Crispy Tofu, Grapefruit, Avocado, and Tahini = Lunch

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[Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt]

I throw random photos of recipes-in-progress up on my Instagram feed all the time, and it's usually pretty easy to predict which ones are going to get a ton of likes (hint: burgers and steaks). So I was thrown for a loop when my most liked photo of all time turned out to be of a salad, and not just any salad. It was a completely vegan salad that prominently featured tofu. This couldn't have made me happier, as it gives me more hope that folks are coming to appreciate tofu in the way that I was raised eating it: as a tasty ingredient unto itself, not simply a meat substitute.

I've been making versions of this salad with crispy tofu, avocado, and grapefruit, flavored with za'atar and topped with a miso and tahini dressing, on and off for the last couple of months, each time tweaking the ingredients a bit, substituting different greens, altering the ratio of dressing components, et cetera. I've come to the conclusion that the base is great no matter what you do with it. Add some chopped raw kale and chickpeas? Delicious. Add a splash of fish sauce (for a non-vegan version) and some toasted pita bread croutons? Fantastic. Toasted pine nuts and roasted beets? It works.

I think it has to do with the texture of those three main ingredients. Crisp tofu, creamy avocado, and juicy grapefruit.

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The tofu I slow-cook in olive oil using my crispy tofu method* until it's a deep golden brown, before sprinkling it with some za'atar. Za'atar is technically an herb related to thyme, but the word is most often used to refer to a spice blend that heavily features that herb, along with toasted sesame seeds and lemony sumac berries. The za'atar I use is a blend that my Lebanese friend brings to me from back home, but you can find decent versions at spice shops or online.

* I know, I know—two crispy tofu recipes in one week! But just think about how many chicken recipes your average food website posts in a week, and it won't seem excessive anymore.

This being California, plump, ripe avocados with just the perfect amount of give are easy to find pretty much year-round (sorry, I hate have to brag), which means they make their way onto my table with regularity.

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I fold the tofu, avocado, and grapefruit together with some extra-virgin olive oil before adding a bunch of greens (though, like I said, don't feel restricted to any one particular type of green!).

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To dress the salad, I wanted to introduce an element that would be rich enough to stand up to the avocado and tofu, but wouldn't be so heavy that the greens would wilt. Tahini seemed like a natural choice to pair with the za'atar. To boost the umami factor, I combined it with miso paste, thinning the thick paste out with the juice I'd reserved after segmenting the grapefruit. Some lemon juice, more extra-virgin olive oil (the leftover za'atar-scented oil in the tofu pan found a new home in the dressing), and a touch of honey for sweetness rounded the dressing out. You can use agave nectar if you're a no-honey vegan.

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There's a lot going on in that bowl, and the salad is hearty enough to eat as a meal. I know, because I've eaten a variation of it at least a half dozen times in the last month.