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The Power of a “Hook” at Dinner | A Cup of Jo

vegetarian Caesar salad from weekday vegetarians cookbook

When I tried to convert my family from mostly meat-eaters to “weekday vegetarians,” I found one strategy that turned out to be a game-changer…

After a particularly catastrophic tofu experiment that left all our taste buds feeling beaten and bereft, I decided that from then on out, every meal should have a “hook,” i.e. at least one thing on the plate that everyone — especially the kids — looked forward to eating. That didn’t mean I was suddenly serving dinner with fries and Cokes every night. It meant I identified certain favorite recipes — from quick yogurt flatbread to spicy potatoes to sauces like my sweet chili glaze — that had the power to cast a warm and exciting glow over the rest of the meal. This seems obvious and intuitive, but it became twice as important when I was asking my family to overhaul the way we were thinking about dinner. Hooks don’t have to be huge or dominating. They just have to be present. Think: A square of honey-crusted cornbread next to the three-bean chili, pickled onions on top of the grain bowl, spicy peanut sauce drizzled on the steamed kale.

There’s an entire chapter in my book devoted to this philosophy, but I wanted to talk about one favorite dinner, Broiled Romaine Salad, which showcases two of our most well-loved hooks: Crispy Chickpeas and Caesar dressing. As soon as I mastered the art of making chickpeas crispy — like really crispy — I noticed that there was a general acceptance of everything surrounding them. Same with creamy dressings — any creamy dressing, whether it was ranch, a mayo-based Italian, or Caesar. My kids would drink that stuff by the gallon, and I knew I had to capitalize on its powers. That’s how I found myself slathering Caesar on broiled romaine hearts. When you do this, the otherwise kinda boring lettuce comes to life, all sweet and roasty on top, cool and crunchy on the bottom, in-between crevices filled with salty-tangy bites. Top that with crispy chickpeas and we are talking hook city. Here’s how you get there.

Step 1. Make Your Crispy Chickpeas

1/3 cup vegetable oil or extra-virgin olive oil
3 cups cooked chickpeas, or 2 (15-ounce) cans, rinsed and drained
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Optional spice mixture: 1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika, 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder, 1/8 teaspoon cayenne

Preheat the oven to 450°F. Line a sheet pan with foil. Toss the oil and chickpeas together on the prepared sheet pan. (I use my hands to make sure they are all evenly coated.) Roast for 30 minutes, until the chickpeas are crispy. While they roast, make the spice mixture, if using, by combining the paprika, garlic powder, and cayenne in a small bowl. Transfer the chickpeas to a paper-towel-lined bowl and lightly blot any excess oil. Slip the paper towel out of the bowl, then toss the crispy chickpeas with a few pinches of salt, black pepper, and spice mixture (if using).

Step 2. Make Your Vegan Caesar Dressing
You can also use Classic, just remember that authentic Parmesan is not vegetarian.

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice (from 1/2 small lemon)
2 tablespoons vegan mayonnaise (or cashew cream if you have it)
2 tablespoons nutritional yeast
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground
black pepper to taste

In a jar or small bowl, combine the mustard, vinegar, lemon juice, mayonnaise, nutritional yeast, olive oil, a few pinches each of salt and pepper, and 1 tablespoon water. Cover the jar and shake vigorously to combine, or whisk the ingredients together thoroughly in the bowl. Add more water, if needed, to thin the dressing to your desired consistency.

Step 3. Make Your Salad 

8 romaine halves, cut lengthwise from 4 romaine hearts, with the main stem intact
Caesar dressing (above)
4-5 tablespoons grated Parmesan (vegetarian, Trader Joe’s makes a decent one)
Crispy chickpeas (above)
3 tablespoons minced red onion or scallions
fresh herbs (dill, chives, tarragon), optional

Arrange an oven rack in the top position and preheat the broiler. Place romaine halves on a sheet pan. Brush each one generously with a few swipes of Caesar Dressing and sprinkle with a little Parmesan. Broil until the tops look shriveled and browned but not burned, about 5 minutes. Using tongs, transfer the romaine to a platter. Top with crispy chickpeas, red onion, herbs, if using, and drizzle everything with more dressing.

weekday vegetarians cookbook by Jenny Rosenstrach

These recipes are from The Weekday Vegetarians.

P.S. Muffin tin tapas for little ones and four great dinner salads.

(Photos by Christine Han.)

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