Cheating on Fiesta with 99 Ranch Market: Drop the dollar store visions, they've got sexy tofu!
I have been in Houston longer than any other city in my adult life, which is not really saying much considering I am 34 and unsure when adulthood officially began. It was definitely not after my illustrious bar mitzvah or when I revealed my perfectly manicured teeth post braces.
Perhaps, the day I signed my first lease sans the help of the parentals? Or my first speeding traffic violation?
As a graduate student, I taught music lessons at Memorial High School a couple of afternoons a week while living in Meyerland. A part of music teacher growing pains, I learned to care for my students enough to stay for a couple of years. Once the initial buzz of infusing culture into unsuspecting lives wore off, I was ready to move on.
Across the highway, there was the mega Fiesta on the corner of I-10 and Blalock: A Latin-centric international food valhalla with all my favorites, including hard to find items at rock bottom prices. After all, I was pseudo broke, as anything I earned went to feed my habits. Whether I was in need of the latest Charlie Trotter cookbook or a trendy new hat, I depended on my deal-seeking abilities to keep me culinarily engaged.
As the years went by, my daily routine took me into different thoroughfares, and I somewhat neglected to nurture my relationship with Fiesta. Imagine my surprise when one day the all familiar sign was gone in favor of one reading 99 Ranch Market. I felt betrayed, shunned and puzzled. Why would I need a 99 cent store?
My ignorance was fed by really bad marketing. Indeed, 99 Ranch Market was quite far from the stereotypical cluttered bargain product reject warehouse, although one could find great deals.
It is a chain of Asian grocery stores; the first opened in California in 1984. It made its Texas debut in Houston in late 2009. I no longer had to travel very far to find key ingredients to perfect my vegan Pad Thai, stock-up on Banh Xeo mixes like we were nearing armaggedon, or have access to a bacchanal of products in languages I could not understand, with translations that made no attempt to even vaguely make any sense.
I cheated on Fiesta and I am having open relations with 99.
Whether you are a self-proclaimed carnivore, a moderate omnivore, a flexaterian, pescaterian, vegetarian, vegan, raw vegan or believe in fasting, it is easy to fall into a foodie cycle and stick with what is familiar.
Being successful in maintaining a vegan diet, or any eating regime for that matter, is directly dependent on trying a variety of foods and ingredients and having courage and child-like curiosity to experiment with them. We often concentrate on everything we cannot have rather than discovering what we can. A huge gamut of delicious options materializes by branching out teasing our taste buds.
Remember the first time you tried sushi? While for most young'uns the thought of raw fish was welcomed by gagging gestures, it is through maturity and exposure that for some, it translates into an obsessive delicacy. Vegetables and undiscovered foods sometimes follow the same journey. Other times, its love at first taste.
Having access to ethnic grocery stores is a turn on. Roaming through them in a quest for the unknown resembles dating: We pretend to know what we want, but often surprise ourselves by ending up with something completely different.
On my last few trips to 99 Ranch Market, I developed foodie crushes for these fabulous finds.
Primarily grown in Southeast Asia, it is best known as Chinese spinach. It is of the same family as traditional spinach, although much easier on the eyes with beautiful, red-spotted leaves. Gorgeous as a salad base, it can also replace regular spinach in cooked dishes, dips and sauces.
High in vitamins A, K, B6, C, riboflavin and folate, red spinach is a good source of calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, copper and manganese.
The seed is actually a superfood known as amaranth with superhuman-like nutritional content. Like quinoa, it contains a complete set of amino acids making it a complete protein without the gluten of grains.
These adorable fashionably stripped little creatures are a perfect distraction from traditional melons and cantaloupe. If you are a commitment-phobe, their smaller size will please you.
Juicy and slightly meatier than their conventional brothers, Korean melon supplies you with a good amount of vitamin C, some potassium and a lot of fiber to keep you nicely regulated.
Hard Dry Mushroom Tofu
Tofu has received a bad reputation for being tasteless and for some, has an unpleasant consistency. In most conventional supermarkets, it is easy to find different varieties of tofu including silken, sprouted, soft, firm and extra firm. I love to blend the soft to create a creamy sauce base, while the extra firm allows for a meatier consistency.
Dry tofu is even sexier with a much denser texture with the least amount of water content. It can be sliced thinly, shredded, or diced to mimic meat or cheese, sometimes Indian paneer combined with a little vegan sour cream and spices. The mushrooms and spicy varieties have extra flavor in them for richer tasting dishes.
As close as a zero calorie food as you can get, konnyaku is a Japanese product made from the konjac plant also known as the Devil's Tongue. It comes in two varieties — a white and a gray with some seaweed added — and it is very high in fiber, but has little other nutritional benefits.
It has a gelatinous consistency and is basically flavorless. It is best to use konnyaku in richer tasting soups or allowing it to marinate for a while to absorb flavor. It is best to blanch the konnyaku in bowling water for a minute or so to remove the storage liquid. You will also find shirataki, which is essentially konnyaku in noodle form.
Banh Xeo Mix
Banh Xeo is a Vietnamese street food consisting of a crepe filled with fatty pork, shrimp and vegetables. The crepe is made with rice flour, coconut cream and turmeric giving it a gorgeous golden color with a crispy texture.
Sautee your favorite veggies, toss in the prepared mix and go to town. These are delicious and flexible. Typically, Banh Xeo is then served with vegetables and herbs on the side including lettuce, basil, mint, cilantro, green papaya and shredded carrots, rolled and then dipped in fish sauce. A vegetarian version is easily duplicated.
Hungry yet? Would you share your own favorite foodie finds? Please.