Conquering Tofu

This is a terrible confession to make as someone who spent 15 years as a vegetarian, but it is not until recently that I really learned how to cook tofu. While I have often enjoyed this much maligned protein source when eating out at awesome places that really know how to prepare it, at home it always felt spongy and squeaky. Not wanting to contribute to its bad reputation, I pretended nothing was wrong.

Then, one fateful day, while trying out a new tofu recipe, I saw that it called for one to “press” one’s tofu. I looked up what this meant and it changed my life. Pressing the tofu, in addition to keeping it in the freezer (as we almost always do), helped so much with its spongy texture that all of a sudden it became less agonizing to work with. Nowadays we pretty much always keep a block or two of tofu in our freezer, and we utilize it with considerably less angst.

While I am pleased to have come such a long way in my tofu journey, I will also confess that I am a little bit lazy about always turning to the same handful of recipes, like the Grilled Tofu & Soba Noodles from 101 Cookbooks and the Sensitive New Age Sloppy Joes from my treasured Rebar cookbook. While I highly recommend both of these, I do aspire to be more adventurous. Recently I decided that I should branch out, and almost immediately I stumbled onto a sample recipe from a cookbook that I have already mentioned coveting on here: Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty. His Black Pepper Tofu appealed to the junky Chinese food lover in me, and I was intrigued by his suggestion that you coat your tofu in cornstarch and pseudo-deep fry it. I knew I had to try it, and let me tell you: IT RULES. It is recipes like these that are increasingly convincing me of the versatility of tofu; this tofu was crunchy and without a hint of sponginess. It was about as close as I can imagine getting to awesome Chinese fake tofu in my own kitchen, especially as quickly as this dish cooked up. The flavours were awesome too–sweet and spicy and really incredibly fragrant–but that tofu preparation is really what convinced me to put it up here, because I know that I will be stealing it for all manner of other dishes. It really transforms it as an ingredient. I have tofu shame no more.

Black Pepper Tofu
The original recipe, up at Epicurious, is awesome and can be followed as is. I will post my adapted version of it here as well, as I added in some veggies to make it a self-contained dinner, and scaled it considerably down. This cooked up fairly spicy, so adjust the chiles and pepper if you aren’t too into that. Either way, enjoy it!

Serves 3-4

300g firm tofu, pressed
Vegetable oil for frying
Cornstarch to dust the tofu
4 tbsp butter
4 medium shallots (12 ounces in total), thinly sliced
4 fresh red chiles (fairly mild ones), thinly sliced
6 garlic cloves, crushed
1.5 tbsp chopped fresh ginger
1.5 tbsp sweet soy sauce (kecap manis) [I could not find this, so I put in more dark soy sauce and a bit more sugar]
1.5 tbsp light soy sauce
2 tsp dark soy sauce
1 tbsp sugar
3 tbsp coarsely crushed black peppercorns (use a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder)
1 head of broccoli, cut into florets
4 small and thin green onions, cut into 1 1/4-inch segments

Start with the tofu. Pour enough oil into a large frying pan or wok to come 1/4 inch up the sides and heat on medium-high heat. Drain the tofu and cut into large cubes, about 1 x 1 inch. Toss them in some cornstarch and shake off the excess, then add to the hot oil. Fry, turning them around as you go, until they are golden all over and have a thin crust. As they are cooked, transfer them onto paper towels.

Remove the oil and any sediment from the pan, then put the butter inside and melt it. Add the shallots, chiles, garlic and ginger. Sauté on low to medium heat for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the ingredients have turned shiny and are totally soft. When the mixture is almost done, steam the broccoli for 2 minutes, until it is bright green but still nice and crunchy. Add the soy sauces and sugar to the shallot mixture and stir, then add the crushed black pepper.

Add the tofu and broccoli to warm them up in the sauce for about a minute. Finally, stir in the green onions. Serve hot, with steamed rice.


On Meal Planning, Making Use of Neglected Cookbooks and Red Rice and Quinoa Salad

It is embarrassing that it took Graeme and I this long to do start doing something so sensible. Recently, due to Graeme being effectively useless at home due to his third month of night shifts, and my busy work schedule, we finally committed to meal planning. For real. With a whiteboard and everything. Why didn’t we do this sooner? Dinnertime used to consist of two tired folks looking at each other accusingly, each hoping that the other would volunteer to throw something together that would be more than just pasta with tomato sauce. (Although  let me be clear: I love pasta with tomato sauce.) The hungrier we got, the less likely we were to think of anything we could or would be willing to cook. Not a good scene. And so, we are now both nerdy devotees to the awesomeness of planning our dinners out for the week.

We love it for various reasons. The obvious one that most people cite is that actually knowing what we intend to cook makes for easier, and more affordable, grocery shopping. We waste less. We go out to eat when there is somewhere we actually want to go and eat–not just out of boredom. But there are other awesome side effects: it is genuinely a pleasure to sit together and chat about what we want to cook–usually we flip through cookbooks/magazines on a weekend morning and daydream what we’re in the mood for, which has become a really treasured part of the week. Taking that morning to think through our food plans also gives us space to stay creative and make sure our food is more balanced. For example, since we’ve actually been planning things out, we have been eating meat for dinner far less often (maybe twice a week?). Meat is an easy thing to fall back on when you’re hungry and drawing a blank (especially in winter, and boy did this year’s winter last forever!), but planning allows us to stick to our food ethics a little bit better. This is probably the first winter in a long time that I did not OD on meat. Taking that time to think also encourages us to try new recipes that we’ve had our eyes on, but would inevitably forget when at the supermarket or at dinnertime. We’re turning to cookbooks that had been collecting dust on our shelves, rediscovering them. So I feel like we’ve been cooking up lots of new recipes, and finding ourselves in far fewer cranky food ruts since we started doing this. I also find myself being far less lazy about weeknight cooking these days, as knowing exactly what the plan is makes the process seem less daunting when I’m tired after a long day. It’s awesome.


One such cookbook that had previously been collecting dust, but which we have recently rediscovered, it the absolutely gorgeous Ottolenghi cookbook. I bought this book a couple of years ago, remembering that when we lived in England, we used to love the weekly recipes that Yotam Ottolenghi publishes in the Guardian. Through no fault of its own, though, the book has been sorely under-utilized in our household. Until recently, Graeme and I have turned to it mostly for the amazing baking recipes (the tea cakes in particular are beautiful and delicious!). But I am happy that I’ve branched out as all of the veggie-heavy, hearty, Mediterranean-inspired fare is right up my alley. I am pretty desperate to pick up his new cookbook, Plenty.

Below is our most recent Ottolenghi success–a delicious red rice and quinoa salad that was both nutritious and comforting given the continued winter-esque weather. The mix of textures, given the combination of quinoa, rice, pistachios, dried apricots, etc., is what really makes it special, and not just another “good for you” but dull main course salad. We ate it with a spinach salad on the side, and loved it as leftovers as well. I think it would make an especially awesome potluck dish.

Camargue Red Rice and Quinoa with Orange and Pistachios
Adapted from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi
Serves 4 [giants. We had tonnes!]

[Note: these are mostly done in weight. I was too lazy to weigh stuff, so I mostly winged it. It was still great.]
60g shelled pistachio nuts
200g quinoa
200g Camargue red rice [note: I just used the red rice I had, no idea what kind it was]
1 medium onion, sliced
150ml olive oil
grated zest and juice of one orange
2 tsp lemon juice
1 garlic clove, crushed
4 spring onions, thinly sliced
100g dried apricots, roughly chopped
40g rocket [arugula in North American speak–I left this out as I was planning on serving a spinach salad on the side anyway]
salt and black pepper

Preheat the over to 170C [350F]. Spread the pistachios out on a baking tray and toast for 8 minutes, until lightly coloured. Remove from the oven, allow to cool slightly and then chop roughly. [I totally left these whole!] Set aside.

Fill 2 saucepans with salted water and bring to a boil. Simmer the quinoa in one for 12-14 minutes and the rice in the other for 20 minutes. Both should be tender but still have a bite. Drain in a sieve and spread out the 2 grains separately on flat trays to hasten the cooling down. [I totally cooked the rice and quinoa how I usually do, by putting in the right proportions of water so they absorb them all. And I didn’t bother cooling anything.]

While the grains are cooking, saute the white onion in 4 tbsp of olive oil for 10-12 minutes, stirring occasionally, until golden brown. Leave to cool completely. [Also did not cool these.]

In a large mixing bowl combine the rice, quinoa, cooked onion and the remaining oil. Add all the rest of the ingredients, then taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve at room temperature. [By the time this got to the table, it wasn’t hot anymore, but still fairly warm, and I thought it was great that way! There is an awesome mix of textures and colours in this dish that I found really satisfying.]