1/5/10

Spa Salad: Revealed!

There's this dish at Chow called the Spa Salad. Some people say it reminds them of chicken salad. I don't know what that means. I've never eaten chickens, and I never liked mayo based salads to begin with, but this one is pretty tasty. During my first couple of weeks working here, I'd tried everything except the spa salad, because I thought I hated celery violently. Note the use of the term "thought".

Before going vegan, I was fairy finicky. No aubergines, no bell peppers, no okra (actually, that one hasn't changed!), no celery, nothing with anise-y background notes, definitely no tofu, no tempeh, no seitan, no TVP. Don't even mention beets in my presence, thank you very much.

I was a vegetarian who hated vegetables.

Over time, I managed to get over my childhood fears (mushrooms and olives being two of those) very early on, because I finally had them prepared in such a way that I liked what I saw. Once I realised that you could throw olives into pasta, and sautee mushrooms and throw them onto darn near everything, a huge world of opportunity opened up for me. Unfortunately, that's just two out of the array of things I'd never bothered to eat.

So when I started here at Chow, the spa salad represented a seemingly insurmountable hurdle. Until one day, when I saw how it's made. Which I'll go ahead and explain, because one of the fans from facebook asked us roughly how it's done, and Boss Man said I could. It's not so much a recipe as it is a process.

First, you make some kind of grill marinade. Why are you doing this first? So that the spices and flavourings that you choose will have some time to steep and form together into a cohesive whole. When you've found one that you like (we use a mustard based one; search the googles and you're sure to find one to your liking, or just buy our grill marinade at Chow for $6/lb), tweak it and add just a hint of herbs of your choice, like oregano, marjoram, thyme, rosemary, whatever. You don't want the herbs to come through strongly. Rather, they're to be subtle, and as a gentle backdrop to the whole thing, because you're going to have more herbs later on.

Next, wrap a few pounds of tofu tightly in plastic wrap. This prevents them from picking up any objectionable aromas from the surrounding environment of the freezer. Freeze the tofu till it's rock hard, overnight in the freezer. The next day, pass the plastic-wrapped tofu under cold running water until the plastic wrap starts to separate from the tofu. To speed up the defrosting, let it sit in a pot of boiling water for around 15 minutes of so. This is the perfect opportunity to get your grill hot.

If you live in a city like New York, where grills exist in the George Foreman variety, you can follow their instructions and skip this step. There is no shame in an apartment grill! Just see to it that you have some kind of vent or exhaust or open window system going down, to prevent the apartment from smoking up. If you're fortunate enough to have one of those cast iron over-the-stove grill/griddle dealies, count your blessings and set 'em on the stove over medium high heat to get hot hot hot. Throw some oil down onto the grooves so as to prevent sticking. When the tofu is thawed, squeeze it out COMPLETELY. Now that it's been frozen and thawed out, the tofu is a lot more resilient, and can take a good squeezing to remove all the water from it. Then place it in the marinade, and let it sit for another five minutes, as you wait for the grill to get really hot.

If you want to ensure maximum marinade retention, feel free to give the tofu blocks a few gentle squeezes to soak up as much as they can. Then, when your grill is screaming hot, slap that bad boy down, and let it get those lovely grill marks. Continue to grill it for about five or ten minutes, then flip once. You should see gorgeous grill marks running up and down the length of your tofu block. The other side will only need another 2 - 5 minutes. When that tofu is done to your liking, remove it from the heat, and set it aside.

Let them cool down completely to room temperature. While you wait for it to cool, use your favourite recipe for vegan mayonnaise (or, buy the mayo at Chow; we sell it for the same price as the marinade!), and make it. For every 1 lb of tofu, use 1 stalk of celery, and chop it into as fine a dice as you can get it to. A brunoise is your best bet, of course, but if you're nervous about your knife skills, just throw it through the slicing attachment of your food processor. The idea is to get the celery chopped enough that its fibres don't interfere with the texture of the tofu.

Finally, when the tofu is cooled completely, shred it with a knife. Essentially, what we do at Chow is to slice it into rectangluar pieces, then slice it as thin as possible. The size isn't as important as how thin you can get it sliced up. It's never going to be paper thin, which is fine. It'll be maybe 1.5 - 3 mm thin, and I think that's plenty thin.

Toss the tofu, the celery, and the vegan mayo together until they're evenly combined. Finish it off with your favourite herb. Here at Chow, we like lots of fresh dill, because it complements the taste of the celery, but equally lovely would be parsley, or your favourite herb of choice!

Finally, take the whole spa salad, and chill it in the fridge until it's cold cold cold. Any olive oil you've used to make the mayo will start to solidify, giving the texture loads of improvement. This also allows for the fresh herbs to mellow out a bit, and combine with the other ingredients for a bit.

It just seems like a complicated process, because I'm trying to explain it so that you know how to do it at home, if you're so inclined. In reality, it's all quite simple stuff. :)
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