Chili-Soy Tofu, Stir-fried Baby Bok Choy, Daikon Salad and Miso Soup

Last night’s dinner was kind of “Asian fusion” I guess, although I was thinking about it in a Japanese-inspired frame of mind. The goal was to use the daikon and baby bok choy I got at the farmers market, so here’s what I did:

Daikon Salad

1 medium daikon, spiralized, julienned, or shredded
1 medium carrot, spiralized, julienned, or shredded
1-2 scallions, cut thinly on a bias
2 Tbsp rice vinegar
1 Tbsp vegan fish sauce, if you have it (omit if not)
1 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
pinch of salt if needed

Whisk together the sauce ingredients, toss with the vegetables, and chill for at least half an hour.

The last time I was in Sacramento, I ordered take-out from Andy Nguyen’s Vegetarian Restaurant (the food was excellent, by the way). While I waited to pick up my order, I spied some vegan fish sauce they were selling, the proceeds for which went to fund a temple, and I couldn’t resist buying a bottle. Unlike every vegan fish sauce I’ve purchased in the past (admittedly, not many), this stuff was really good! It’s made with pineapple juice so since I’m not in Sacramento that frequently I’ve been trying to develop my own go-to recipe that’s similar. Maybe soon I’ll have a finished recipe to share! That’s the story with my fish sauce.

Miso Soup

I’m sure I have a recipe for this on here somewhere already, but basically:

1 piece kombu
4 cups water
a few pieces of dried wakame
1 small carrot, thinly sliced
1/4 cup tofu, small dice
splash of rice vinegar
3 Tbsp miso
1 scallion, sliced

Steep the kombu in the water (you can boil or warm the water first for faster results) for 1-24 hours, then remove. Bring the water to a boil along with the wakame, carrot, and tofu; boil for about 5 minutes. Remove a few tablespoons of the water to a cup and whisk the miso into the cup, then pour the miso mixture back into the soup pot. Season with a little rice vinegar to taste and add the scallions.

Garlic Ginger Baby Bok Choy

a few heads of baby bok choy, chopped with white and green parts separated
1/4 cup vegan chicken or vegetable broth
1 Tbsp minced or pressed garlic
1 Tbsp minced ginger

Stir the garlic and ginger into the broth and set aside. Heat some oil in a medium pan or wok and stir fry the white parts of the bok choy until soft. Add the green leaves and fry until limp. Pour the sauce in, stir, and let it reduce. Serve.

Chili-Soy Tofu

1/2 lb extra firm tofu, cubed
4 Tbsp sweet chili sauce (similar to what you’d dip spring rolls into)
1 Tbsp soy sauce

Heat some oil over medium heat in a pan or wok and fry the tofu until it’s lightly browned. Add the sauce, stir, and cook until caramelized. Serve.

I used the chili sauce recipe in Not Your Mama’s Canning Book, which I really like.

This was all served with sushi rice. Every time I took a bite of the tofu I thought it was my favorite part of the meal, until I took a bite of the bok choy and thought it was my favorite part of the meal, and then I realized there are two types of people: those that mix their food and those that don’t. I’m firmly in the mixing camp and don’t understand people who can’t let different parts of their meal even touch other parts. So the best parts of this meal where the ones where the sauces for the tofu and the boy choy mingled all over each other. ­čÖé

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Japanese-flavored Springtime Quinoa Salad

I made this salad a couple of weeks ago after seeing something very similar on the internet somewhere; unfortunately I can’t find the post despite an awful lot of searching. Anyway, it was awesome because usually when I make quinoa, Mark puts five grains – I’m not kidding, five grains – of it on his plate for his serving, because I yell at him if he doesn’t take any, but he gobbled up an entire bowl of this with nary a complaint. In fact, he discovered this spring that he loves fresh fava beans, which I’ve included in the salad, and he therefore sang its praises.

Japanese-flavored Springtime Quinoa Salad

1 cup red quinoa (or any quinoa), rinsed
2 cups water or broth
as many fresh fava bean pods as you can stand to shell – try to do about a pound because they yield a tiny fraction of their weight in actual beans
1/4 cup ponzu (a Japanese soy-citrus sauce available in Asian markets)
2 sheets toasted nori, ripped into pieces (also available in Asian markets)
1 avocado, chopped
1 lemon, cut into wedges

Put the quinoa and water or broth into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and let simmer for about 15 minutes or until quinoa is cooked. If necessary, drain off remaining liquid. Return to the pot, cover, and let rest for 10-15 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring another pot of water to boil. While it’s coming to a boil, remove the fava beans from their pods. When the water is boiling, put the beans in and let boil for 30-60 seconds. Drain and immediately plunge the beans into an ice water bath. When cool, pop them out of their skins – I stick my thumbnail into the skin to make a hole, then pop them out. When the favas are peeled, hit a small amount of oil in a small skillet, then saute the favas with a little salt, until they are cooked through, about 3-5 minutes.

Stir the ponzu into the quinoa. Toss in the favas, avocado, and nori. Serve with lemon wedges. Feel virtuous eating it.

And now a wildlife update. Whenever I send my parents a link to a batch of pictures, if there is a snake in any of them, my mother always responds, “Gross, a snake!”. If she ever ran across one in her travels, I imagine she’d very quickly head in the opposite direction. When I, on the other hand, see a snake, I calmly toss my bag on the ground five feet away, switch lenses, and stick my camera in its face. Look at this handsome little fella! Well, maybe not so little – this is a black rat snake, one of the largest in this area.

I love trying to capture them with their tongues out.

I wouldn’t say my mother-in-law is overly fond of snakes either. When she spotted this snake in her yard last week, she rushed into the house to identify whether or not is was poisonous. Meanwhile I rushed up to the snake with my camera! It’s an Eastern garter snake. Not only is it not poisonous, but my mother-in-law decided I had actually made it look “cute” in my picture!

Speaking of my mother-in-law, as some of you may know, she lives in Charleston, SC, so obviously if I was lurking around with the snakes in her backyard, Mark and I were in Charleston ourselves last week. We were preparing for the beautiful wedding of Mark’s lovely cousin, so we didn’t have time for our usual sightseeing, but we spent a lot of time in the park with the dog and for the wedding. Here is an infrared shot of a wonderful oak that’s in the park.

Last night was yet another time I wandered off to Occoquan Bay NWR more for exercise than pictures. I’ve learned my lesson, though, and always take the big camera and the big lens just in case. I was also extremely glad I thought to pack my macro lens, which garnered me those rat snake pictures above (and some even more exciting ones below), but the telephoto came in handy for the obligatory osprey shot.

And guess what! I got another turkey picture! Just prior to sunset is the time to find them, apparently.

The absolute best, though, was…the beavers! Because these are my first beaver pictures ever!

I’ve only ever seen the very quick blur of a beaver once last summer, but last night I was very lucky. I guess I approached the creek so quietly (and I was literally the only person in the park at the time) they didn’t notice me at first and I was able to watch a couple of beavers actually working on their dam. They are so cute and funny! For several minutes, they seemed totally cool with me – and this picture was taken with my macro lens; he’s only about six feet from me. After a while, though, they got nervous and started going away. One of them was under water and surfaced right in front of me, saw me, freaked the hell out, and ducked back into the water so fast I started laughing out loud. I didn’t mean to scare him, but the look on his face was priceless. Wish I’d been able to get a picture of THAT. Once he booked it out of there, that was the end of the beaver show, but I was giddy. Is it weird that just seeing animals makes me ridiculously happy? Like, I can truly say that getting to see beavers was the best part of my day and probably my week.

I never get out that place having done any actual exercising, by the way. I mean, I get exercise from the walking, but basically I’m meandering slowly with a probably beatific look on my face taking a bunch of pictures.

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Chestnut-stuffed Peppers; Cucumber & Radish Salad

My favorite farmers at the market now have chestnuts. I’ve bought fresh chestnuts before and I recall them being a huge pain, although curiously I don’t recall much else about them. Nonetheless I was of course compelled to purchase a pint of them.

They’re still a huge pain.

I wanted to do something savory with them so I got the idea to use them in stuffed peppers. Here’s what I did.

Chestnut-stuffed Peppers

1/2 pint fresh chestnuts
1/4 large onion or 1/2 smaller onion, diced
2 large cloves garlic, minced or pressed
3 Tbsp red wine
1/2 tsp rubbed sage
1 cup vegan broth
1 1/2 cups cooked brown rice
salt
2 long sweet peppers
vegan cheese (optional), for topping

Here are my chestnuts. I peeled the whole pint but only used half of them in this recipe. I’ll roast the other half later.

Cut an “x” in each chestnut. I used a paring knife and had to be a bit stabby with it. It’s probably very easy to cut yourself when preparing chestnuts. It requires a bit more effort than doing the same thing to tomatoes you want to peel.

Put the chestnuts in some water, then bring it to a boil.

Boil the chestnuts for about 5 minutes, then turn the heat off but leave them in the pot. They are easier to peel when they are warm, so scoop out a few at a time and leave the rest in the water as you peel them. The shells will likely have started to open at your “x”.

Use your fingers and/or paring knife to remove the shell. The skin almost always comes off in the shell; sometimes you’ll have to rub it off. This one looks disconcertingly like a chocolate candy to me.

I’ll be honest, peeling chestnuts is a real bore and took forever.

At long last, they were done.

Roughly chop them.

Put some oil in a small skillet and add the diced onion. Cook for a minute or two, then add the garlic.

Add the chestnuts and cook another few minutes.

Add the wine, using it to deglaze the pan …

… then add the sage, broth, and salt to taste.

Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and cover, and simmer until the chestnuts are soft. I left mine for 40 minutes while I went to exercise. Stir in the rice.

Pretty peppers.

Cut them in half lengthwise.

Remove the seeds.

Stuff 1/4 of the mixture into each half.

Optionally top with vegan cheese. I used a small bit of Daiya mozzarella and a generous sprinkle of Dragonfly’s Bulk, Dry Uncheese Mix.

Cover with foil and bake at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for 40 minutes. I used my toaster oven, which worked great. Here it is finished. This was okay, but I wouldn’t say it was worth the effort of the chestnut peeling.

Cucumber and Radish Salad

2 pickling cucumbers, or 1 regular cucumber
3-4 large radishes
1/4 large or 1/2 smaller onion
3/4 cup rice vinegar
1/4 cup water
juice of 1/2 lemon
2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
3 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt (or to taste)
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
pinch red pepper flakes
3 springs dill, chopped (or just pull the fronds off)

Thinly slice the cucumbers and radishes; a mandoline is preferred for this task. Also very thinly slice the onion.

In a small bowl, whisk together the remaining ingredients.

Toss everything together. Preferably put it in a bowl with a sealing lid. Refrigerate for at least an hour, occasionally shaking and/or flipping the bowl over if it has a sealable lid.

And here it is finished. I make variations of this frequently during the summer so there was no surprise here. It was a good choice to accompany this meal because chestnuts are a bit sweet, and I also served sweet corn on the cob, and this was a tangy, refreshing contrast.

In kitty news, Gomez and Torticia recently went in for their annual exams. I love taking them to the vet because they are not Tigger. Tigger hated hated HATED the vet. There are some vet techs out there who actually refused to be in the same room as him, and he left more than one doctor bruised and bloodied in his wake. In fact, it was generally a bloodbath and I’d have to walk out in shame. He was a TERROR. These two little sweet darlings, on the other hand, are SO GOOD! They react quite differently from each other, however. Torticia looks at the whole experience as one fun adventure and makes herself right at home, whereas Gomez rather quivers in fear the whole time.

Torticia at the vet:

Gomez at the vet:

Torticia at the vet:

Gomez at the vet (look at that scowl!):

I’ve zoomed in and enhanced this photo so you can see Torticia’s extremely cute “vanilla” toe. LOVE that the vanilla toe has a pink paw pad and the chocolate toes have brown pads!

Silly cats. Anyway, everyone oohed and aahed over their beauty, sweetness, and marvelously soft and silky coats. I love that no one who sees them can resist petting them. They are in optimal health, although little miss Fatso needs to shed some pounds. Gomez forgot his ordeal within two seconds of returning home. (Torticia, world’s most agreeable cat, couldn’t have cared less if I’d packed her back up and driven her back there a second time.)

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Mark’s Caesar Salad

Thanks to Smucky, Mark has become obsessed with Gordon Ramsay. Here is something you may not know about us: we don’t have cable or satellite TV. Other than a couple of years in high school, I have never had cable. In college and a few years after, back when TVs had antennae, I had network television, which I watched occasionally, but I’ve always preferred reading to watching television, and frankly, when we were no longer able to get even network stations, I didn’t miss it. We just stream stuff from Netflix and are plenty happy with that. However, whenever we are around cable television, such as our parents’ houses or hotels, we each have a couple of things we fight over watching. For me, it was always the Food Network. For Mark, it’s aliens. Frankly, I think the Food Network might be the MTV of the 21st century: do they have any shows about COOKING FOOD these days, or is it all just reality television? I don’t even bother trying to watch it any more. I never really watched it that much to begin with because it seemed like Paula Deen was always on and she gives me convulsions.

Anyway, Mark would always change the channel away from food as soon as I wasn’t looking. But Smucks loves Gordon Ramsay and when he was here last, he somehow got Mark stuck on Gordon Ramsay as well. Since then, Mark has been taking his Sunday meals up a notch. I’ll be honest with you: I’m surprised how good Mark is at cooking and that he hasn’t yet lost interest in making Sunday dinners. Apparently I have Ramsay to thank.

The first meal or two Mark made, he slavishly followed recipes he had found online, but one thing I’m really impressed by is how he’s been improvising since then. There’s no one way to cook, and I rarely help him, but I think he’s actually picking up my techniques, so I keep telling him he’s doing it right. He had asked me earlier if Caesar salad was okay for dinner, so I wasn’t surprised that was what he made tonight, but I was surprised by how great it looked:

He was particularly proud of the dressing, so I asked how he made it, thinking he’d give me a link to the recipe, but to my surprise he told me he didn’t know; he just made it up. I am so proud! Because it was really, really good! Fortunately for you, after we finished our meals, he remembered the recipe, so I’m going to share it with you.

Mark’s “Chicken” Caesar Salad
serves 2

2-3 heads romaine lettuce
1/2 cucumber, sliced
1 tomato, quartered
1 avocado, peeled and sliced
a sprinkling of shredded vegan mozzarella (we recommend Daiya)
3 Gardein chick’n scallopini
croutons

Dressing

1/2 cup olive oil
a little less than 1 Tbsp [vegan] mayonnaise (I told Mark this was called “scant”, but he told me to write it like he said it)
1 Tbsp “normal” vinegar
6 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 Tbsp Dijon mustard
juice of half a lemon
splash of white wine
splash of red wine vinegar
a bunch of coarsely-ground black pepper
some salt
some more pepper

Blend together all of the dressing ingredients except the “some more pepper”. Mark hates mayonnaise and wants me to stress to you: DO NOT USE TOO MUCH MAYONNAISE OR IT WILL BE DISGUSTING. He used it to create a little creaminess, but he was very wary of it. If you use too much mayonnaise, you’ll have to add extra lemon juice, red wine vinegar, and pepper to mask the horribleness of the mayonnaise, Mark says. The dominant flavor of this dressing was the garlic (the house smelled deliciously of garlic; it was making me hungry!), but it’s not overpowering…although I suspect you had better be a garlic lover. After blending, taste and adjust the ingredients until it’s perfect, then add more coarse pepper. Set aside while the flavors blend.

Meanwhile, grill or pan-fry the “chicken”; we use a George Foreman grill. When it is done, slice into long strips.

Remove 4 or 5 of the best romaine leaves per serving and arrange in each bowl. Chop the rest of the lettuce and place in the bowls. Prepare the rest of the vegetables and arrange them neatly in each bowl. Top with the croutons and mozzarella. Drizzle with the dressing. According to Mark, Ramsay is big on presentation, and Mark’s been paying a lot of attention to it. See above for his amazing results! It not only looked great, but it tasted great.

I am also supposed to tell you that Mark included the mustard in his dressing because he learned from Alton Brown that mustard has scientific properties that bind oil and vinegar. I’ve always wanted to watch Alton Brown, but never managed to be around cable television at a time when he was on, until very recently Mark found and downloaded a bunch of Good Eats, the non-meat-tastic episodes of which we’ve watched a few. Yeah, that’s the first time I ever saw the show; we are SO not with the times in this household.

The other big news from today is we released the first three raccoons of the season! Raheema thought she was ready to go as soon she got to the outside enclosures (she wasn’t really ready then), but we had to wait until a few good days of weather were forecast. Which hasn’t been easy: our county flooded much worse than I’ve ever seen on Thursday. I was hoping we could do it today while I was there, and I was lucky!

We’re fortunate that we can release animals right on the wildlife sanctuary grounds so we can do soft releases. That means the raccoons are welcome to return to their enclosure for as long as they’d like (within reason), and they’ll be fed there during that time if they wish. So all we do is just open a little raccoon-sized door on the outside wall of their enclosure. We were a little surprised Raheema didn’t bolt out as soon as we opened it. I don’t think she realized what was happening at first.

It didn’t take her long to figure it out.

The first thing she did was climb her neighbor’s cage.

And two minutes later, she was back in the cage!

She went back and forth a few times, then we eventually lost track of her, because we were watching her brothers, Quivet and Quebec, who finally decided to join the fray:

Raccoons love climbing.

Compared to the tiny babies I bottle-fed a few months ago, these kits looked so BIG to me in their outdoor enclosures. But once in the great big outdoors, they looked so tiny again! I’m confident they have what it takes to survive though and am very happy for them!

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Rice Noodle Salad

Summer is waning, I’m sorry to say. Instead of a blast of already-100-degree heat on my face when I leave for work in the mornings, it’s pleasant, even cool sometimes. It’s a bittersweet time of year because although it’s nice to have a relief from the oppressive heat, I hate to see summer end. Fortunately (or not), it’s usually still quite warm to hot during the day, especially when you are cleaning raccoon enclosures. So last night’s dinner was still a welcome almost-no-cook treat.

Rice Noodle Salad

1 package rice noodles – I used wide ones, but thinner ones would work too
1 huge or 3 smaller carrots, cut on a spiralizer or julienned
1 small daikon, cut on a spiralizer or julienned
1 cucumber, cut on a spiralizer or julienned
2 cups bean sprouts
1/2 small head Savoy (or about 2 cups Napa) cabbage, shredded
2-3 scallions, thinly sliced on the diagonal
1/2 cup peanuts, crushed

For the dressing
3 Tbsp rice vinegar
3 Tbsp soy sauce
2 Tbsp brown sugar
juice of 1 lime
1 red chili pepper, minced

If you really don’t want to cook anything, soak the noodles in very hot water. I’m too impatient to do that and always boil mine for a couple of minutes. When they are al dente, drain them, rinse under cold water, and toss with some toasted sesame oil. Set aside.

Meanwhile, prep all of the vegetables. Whisk together all of the sauce ingredients. Then toss everything together except the peanuts and scallions. I used my hands to mix everything together before realizing that was a really stupid move considering I used a jolokia pepper in the sauce, but for some reason, it didn’t burn. (I’m not convinced what this farmer is selling to Whole Foods as jolokia peppers are really jolokias; they’re not that hot.)

Top with crushed peanuts and scallions. Serve with sriracha.

I also served tofu puffs with a sweet chili-vinegar dipping sauce. Super H sells these tofu puffs, which Mark loves:

I cut them in half and toast them in the toaster oven for one to two toast cycles to warm them up and make them slightly crispy outside:

I make a dipping sauce for them based on a recipe I got off the internet many, many years ago, back when I actually owned one of those evil appliances called a printer and used to print out recipes and store them in a huge, untamed notebook. I think I lost the printout so I can’t tell you where I got the recipe (I think a Thai recipe site) or if I’m even still making it as directed.

Sweet Chili-Vinegar Dipping Sauce

3 Tbsp rice vinegar
1 Tbsp brown sugar
1 Tbsp chili-garlic sauce
1 clove garlic, minced or pressed
pinch of salt

Whisk everything together.

Serve with the warmed tofu puffs.

Now, about those raccoons. They’re often asleep when I arrive to clean their enclosure.

You learn very quickly to NEVER put ANYTHING you don’t want mutilated within reach of a raccoon. They are extremely devious! Here is one on its back destroying a paper towel I made the mistake of putting down for half a second.

But seriously, how could you possibly be mad at this face?

Or this one?

Answer: you can’t.

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Heirloom Tomato, Avocado, Corn, and Pinto Bean Salad

Mark and I recently returned from a week with his family at Folly Beach in Charleston. Apparently, while we were enjoying a week of absolutely perfect beach weather of sunny, upper 80 degree days and lower 80 degree ocean temperatures (bliss!), the Maryland and Virginia areas were suffering record-setting, scorching 100-degree days around Memorial Day – followed briskly by a cold front bringing in 50-degree nights and 70-degree days the second half of the week. Well, we’re home now and it’s back up to the upper 90s again: summer is here with a vengeance. This week has been weird because I wasn’t able to get to a farmers market over the weekend and I don’t know, I just find it difficult to buy vegetables in stores during the summer, so my refrigerator hasn’t really been stocked properly since our return. I had to go to Whole Foods out of desperation for fresh food today, and it was hot, hot, hot. I found myself looking at some heirloom tomatoes and wondering what I could make for dinner that would fit the weather and my relaxed, happy, tanned, and very warm mood. This is what I came up with:

Heirloom Tomato, Avocado, Corn, and Pinto Bean Salad

1 heirloom tomato, seeded and chopped
1 (or better yet, 2) avocado, peeled and chopped
2 ears corn, cut from cob and cooked
1/2 Vidalia or other sweet onion, chopped
1 cup whole wheat couscous
lettuce leaves, for serving/garnish

For the beans
1 cup dried pinto beans, soaked (quick soaked is okay)
1/2 medium onion, chopped
3 or 4 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
2 dried chili piquin, or other form of heat to your liking (optional)
1 tsp ground ancho chili powder
1 tsp Mexican oregano
1 Tbsp tomato paste
smoked black pepper, to taste (optional)
vegan “chicken” bouillon (or other broth), to cover
or you can cook some beans (they needn’t be pintos, either) by whatever method and recipe you prefer

For the dressing
3 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp pickled jalapeno juice, or a vinegar you think sounds good
juice of 1/2 lime (about 2 Tbsp)
1 large clove garlic, pressed
1 cube frozen cilantro (Trader Joe’s sells this), or 2 Tbsp chopped fresh cilantro
salt to taste
freshly ground black pepper or smoked black pepper, to taste

First, get the beans cooking. A pressure cooker is s huge help here. Place all ingredients in the pot, with the broth just covering the beans. I cooked them for six minutes in the pressure cooker, then quick-released the pressure, returned to the heat and cooked another 15 minutes or so, boiling off some of the liquid. Careful with those pressure cookers: usually I don’t care if I overcook pintos because I like them refried anyway, but for a salad you’ll want to retain a bit of a bite in the bean. If you don’t have a pressure cooker, cook until tender but still a bit firm.

When the beans are cooked, drain them if necessary, reserving any liquid. I had about 3/4 cup liquid.

Make the dressing by whisking all of the ingredients together. Set aside for flavors to blend.

Cut the corn from the cobs and boil in water to cover for 10 minutes or until corn is tender. Drain, again reserving the cooking liquid.

To make the couscous, combine the bean cooking liquid, corn cooking liquid, and, if necessary, enough water to make 1 1/4 cups of liquid. I love it when I think to use cooking liquids for other purposes. If you aren’t using dried beans and/or fresh corn, you can use broth or water to make the couscous. Heat the liquid to boiling and pour over the couscous. Cover and let sit for 5 minutes, then fluff with a fork.

Prepare the salad: chop the tomato, avocado, and onion. Gently toss the vegetables with the beans, corn, and dressing. I use my hands.

Line each serving dish with lettuce leaves. Put some couscous on the lettuce, then top with the bean and veggie mixture. If you have it, sprinkle with just a touch of smoked salt flakes. Garnish with lime wedges, to be squeezed over the salad, and serve a hot sauce like Tabasco on the side.

Mark seemed quite impressed with the presentation of this meal. I told him it just looked nice because of the lettuce leaves, but he said it went beyond that and looked very “fancy”. I don’t know that it really looked all that fancy, but when I later asked him if he liked the way it tasted he said it tasted “like summer” and was (I was to quote him) “summertastic”. I don’t know if it’s just one of those married people things where we can read each others’ minds (it happens), or if I’m just good at making meals that say exactly what I want them to say, but “like summer” was exactly what I was going for. He also requested the leftovers for lunch tomorrow, so I know he liked it. I only had one avocado, but I think the one thing that would have improved this salad would have been a second one. I probably really should have made 1 1/2 to 2 times as much couscous for this amount of salad as well.

Our vacation was on one hand very comfortable and very normal: we spend a week at the beach with Mark’s family every year and it’s always wonderful, but on the other hand a little unusual for both Mark and me in that a) Mark didn’t touch a computer for 7 days and b) I didn’t touch my camera for nearly 7 days. We both did uncharacteristic amounts of relaxing. But here are some pelicans, also relaxing:

And here is a very cool, very old tree.

Now for a raccoon update. The bad news: Rachel Raccoon never collected two of the three babies. The good news: because I volunteer with a local wildlife organization and had been in touch with a raccoon rehabilitator about working with her even before the raccoon/attic incident, I got a crash course in feeding very hungry, very vocal baby raccoons, and then drove them to the rehabilitator myself. And Sunday I started helping the rehabilitator on what will be a regular basis, so I got to visit my babies again, and I’m going to help raise and eventually release them! They’ve been named Rica and Rowena – they are both little girls – and I’m not sure which one this is on my lap just after a feeding, but look, her eyes are open now!

Working with raccoons has been a great experience. When they are babies, they’re a lot like cats, and are very affectionate and sweet. I’ll keep you posted on Rica and Rowena’s growth over the upcoming months. I feel terrible they aren’t with their mother any more, but they’re in great hands with the rehabilitator and I intend to be the best (part-time) surrogate mother I can be, and in five months when they are old enough to be released, they’ll not only be in a great location, but right next to a county park that has special meaning to me and Mark. So that’s almost as good as their being in my yard, and really, probably safer for them in the long run. We have a LOT of wildlife around here, which I absolutely love, but we DO live in a suburban neighborhood. The park is probably nicer for them.

Finally, tomorrow will mark one year from the day we met Gomez and Torticia. I can’t believe it’s been a whole year already, although at the same time I can’t imagine a life without them. We were really, really, really, really lucky: these cats are simply the most wonderful, perfect cats in the world. I can’t tell you how much I love them. As a tribute, I’ll be making a donation to the Northern Virginia SPCA this week in the same amount I paid for them last year (I’d give even more if rabies vaccinations didn’t cost a gazillion dollars, leaving me broke this month…) because I love these cats, I love the SPCA for bringing them into my life, and I want the SPCA to continue to bring other people and cats and dogs together to form bonds like I have with Gomez and Torticia.

(One of Mezzie’s nicknames is actually “Perfection”. He’s just simply perfect. He’s not just a cat, he’s the Platonic ideal of a cat.)


(I’ve mentioned before that I turn most songs into songs about Tigger. I still do; Tigger still gets sung about far more than anyone else, but Torticia has three songs. The Kinks’ Victoria is really “Torticia” (Torticia was my queen!). Simon & Garfunkel’s Cecilia is also really “Torticia” (Torticia, you’re breaking my heart!). But for one song, I don’t have to change the lyrics because her (nick)name is already in it: YOU’RE THE ONE FOR ME, FATTY – YOU’RE THE ONE I REALLY, REALLY LOVE!)

One last thing: if you haven’t seen it yet: Vegan Black Metal Chef. And if you liked that, Black Metal Library rockers. My day has been filled with an inordinate amount of black metal, which I don’t even like…unless it’s about vegan food or books!

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Strawberry Spinach Salad

I don’t know if I have mentioned before that the company I work for was founded by an Indian American and although we are very diverse, many employees are Indian and consequently a pretty high percentage of us are vegetarian (although I’m the only vegan I know of). What this means is I can generally eat a surprisingly high number of dishes at potlucks and other gatherings.

Today was our annual Thanksgiving potluck and once again I was instructed to bring a salad. When I found my week packed with extracurricular activities, though, including a late night the day before the potluck, I was alarmed. How was I going to put together something stunning – it’s important to me to take any chance I can get to make vegan food that appeals to omnivores and lacto-ovo vegetarians – that either required no time to prepare or would keep for a couple of days?

So earlier this week, I entered some panicky search terms into google and one of the first things that came back was this Strawberry Spinach Salad, which seemed quite promising. There was little prep work and I could do it all in advance except the final assembly. Tuesday night when I had a little extra time, I went shopping and bought the ingredients, then sliced the strawberries, candied the pecans, and pre-measured the dry ingredients for the dressing. Wednesday night I made the dressing in all of a minute, found a serving bowl, and set everything aside to remember in the morning. And this morning, I packed everything up in reusable grocery bag, stuck the strawberries in the fridge at work, and 5 minutes before I needed to, tossed the salad.

So here it is: my take on Strawberry Spinach Salad: a pretty, crowd-pleasing side dish that can be almost completely made in advance and in minimal time. I was told to scale this for 10 people, however, you could cut this in half for a single family.

Strawberry Spinach Salad

1 lb baby spinach
2 lbs strawberries, hulled and sliced
3 cups candied pecans (recipe follows)

Dressing:
1/4 cup red onion, minced
2 Tbsp sesame seeds
1 1/2 Tbsp poppy seeds
1 – 2 Tbsp white sugar (depending on the type of vinegar you use; use less for sweet balsamics)
1/2 tsp paprika
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup vinegar – I used a fig balsamic, but regular balsamic would be fantastic, as would any wine vinegar. This is the salad for those fancy vinegars you never know what to do with!

For the candied pecans:
3 cups pecans
1/2 cup white sugar
oil
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
pinch of salt

First candy the pecans: Heat some oil in a cast iron skillet over medium low heat, then add the rest of the ingredients and push them around for a while, until the sugar has caramelized and the nuts are crunchy and delicious. Remove from heat and set aside to cool. You may want to make extra of these because they are addictive. I made a ton and almost didn’t have enough to take to work because someone – whose name rhymes with “Mark” – ate them all.

To make the dressing, whisk all of the ingredients together until emulsified. Let the flavors blend for at least an hour; store in the refrigerator if it will be longer than that.

Lastly, to assemble the salad, just toss everything together. Most of the commenters on the original recipe said it will get soggy, so don’t add the dressing until the very last minute. I served the dressing on the side.

All my advanced preparation nearly backfired when our power was out for 15 hours on Wednesday, but fortunately my refrigerated items all seem to have survived. Try mandarin orange slices if strawberries are out of season. I’m horrible locavore in the winter, and was lucky to find pretty delicious strawberries at Wegmans.

This got rave reviews from my co-workers, including from the CEO. Everyone was calling it “Renae’s Special Salad”, but really it’s just something I found on the internet and copied. Yes, I’m one of those crazy cooks who makes untested recipes for dinner parties and potlucks. But come on, how could I possibly go wrong with this recipe? It’s spinach, strawberries, candied pecans, and a balsamic vinaigrette – how is that not a perfect salad? Mark said he usually hates fruit in salads but he really liked this.

I’m incredibly shy, even though I’ve worked at the same place for 6 years and everyone is super friendly, but I can be lured from the safety of my cubicle for Indian food, of which there is always an abundance at our potlucks, much of it vegetarian. I raved so much about the rasam – one of my all-time favorite soups – a co-worker brought in that he gave me all the leftovers! Yay!! Even the Indian food-wary Smark loves rasam! It’s delicious!

Torticia liked it too!

And finally, we’re heading to LA on Thanksgiving. I know there are a gazillion vegan options there, but what should I definitely not miss? What bookstores do I need to go to? Thrift stores? Any other attractions?! It’ll be my first time there and although I’m going to miss these kittens something terrible, I can’t wait. Did I mention I’m seeing both Grinderman AND Einst├╝rzende Neubauten while I’m there? Oh, and my dear Fortinbras. And the vibrant V. I’m so excited I can barely contain myself!

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Kylie’s Friend’s Non-Salad Couscous Salad with Grilled or Roasted Veggies

My friend Kylie (who, by the way, as a result of recently reading Eating Animals and some other previous musings, is now feeding her family vegetarian – possibly vegan – meals most days!) sent me recipe for a salad invented by her friend and slightly modified by herself, that she said was awesome. She included this photo:

About the same time, the office manager at work decided that I was to bring in “salad” for our Thanksgiving potluck this week, which left me at a bit of a loss because I kind of consider salad “too easy” and prefer to use events like potlucks as opportunities to expose unwitting people to great vegan cooking. Then Kylie sent me this recipe and it looked absolutely perfect to take to the potluck, so I did. (I’m the type of person who is always making never-tried recipes for dinner parties and potlucks. I live life on the edge. Though at least time I had Kylie’s word it was good.)

For our potluck, I doubled the quantities Kylie sent me, so the photos may depict what looks like an enormous amount of food. The amounts in the recipe I present here are scaled to what Kylie said fed her for 5 lunches.

Couscous Salad with Grilled or Roasted Veggies

1 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 cup pine nuts
1 small eggplant
1 small red pepper (Kylie in her Australianness so charmingly calls it a capsicum)
250 grams (9 oz) couscous or 1 cup raw freekeh
water or vegetable stock to cook the couscous or freekeh (use amount called for by package)
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 handful sun-dried tomatoes
1 small to medium onion (I cut back on this quite a bit so as not to overwhelm the palates of my fellow potluckers because I managed to skip the paragraph where Kylie said to cook it)
2 scallions, chopped
1 red Thai chili (Kylie called this a bird’s eye chili…I actually used a larger, milder Hungarian wax chili because I didn’t want too much heat in case some people in my office are wimps)
1 can chickpeas
2-3 oz baby spinach
3/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
3/4 cup chopped cilantro (coriander to you non-Americans)

For the optional dressing:
juice of 1 lemon (about 1/4 cup)
1/4 cup olive oil
ground cumin to taste

Prepare the couscous (I used tri-coloured because it’s festive) or grain of your liking. I suggest using stock instead of water.

Cut the eggplant lengthwise into slices about the size of the width of your thumb, rub with olive oil, and season with salt and pepper, then grill it. I used my George Foreman. You can also do it stove-top or roast it in the oven.

Kylie said she sometimes grills her pepper (capsicum) and sometimes sautes it with the other veggies. I roasted mine like this:

Then I put them in a paper bag for about 10 minutes …

… and then removed them …

… at which time their skins peeled right off.

Toast the pine nuts in small, heavy skillet (or in a toaster oven):

Chop the peppers, eggplant, chili, onion, scallions and herbs. Press or crush the garlic. Measure the cumin seeds. Drain and rinse the chickpeas.

Here’s where Kylie’s email had a paragraph I managed to not read: “Heat some olive oil in a pan. Add about 1 tsp cumin seeds. Add onion, garlic and chilli. Cook til onion is soft. This time I put the capsicum strips in here instead of grilling it, and cooked til soft. Take off the heat and set aside.” I suggest following this step to take the bite out of the raw onion and garlic, although mine turned out okay even though I skipped it.

Whisk together the dressing ingredients if you’d like to use it. I thought it gave it a great tangy flavour.

Mix everything together.

This was easily doubled to feed a crowd, or will keep all week for lunches, or would make a nice one-dish dinner. Despite my inability to follow directions (can you tell I rarely use recipes?) it turned out great. I thought I made too much, but every little bit was gone at the end of our potluck and several people told me it was their favourite dish! I’m grateful Kylie thought to pass this recipe along to me when she did because it really fit the bill.

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Grilled Romaine, Broiled BBQ Tofu, and Sweet Shallot Mustard Dressing

Craving salad, I sort of went overboard with the romaine lettuce the other night. I bought both hearts of romaine and baby romaine, and although Mark and I have been having big salads for dinner every night for three nights, I still have more romaine than you can shake a fork at. Short of eating tossed salad three meals a day, I was wondering what to do with it all, when I remembered one night last summer when our friends Luke and Lanet invited us over for a grilling extravaganza. Lanet loves to cook as much as I do and visiting their house for dinner is always a treat because although she’s not vegan, she likes to experiment and is always trying new vegan dishes out on me. On this night in particular, she was grilling just about every vegetable imaginable, including romaine hearts. Mark and I thought that grilling lettuce was very avant-garde, but it was really good. We don’t have a real grill here, but I do have a George Foreman, so I thought I’d try grilling up some romaine on that. It worked pretty well, though Lanet’s was better.

Grilled Romaine Hearts

1 -3 romaine hearts, depending how many servings you’d like (a serving is 1/2 a heart)
1 tsp soy sauce
1/2 tsp sesame sauce
1/2 tsp brown sugar
1/2 tsp cider vinegar
1 piece of ginger, size of a child’s pinkie finger
3-4 drops sriracha

Mix together all ingredients except lettuce in a small bowl.

Chop the romaine hearts in half lengthwise.

Rub your (clean!) hands in the marinade, then rub the lettuce all over with it.

Place two halves at a time on an indoor electric grill (only one half is pictured here because Mark is working late so I saved his half for later):

Close the grill and cook for about 3 minutes or until lettuce is wilted and beginning to brown.

I hardly ever buy tofu. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I did, other than the other week when I was I recovering from my trip to Australia and didn’t think I’d have time to make it, so I picked some up at Super H while I was there. I haven’t needed it and it was about to expire, so I decided I’d use it up tonight. I thought I’d broil it in a barbecue sauce similar to the ole pork chop sauce. It’d have been better with homemade, but it was decent.

Broiled Barbecue Tofu

1 lb extra-firm tofu
1-2 Tbsp sesame oil
1/2 cup brown sugar (loosely packed unless you like your sauces pretty sweet)
1/4 cup cider vinegar
1/2 tsp allspice
1/4 tsp cloves
1/4 tsp salt
1 can crushed or diced tomatoes
sriracha to taste

Preheat the broiler on high.

You can press the tofu if you’d like. My homemade tofu doesn’t need pressing, and this Asian brand was very firm, so I didn’t bother. Slice it into thick slabs like this:

In a broiler-proof pan, preferably cast iron, pour 1 to 2 tablespoons of sesame oil, then place the tofu slabs in the pan in a single layer, turning them over to coat both sides in the oil.

Place under the broiler and broil for 10-15 minutes or until golden on top. Flip each piece over and return pan to broiler.

Meanwhile, whisk together the remaining ingredients except the tomatoes.

Add the tomatoes, and unless you are using already-crushed tomatoes, whir an immersion blender through them a few times. It doesn’t need to be too smooth.

When the tofu is beginning to blacken, remove from the broiler.

Pour the sauce onto the tofu and make sure it’s evenly coated. This photo isn’t out of focus so much as the pan was just very hot and steamy:

Place pan back in oven and cook for another 3-5 minutes or until sauce begins to thicken:

Okay, so I grilled some romaine and got one of the hearts out of the way, but I still had a bunch of baby romaine left over, so I made a side salad as well. SO MUCH LETTUCE. I thought a good mustardy dressing would go well with the barbecue flavors of the other dishes, so I made:

Sweet Shallot Mustard Dressing

1 small shallot
1/4 cup olive oil
1 Tbsp white wine vinegar
juice of 1/4 lemon
1 Tbsp Dijon mustard
1 scant Tbsp agave nectar
pinch of salt
pinch of freshly ground black pepper

Place all ingredients in small food processor or chopper.

Process until smooth. (If you don’t have a food processor, just mince the shallot finely and combine all ingredients.)

Enjoy on a tossed salad.

And here’s the whole meal:

It was pretty quick and easy to throw together, although the whole tofu broiling business was a little more involved than I’d have liked. Namely, it took a lot longer than I was anticipating and also the house got pretty smoky. I think I’ll probably just stick to baking or pan frying.

Another issue with broiling the tofu was my cast iron skillet needed special cleaning. Now, I am very attached to my cast iron skillet. It’s an antique and it’s seasoned to perfection. I’m probably somewhere on the midpoint of anal retentiveness when it comes to cleaning it, though. On one hand, I would consider murdering anyone who dared put soap on it or soaked it or tried to scrub it. On the other hand, although you are supposed to clean cast iron while it is still warm from preparing the meal – that means before you sit down to eat – I refuse to eat cold meals. (This fact also explains why my pictures of my plated meals are usually so crappy; I hate spending precious time trying to make them look artistic or good.) Clean-up after my meals is pretty easy because I wash all my prep stuff while I’m cooking, but the final pots and pans always sit on the stove while the meal is consumed, then any leftovers are removed and put away and the pans are cleaned. By then they’ve cooled. My skillet is so well seasoned this hardly ever matters: not much sticks to it. But when I’ve baked something onto it, like broiled barbecue sauce, I need to do something to loosen the baked-on food without scrubbing my seasoning off. It’s really no big deal, though. All you have to do is pour some water into the pan, set it over medium-high heat, let it come to a boil, and boil for a minute or two:

Next – and this is very important – remove any cats that are lurking at your feet between the stove and the sink (mine are ALWAYS there and I don’t want to spill boiling water on them), don a heavy oven mitt, and carry the pan to the sink, pouring out the water.

See that little bit of sauce? It’s all that didn’t get removed when I dumped the water out, and it slid right off when I rinsed the pan briefly – absolutely no scrubbing. Then I dried with a towel (ALWAYS dry cast iron immediately) and spritzed lightly with olive oil.

Honestly, some people think cast iron is high maintenance, but I find it a lot easier to clean than most other things!

And now for a bit of cat news:

Poor Brachtune is a conehead. She somehow got an ear infection and then managed to scratch herself when it got too itchy, so the doctor said she has to wear a cone while it heals up. Sigh. I feel incredibly bad for her about the cone. It’s breaking my heart! Especially since last night I let her take it off while we were hanging out for a few hours and she didn’t try to scratch once. But then when I got home tonight, I took it off and she promptly starting scratching herself. After three chances, the cone went back on.


She looks like Little Kitty on the Prairie here.

After seeing someone ask how to pronounce Brachtune in the comments last time (it’s Brock-toon), my mom suggested that I explain how she got her name. But this post has been really long, so I’ll save it for next time. So you have that to look forward to!

Finally, tomorrow – April 1 – would have been Tigger’s 16th birthday. My sweet April Fool. I miss him more than you can imagine.

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Italian Dressing and Simple Cucumber Salad

I don’t understand why some people don’t care for cucumbers. I love them! They’re crisp, cool, and yummy. In fact, as I was stuck in traffic on the way home from work tonight, trying to decide if I felt like stopping by the grocery store to pick up lettuce to make a salad to accompany the soup I planned to make, I realized the part of the salad I was really craving was just the cucumber, and since I had a cucumber at home and traffic was really irritating me, I decided to forgo the lettuce and just make a cucumber salad.

I wanted to dress it up a little more than just oil and vinegar, and I don’t tend to keep bottled salad dressings on hand because I usually just whip them up as needed, so I had to make one. A standard Italian dressing seemed apropos, if not necessarily creative. I really liked this combination for the dressing, though, so I wrote it down.

Italian Dressing

1/4 cup flax or olive oil
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 Tbsp white wine vinegar
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp onion powder
1 tsp dried basil
1 tsp dried red bell pepper flakes
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1/2 tsp flaked (Maldon) or sea salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground pepper
1/4 tsp dried thyme
1/8 tsp chili flakes

Reconstitute the red bell pepper flakes by soaking in hot water for 2 minutes. Whisk all ingredients together.

It’s pretty hard to photograph a bowl of Italian dressing and have it look like anything.

This dressing would be good on any tossed salad, or try it on:

Simple Cucumber Salad

1 cucumber, thinly sliced (on a mandoline if possible)
1/2 white or yellow onion, thinly sliced
3 Tbsp Italian dressing

Toss all ingredients together and chill for at least a couple of hours.

The mandoline …

… is one of the things Mark has gifted me with for no reason. He just sometimes randomly comes home with an expensive present. SORRY, LADIES – and gentlemen – HE’S TAKEN. The mandoline is a real boon for making very thin, very uniform slices.

Here’s the salad after chilling, when the cucumber slices have relaxed:

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