Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Taking Credit for the Big Salad

My Big Salad; I ate the whole thing.
           Does it ever seem like you go through food phases? In my teen years I could eat a whole jar of kosher dill spears...yes, the whole jar...and yes--I was a bit on the chubby side (extreme water-weight retention from disgusting amounts of sodium probably). "Peanut butter" was my response when asked about my favorite food...especially if it was in divine combination with chocolate. I just drooled a little. On a daily basis I crave something sweet but I go through phases of wanting sugary candies like Skittles or opting for cookies and cakes. Here is a strange food phase that must be genetic because it happens to my mother as well: Salad cravings!

The lazy salad--Ironically named, American Blend.

         Perhaps I crave things that I can crunch on vigorously and stab with my fork during times of stress. This particular semester is pretty stressful, so if you see me ripping apart a head of lettuce you should probably steer clear. There are endless combinations for salad making, and it's pretty hard to get a salad wrong (I said pretty hard, not impossible). When I felt the salad itch, I decided to meander over to the pre-packaged salad bags and see what my fine neighborhood Kroger had to offer. Ah, uniform pieces of lettuce packed into 5 to 9 oz bags. Some of them are nice enough to take the guesswork out of the salad making process by putting in other ingredients like shredded carrots, red cabbage and radishes. Just dump out, add dressing, and eat. Don't have dressing? They add dressing packets too! I'm starting to see a trend in marketing...geared towards the lazy. Don't have time to make your own salad? Aw, come on! Is this your excuse for everything?

         Personalized salad making is definitely worth the time and effort! It's also cheaper! So back to the neatly packaged salad bags...7 oz salad mixes for about $4 a bag! My meager college grocery budget cannot sustain such reckless purchases! For less than $1 a head, I bought green leaf lettuce, and red tipped lettuce. Romaine is around $1.50. Next, I chose two carrots from the loose pile, 88 cents, and splurged on organic radishes (they had a nicer color) for $1.29. I hate cabbage, so this salad would be delightfully cabbage free! I like to add some chickpeas to my salad, and I can buy a can for 89 cents. So there you have it, for less than five dollars I had the potential to make many salads...and I like my salads big! 7 ounces just isn't going to cut it!

          Time to deglaze those eyes; I'm done talking about finances now. On to the good stuff: salad making! There are three things that I get from Whole Foods Market that I can't find at Kroger: R.W. Knudsen ginger ale spritzer, quinoa, and nutritional yeast. The third one, nutritional yeast, is a new ingredient I add to my salads per the advice of my friend and fellow dietetics major Jason. I realize that nutritional yeast sounds about as appetizing as licking fungus off of someone's toes, but hear me out! Nutritional yeast looks a lot like a yellow version of instant mashed potato flakes, has a cheesy flavor so it makes a great popcorn topping, and best of all for vegetarians: it's a great source of vitamin B12, a hard vitamin to get when you don't eat meat.

Nutritional yeast, certified cheese imitator.

Best ginger ale I've ever ingested.

          Once I've got my lettuce, carrot, radish and chickpeas into the bowl I sprinkle 1 teaspoon of nutritional yeast over everything. For my dressing I simply use 1 Tablespoon of olive oil and 2 Tablespoons of red or white wine vinegar with a few grinds of pepper. Put a plate over the top of the bowl and shake it around a few times to coat the salad evenly. The nutritional yeast adds so much flavor to the dressing; I wish I had known about it sooner! I like to change things up by adding baby spinach when I have it, kalamata olives, tomatoes, onions, cucumbers...the options are endless! I'm adding one of my favorite salad recipes to my recipe blog, so check it out, and don't be afraid to experiment with your own unique salad combinations. If you make it yourself, then you can truly take credit for the Big Salad.

For those who did not catch my Seinfeld reference.

Monday, October 4, 2010

In Defense of Tofu!

                Today I feel it is necessary to talk about tofu. Yes, tofu, the butt of many FoxTrot jokes and the subject of Doug Funny's favorite song by The Beets. The first time I tried tofu was at Ghengis Grill and I added it to my mix of veggies and turkey out of pure curiosity. The texture was a little alien, but the taste was by no means objectionable. My knowledge of the magical curd was limited to the fact that it was somehow made from soybeans.

Tofu can usually be found in its own special section at the grocery store; along with plain, vanilla, and chocolate soymilk (mmm chocolate), veggie burger patties, dairy free cheese and other oddities. I buy Nasoya brand. It’s the only brand I have ever tried so I can’t vouch for it being better or worse than any others. Firm and Extra Firm and Silken are the varieties I’ve tried.  They come in fun square packages filled with water. I wouldn’t suggest trying to peel back the plastic unless you would like to start a wet t-shirt contest. I cut two slits and then hold the package over the sink to drain the liquid out and then peel back the plastic.
Nasoya Tofu Varieties, I use the silken tofu in smoothies.
Once you’ve opened the tofu (I’ll wait) you will find a spongy block of bean curd with lots of potential! You can bake it, deep fry it, sauté it, stir-fry it, add it to soups, stews, smoothies, dips…you get the picture. Just don’t eat it raw from the package. My first meal using tofu was a simple stir-fry recipe my friend sent me via text message. A stir-fry is what I’ve decided to make for dinner tonight because I’ve got some left over broccoli in my fridge, and honestly…it’s the only way I can stand to eat it. Blech.  Yes, the woman studying nutrition hates broccoli! We’re human too you know?
Rarely have I heard a good excuse for not liking tofu. Most people will respond with “yuck” accompanied by a grotesque facial expression. Most people haven’t even tried it! I’m not going to lie to you and tell you that I can make tofu taste exactly like steak, pork, or chicken (although I’ve come pretty close to that last one). I find that I either end up masking the flavor with marinades or I can taste the soy goodness of the tofu along with whatever I’m serving it with.
One of the most impressive recipes I’ve made, using extra firm tofu, came so close to chicken nuggets I’ll be damned if I wasn’t in a school cafeteria! (The lunch ladies used to yell at us for calling them McNuggets™) This is a recipe I’ll share at the end of this post; and for those of you with children see if you can fool them! My brother once served his famous green curry to my family using tofu and my dad had no clue! We told him it was chicken. I don’t condone putting “secret” ingredients into people’s food and then waiting until they eat it to laugh heartily and tell them what idiots they are however; and I think you may lose friends this way.
I’ve included a couple of photos for your viewing pleasure. The best thing about tofu, besides it being an excellent meat substitute for vegetarians and a flavor soaking sponge, is that it’s SO CHEAP! I can always find it for around 2 dollars for 14 oz. I can divide this up into three portions to use in three different meals. Meals for one, mind you. An important preparation method I’ve learned is that freezing the tofu, thawing, and pressing before use gives it a meatier texture. When I saw this step in recipes I would think, “Nah, can’t be bothered with that nonsense.” If you think about it, it is really no more time consuming than defrosting meat for dinner…it takes less time in fact! It will also soak up more flavor this way because once it is defrosted the moisture is easier to press out.

Tofu Tacos! I used a packet of taco seasoning to flavor crumbled firm tofu with diced onions and green bell pepper. No pictures of the actual tacos because I ate them. ;-)

White bean, vegetable and tofu Cassoulet. I baked this in the oven right in the frying pan!

Pesto pasta with tofu standing in for the chicken. LOVE PESTO!

An additional note on soy:
I know that some people are afraid to eat soy due to phytoestrogens. One reason why we may be seeing a rise in estrogen in both men and women may have to do with the rise in obesity: an increase in adipose tissue (fat cells) means an increase in estrogen production. You can see some other possible factors listed in this article from MSN Health and Fitness. I did some of my own research into the effects of phytoestrogens on men and women and found that eating soy products did not have a detrimental effect on sex hormone levels, and may in fact have a positive effect on cardiovascular health! Don’t take my word for it of course, the links to the journal articles are posted on the right side of the screen. Please remember that taking any nutrient in supplement form does not compare to eating the actual foods that contain it and many other properties that work in concert. Studies have shown that genetically modified, GM soy, has lead to reproductive health abnormalities in rats. It is best to eat only organic soy products and these are regulated and labeled in accordance with the FDA.