The New Yorker has been a part of my life ever since I can remember. My parents, transplanted New Yorkers, have subscribed to it ever since they left The City in the early 70′s. As a child, I would look through it every week, trying to find the Nina’s in the Hirschfield drawings and trying to understand the jokes that studded most of the pages. As I got older, I would read the movie reviews and realized that if Pauline Kael actually liked something, you had to go see it asap. I learned that some of the best short fiction was published in those pages and some of the best writing in this country, period.
When I moved into my first apartment after college, my mother’s housewarming gifts to me were a set of pots and a subscription to The New Yorker. That was in 1993 and I have been getting it ever since. Even in my dark days of exhaustion that comes with having newborn babies, I made every effort to read that magazine. I may not have read anything else for four years, but I was always more or less caught up with The New Yorker.
Once a year, the magazine comes out with a food issue. As you can imagine, it is heaven for me. Amazing writing about food – I treasure every article. This year, I was captivated by a recollection written by Chang-Rae Lee about growing up in a Korean household in New Rochelle. In addition to telling a wonderful and heartfelt story, the writing in this article is extraordinary. I am a good and fast reader. I find that, these days, I skim a lot of what I read. Sometimes I happen upon something that is so well-written that I calm down, slow down and savor. I did that while reading Away by Amy Bloom while on vacation and I did it with this article. There are some beautiful passages in there and the story really affected me. (If you are a fiction lover and have not read Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, please go buy it from your local bookstore. It shot right up into my top 5 favorite books I have ever read.)
This may sound trite, but one of the things that stuck with me from that article is the following:
“She cooks an egg for me each morning without fail. I might also have it with fried Spam or cereal or a slice of American cheese, which I’ll unwrap myself and fold over into sixteen rough-edged pieces, but always there is a fried egg, sunny-side up, cooked in dark sesame oil that pools on the surface of the bubbled-up white in the pattern of an archipelago; try one sometime, laced with soy and sweet chili sauce along with steamed rice, the whole plate flecked with nori. It’ll corrupt you for all time.”
OK. Corrupt me. I could not get that idea out of my head.
In general the words “rice bowl” are intoxicating to me in the way that the word “chateaubriand” might be to someone else. I had to make this. But. I also had to change it, add to it. Make it more about the rice and less about the egg. As I started to create my version of the dish, I realized it was starting to look an awful lot like this rice bowl and so I went off in a slightly different direction.
Here is what I ended up with. Brown rice studded with scallions, grated fresh ginger, sesame seeds, and avocado chunks. Tofu and red pepper marinated and baked in a mixture of tamari, sesame oil, sherry, and kecap manis (a sweet soy sauce). That sunny side-up egg is cooked in sesame oil like described and the whole thing is topped with a healthy dose of sweet chili sauce and all together it tasted nothing like the stuffings and mashed things of last week. In other words, it was awesome.
A few notes. I cook brown rice like I cook pasta and you should too. It will not end up mushy if you make it this way. Instructions are below. I really like the flavor of tamari, so I try to use that when using soy sauce. You can use whatever you have on hand. Kecap manis, as I mentioned, is a type of sweet and very thick soy sauce, and I have fallen in love with the flavor. It adds a lot here, but if you don’t have any, you can just add another tablespoon of tamari and a tablespoon of honey to the marinade instead. (The dish will no longer be vegan in that case.)
For the Tofu
10 oz. extra firm tofu, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded and cut into 1-inch squares
3 tbsp. tamari, or other soy sauce, divided
1 tbsp. sesame oil, plus more for frying the eggs
2 tbsp. dry sherry
1-2 tbsp. kecap manis
For the rice
1 cup short-grain brown rice
2 tbsp. sesame seeds
2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and grated
Bunch of scallions, thinly sliced
1 small avocado, cut into ½-inch chunks
Sweet chili sauce (such as Sambal Olek)
Make the tofu
In a medium baking dish, whisk together 2 tablespoons of the tamari, sesame oil, sherry, and kecap manis. Add the tofu and the red bell pepper and gently stir to coat all the pieces with the marinade. Allow to sit for at least half an hour and up to 8 hours. Cover and refrigerate if longer than 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 400ºF. Place the baking dish in the oven and bake, stirring occasionally, until almost all the marinade has been absorbed, about 40 minutes. Set aside.
Make the rice
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the rice and cook, keeping at a boil, until tender but with a slight bite, about 35 minutes. Taste often to make sure you don’t overcook it. Drain and allow to cool just slightly. In a bowl, combine the cooked rice with the remaining 1 tablespoon of tamari, the sesame seeds, grated ginger, the white and pale green part of the scallions, and the avocado. Use a rubber spatula to stir so that it doesn’t become too mushy.
Heat a couple of tablespoons of sesame oil in a non-stick skillet over medium heat. Carefully break the eggs into the skillet, trying to make sure they don’t touch one another. Turn the heat to medium-low and cover. Cook until the whites of the egg are set but the yolk is still soft, about 5 minutes. Use a spatula to remove the eggs to a paper towel-lined plate.
Finish the dish
Place a portion of rice in a bowl. Top with pieces of the tofu and red pepper. Lay a fried egg on top. Garnish with the dark part of the scallions, chili paste, and more tamari to taste.