For a vegetarian, dining at a good vegetarian restaurant is rather liberating. At most restaurants, you're confined to the less interesting salads, the kind that the chef doesn't feel could be improved upon with the addition of prosciutto, or anchovies, or smokey bacon, or duck confit. And the inevitable vegetarian-overly-rich-creamy-cheesy-starch-based main course - ravioli, risotto, etc (which is always served with truffles when it's meant to be extra fancy). And while these are usually pretty tasty, they don't offer that much in the way of nutrition, or variety. But when you dine at a vegetarian restaurant, there's a whole menu available to you. Which is pretty exciting if you've spent most of your life skimming menus for meaty words and hidden meaty foods lurking behind the menu (chicken stock in the rice at a Cuban restaurant, lard in 'authentic' refried beans, fish sauce in anything Asian that doesn't expressly say it's vegetarian, and half of what does). And what's even more fun is dining with another vegetarian who shares your enthusiasm for dishes with tofu and seitan and whole grains.
And so, a few years back I had the pleasure of sharing such a meal with my friend Anna at the Candle Cafe in New York. I had a salad that sounded delicious and proved to be quite good. There was a bed of spinach, then quinoa, grilled chipotle marinated tofu, and a plump avocado half spilling over with black beans and a creamy dressing. And when I asked for a wine pairing, our waitress turned me toward something I'd never seen, an organic torrontes. Torrontes - a white, unique to Argentina, is fruity and floral and still somewhat dry and delicious with spicy and smoky foods - which paired perfectly with my salad, quickly became one of my favorites. And the combination of quinoa, tofu, black beans and avocado inspired this salad that I think has evolved into something even more fun to eat that the original.
Southwest Quinoa Salad
Makes 2 servings
1/2 cup quinoa
1 cup vegetable stock
2 cups mixed greens, washed dried and torn into bite sized pieces
1 avocado, peeled cored and diced
1 mango, peeled cored and diced
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved (oven roasted if out of season)
1/4 cup frozen corn kernels
1/2 (15 oz) can of black beans, drained and rinsed
2 tbsp roasted salted sunflower seeds or pepitas
4 1/2 inch slices firm tofu, pressed in a paper towel to removed excess water
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
salt to taste
2 tsp honey
1/4 cup orange juice
2 tsp soy sauce
2 tbsp chipotle ranch dressing, or substitute any southwest dressing
Combine quinoa and vegetable stock in a medium saucepan, bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cover. Simmer for 15 minutes, then turn off heat and let cool slightly. Fluff with a fork before serving.
Meanwhile, prepare fruits and vegetables. Heat a small skillet to medium high (without oil). Toss in frozen corn kernels along with a pinch of chili powder and allow to blacken in spots, one or two kernels may pop out of pan. Turn out onto cutting board and allow to cool.
Lay tofu slices out in a single layer. Season liberally with chili powder and lightly with salt, press seasoning into surface, flip and repeat on other side. Heat a very small amount of vegetable oil - just enough to lightly coat the bottom - in a small frying pan on medium high. (This technique for cooking tofu is easy in a nonstick skillet, can be done in a well seasoned cast iron pan with a flexible spatula, and proves very difficult in a stainless steel pan.) Lay tofu slices in pan shaking pan after they're in place to make sure they do not stick. Allow to cook on medium high heat for about 2 minutes per side until a slight crust has formed. Quickly add orange juice, soy sauce, and honey to pan (they may spit at you, but it's worth it) allow to bubble away and reduce into a glaze, flip tofu slices, turn off heat and allow to cool slightly in pan.
To assemble salad, lay out a ring of mixed greens, pile quinoa in center, then sprinkle on black beans, corn, avocado, mango, and tomatoes. Then top with tofu slices drizzle on dressing and top with sunflower seeds.
Note: When discussing my post for this salad Jon suggested that I have an awesome scale on my blog because "you wouldn't know just by looking at it how awesome [this] is" and he went on to say that everyone should try this at least once in their life. Just a word of advice.