A few weeks ago, I bought a small tub of TJ's Mild Yellow Miso because of the glowing terms in which it was described in the Fearless Flyer that I got in the mail. But frankly, I had no idea what I was going to do with it.
As a completely separate thread of my life, for a couple of months I had been following on Facebook the posts of a company called Beyond Meat, which makes vegetarian-friendly meat substitutes. I'm always on the lookout for good meat substitutes. I initially misread the company's map of retail outlets, and thought they had no stores in Asheville, though I have since learned that they do, in fact, have two places in town to buy their products (Greenlife and the French Broad Food Co-op). One of their recent posts was a recipe for "Spicy miso sesame chicken," which you can find here. Of course, despite the name, it actually recommended using their fake chicken rather than real chicken.
I knew that I had some Trader Joe's Chicken-Less Strips in my freezer, which I assumed would work just as well.
I was delighted that the recipe called for miso paste, as it would finally give me a chance to use what I had bought. It also requires honey, which is one of my favorite things in the world. I had on hand hot sauce (sriracha), garlic, and Trader Joe's Brown Basmati Rice (which, by coincidence, was exactly the kind that the recipe recommended).
I actually went to TJ's and bought a bottle of rice vinegar and one of toasted sesame oil, since I didn't have either at home. But when Nina heard that I had done so, she suggested that I just borrow hers, so that I wouldn't waste money on things that I might use just once. That seemed wise, so I returned the TJ's bottles to the store unopened. (In keeping with their reputation, the return and refund process was fast, completely painless, and hassle-free.)
(EDIT: Since writing this, I decided that I liked the recipe enough that I would want to make it again, so rather than bother with carting bottles back and forth between Nina's house and mine, I bought another bottle of each on my next TJ's trip. I used them the second time I made this recipe, so I feel that I can put their pictures here, even though I didn't use them the first time.)
The last thing I needed was either cilantro or micro-greens for garnish. TJ's had no such items, except for their pea shoots, which I had previously tried and didn't like. But at a grocery store next door to the Asheville TJ's, I found a nice little carton of locally grown micro-greens that both looked and tasted great.
I'm not generally comfortable with deviating from recipes, at least until I've made something enough times to be confident in how to improve it. (The chief exception is that the first step in following any recipe that contains onion is to mark that out with a heavy Magic Marker. Even the presence of the evil word on the printed page can contaminate an otherwise delicious meal. Obviously.) So I followed the directions to the letter.
When boiling the marinade down to a glaze, I let it cook too long, and it got both slightly scorched and overly thick, hard to pour. I'll have to watch that better next time.
The other main mistake that I made had to do with the side dish. I had decided to try some "Trader Joe's And The Organic Carrots Of Many Colors."
My plan was to chop them into large chunks and steam them in the vegetable steamer that sits on top of the pot on my rice cooker.
But a few seconds after that beautiful bunch was in my shopping basket, my eye caught something I had never before noticed: TJ's Mini Heirloom Tomatoes.
Now, I've never been a big fan of tomatoes per se. I love all sorts of things made from tomatoes, but something about the texture of tomatoes themselves I find, well, kind of gross. So until yesterday, I had never in my life purchased tomatoes. But they looked so pretty, and seemed to be begging to be served alongside the multicolored carrots. Can you steam tomatoes, I wondered? I had never heard of them being cooked that way, but what did I know? It didn't seem far-fetched. What's the worst that could happen? So I brought them home.
I added the carrots and tomatoes to the steamer when I thought the rice had about ten minutes of cook time left. Then I got everything else ready, and waited for the rice. And waited. And waited. It was taking much longer than usual, and I didn't know why. I wanted to lift the lid and steamer basket to look, but Nina silently judges me (or, not so silently) when I lift the lid on cooking rice, and she was watching, so I resisted.
Nina finally suggested that the rice cooker was perhaps not finishing its cycle because the tomatoes were dripping their juices down into the rice. That seemed entirely plausible, and potentially disastrous, so I quickly pulled off the lid and steamer basket. She was exactly right. The rice was done--overdone, in fact--but still had lots of water trying to boil off. And the brown rice had been stained pinkish from the tomato drippings.
I strained the excess water from the rice and served it up. It wasn't quite what I had envisioned, what with the rice being oddly pink instead of brown, but it was pretty nonetheless.
A bed of rice, with the fake chicken strips, drizzled with the glaze, garnished with the microgreens, alongside the rainbow carrots and tomatoes:
(Photo by Nina.)
We also had TJ's pumpkin soup, some chips and dip, which I'll review another time, TJ's Spiced Cider, and a salad made from a blend of TJ's Cruciferous Crunch Collection and spring blend (both to be reviewed another day). It's a meal that could be made with 100% TJ's products, though I didn't quite go that far.
How was it? I thought it was one of the best meals I've ever made, though I wish I had omitted the pumpkin soup, which was both too much and kind of off-putting. But the main course and the veggie side dish were great. I probably should have been able to predict that the tomatoes would be mushified, but I didn't mind that. Both they and the carrots tasted just fine. I thought the spicy miso sesame chickenless strips were, overall, one of the best things I've ever made--like a sweet and sour fake chicken.
It's a very easy recipe, really, though even so it was pushing the edge of my meager culinary skills, as you can probably tell from the rookie mistakes I made. But I liked the result so much that I'm eager to try it again and see if I can get it just right. (EDIT: I tried it again the next week in a larger batch, but apparently got one of the measurements wrong when I scaled up the recipe, and ended up with a super-hot version. Edible, but not as good as the first time. Third time's the charm, right?)
Will I buy it again?
I will definitely try the carrots and tomatoes prepared some other way. They were tasty and really pretty on the plate. This particular kind of rice, as discussed in its separate post, is not going to be coming back, though TJ's has about a billion other forms of rice that I'll experiment with. The fake chicken I thought was perfectly decent, though not outstanding. I would get it again, except that Nina has now tried the Beyond Meat fake chicken product and thought it was even better. If I agree with that assessment, then the TJ's version may be permanently out of luck. (EDIT: It wasn't better--in fact, wasn't as good. But there's a local company, No Evil Foods, that makes a fake chicken product. For my third attempt, that's what I'll use.) The miso? Well, I'll keep looking for ways to use it, but it's a little exotic, and I'm not even sure how or whether I'll finish up this current tub of it, let alone buy more. We'll see. (EDIT: I'll definitely buy more when making this recipe again. As for other uses, it's still "we'll see.") The salad blend is one I like a lot, and will definitely be making future dinner appointments.
When I met this man his pride and joy in the kitchen was boxed mac and cheese with tuna (admittedly delicious, but you get my point).
Bob has become a shopper, a meal planner, an experimenter, and an actual cook. [Bob interjects: And a professional food critic! Well, minus the "professional" part.] I am not even going to bother sharing any quibbles I might have had about this dinner. Look at that plate! Color, texture, flavor, variety! COME ON.
Words cannot express how delighted I am that he has come to enjoy the preparation and consumption of a whole rainbow of foods from around the world. I am the lucky spectator, participant, and cheering squad for this great adventure.