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Swept away by 21 Spices

As I sit here eating my leftover biryani from an amazing dinner-date night, I can’t help but be reminded of how infrequently we get to enjoy beautifully-made food in a gorgeous setting.  This is made exceptionally rare for my husband and me by two factors: we’re parents and vegan.

It’s not that there aren’t options here in Naples – it’s just that to find a dining facility with all the elements of a romantic and satisfying experience with a selection of interesting and thoughtful plant-based food is like finding a unicorn in this area.

I found one though.

Dining at the new 21 Spices by Chef Asif in East Naples, just a few miles from 5th Street downtown, was as magical as saddling up a saffron-haired unicorn with a magic carpet and riding off into the sunset.  Plus, another rarity here – they’re open until 10 pm.

The restaurant was dim and twinkly.  Since the restaurant was not very full when we arrived, we had our choice of seating and we chose to sit along the wall.  It was quiet with no neighbors, but I can only imagine a place this great will be swarmed by midseason.  Now is the time to go!

Their fare is Indian cuisine and Chef Asif is extremely talented with his spices, all 21 of them.  Many options on the menu are vegetarian as it would be in India, but they do have some vegan options too! For starters, we ordered the samosas and a side of yellow lentils with some lentil crisps as recommended by our server who was informative and charming.  The naan, unfortunately, is NOT vegan – a bummer because the spicy naan sounded awesome.  The samosas were nicely plated and delicious and the yellow lentils were so flavorful and filling.

Because we so rarely get to have this experience we kind of forget how to order like normal people, so we clearly ordered too much food.

We were pretty much full by the time our main courses arrived, but I just had to keep going.  I really wanted to order the Aloo Gobi, but since my husband ordered that and I refuse to order the same dish, I decided to try the vegetable biryani.  I’m not a crazy person when it comes to my vegan food sharing the same space as nonvegan food, so when the biryani arrived tucked in bread like a parcel, the server carefully opened it to release the effervescent steam and I simply peeled it off because the bread crust contained milk ingredients.  My husband didn’t complain about my bread donation to him.  The basmati rice and vegetables were superb.  I also tried the aloo gobi and next time I eat there that will be my selection.

Also, let me tell you about the heat Chef Asif infuses into his dishes.  When the server asks you to choose from mild, spicy, very spicy and Indian spicy, choose wisely!  I ordered Indian spicy because I don’t mess around.  The spice level doesn’t disappoint, so if you’re not looking to burn your face off order on the lower rungs.

We had the pleasure of meeting Chef Asif.  Smiling from ear to ear, he was nice enough to stop by a few tables to introduce himself and welcome us to his restaurant which I thought was a nice gesture.  I told him that his signature Chef Asif craft cocktail was amazing and he informed me they plan on vamping up their craft cocktails soon, so that’s something to revisit.  They also have a full bar and a vast wine collection.

I’m always excited to find restaurants like this in Naples that can accommodate my diet and deliver on flavor.  I hope these unicorns continue to breed. While I wait for new mythical beasts to arrive, I will gladly plan a second visit to 21 Spices in the near future for another cardamom-scented experience.

Vegan banh mi. Photo by

Vegan Banh Mi

With more people taking stock of their health and coming to terms with environmental challenges, the number of vegans is increasing.  And that includes the culinary-forward Naples.  The problem, however, is not many restaurants in Southwest Florida are embracing or celebrating the culture…yet.  Whether you’re a full fledged vegan or dipping your toes into the Meatless Monday movement or just looking to inject some more nutrient rich substitutions into your diet, I have a few fuss-free recipes that take our long-loved comfort foods and recreate them with low-fat and cruelty free alternatives.  Let’s get into it!


Today I will be showing you how I transcend the worldly flavors of the banh mi sandwich into a vegan version sure to hit the mark on all of the traditional flavors … and offer a few gluten free alternatives as well.

Cilantro. Vying For Veganism.

Cilantro. Vying For Veganism.

So the classic Vietnamese banh mi basically just means sandwich, but usually contains some form of pork or other meat.  We’ll be making some nice grilled tofu as our main protein and layer in all those great Asian flavors we love so much.  Even if you’ve never tasted a banh mi, this is a great sandwich to kick your palate into gear.  We will need some nice crunchy baguettes or rolls.  If you are vegan don’t forget to check your rolls for eggs, milk or whey which is a milk derivative.  Arnold brand is typically vegan. It can be tricky decoding a product ingredient list, so if you want to be 100 percent sure look for a Jewish or Kosher deli for your breads, and of course if you are gluten sensitive you’ll want to find an alternative gluten-free roll for this recipe.


First things first, tofu needs help.  I don’t think there is anyone out there who enjoys tofu right out of the package.  You will need some time for the tofu to marinade, you can even start the marinating the day before.  Tofu does best when given ample time to soak up the flavor, but you will want to marinade for at least 30 minutes.  Firm tofu will stand up to the heat best, I use extra-firm.  Slice your tofu and dry well by lining a rimmed baking sheet with paper towels. Place tofu slices on top in a single layer. Cover with another layer of paper towels and press gently to remove excess moisture.

Grilling marinated tofu steaks. Vying For Veganism.

Grilling marinated tofu steaks. Vying For Veganism.

The marinade includes garlic, cilantro, soy sauce, ginger and sesame oil. Throw all of these into your processor or blender until a paste is formed.  Thoroughly coat each piece of tofu with the marinade and let sit for at least 30 minutes.  Make sure to keep the remaining marinade to brush on after grilling the tofu.


While your tofu is marinating you’ll want to prep your carrot-daikon pickled slaw.  Daikon is a Japanese white radish you can find at almost any Asian market… by the way, many times Asian markets have amazing fresh produce for a great price, so if you’re not lucky enough to have a bustling farmers market near you, definitely look into the Asian markets for your produce and spices.  Toss the shredded carrot and daikon in with the vinegar, sugar and salt. Give them a little toss occasionally so every little bit can absorb the flavors.

Grilled tofu for a banh mi. Vying For Veganism

Grilled tofu for a banh mi. Vying For Veganism

If you want those nice grill marks on your tofu slices you will need a piping hot grill.  I use an indoor cast iron griddle as I find it easier to control than a charcoal or gas grill outside.  I can also keep an eye on the tofu while I prep the rest of the ingredients.  You’ll want that griddle to be about Med-Hi heat.


While that’s heating, you can prep those fresh veggies to accompany our tofu in the roll.  You can obviously tweak these to your own preference, but I like to add crisp cool cucumbers, spicy jalapenos, I also add some green onions and a ton of cilantro because it is the quintessential flavor component of the sandwich.

Vegan banh mi assembly. Vying For Veganism

Clean and oil the griddle surface.  The cleaner your surface the less smoke will billow from it and you will avoid setting off the fire alarms… mine was not cleaned entirely. 🙂  Place the marinated tofu pieces at a diagonal to the grates and DON’T touch them for about 4-5 minutes carefully rotate the slabs about 90 degrees and continue for about 4 more minutes.  Flip tofu and repeat until both sides have nice grill marks and are nice and crispy.  Remove from heat, let cool slightly and brush with remaining marinade.


Slice open the baguettes or rolls and place them right on the hot griddle until nice and toasty and remove.


Finally, it’s time to assemble our banh mi! First slice, the cooked tofu into slices just smaller than your roll.  Spread your desired amount of vegan mayo on either side of the roll and add your chili sauce.  Layer the sliced tofu, pickled carrot/daikon slaw, cucumber spears, jalapeño slices, and cilantro. Slice in half and have at it!


Enjoy your meal!!






2 Baguettes or Rolls (vegan or GF)

Vegan mayo

Sriracha (or other chili sauce)



  • 1 lb extra firm tofu block
  • 1 cucumber, speared and seeded
  • 1 jalapeno, thinly sliced
  • 1 bunch of cilantro
  • 2 c grated carrots
  • 2 c grated daikon
  • ¼ c sliced green onions
  • ¼ c rice vinegar
  • 3 tbsp. sugar (lt. brown, coconut  or palm)
  • 1 tsp salt


  • 3 tbsp. minced garlic
  • 1 large bunch of cilantro
  • 3 tbsp. soy sauce (or GF tamari)
  • 2 tbsp. minced ginger
  • 3 tbsp. sesame oil (or vegetable oil)



Slice tofu into about 1/3 inch slabs and dry well.  Heat grill to med-high heat.

Add all marinade ingredients into processor and blend into a liquid. Thoroughly coat each piece of tofu with marinade and let sit for at least 30 minutes or overnight.  Reserve remaining marinade.

Toss shredded carrot and daikon with the vinegar, sugar and salt. Occasionally toss.

Clean and oil the grill surface.  Place marinated tofu pieces at a diagonal to the grates for about 4-5 minutes, carefully rotate the slabs about 90 degrees and continue for about 4 more minutes.  Flip tofu and repeat until both sides have nice grill marks and are nice and crispy about 7 min total.  Remove from heat, let cool slightly and brush with remaining marinade.

Slice open rolls and toast on hot grill. Remove.

Slice, the cooked tofu into pieces just smaller than your roll.  Spread mayo on either side of the roll and add chili sauce.  Layer sliced tofu, pickled carrot/daikon slaw, cucumber spears, jalapeño slices, and cilantro between rolls. Slice in half.


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