Thrill of the Grill

Labor Day is right around the corner, signifying the dwindling days of summer while offering one last chance to celebrate. That means it’s time to gather up all your friends, neighbors, and coworkers, throw down an ice bucket packed with refreshing beverages, and uncloak that glorious grill in the heat of the midday sun. It’s your last best chance to fire that baby up, so make it count!

I’m probably the last person to ask about expert grilling practices, but I’d like to think that my novice status is actually my greatest asset here. I’m not about to pull some crazy, unreasonable, daredevil tricks when the metal grates get hot and the smoke starts blowing. While I can’t weigh in on the timeless debate of gas vs. charcoal, steering clear of debates over specific fuels or equipment, it shouldn’t be so complicated just to start a fire and get cooking outdoors. No matter what that means to you, even if the party gets rained out and you use a simple grill pan over the stove instead, it’s still important to start searing and making a mark!

Speaking of which, there are a few key principles to remember for emblazoning perfect stripes every time:

1. Start with a VERY hot grill. Give it at least 15 minutes, if not 25, to preheat before lubing up. If the food is par-cooked or semi-cooked (like meatless hotdogs or burgers, fruits or softer veggies,) aim for about 400 degrees.

2. Grease well to prevent sticking but do NOT use an aerosol non-stick spray over a hot grill! Trust me, you don’t want to light your backyard up like a torch here. Opt for an oil with a high smoke point, like rice bran oil, avocado oil, or peanut oil.

3. Don’t walk away, but don’t fuss with your feast either. Once you throw something on the hot grates, leave them there! Don’t start pushing them around, flipping again and again, repositioning them closer or farther apart. To leave a dark, solid mark, you need to allow full, uninterrupted contact. Yes, the food does still need to be turned over to even cooking, but just once, and only after a solid 5 minutes at minimum.

4. Use tongs. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve chased around ears of corn with a flat spatula because I was too stubborn to go back inside to get the right utensils. Seriously, save yourself the frustration, potential burns, and charred food. Just use the right tools for the job.

5. Go ahead and grill EVERYTHING! Once you’ve made the effort of dragging that beast out of storage, cleaning it up, and bringing it back to life, keep it busy from noon to night. Grill your tofu pups and corn on the cob, of course, but don’t stop there. Grill the buns! Grill the avocados! Grill pineapples and watermelon for a palate cleanser! Keep the party going and grill s’mores for dessert! Heck, if you’ve still got fire to burn and time to spare, grill any leftover veggies in the fridge to start meal prep for the coming week. After all, Labor Day is but a short respite from the daily grind… It’s right back to work tomorrow, ready or not.

Do you have any simple grilling secrets to share? I’m all ears, and not just with yellow kernels of corn. There’s a wide world of charbroiled delights to discover; I’m just getting started.

Many thanks to LightLife for simply providing meatless dogs to inspire this post. All content remains my own original creations, free of bias, and dedicated to an honest appreciation of cruelty-free food.

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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.

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

Curried Naan Panzanella

Curried Naan Panzanella

Lightly toasting chewy naan bread to a crisp exterior and bestowing it with a golden
curry dressing, this combination is unbeatable for summertime savoring, 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.

Prep Time 10 minutes
Cook Time 15 minutes
Additional Time 15 minutes
Total Time 40 minutes

Ingredients

  • 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

Instructions

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Recommended Products

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Nutrition Information:

Yield:

6

Serving Size:

1

Amount Per Serving: Calories: 376 Total Fat: 13g Saturated Fat: 2g Trans Fat: 0g Unsaturated Fat: 10g Cholesterol: 0mg Sodium: 599mg Carbohydrates: 55g Net Carbohydrates: 0g Fiber: 4g Sugar: 5g Sugar Alcohols: 0g Protein: 12g
 

 

 

My Milkshake Brings All the Vegans to the Yard

And they’re like,
It’s better than green juice.
Damn right it’s better than pond scum.
I can teach you,
But we have to get takeout.

While I can appreciate a tall glass of savory vegetable juice every now and then, I never got into the juice cleanse craze and still bristle slightly at the suggestion. As the summer heat intensifies along with a powerful thirst, I look to the offerings at local cafes with equal parts lust and skepticism. Whenever I see those emerald brews, freshly pressed, full of verdant vitality, I project my own true desire on that glass: Mint. All I crave on the hottest of days is a creamy, cool, mint chip milkshake. Thus, the swampy melange I end up with is inevitably disappointing, more often tasting of apple than anything else, leafy or otherwise.

Milkshakes are the easiest things to make at home, but real luxury is being able to get them on the town, prefab and instantly gratifying. Besides, if I have ice cream in the freezer, it’s a hard sacrifice to plop a scoop into the blender when I could just eat it straight. When in the bay area, there are a wide range of options to get that satisfying minty-fresh fix.

Elixiria‘s Last Samurai Shake is my gold (or more accurately, green) standard for mint chip milkshakes. Cashew-based and tinted pastel green with a touch of matcha, it’s sweetened with coconut sugar and is infused with peppermint essential oil for a bright, bold flavor. Cacao nibs add crunch, without a ton of chocolate taste, granted, but the texture gets the point across sufficiently. This formula was actually the essential inspiration for my Cashew Milkshakes in Real Food, Really Fast, for anyone else who can’t just pop into the shop.

For a superfood fix, I’m impossibly addicted to Mint Cacao Chip at Urban Remedy. I can rationalize the indulgence because it employs pea protein powder and really does drink like a meal. On busy days when I can’t stop to sit down for a proper lunch, you can bet this is my first choice for refueling. Although it’s not quite the same as what you’ll find in the refrigerated cases, Urban Remedy also offers a homemade solution that approximates the refreshing experience.

Incredibly similar to the previous pick, Project Juice is also slinging a bottled Mint Chip Shake, but ranks ever so slightly lower by employing dates for an earthier sweetness, and quite frankly, not enough of them. I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that I’ve snuck in packets of raw sugar on occasion to spike my drink.

Moving on to a no-holds-barred, full-throttle dessert indulgence, Saturn Cafe has you covered. The Thin Mint Milkshake was a limited edition special to coincide with the annual girl scout cookie inundation, but a simpler mint chocolate variation is available all year round. Locally made Double Rainbow non-dairy ice cream provides the thick, rich base, which always exceeds the generous old-fashioned soda fountain glasses, filling much of the metal mixing cup which is provided on the side, as if one mountainous milkshake wasn’t enough. Whipped cream, cookie chunks, and chocolate syrup complete the drinkable dessert. Better yet, Saturn is open late everyday, with a full menu of hot food available, which means you can get my all-time favorite milkshake pairing: French fries, hot, extra crispy, and lavishly salted.

Next Level Burger deserves a shout-out for the effort, but truth be told, this isn’t a blend worthy of a repeat order. Where was the mint? Where were the chips? All I could taste was syrupy sweetness; not even a modest hint of vanilla came to the fore. It’s cool and refreshing, fine pairing for a burger, but you’re better off opting for a different, stronger flavor.

Finally, one more runner up to add to the list is CREAM, with multiple locations scattered across the bay area. Vegan options are limited to just two soy-based ice creams, but as luck would have it, one is the illustrious mint chocolate chip of my dreams. Milkshakes are available, and I’ve been promised there’s non-dairy milk behind the bar as well, although that’s as far as my inquires have gone. Let’s be honest: When you’re offered chocolate fudge cookies and rainbow glitter sprinkles as garnishes, what rational person could really order otherwise?

Plenty of other competent milkshake makers are blending up the goods on a daily basis across the bay, but no one else seems to have a minty melange on the regular. Given such superlative options already, it’s hard to branch out beyond this crave-worthy sip, but do tell- What’s your favorite milkshake flavor, and more importantly, does it bring all the vegans to the yard, too?

Plum the Depths

Growing up in New England, with its characteristically rocky soil, temperamental weather, and a deeply shaded backyard, I envied those who could grow their own fruits. Even mundane produce selections like lemons or apples seemed like an exotic rarity when they could be pulled straight from the tree. To bemoan such abundance was unthinkable, but mild complaints became inevitably woven into every conversation with such lucky gardeners. Irrepressibly messy, dropping fruit and attracting all manner of vermin, the problem sounded like one of laziness to me. Just don’t let the precious harvest fall in the first place!

Oh, how naive I was.

Now that I have a plum tree in my own backyard, that tiny square plot of land has turned into a battlefield overnight. Blood-red splatters stain the concrete while sticky pits cling to the tall grasses. Swarms of flies delight in the detritus, although they’re just as happy to follow me inside at the slightest provocation. Short of putting a net across the entire property, catching this downpour of plums would be impossible. While this was a mild irritation in summers past, the situation is considerably more exasperating now that Luka patrols the grounds.

Pouncing on these treats as soon as they’re within reach, he’ll happily eat himself sick, and then just keep on eating once again. He devours them whole, pits and all; a choking hazard that gives me regular panic attacks. The growing season has only just begun and I’m already dreading peak plum production.

Out of fear and frustration, I viciously pruned back the offending branches, ripping off every last plum I could get my hands on. Almost all of the fruit was still immature; bright green, hard, and unbearably sour. Though unpleasant to eat out of hand, I nonetheless struggled to simply pitch them into the compost bin. Sure, they could be pickled, but then what do you do with them? A bit of Google sleuthing pulled up a new flavor sensation I had never encountered before, hailing from the Eurasian country of Georgia.

Tart, tangy, warmly spiced, and herbaceous, tkemali can be found in both red and green varieties, depending on the plums themselves, but is always an assertive staple for both cooking and seasoning. Some use it at the table like ketchup, but I found it best as a marinade and sauce for cooking. Slather some seitan in this vibrant elixir, saute, and serve alongside rice pilaf for an effortless meal. Stir into soups and stew to instantly brighten up the flavor, no matter how long it’s been simmering. My favorite use so far has been with simple roasted potatoes, baked until crisp, bursting with the brightness of this distinctive sour blend.

Desperate measures never tasted so good.

Yield: 3 Cups

Green Tkemali (Georgian Sour Plum Sauce)

Green Tkemali (Georgian Sour Plum Sauce)

Tart, tangy, warmly spiced, and herbaceous, tkemali can be used at the table like ketchup, but truly excels as a marinade and sauce for cooking. Slather some seitan in this vibrant elixir, saute, and serve alongside rice pilaf for an effortless meal.

Prep Time 30 minutes
Cook Time 2 hours
Total Time 2 hours 30 minutes

Ingredients

  • 2 Pounds Unripe Green Plums
  • 1 Whole Meyer Lemon, Seeded
  • 1/3 Cup Fresh Cilantro
  • 1/4 Cup Fresh Dill
  • 8 Cloves Garlic
  • 2 Teaspoon Ground Coriander
  • 1 Teaspoon Salt
  • 3/4 Teaspoon Black Pepper
  • 1/2 Teaspoon Crushed Red Pepper Flakes
  • 1/2 Teaspoon Ground Cumin

Instructions

  1. Place the plums in a large stock pot and cover with cold water. Set over medium heat on the stove, cover with a lid, and bring to a boil. Cook for just about a minute before turning off the heat and uncovering. Let sit until cool enough to handle; about 30 minutes. Drain out the water and prepare to get messy.
  2. The plums will be very soft, so simply use your hands to squeeze out the pits and stems, removing the skin as well if it comes off easily. Transfer the flesh to your blender, along with all of the remaining ingredients. (Yes, you’re blending that lemon, skin, pith, and all!) Puree until smooth.
  3. Pour the mixture back into the stock pot and set over low heat. Simmer gently for 45 – 60 minutes, until thickened to the consistency of loose ketchup. Cool completely before storing in glass jars in the fridge for up to 2 weeks.

Nutrition Information:

Yield:

3

Serving Size:

1

Amount Per Serving: Calories: 167 Total Fat: 1g Saturated Fat: 0g Trans Fat: 0g Unsaturated Fat: 1g Cholesterol: 0mg Sodium: 709mg Carbohydrates: 41g Fiber: 6g Sugar: 31g Protein: 3g

Dip into Summer

The original significance of Memorial Day has become lost to most modern revelers, happy enough to celebrate a day off of work for any reason. According to the tireless research of WalletHub, 60% of Americans are eating at barbecues, beer sales will be higher than any day except the Fourth of July, 41.5 million people are traveling, and about 41 percent of us are shopping Memorial Day sales.

Over the years, it’s become a joyful day demarcating the unofficial beginning of summer, as we cast off heavy knit sweaters and relegate plush quilts to the back of our closets at long last. Even for those still dutifully clocking in today, there’s a sense of optimism in the air, looking ahead to the long hours of sunshine. Most importantly, though, is the promise of fresh produce both sweet and savory; an abundance of seasonal fruits and vegetables, and all the culinary possibilities they bring. Hard-hitting journalism by the New York Times uncovers and ranks the tastes of summer, and while I might dispute many of those findings, it’s a good indication of what might be on grocery lists and dinner tables in the coming months. To that questionable index, I’d like to suggest another category to consider: The essential dips of summer.

Here’s what you’ll find on my table as the days heat up:

Hummus-Tzaziki, otherwise known as Hummiki, blends the best of both worlds with a refreshing crunch of cucumber woven in. Zesty lemon and dill brighten the flavor profile further, imparting a bold and sunny flavor throughout.

Composed of rich, creamy chunks of avocado, contrasted by crunchy cubes of jicama, this Chimchurri Avocado Salsa is a clear departure from the more typical tomato-based dip. Peppery, lemony, herbaceous, and vinegary all at once, it’s perfectly suitable to serve with with chips, crowning soups and salads, or an hors d’oeuvre in and of itself.

Take advantage of the tender baby spinach shooting up from gardens across the nation and use it in this creamy Saag Paneer Dip! Impressively cheesy, the cashew base carries delicately nuanced spices that put bland old sour cream spinach dips of yore to shame.

Back in the dark ages when eggplant was my foe, I invented this zucchini-based work around to babaganoush, dubbed Zukanoush. Even though my intolerance seems to have died down and I can enjoy the purple nightshade again, I’m still hooked on this version, packed full of everyone’s favorite green squash. You’ll never feel overwhelmed by a glut of zucchini with this formula on hand.

Caramelized Onion Dip is really a staple food all year long, but it’s such a crowd-pleaser, it should have an automatic, honorary invite to every party. If you can get past the terrible photos from over a decade (!) ago, you’re in for a real umami treat.

Given all the delicious options, how are you celebrating the start of summer? Do you have the day off, or are you quietly plotting your next adventure for the coming months?