in any shade, it’s a dish to win over the fickle hearts of vegetable-haters, packing in a mega dose of dark leafy greens almost by accident. It manages to taste amazing in spite of AND because of the massive quantity of spinach involved.

Hailing from one of the most fertile regions on Earth, it’s not a stretch to imagine farmers throwing pounds of spinach into a pot, trying to wilt down the harvest into a more manageable output. Consider it the Punjabi version of creamed spinach, rich with sauteed onions and coconut milk. Vibrantly spiced without becoming overly spicy in terms of scoville units, you can smell it simmering on the stove from a mile away.

Naturally vegetarian, the protein at the heart of this dish is sometimes described as Indian cottage cheese, but that’s only a fitting description of paneer’s flavor. Mild, soft yet spongy and sliceable, the similarities it shares with tofu are unmistakable. While I’ve successfully swapped the two in the past with minimal adaptation, there’s always room for improvement.

That’s where Sugimoto shiitake powder comes in, building incremental umami flavor to enhance the cheesy notes of the nutritional yeast, creating a more impactful savory taste that could rival that of curdled dairy. The magic is in that marinade, disarmingly simple and undeniably savory.

How much spinach does it take to make palak paneer?

If you’ve ever cooked fresh spinach, you already know it takes a truckload to yield a single forkful once it touches the heat. That’s why I typically like to start with frozen spinach in this recipe, which only needs to be drained of excess liquid before it’s ready to use. Otherwise, here are some basic guidelines for spinach usage:

  • 1 Pound Fresh Spinach = 10 Ounces Frozen Spinach
  • 1 Pound Fresh Spinach = About 10 Cups
  • 1 Pound Fresh, Steamed Spinach / 10 Ounces Frozen Spinach, Thawed and Drained = 1 1/2 Cups

That means for this recipe, you’ll want to start with a little over 19 ounces (let’s round it to 20 to be safe,) or about 20 cups in volume. That said, there’s no such thing as too much when it comes to spinach here. Feel free to add more if you have it.

What’s the difference between palak paneer and saag paneer?

All palak is saag, but not all saag is palak. “Palak” means spinach in Hindi, whereas “saag” can refer to any sort of leafy greens. Saag might include one or many of the following:

  • Arugula
  • Kale
  • Mustard greens
  • Collard greens
  • Bok choy
  • Chard
  • Beet greens
  • Turnip greens
  • Fenugreek
  • And yes, spinach!

To brown or not to brown?

Once marinated, the tofu paneer can be enjoyed as is, without further cooking. In fact, I like keeping mine in the fridge until just before serving for a cooling contrast to the hot spinach curry. It’s just as enjoyable with a gentle sear on the outsides, crisping and caramelizing the edges for more textural contrast instead. You can pan fry or air fry the cubes very briefly using high heat without adding more oil.

How can you serve palak paneer?

Enjoy palak paneer, hot with basmati rice, roti, naan, or chapati. On particularly sweltering summer days, though, I happen to think this is a great dish to enjoy cold, straight out of the fridge. Like all curries, the complex blend of spices continues to develop, blend, and bloom over time. Leftovers are unlikely for this recipe though, so you may want to preemptively double it. There’s no such thing as too much spinach when you have such a crave-worthy formula for palak paneer in your recipe arsenal.

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Uncanny Kani

It’s no secret that “crab” (AKA “kani“) in your California sushi roll is anything but. Surimi has been the go-to crustacean imitation treasured by restaurateurs for its low cost, and touted by nutritionists as being higher in protein than the real deal. While that may be true, let’s not forget what surimi really is: cheap, highly processed white fish (typically pollock) with added sugar, color, preservatives, and fillers. If you’re looking for a healthier or more ethical choice, that really doesn’t fit the bill.

You know what always gets high marks for nutrition, sustainability, and versatility? Tofu! It’s the other, other white meat that is the chameleon of the plant-based protein world. Most people think of it as a meat substitute, but let’s not forget that it works just as well to curb seafood cravings of all sorts. In this case, super firm tofu is strong enough to withstand a fine julienne cut, reminiscent of the shredded, stringy texture of torn surimi.

What’s the best tofu to use in kani salad?

Super firm tofu is my top pick, since it’s ready to use right out of the package, no draining needed. If you can’t find this, extra firm is also great after pressing for 10 – 15 minutes. This helps remove a bit more of the water and create a more compact texture. My favorite brands include:

Tofu alone isn’t enough to complete the illusion, of course. Super chewy sweet potato glass noodles, better known for their role in Korean cuisine to make the most toothsome jap chae, adds the perfect bouncy bite. Nori, everyone’s favorite toasted seaweed sheets, incorporate a subtle oceanic note. It’s not hard to replicate the flavor since surimi is relatively bland to begin with.

How can you serve kani salad?

Kani salad is an excellent starter for any meal. Since it’s very high in protein, you could also make it the main course and serve it as an entree salad. If you wanted to dress it up more, you could add it to:

Tossed with crisp fresh vegetables and coated in creamy mayo dressing, this kani salad might look a bit different than the one served at your local Japanese restaurants, but the eating experience is sure to satisfy.

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The Rice of Royalty

There is no singular definition of biryani. To think that the dish is just seasoned rice with either meat or vegetables is a gross over-simplification, if not an outright mistake. Aside from the vast differences between southern and northern Indian cuisine, no two cooks make it the same way, and in truth, no cook makes it the same way each time, either. Born into royalty around the 16th century, it shares many qualities with humble pulao or pulav, AKA pilaf, but is distinctly, clearly an elevated form of the concept.

Biryani is an entree, the main event of a meal unveiled with great fanfare, whereas pulao is merely a side, even if it contains a complete protein. Speaking for itself with more complex and stronger spices, a proper biryani commands all the attention of the eater, acting as both dinner and entertainment in one. Rice is always at the foundation, but everything else is up for debate.

Given all the disagreements about what a biryani should be, developing a proper recipe is a near impossible task. As an American, I can never claim that my take on the time-honored tradition is even remotely accurate, authentic, or worthy of being called the “best.” I can only offer inspiration to try biryani, of any sort at all, to enjoy a taste of the single most popular food across the entire Indian subcontinent. Honor the source, but don’t forget to have fun with it and cater to your own tastes. That’s how food continues to evolve in our interconnected world, right?

Hyderabadi chicken biryani seemed to me the easiest, most recognizable overseas, and widely loved variation to start with. While it does demand low and slow cooking, it’s layered with spices in a simple, logical way that’s more manageable than most. Rose water and saffron create the signature, luxurious flavor, perfumed with floral notes that mingle and fuse with the spices for a full aromatic experience. Par-cooked rice meets marinated proteins to end with a perfectly cooked, tender bite all the way through.

In a move that should surprise precisely no one, my take is a clear break with tradition. Coconut oil provides a dairy-free equivalent to ghee, while vegan yogurt of any variety, be it oat, soy, almond, coconut, or other, is a seamless swap. For the meat of the matter, finely sliced Sugimoto koshin shiitake imitates the shredded texture of stewed chicken. Their inherently, unmistakably umami flavor only adds to the illusion. I prefer the koshin variety here for their expansive, flat caps that create a similarly meaty sensation when shredded, creating a more satisfying experience overall.

Much of this recipe is just a waiting game. Soaking the shiitake in water overnight to properly rehydrate them and bring out the full range of umami within is essential, as is the slow marinating process in the dairy-free yogurt mixture. While most people credit this step with creating more tender meat, there’s more happening here that also applies to plants. The acidic properties make it a great carrier for other seasonings, helping all those great spices to infuse deep within the mushrooms. Edible art like that can’t be rushed.

What makes a great biryani?

While taste is subjective, there are certain unifying characteristics of a good biryani that remain consistent across the globe:

  • Basmati rice is a non-negotiable. No other variety has the same delicate fragrance and texture. Each grain should remain separate and fluffy but simultaneously moist and sticky. It’s hard to describe, but you know it when you taste it.
  • Seasonings should be balanced, moderately spiced and nuanced with bites of sweetness, saltiness, herbaceousness, and tartness. No one taste should stand out above the rest; the ultimate goal is flavor harmony.
  • Kokumi, or the sensation of richness, often associated with fat, is essential. That’s why it’s traditionally lavished with ghee for that lingering feeling of extravagance. Yes, you can reduce the amount of oil and still enjoy a great biryani… But it won’t be the best biryani.

How can you serve biryani?

Think of biryani as the original bowl-in-one. No one will walk away from the table hungry if that’s the only dish on it. That said, it’s nice to have small accompaniments such as:

Homemade biryani is a physical manifestation of love. It takes time, effort, reasonable cooking skills, and a well-stocked spice rack to pull off such a feat. Sharing biryani with someone makes a clear, unmistakable statement, whether those feelings are spoken or not. Saying “I love you” is redundant when biryani is on the table.

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Holy Sheet! It’s a Book Release!

From pandemic pet project to printed and published, it’s been quite a journey bringing my ninth cookbook into the world. Born at a time when life came to a screeching halt, when the very future of cookbooks in general was in jeopardy, it seemed like the absolute stupidest thing to pursue.

Between supply chain issues, shortages, and grocery delivery mishaps, I couldn’t even count on having adequate ingredients to follow a simple recipe, let alone develop another hundred of my own. Let’s not forget that dinner parties were off the table, so there was little need for large format meals generally set to feed anywhere from 6 – 12 at a time.

The Everyday Vegan Cheat Sheet: A Plant-Based Guide to One-Pan Wonders

Still, I persisted. Not out of optimism that things would get better or some greater vision of the future, but for a lack of it. In a time of unprecedented tragedies one after another, this was all I knew how to do, the only thing that provided any modicum of comfort. By cooking, crafting photos, creating my own narrative, I could escape that reality just outside my kitchen door.

Chickpea Pan Pie

The Everyday Vegan Cheat Sheet is a genuine pandemic baby, venturing forth into the wilderness of civilization for the first time with wide eyes. For all the delays, near misses, gambles, and standard publishing frustrations, I think the timing couldn’t be more perfect. Now that we’re gathering together again to break bread, these are the recipes I subconsciously created as a victory lap. This book could only exist in this particular moment.

Low-Country Broil

Getting down to the brass tacks here, The Everyday Vegan Cheat Sheet is a down to earth guide for turning out complete plant-based meals using a standard, no-frills sheet pan. Blending nostalgia with a taste for adventure, wholesome ingredients with indulgent flavors, easy prep with stunning results, it’s everything I craved but couldn’t otherwise find. Veganism is finally taking off as a mainstream movement and sheet pan cooking is all the rage, but why had no one combined the two yet? I took that personally.

Nacho Mamma Loaded Tortilla Chips

Thank you for everyone that made this possible. Book #9 is every bit as incredible as book #1, given the particularly volatile nature of the publishing industry these days. Who knows if this will indeed be the last, but even so, I’m proud of everything inside these pages. I hope they can bring comfort and joy to your table, too.