Thursday, May 8, 2014

Meal Ideas: The World's Easiest Taco Salad

One of the biggest daily challenges anyone faces, vegan or otherwise, is meal planning. It can be hard to think about what to have for dinner tonight, much less for the next week. I think meal planning can be especially daunting for  a new vegan - in addition to figuring out what to eat, you likely have a pattern of  foods that you use as a fallback, many of which probably aren't vegan, so then you feel like you are going to starve.

Have no fear - I will help you through this hurdle! It's an area where I used to struggle, too, and frankly I didn't realize meal planning was a vegan stumbling block for me - until I read Colleen Patrick-Goudreau's 30-Day Vegan Challenge and she talked about this very phenomenon and offered very practical solutions to combating this problem. (That is one of the many reasons her book is so helpful - please help her bring the book back into print by contributing here! If you want more information, check out my post one her campaign here.)

Since I know how helpful it was for me to have some guidance both for meal planning generally and for vegan meals particularly, I plan on devoting some of my posts to planning healthful and tasty meals. So if you're a new or experimenting vegan, I hope these posts help you see that eating well (both in terms of nutrition and taste) doesn't have to be overwhelming. Or if you're a vegan who is bored with your usual routine, I hope I can shake things up for you.

Today's post will be about one of our favorite lunches: taco salad.

I will admit that in terms of weekday lunches, I have it pretty easy. Since I work in downtown Chicago, I am surrounded by a number of establishments that have accidentally vegan food (seriously - I'm looking at you Chipotle, and Noodles & Company, and Protein Bar, and Pret a Manger, and Panera Bread, and many others, which I will post about later!) and the mecca of vegan chains, Native Foods. But let me tell you, paying for lunch can add up fast. Plus, I realize that not everyone is so lucky to have so many lunch options - or, if you're like Greg, you have a job where you don't have any time to leave the premises to get lunch, much less find a joint where you can get vegan food.

To help us save some extra cash and ensure that poor Greg can actually eat during the day, I started to prepare our lunches ahead of time. This taco salad recipe evolved from a list of lunch suggestions that Colleen recommends in the 30-Day Vegan Challenge. She provides a basic framework for this (and other!) easy salads, and this taco salad has become a tasty and super easy to prepare staple in our house. Here is how our family prepares taco salad.

Before I begin, I would like to say that this salad is very free form - it usually morphs based upon what we have in our house, what sounds good, and anything I'm trying to use up.  For example, since summer is almost upon us, fresh veggies from the farmer's market would be great in this salad - or not so fresh veggies that are getting ready to go bad. Today's version of the salad is a direct reflection of my pregnant state - I'm in my third trimester, I'm tired, and I have no desire to cut things up. So frozen veggies to the rescue!

First, heat up about 2-3 teaspoons of oil over medium to medium-high heat in a saute pan. If you are trying to cut down your oil intake, you can add less oil and use spray oil to cover the rest of the pan, or you can heat up some vegetable broth instead of oil. Add your veggies - this time around, I added half a bag of a frozen three bell pepper mix and about 3/4 cup of frozen corn. Saute until the veggies start to brown. For me, since the veggies were frozen, this took about 10-12 minutes (fresh veggies will take about 5-10 minutes), until the vegetables started to look like this...

I apologize - I know the picture isn't the best, but notice that the bell peppers are softened and the vegetables have picked up some color from the pan.

Once the veggies are prepared, throw in some beans and spices. You can use canned beans or dried beans prepared ahead of time - check out my recipe for Easy Slow Cooker Beans if you'd like to try and have some beans on hand, for recipes such as this one. Here I added about 3 cups of black beans, or the equivalent of two drained and rinsed cans of beans. Veggie crumbles would work well, too.

In terms of spices, for taco salad you can use a taco seasoning packet or, as Colleen recommended, you can just throw in chili powder, cumin, and salt, which is what I usually do since I'm not organized enough to have taco seasoning ahead of time. Here, I added about 1-2 Tablespoons of chili powder, 1/2-1 teaspoon of cumin, and 1/2-1 teaspoon of salt. We are also big garlic lovers in my house, so I added about 1-2 Tablespoons of garlic powder (yes, pregnancy has made me disinterested in chopping up fresh garlic - I have no guilt!). You could also zest this up by adding fresh or bottled lemon or lime juice as well, or if you want a little kick you can use cayenne pepper (or you can add part of a diced jalapeno when you're sauteeing the veggies).

After mixing in the beans and spices, go ahead and add some salsa; this picture shows roughly 3/4-1 cup of salsa. In a surprising twist, don't feel like you have to use an expensive salsa - I usually add the mild or medium store brand. I prefer jarred salsa, both due to my aforementioned pregnancy laziness and because jarred salsa tends to be a little runnier, and I like adding the extra moisture to the pan. Plus, since you are adding so many other flavors to the pan, having a fancy salsa is less important. Greg concurs - he is very particular about his salsa and rarely uses the basic store brand for his chips, but he loves the salsa in this taco salad.

Anyway, go ahead and mix in the salsa and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the salsa has reduced into a thick sauce. I usually start light on the salsa and more if necessary so this phase can go quickly. Usually I can reduce the salsa in about 3-5 minutes, though if I add too much, it can take up to ten minutes.

And here is the delicious final product, ready to eat, in about 20 minutes! You can prepare this weekend before a work week or throw it together during the work week since it cooks up so quickly.

We usually eat this salad for lunch, but it can easily be classed up for dinner, too. Here are some serving suggestions:
- I took this salad and split it into two containers for lunches. You can reheat it or eat it cold - we like it both ways.
- You can enjoy it with chips if that's your bag, but it's great on its own.
- If you want to class it up a bit and make it more like a salad, you can mix in fresh greens before you eat it (or cook the greens right in), or scoop this out on top of greens. I would use something a little hardier, like spinach or raw or lightly cooked kale.
- This would work well with some sliced avocado on top or a dollop of guacamole.

I hope you enjoy it as much as we have!

Quick and Easy Taco Salad
Note: since this recipe is free form in nature, this recipe will provide basic guidelines to throwing together a taco salad. Don't be afraid - be creative! (Or simply use up what's leftover in your house.) If you would feel better with some more specific measuring guidelines, please check out my commentary above for two servings.

Oil (canola, vegetable, grapeseed, or olive all work well), spray oil, vegetable broth, or any combination of these three ingredients
Fresh or frozen diced veggies (we like bell peppers and corn)
Black beans or veggie crumbles
Taco seasoning packet (or 1-2 Tbsp. chili powder, 1/2-1 tsp. cumin, and 1/2-1 tsp. salt)
Optional extra spices and flavors (garlic, cayenne pepper, and lime or lemon juice are all possibilities)

1) Heat oil/spray oil/vegetable broth in a saute pan over medium or medium-high heat. (If you use oil or an oil/spray combo, you can probably use 2-3 teaspoons. For veggie broth, I would put a thin layer on the pan; as the broth evaporates while you cook, you may need to add a Tablespoon at a time so your food doesn't stick.)
2) Saute your vegetables until they begin to brown. Fresh veggies will cook in 5-10 minutes; frozen will probably take a little longer, like 10-15 minutes.
3) Mix in black beans or veggie crumbles plus the spices.
4) Add salsa; I like to start light (like 1/2-1 cup) and add more if the mixture looks dry. Reduce the mixture until the salsa becomes a thickened sauce. Depending on the amount of salsa you add, this can take 3-10 minutes.

Enjoy! Make ahead for an easy lunch or throw together for a fast weekday dinner. Check out the post above for serving ideas.

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