Menu of the Week: Greek Salad Stars in Mediterranean-Inspired Meal

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When planning warm weather menus, I often turn to the Mediterranean countries for inspiration. I reason that they might know a thing or two about a healthy, practical way of eating during hot, dry summers, given that they’ve had several millennia of experience. This meal, which we prepared for our Monday night dinner crowd in Palo Alto, is built around a Greek salad, with the addition of a rice salad, garbanzo and roasted vegetable salad, and pita bread with baba ghanoush. We began the meal with an Italian-inspired summer vegetable soup, for which I don’t yet have a shareable recipe, but I promise to post one soon, and we ended with Baklava (the recipe is here). After the jump, I explain this menu in more detail and share my easy-to-do method for making a tofu-based feta cheese substitute.

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Photo: Clockwise from center top: Toasted Rice Salad with Parsley and Mint, Pita Bread with Baba Ghanoush, Greek Salad, Garbanzo and Roasted Vegetable Salad.

Greek Salad:  Although Greek salads in these parts are typically built around romaine lettuce, and sometimes spinach, I like to use spring mix with some chopped romaine added in. Tossed with that were the typical ingredients: sliced cucumbers, as well as tomatoes, and olives. Thinly-sliced red onions are optional, but good. Our dinner manager, Ilona, found lovely, ripe organic grape tomatoes at Trader Joe’s and I bought pitted Niçoise olives at Berkeley Bowl. Since to a large extent, we eat with our eyes, I used tofu to create the illusion of feta cheese. The salient properties of feta cheese are that it is white, salty, dry and crumbly. In creating a vegan substitute, tofu was the logical starting point, but I needed a method for transforming moist and bland tofu into something quite different. This is what I did:

Tofu “Feta Cheese”— Start with a block of firm or very firm tofu. Drain it well. Cut it horizontally three times so you have four slices about 3/8-inch thick. Brush a thin film of olive oil onto a baking sheet pan and lay out the tofu slices. Sprinkle the top sides evenly with salt and drizzle liberally with ume boshi vinegar, turn the slices over and repeat. Bake in a preheated 400˚ F oven about 30-35 minutes, turning the slices over half way through and checking to see that the tofu is not browning or drying out  too much. Then you only have to cool the tofu and dice it up into little pieces. These you can crumble as well, to get the full visual illusion of feta cheese. Since it is nicely salted, this “feta cheese” should keep in the fridge for easily a week or ten days. No doubt you’ll find it useful in a lot of other applications as well.

Toasted Rice, Parsley and Mint Salad: Typically, one would serve tabbouleh with a meal like this, but with more and more people concerned about eating too much wheat and gluten, I decided to do a rice salad instead. For this salad, I wanted to start with rice fluffier and drier than usual, so we toasted the rice first. We spread the unwashed rice out on sheet pans and toasted it in a 400˚ F oven for 40-45 minutes (shake or stir the rice at least once while it is roasting). Then we washed it and cooked it about 50 minutes in 1 1/2 times as much water as rice. Because we had a lot, we spread the rice out to cool, sprinkling in a little olive oil to keep it from sticking together, then we seasoned to taste with ume boshi vinegar. Just before serving we added in a good bit of chopped fresh parsley and mint.

Pita Bread with Baba Ghanoush: I bought whole wheat pitas, cut them in quarters and served them with the middle eastern eggplant-tahini dip, baba ghanoush (find my recipe here.)

Garbanzo and Roasted Vegetable Salad: To cooked garbanzo beans, I added well-roasted diced vegetables, in this case, cauliflower, onions, carrots, fennel and zucchini. To make the veggies, dice all, toss with olive oil, salt, pepper, dried Italian herbs, a little splash of mirin and ume boshi vinegar (the latter two, both optional). Spread on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper and roast in a 400˚F  oven 35-45 minutes or until golden and caramelized (roasting times will vary depending what size you cut your veggies).  To speed this process, I pre-blanched the carrots. Finally, mix the cooled veggies with the rice. Taste and season with ume boshi vinegar and lemon juice (salt, if necessary). It’s also nice to throw in a handful of chopped, fresh parsley.

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