Archive for August, 2012


Did you know it’s possible to make tofu that doesn’t taste like feet?  No?  Neither did I!

But it IS possible.  And the results are delicious!  All you need to do is watch some Good Eats and buy a lime.  (Well, and some other stuff…more on that in a bit.)

You might be asking yourself why, precisely, I was cooking tofu the other day when I was firmly of the opinion that it tastes like feet and that there are far better ways to get protein (nuts, dairy, eggs, or for us non-vegetarians, meat).  Well, the answer is that my vegetarian husband picked up a package of tofu at the grocery store and wanted us to try and make it like some of the “good” restaurant tofu that’s out there.  And tofu *is* actually quite healthy.

Now I will admit that there are varying degrees of tofu awfulness, and that I have, on occasion (usually in Asian restaurants), had tofu that bordered on being edible.  But I had never yet found tofu that I actually wanted to eat (unless I were starving on a desert island somewhere.)  However, I do like a challenge in the kitchen, and I did want to find a way to add more calories/protein to my typical stir fry recipes so that we wouldn’t negate the healthiness of all the vegetables by gorging ourselves on gelato afterwards.  So I needed some help.  I turned to Alton Brown, who is pretty much always the best source of information on how to cook an unfamiliar ingredient.  Or a familiar one for that matter.

I remembered having watched the tofu episode of Good Eats, and since we never delete Good Eats off the dvr, it was a simple matter of endless scrolling to find it.  What I was looking for was this recipe: thick slices of firm tofu, marinated, battered with egg and fried.  I decided, however, to make my own marinade, since I intended for this tofu to go with Asian-style stir fried vegetables.  While the tofu slices were being squished to remove excess moisture and render them ready to soak up my marinade, I took stock of my pantry options.

Tamari soy sauce of course would be a key ingredient for the marinade.  Mirin and rice vinegar also seemed like good options to get a bit of acidity in there.  Sriracha of course would bring the heat, ginger and lemongrass would add another nice flavor dimension, and then I remembered!  I had a sad, lonely lime sitting in the fridge, left over from making the curry paste.  It was a bit ugly on the outside, having given up its zest to the curry, but the inside was still bright and fresh, and full of juice!  This, in the end, turned out to be the key marinade ingredient, and the main one that I was able to taste in the finished product.

Tofu taking a marinade bath

After the tofu had soaked in its marinade bath for half an hour (15 minutes per side), it was time to fry it.

Now I am notoriously bad at pan frying.  Either my oil isn’t hot enough and things get limp and greasy, or it’s too hot and it smokes, or the things that I’m frying fall apart (looking at you, potato pancakes!), or things get all squished and deformed when I’m trying to flip them…

But this time I was prepared!  With the aid of Alton Brown’s recipe, I was able to create a nice egg batter that stuck to the tofu.  I decided to go with grapeseed oil instead of canola oil for frying because grapeseed oil has a much higher smoke point–thus I would be unlikely to smoke it.  I had spring-loaded tongs at the ready for flipping the tofu, and a thermometer so that I could periodically monitor the oil temperature.

After heating up the oil, I gently placed the egg-battered tofu into the pan.  Instant sizzle – success!  I kept an eye on the temperature and after two minutes, flipped each piece–they were actually golden brown!  After another two minutes I removed them to a cooling rack over a sheet pan to drain.  They smelled good!  I assumed the pleasant smell was just the egg batter, but I was quite pleased that they came out looking like they were supposed to.

Golden fried deliciousness!

Meanwhile it was time to stir fry the vegetables.  I had already chopped them up while the tofu was marinating, and since the burner was still hot, it was a simple matter to grab another (larger) frying pan, add a little oil, and toss the veggies in.

Rainbow!

You might want to tie your lemongrass in a bundle for easy removal. Doing it this way was a mistake.

After the veggies had softened up a bit, it was time to deglaze the pan and get some flavor in there.  I had planned on just using the rest of the marinade to accomplish this, but I overestimated how much was left and underestimated how much I would need to create any sort of sauce.  So I added more tamari, mirin, and rice vinegar, along with a sizable squirt (okay, several sizable squirts) of sriracha, and more grated ginger.  I also added the broccoli and finely sliced Thai chiles at this point, because I didn’t want them to overcook.  I covered it with a lid that is rather too small for the skillet, but it was good enough to collect some steam to cook the broccoli faster.  After a few more minutes, it was done!

The lid is too small!

To assemble the dish, I started with a nice scoop of brown rice (which I had cooked with a bit of tamari and lemongrass, and which, miracle of miracles, did NOT boil over!), and then topped it with a healthy scoop of vegetables, and then put the lovely golden tofu brick on top and spooned a bit of sauce over the whole thing:

Isn't it pretty?

Pretty, aren’t they?

And then it was time to taste it.  I cut off a corner of the tofu, admiring the crispy egg crust, and popped it in my mouth.  And was shocked!  It tasted good!  Not just in an I-can-see-how-this-would-be-good-if-you-liked-this-sort-of-thing way, but in a legitimately I-want-seconds kind of way!  It was delicious!  There was no trace of the soy flavor I typically find so unpleasant.  Just crispy egg batter, a pleasant tang from the lime, and a soft texture somewhat akin to a fluffy quiche.  No longer could I say that I hated tofu.  Hats off to Alton Brown.  His tofu-cooking technique is without equal.

Asian-Style Vegetable Stir Fry with Delicious Tofu
(serves 4)

For the marinade:

  • 2tbsp tamari soy sauce
  • 1tbsp mirin
  • 1tbsp rice vinegar
  • the juice of one lime
  • several squirts of sriracha
  • a pinch of freshly grated ginger
  • 1 stalk lemongrass halved and separated

For the tofu:

  • 1 15oz block extra firm tofu
  • 1/3c all purpose flour
  • 2 large eggs
  • grapeseed oil

For the vegetables:

  • 1-2 tbsp grapeseed oil
  • 2 large carrots, sliced into rounds
  • 1 large or 2 small heads of broccoli
  • 2 watermelon radishes (optional)
  • 1 medium onion, roughly diced
  • 2 cloves of garlic, smashed and minced
  • 7-8 stalks of lemongrass, halved and tied in a bundle
  • 1-inch knob of ginger, grated
  • 2 green Thai chiles, finely minced
  • the leftover marinade
  • additional mirin, rice vinegar, and tamari in equal parts
  • sriracha (to taste)

For the rice:

  • 1c brown rice
  • just over 2c water
  • splash of tamari
  • 1 stalk lemongrass, halved and separated

Drain the liquid from your package of tofu, and then slice it and press the rest of the liquid out as per Alton Brown’s recipe.  A few minutes before it’s done, get out a container with a tight-fitting lid that’s big enough to fit the slices of tofu side by side.  Add in the tamari, mirin, rice vinegar, sriracha, lime juice, ginger and lemongrass and stir until the sriracha is fully dissolved.  Taste it, and add more sriracha.  (Don’t worry–you can add a whole lot and your tofu still won’t be spicy.)  When the tofu is ready, put it in the marinade, cover it up, and set aside for half an hour.  If the tofu isn’t fully submerged, flip it halfway through.

Meanwhile, wash and chop up all your veggies.  Be sure to mince the Thai chiles very finely because they pack some punch!  This is also a good time to get your rice started, since it will take a good half hour (more if you’re using wild rice) to cook.

If you happen to have two good skillets (and two good burners), you can fry the tofu and stir fry the vegetables at the same time.  The vegetables don’t take a whole lot of attention, and the tofu isn’t hard to fry.  But if you want to do them one at a time like I did, start with the tofu.  I followed Alton Brown’s instructions pretty much exactly, right down to the spring-loaded metal tongs.  The only change I made was to use grapeseed oil instead of canola oil.  This is not strictly necessary, but if you do use canola oil, keep a closer eye on the temperature.  Grapeseed oil is good to 420 degrees.  Canola oil varies significantly depending on how it’s processed, but the kind I have is only good to 375-400 degrees.  And I have made it smoke before.  Grapeseed oil seemed safer.  When your tofu is done, remove it to a wire rack over a sheet pan to drain off any excess oil.

For the vegetables, heat a little oil in your skillet and add everything except the broccoli and Thai chiles.  Toss/stir them around occasionally.  Once your vegetables have started to soften, deglaze the pan with the extra marinade plus equal parts additional tamari, mirin, and rice vinegar as well as some sriracha.  You want just enough to create some sauce in the bottom of the pan.  Add in the broccoli and Thai chiles, stir, and then cover to let the broccoli steam.

By the time your vegetables are done, your rice should also be done.  Put some rice on each plate, top with vegetables and a slice of tofu, spoon a bit of sauce from the vegetable skillet over the top, and enjoy!

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As you may have gathered from the frequency with which they appear in my recipes, I buy a lot of beets.  I’m not really sure why I buy so many beets–as a child I didn’t even like them!  (Though I can’t say that we had them often.  And seriously?  Stay away from the canned ones.  *shudder*)  Maybe I buy a lot of beets because they frequently look good at the grocery store and since they’re root vegetables, they have a longer season of availability.  Maybe I like the bright colors.  Maybe it’s going to Russia that did it.  (I do love a good bowl of borsch, hot or cold!)  Whatever the reason, I buy beets a lot.  And usually I put them with things like dill and goat cheese on the one hand, or citrus fruits on the other (see: Beets Romano or Beet and Kumquat Salad).  But this time, I wanted to do something different.  I wanted to do something creative with the bright red beets I had just acquired.  So I decided on a whim to send a tweet to Justin Warner, the winner of this season’s Food Network Star, curious to see if he’d answer me, and curious to see what rebellious beet ideas he might have.

And what do you know, he did answer!  In fact, he answered twice.  His first idea was to make a sparkling watermelon-beet borsch.  I had never thought to combine watermelon and beets, and the flavors melded surprisingly well.  And when you add club soda or sparkling water to the watermelon-beet puree, it fizzes up like a volcano in an elementary school science experiment.  (I’d highly recommend serving it as shooters–more fun that way!)

His second suggestion was to combine beets and white chocolate.  This was an idea I had to sit on for several days–I wasn’t sure what sort of vehicle I could use to bring these two things together.  I didn’t want to go the pure dessert route, but neither could I conceive of using white chocolate in a savory application.  (Maybe I need to watch more Chopped.)  But then it struck me–pancakes!  Chocolate chips go great in pancakes!  Shredded vegetables like carrots or zucchini go great in pancakes!  So why shouldn’t I put white chocolate and beets into a pancake?

Idea firmly in mind, I started searching for pancake recipes to compare and once I had that down, it was time to start cooking!

As it turned out, my shiny red beets were candy cane beets:

All shiny and red!

Look at the stripes!

For this recipe though, I needed to grate the beets rather than cutting them into chunks.  I could have tossed them in the food processor, but instead I decided to grate them by hand to get a finer texture (and a good arm workout!).  Interestingly, when you grate candy cane beets, they start of bright pink but quickly oxidize to a greyish-purple.  My pancakes won’t be winning any beauty contests, but they still taste good (despite my husband’s opinion that they look like old hamburgers!)

After grating the beets, you need to press some of the liquid out of them.  This is a key step.  DO NOT SKIP THIS STEP.  If you do, your pancakes won’t stick together in nice little patty shapes.

The saran wrap is a vain attempt to keep them from oxidizing.

Once I had the beets grated, I mixed up the rest of the ingredients for the batter, folded in the grated beets, and then folded in the white chocolate chunks.

Look at all the chocolate!

I fried them up in a little butter on my electric griddle and they were done!  With the sweetness of the white chocolate, you don’t even need any syrup!

Pancakes!

White Chocolate Beet Pancakes
(serves 4-6)

  • 2c finely grated beets (2-3 large beets)
  • 1c all purpose flour
  • 1tsp baking soda
  • 2tbsp brown sugar
  • 1/4tsp salt
  • 3tbsp canola oil
  • 1/4c buttermilk
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/2tsp vanilla extract
  • pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
  • 4oz white chocolate (chips or chunks)
  • Butter for the griddle

Wash and peel your beets, and then grate them using either a box grater (to get really fine shreds) or a food processor (if you’re in a hurry).  Press out as much liquid as you can so your pancakes aren’t soggy.

Mix all of your dry ingredients (flour, sugar, baking soda, salt, and nutmeg) together in a bowl.  In a separate, larger bowl, whisk together all of the wet ingredients except the beets (oil, buttermilk, eggs, vanilla).  Once they’re combined, add in the beets, and stir so that they’re well coated.  Then add the dry ingredients to the wet and mix everything together until it’s just combined.  Finally, fold in the white chocolate chips!

Heat an electric griddle or frying pan to medium heat.  You want the butter to sizzle but not burn when it hits it.  Form palm-sized patties of pancake batter and fry them in the butter for 2-3 minutes on the first side, flip them, and let them go another 30 seconds to a minute until the other side is also golden brown.  You can keep the finished ones on a cookie sheet in a 200 degree oven to keep them warm until you’re ready to eat!

I love my slow cooker.  It’s so nice to be able to just put the ingredients in it in the morning and have dinner ready and waiting for us when we get home.  And at 3.5 quarts, it’s plenty big enough to feed the two of us with enough leftovers for several lunches, and it’s also a great way to feed a crowd.  But when most people think about slow cookers, they think about things like meaty stews or pot roasts–obviously not going to fly around here!  However, slow cookers are also great for cooking beans.  And lentils, and chickpeas, and black eyed peas, and just about anything that you normally have to soak overnight and then boil for an hour.  Conveniently, these are all things that form the basis of a lot of Indian dishes, and so that’s what usually gets made in our slow cooker!

If you’re new to cooking Indian food (or even just to slow cooking it), I would highly recommend this book: The Indian Slow Cooker. So far all the recipes I’ve made from it have been delicious, plus it helps you get used to the cooking times required for different ingredients so that you can create your own recipes (which is what I’ve done here.)

So on to the evolution of this fusion curry.  I’ve been wanting to make my own curry paste for a while, and as I had a whole bunch of long green chiles from the farmer’s market, I decided now would be a good time to do it.  After a bit of googling, I discovered that the key ingredients for green curry paste are green chiles, lemongrass, kaffir lime zest, shallots, garlic, cilantro, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, salt, shrimp paste, and galangal.  Now for obvious (vegetarian husband) reasons, shrimp paste was out, but I figured that its primary contribution was salt, so if the paste tasted bland, I could always just add soy sauce (or more salt!).  Galangal was a bit more of a problem–I had nowhere to get it.  The Asian grocery store might have had it, and there are probably places in the city that sell it, but I was not about to go on a wild goose chase all over town.  So I decided to substitute ginger.  Yes, I know, it’s not authentic, but ginger tastes good, is readily available (I always keep some on hand in the freezer), and goes with all the other flavors.  So ginger it was!

The beginnings of curry paste

I ended up with rather a lot of curry paste.  Several cups of it in fact.  The first day I made it, I made a coconut curry on the stove with Thai eggplant, broccoli, kale, and soba noodles.  It…wasn’t that good.  I had tried simmering the vegetables in the coconut milk and curry paste but by the time the vegetables were reasonably cooked through, the coconut milk had reduced way past what I had wanted, and to be perfectly honest, I just don’t like eggplant very much anyways.

That's a lot of curry paste!

So the next day I decided to try again, this time in the slow cooker.  Using a little inspiration from the cookbook’s black-eyed peas recipe, I decided to go with a combination of chickpeas, black chickpeas (which are slightly smaller than the regular ones) and black-eyed peas.  If you’re making your own version, feel free to use whatever combination of dried beans you like.  After giving them a good rinse, I put them in the slow cooker along with four and a half cups of water and all of the leftover curry paste, plus some turmeric and a bit of brown sugar to provide a sweet note to counter the spice.  And then I just let it cook.  I set the timer for eight hours, and about ten minutes before the end I added a can of coconut milk and some vegetables–broccoli and green pepper.  I did end up adding an extra half hour to the cook time because the vegetables weren’t fully submerged so they didn’t cook as quickly as I had expected.  The end result?  Much better than making it on the stove and definitely delicious!

Fusion Curry

Thai-Indian Fusion Curry
(serves 6-8)

For the Curry Paste:

  • 5-10 peppercorns
  • 1tbsp coriander seeds
  • 1tsp cumin seeds
  • 1 large onion (or 2-3 shallots), roughly chopped
  • 1 small head of garlic (8-10 cloves), peeled and smashed
  • 7-10 stalks lemongrass, chopped
  • a 2-inch knob of ginger, peeled and chopped
  • 15 spicy green chiles (mine were about 6″ long. use more if you’re using the small thai chiles), de-seeded and chopped
  • a small handful of fresh cilantro, chopped
  • the zest of one lime
  • 1/2tsp kosher salt

Everything else:

  • 1.5c dried chickpeas, black-eyed peas or beans in any combination, rinsed in cold water
  • 4.5c water
  • 1tsp turmeric
  • 1tbsp brown sugar
  • 13.5oz coconut milk (1 can)
  • 1 large head of broccoli, chopped (you can use the stems too!  just peel them first)
  • 1 green pepper, chopped

Toast the coriander seeds and cumin seeds in a dry pan over medium heat for a few minutes until fragrant.  Keep them moving in the pan so they don’t burn.  Then put them in a spice grinder with the peppercorns and grind them up.  Set the mixture aside.

Put the chiles, onion, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, cilantro, lime zest, and salt into a food processor* and buzz it up until you have a relatively uniform consistency.  Taste it, and adjust the ingredients if you need to.  (Be sure to have a glass of milk on hand to quell the burning afterwards!)  Add the ground up spices, and run the food processor a bit longer until everything is fully incorporated.  Set aside.

Measure out your chickpeas and/or other beans and give them a good rinse.  Check for very small rocks (which, despite what you may have heard, do not float!).  Put them in into the slow cooker and add 4.5c of water.  Add 1-2 cups of your fresh curry paste (depending on how spicy you want your curry to be), the turmeric, and the brown sugar.  Mix everything up, cover it, and set your slow cooker to high for 9 hours.  Go about your day.

After 8 hours, the beans/chickpeas should be fully cooked.  Give everything a good stir, and then add the coconut milk and vegetables.  Stir again, cover it back up, and let it continue to cook until the vegetables have reached your desired level of done-ness.  Depending on how well the lid of your slow cooker seals and how submerged the vegetables are, this could take anywhere from 10-30 minutes.  When they’re done, stir, serve, and enjoy!  Leftovers should keep well in the fridge for several days at least, and leftover curry paste will last a day or two.

*If you don’t have a food processor, you can do this in a mortar and pestle.  Just chop everything as finely as you can first, and be prepared to put some muscle into it!

For dinner on Saturday night we had a reservation at Natural Selection, a tiny all-vegetarian restaurant that came highly recommended on Yelp.  Since my husband is vegetarian, and there are at least 74 vegetarian restaurants in Portland (compared to only one at home!), we had a bit of a hard time deciding where to go until we read the reviews and found Natural Selection.  We were super excited to try it out, and it definitely delivered!

The four course menu is pre-set by the chef; you simply choose Column A or Column B – we went for one of each so we could share and get to try everything.

Bright green!

Course 1A: Chilled sweet pea soup

[Course 1B: It was eaten too fast to get a picture!]

Course 2A: Melon salad with fried capers

Course 2B: Pickled radish salad with a 7-minute egg

Palate cleanser: cherry lemon granita

Course 3A: Succotash with a kale “purse” filled with rice and edamame

Course 3B: Squash gratin with carrots and potatoes

Molecular gastronomy!

Course 4A: Cherry parfait with cherry gumdrop cubes

Course 4B: Apricot bread pudding with blueberries

Everything we had was absolutely, fantastically delicious!  The crunchy garnish on the sweet pea soup played perfectly off of the flavor of the peas which can best be described as, well, green.  In an awesome way.  The 7-minute egg was perfectly cooked and its richness perfectly complemented the radishes in the salad.  The sweet melons played brilliantly off the salty capers.  And the desserts…I had the cherry parfait and I really didn’t want to share.  The tartness of the cherries, the sweetness of the cream…and the gumdrop cubes on the side!  Molecular gastronomy at its finest!  (I have always loved gumdrops…)  I know it’s hard to decide where to eat in Portland because there are so very very many delicious restaurants, but seriously, go to Natural Selection.  (Just make sure you have a reservation!)

I’m still working on getting the rest of the Portland posts put together, but in the meantime, here’s a guest post from my mom who wanted to share her Orzo Caponata recipe with you all.  Enjoy!

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I am always looking for recipes which incorporate fresh veggies from the garden or which are seasonally available at the market. Substitutions in a dish like this are easy, and if you don’t have some of the items in your pantry, just try substituting something similar. Any shape of pasta will work, and once the pasta is boiled (which can be done in advance) this is a one-pan-meal. I like to cut up all my veggies first, and lay out the pantry ingredients on a dinner plate so it is easy to add them into the pan in good order.

Easy Orzo Caponata

  • Olive oil
  • 1 medium white (or red) onion, chopped
  • 2 celery ribs, chopped
  • 1 green pepper, seeded and rough-chopped
  • 1 small (or Chinese) eggplant, peeled and sliced into ¼” semi-circles
  • 1/3 cup raisins
  • 12 large black Kalamata olives, halved and pits removed
  • 2 tsp. wild capers
  • 2 tsp. fresh finely chopped basil
  • 2 tsp. fresh finely chopped curly parsley
  • 2 large heirloom tomatoes, sliced into thin wedges
  • 2 Tbsp. Red wine vinegar (or to taste)
  • Fresh ground black pepper to taste
  • Fresh grated Parmesan or other hard Italian cheese
  • Sea salt to taste
  • Option: toasted pine nuts

Boil a large pot of water, add salt and 2 – 3 cups of organic orzo pasta. Cook until just tender. I like to boil a big batch and use some for this dish and the rest for soup or a pasta salad the next day. Drain, drizzle with a bit of olive oil, stir and set aside.

Wash and prepare vegetables. I use organic and home-grown ingredients. If you use eggplant from a store, you may wish to salt the slices and let them sit to draw out any bitter liquid. Rinse and pat dry before using.

In large deep skillet, heat approximately 2 Tbsp. olive oil. Add onions and celery and sauté until translucent. Add more olive oil if needed, then add green pepper and eggplant. Saute over medium heat until vegetables are tender-crisp. Reduce heat slightly. Add raisins, olives, and capers. Stir a few times. Add herbs, black pepper and pine nuts (if you wish). Stir until all ingredients are hot. Add tomatoes and red wine vinegar to taste. Stir. Add 2 cups or desired amount of cooked orzo. Stir. Grate cheese in to taste. Stir and cook over low heat until cheese melts and flavors meld. Add sea salt to taste.

Serve warm. Can be eaten the next day over fresh greens as a salad.