At the end of the semester, I got stuck. There are many reasons for this, but one is that I fell into familiarity. There are some foods we love, and we make over and over again, but they just don’t feel “blog-worthy.” One of the challenges of this format is the urge for new, insightful, creative, beautiful dishes (that are also, somehow, affordable, easy, and don’t take very long to prepare), and while I’m usually up for that, a little cruise through the standards can be comforting. (Interestingly, it’s also probably more environmentally friendly: the book I’m currently teaching in my composition courses – Edward Humes’ Garbology – includes findings from a study that people tend to create less food waste when they eat the same thing over and over. Less adventurous, perhaps, but more sustainable – since we know we like it, we don’t throw away the unexpected results or less-than-beloved leftovers.)
But we recently did our almost-annual road trip up to Oregon and back, and if there’s one thing I typically gain from vacation with friends and family, it’s ideas. Enter S. She’s a frequent contributor to this site, both in terms of feedback and inspiration. Living in Los Angeles has increased our meat consumption considerably, and being back in Eugene and staying with S. (who is vegetarian and whose current job requires her to think and live sustainably) reminded us sharply of meat’s high carbon footprint and resource use. It also reminded me how much fun it is to work one’s way around that protein-center on the plate and develop other flavors.
Perhaps my favorite thing S. made us while we were in Eugene was a salad. That doesn’t sound exciting, but for the five of you still reading, hang with me. Years ago, S. worked at California Pizza Kitchen, and fell, as many have, for their BBQ Chicken Salad. Of course she developed a vegetarian version and made other tweaks of her own to the original, and I found the bright, sharp, fresh and spicy bowl she put in front of us so craveable it was the first thing I wanted to recreate when we got home.
Like S., my version uses thick slabs of tofu drenched in BBQ sauce – either make your own or find a bottled version you like that isn’t too sweet – and then grilled. Toss together everything you like in a Mexican or Southwestern direction that belongs in salad with mixed greens – here we’re pulling together black beans, tomatoes, avocado, green onion, cilantro, and the non-negotiable coup de grace of fried tortilla strips on top. The original salad from CPK uses chunks of jicama and adds basil along with the cilantro; you could certainly do that as well.
As for dressing, S. used a tasty ranch, and added chunks of Monterey jack cheese to the salad. I went in a different direction, whipping up a blue cheese drizzle with equal parts buttermilk, mayonnaise, and blue cheese crumbles. We decided upon reflection we liked S.’s dressing choice slightly better, and in future incarnations of this dish we’ll swap out for that, and maybe some crumbles of queso fresco instead of the rich funk of the blue cheese or the neutral creaminess of the jack.
As you can see, this salad looks really nice in a composed presentation, either positioning all of the non-greens in sections around a center like spokes on a wheel as I did, or Cobb salad style, arranged in rows next to each other atop the lettuce mix. At the last minute, add on the dressing, another drizzle or two of BBQ sauce if you want, and the tortillas in a crispy stack. But if you aren’t feeling fussy, tossing everything together to serve will be easier and just as delicious.
Note: I tend to find in salad recipes that nearly everything is negotiable and, at best, quantities are approximations. That is, some people like more tomato than others, and some want to amp up the cheese. Some might not want as much dressing, and some think a whole can of black beans sounds excessive. To that end, I have provided you with quantities, but you should feel free to adjust as desired. Want more corn? Great. Use three ears. Want less green onion? Okay, do that. Want to backwards engineer the whole thing and replace the tofu with chicken? That would be tasty as well. The point is, it’s an outrageously delicious entrée salad that, minus frying the tortilla strips, requires nothing from your stove or oven, and would pair just as well with a margarita or a cold beer as it does with a frosted glass of lemonade. Certainly, my dog-friend here would have happily gulped it down even without an accompanying beverage.
BBQ Tofu Salad
Historical connections to CPK, though I’ve only had S.’s version of their original
2 ears corn on the cob
1 TB olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
16 oz. extra-firm tofu, drained and patted dry
1 cup BBQ sauce of your choice (not too sweet)
6-8 cups mixed greens (I like a combination of romaine, red cabbage, and a kale slaw mix from Trader Joe’s I’m currently obsessed with)
¼ cup thinly sliced green onions, dark green parts only
¼-½ cup cilantro and/or basil leaves, roughly chopped
1 can (14-15 oz) black beans, drained and rinsed
1-2 avocados, pitted and cubed (I like this method of pitting from the kitchn)
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
½ cup cheese chunks or crumbles: either blue cheese, Monterey jack, or queso fresco
2-3 corn tortillas cut into thin strips
vegetable oil to fry
additional salt to season tortilla strips
~ 1 cup (or desired amount) blue cheese or ranch dressing
Additional BBQ sauce, if desired
Optional: lime wedges to serve
- Preheat a gas grill or grill pan over medium high heat. While you wait, shuck the corn, removing the husk and as much silk as possible, but leave on the stem for easier kernel removal later. Rub the ears with the 1 TB olive oil and sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper on all sides. Place on the preheated grill and cook over direct heat for about 8 minutes total, turning every two minutes or so, until the corn is fully cooked and has a healthy golden brown char. Set aside until it is cool enough to handle.
- Slice the tofu block into 4 slabs and dredge each in BBQ sauce. Reduce the grill heat to medium and grill over direct heat for about 4 minutes per side, until nicely marked. Set aside with corn to cool while you make the rest of the salad.
- In a large bowl, toss together the mixed greens, green onions, and cilantro and/or basil. Arrange or toss the black beans, avocado chunks, tomatoes, and cheese chunks or crumbles as desired on or in the greens mix.
- When the corn and tofu are cool enough to handle, cut the tofu slabs into chunks of your desired size. For the corn, cut off the kernels by standing up the cob on your cutting board (you can use the stem to hold onto, if you’ve left it attached) and carefully cutting straight down the ear with a sharp knife, sawing the blade back and forth a bit to help loosen the kernels. When you get to the bottom of the ear, rotate the cob a half turn or so and cut again, repeating until you have removed all kernels. Add both tofu and corn to the salad.
- For the tortilla strips, heat about ¼ inch of vegetable oil in a skillet over medium high heat until the edge of one of your strips sizzles when dipped in. Add the sliced tortillas a handful at a time, spreading them out in the skillet so they don’t overlap too much. Fry about a minute on each side, or until they are light brown and crisp. Remove to a paper towel lined plate and immediately sprinkle with salt. Repeat as needed.
- To finish the salad, add the dressing over the top in a rough circle. If desired, drizzle 1-2 TB more of the BBQ sauce right over the dressing for a nice contrast of red on white. Collect the fried tortilla strips in two hands and arrange them loosely over the center of the salad like straws. Serve with lime wedges to squeeze on if desired.