Archive for June, 2008

Let’s Talk About Tofu

June 19, 2008

When I mention to the people who I don’t know well that I am a vegetarian, I get a myriad of responses. First and foremost, almost everyone asks if I eat fish. Somewhere I heard that vegetarians don’t eat anything with a face – last time I checked, fish have faces. Other responses: often, people ask why I don’t eat meat. Sometimes I will hear that their sister/brother/sister-in-law/brother-in-law is a vegetarian – I almost expect them to ask me if I know this relative. Sometimes they say silly things like, “Oh, you must eat a lot of salad.” (I’m sorry, what year is it again? Have you never heard of things other than salad that don’t include meat?). And sometimes they ask me, with the most incredible disgusted expression on their face, if I like tofu.

Well, yes I do. I really really do. And you might too if you knew what kind to get and what to do with it.

I think meat-eating people sometimes think of tofu as a meat alternative. Like their plate would have a steak, baked potato, and asparagus on it while mine would have a slab of tofu, baked potato, and asparagus. As much as I love tofu, I wouldn’t like it like that. Who would? Tofu has basically no flavor of it’s own and a texture that some people find objectionable, so eating it essentially naked does no one any favors. In my opinion, tofu does best in Asian food preparations where standing in for meat is natural.

Tofu needs help in both the flavor and the texture department. So let’s start with what kind you should buy. I would heartily recommend you stick to extra-firm tofu. It is less sponge-y and just more solid all around. Be sure you are buying the kind that is either shrink wrapped or packed in water and is in the refrigerated section – not the kind that is sold vacuum packages on the shelf. That is silken tofu and while it has it’s place (like in miso soup), it is not what you want for the time being.

I really like the tofu that Trader Joe’s carries and I also love this brand. They have a great option that gives you two 8 oz. pieces that are sealed separately, so if you only need half a pound, you can have it without wasting the other half a pound. (My old favorite came in 12 oz portions which was really annoying.)

One big key to preparing tofu is to make sure you get as much water out of it as you reasonably can. I have seen all kinds of directions for pressing it with heavy cans on over-turned pie plates and all of that just makes me tired even thinking about it. Who has time for that? I just take about 4 paper towels, wrap the tofu block up in the towels, and press down. As I slice it, I press it with the towels again. Removing excess moisture from the tofu will allow it to absorb more of the flavor you are introducing it to, and will also help prevent a lot of splattering if you go to fry it.

One very simple preparation (and one that lends itself well to stir-fries of all kinds), is to cut your block of tofu in to 1/3 inch by 2 inch planks. Put it in a plastic bag and pour in a couple of tablespoons of soy sauce. I like Tamari best here – it has more depth of flavor than regular soy sauce and you should be able to find it on your international food aisle. Seal the bag, and let it marinate for half an hour or so. Then, heat up a non-stick pan over medium-high heat and add just enough tofu to cover the bottom. Don’t even bother to add oil. The heat will carmelize the natural sugars in the Tamari and the tofu will develop a nice little crust and a firmer texture. Be sure to turn it over half way through.

The above photo is a lovely little appetizer that I brought to my clients E and J today. It’s great because it requires no cooking and yet has lots of flavor. If summer ever does decide to visit us here in the great Northwest, this will be a nice recipe to have on hand.

Spicy Lime and Herbed Tofu in Lettuce Cups
Adapted from Bon Appetit Magazine
6 First-Course Servings

The original recipe calls for fish sauce in the dressing. I substituted soy sauce but if you are not opposed to a little fish sauce, by all means use that. There really is no substitute for that flavor – even I have to admit that. Lemongrass can be a little tricky to find but Whole Foods always has it. It is worth searching out – the flavor and aroma are incomparable.

1/4 cup thinly sliced peeled fresh ginger
1/4 cup thinly sliced fresh lemongrass, cut from the bottom 4 inches of 4 stalks with the tough leaves removed
1/4 cup fresh lime juice (about 4 medium limes)
2 tbsp. tamari soy sauce
2 tbsp. water
2 tbsp. sweet chili sauce

1/2 diced seeded cucumber
1/4 cup chopped green onions
1/4 cup diced seeded plum tomatoes
2 tbsp. chopped seeded jalapeno chile
1 tbsp. chopped cilantro
1 tbsp. chopped mint
1 tbsp. chopped basil (preferably Thai Basil)
1 16 oz package extra firm tofu, drained, cut in to 1 inch cubes
6 large or 12 medium butter lettuce leaves

For the dressing:
Puree first 5 ingredients in blender. Let mixture stand for at least 15 minutes and up to one hour. Strain mixture into small bowl, pressing on solids to release any liquid; discard solids. Stir in sweet chili sauce. (Can be made one day ahead. Cover and refrigerate.)

For the tofu:
Combine first 7 ingredients in large bowl. Add tofu and dressing to bowl, toss to coat. Arrange 1 or 2 lettuce leaves on each of 6 plates. Divide tofu mixture among lettuce leaves and serve. (You can advise people to roll it up and eat it with their hands or use knife and fork).

Disaster, Averted

June 17, 2008

The cake doesn’t look like a disaster, does it? Actually, it wasn’t but it was very close.

You always hear that baking and cooking are two totally different things. To people who do neither, that probably doesn’t make much sense. Both require time in the kitchen, tools, and usually a heat source of some kind. In the end both produce something to eat – how are they totally different?

To be fair, they aren’t totally different. You do, in fact, get to eat the results in both cases. But most people I know cook or bake, not both. Usually, in my circle at least, they cook and don’t bake. Why is this?

Maybe it’s because cooking, as they say (whoever they are) is an art and baking is a science. Cooking allows you to add ingredients on a whim, taste as you go, and adjust. Baking requires you to follow a recipe to the letter and if you stray, suffer the consequences. You can substitute in cooking. Don’t like cilantro? Omit it. The flavor will be different but it will still be good – the dish will work on some level. But omit the baking powder from a recipe and the whole thing will be a disaster.

Or omit the sour cream as I came incredibly close to doing today. I was making this lovely Blueberry Crumb Cake and was, as usual, in a hurry. I am fortunate to have quite a bit of counter space in my kitchen but for some reason, when I bake, I confine myself to a tiny portion of it and stack all kinds of things I don’t need so that they are totally in my way. I was trying to get the whole thing done and in the oven before my baby came over to start playing with the oven dial. And so, as I was just about to fold in the blueberries, I spied behind the cutting board and other junk I had stacked, behind all the used measuring cups and spoons (why don’t I just put them in the sink?), yes, there it was! The sour cream. I put the bowl back under the mixer, added the sour cream, gave it a spin, and then added the blueberries. Disaster averted.

My mom taught me to always re-read the recipe several times in the course making a dish – especially when you bake. I was reminded of her saying that today. So here is my little tip of the day – always re-read the recipe. It takes 12 seconds and can save your dinner (or dessert).

After that little lesson, I am actually going to include the recipe for something completely different. I would love that the photo was inserted here, but I can’t seem to get it go anywhere other than the top. That cute little wedge of pie you see on the dinner plate is a favorite of mine. It is quick, has few ingredients, requires few dishes and no special tools, and plays well with others. And although it is called Feta Ricotta Pie, I have made some substitutions that make it, well, not too fattening. I particularly like it when served with a meal that is heavy on the vegetables. It provides a nice anchor – rich and creamy with no crunch. Tonight I served it with Herb Roasted Onions and Broccolini with a Balsamic Vinaigrette. (I also served a Borscht that I will write about another time…)

Feta and Ricotta Cheese Skillet Pie
Adapted from Vegetarian Suppers from Deborah Madison’s Kitchen
Serves 4 generously

Deborah Madison suggests using a 10 inch cast iron skillet or an earthenware baking dish for this pie. I have had great success making it in a Pyrex pie dish. Just rub it with oil or spray with non-stick spray. I use low fat ricotta cheese and 2% milk and less feta cheese than she calls for, but you could go full fat and use more feta, of course. It’s very important to use good-quality feta here for that is the taste that really comes through.

1/2 pound good feta cheese
1 pound low fat ricotta cheese
4 eggs
1/4 cup flour
3/4 cup 2% milk
salt and pepper
1 tbsp chopped dill

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Mix three-quarters of the feta with the ricotta in a medium bowl, without worrying about getting it perfectly smooth – you’ll want some chunks. Beat the eggs into the cheese, then add the flour and milk. Season with salt, pepper and dill.

2. Grease a 9 inch pie plate. Pour in the batter and crumble the remaining cheese over top. Bake until golden, 35-40 minutes. Cut in to wedges and serve.

A Love Letter to Lopez

June 16, 2008

No photo or recipe today (tomorrow, I promise), just musings on this past weekend. Our little family went to Lopez Island, one of the San Juan Islands in the northern part of Puget Sound. If you have never had the good fortune to visit these magical islands, you best put it on your to-do list.

Both my brothers and I were lucky enough to go to a heaven-on-earth place called Camp Nor’wester. In those days, it was all the way at the southern tip of Lopez and I think it shaped my life more than any other thing with the possible exception of my parents. Talk to just about anyone who went there and they will most likely say the same thing. Camp was rustic (we slept in teepees), cold (the lodge had an exposed wall), and perfect. My parents would come up to visit us and over time, fell in love with the island as much as we had.

In 1991, they purchased a little house on the island that looked right across the bay at camp. In the evening, across still water we could hear them singing after dinner, and we could always hear the meal bell. A few years later, the camp moved to a different island (another story for another day) but we still had our perfect little house. My parents made some nice improvements to it and bought two one-person kayaks. My dad and I had many slow and lovely paddles around that gentle bay and one day he said to me, “Dana, I think this is what heaven must look like.”. My dad is agnostic to the core so it still brings tears to my eyes to remember that statement – his love for that beauty is so deep, he might even entertain the idea of heaven.

Almost as soon as we met, Randy and I started going to stay at that little house over weekends. We met in late November, so our first journeys were in the winter. I had never spent any time there in the winter and those cold and dark days are some of my favorite that I have ever spent there. The island empites out in the winter to the 2000 or so year-round inhabitants and becomes a different, yet no less special place. The beaches are deserted, town no longer has more bicyclists than motorists, and everything just feels more peaceful and still.

Two of the most wonderful things about this island (and there are many many wonderful things) have to do with food. At least for me anyway. First of all, there is the kind of bakery that everyone wishes that they had in their neighborhood. Her name is Holly B, she named the bakery after herself, and you wish she was your relative, or at least your neighbor. Her heavenly bakery contains all kinds of perfect things. I say perfect because that is exactly what they are not – no confections that test the laws of gravity, or pastries that look too perfect to eat. Everything (and over the years, I have sampled just about everything) tastes like something baked with all natural ingredients, plenty of sugar when needed, and lots of love. You taste what you would taste if you were a really good home baker. She has one of the most wonderful cookbook available for purchase and it is a treasure. The recipe for Cowgirl Cookies alone is worth the price of the book.

Sadly, Holly B’s is not open during the winter months but the other food treasure is. The Bay Cafe has long taken been my answer when people ask me about my favorite restaurant in Seattle. The problem is, it’s not in Seattle. But it is the only place I can seem to come up with when a friend (or my husband) asks me where I want to eat. I have eaten there more times than any other place besides my own house, and I always marvel at the food.

Randy and I had some very memorable meals there over the course of our courtship and engagement (including the weekend that he proposed to me on Lopez, of course), so it only made sense that we should have our wedding reception there. We were married in a perfect little church and then took 30 of our family members and closest friends to dinner at the Bay. The sun was setting just as we arrived and really the whole thing could not have been more perfect. Uncharacteristically for me, I do not remember what we ate, but I do remember everyone loved it. We had such special people sharing that day, many of them had dined there before with us.

Our trip this past weekend was our first in two years. Last year our baby was just a few months old and I just couldn’t summon the energy for the journey. It was so wonderful to be back and see that, apart from some minor business changes, everything looked the same. We decided to brave The Bay Cafe, even with our two little ones, because – how could we not?

One of the most wonderful things about the Bay is that all entrees include a soup of the day (which is always vegetarian), and a green salad. For me, this is huge because it guarantees that I am going to have multiple flavors in my meal – something so often missing in most of my dinners out. And the other most wonderful thing about the Bay is that there is usually a Vegetarian Tapas on the menu. This is always three separate plates of healthy sized portions of things that the chef decides to put together that day. So, stay with me on the math here, that means five different things to eat in one meal. Hip hip hooray!

To be truthful, Friday’s dinner was a bit of a disappointment. The soup was a Cream of Cauliflower in which I tasted no cauliflower only Parmesan cheese. My baby ate my whole cup and half of Randy’s. The salad had greens, salted cashews, strawberries, and a Wasabi Lime Vinaigrette. I tasted no wasabi or lime, just water from the not-dried-enough lettuce and my baby ate all of my (and all of Randy’s) strawberries. And the tapas was three really disjointed things. A chickpea cake (which seemed to actually be made of black beans), a warm Israeli cous cous salad, and thin slices of golden beets with goat cheese sandwiched in between, topped with a lemony dressing. Each thing was fine, not great, but none of them went together. I only got one bite of the beets and the baby ate the rest of them. Beets!

All in all, it didn’t matter. It was wonderful to be there and to know that that was our first dinner there as a family. We know we will be there countless times in the future. They better keep beets on the menu.

Top 10 Lists

June 12, 2008

A few years ago, my brother Michael informed me he was compiling a list of his top 10 songs. He was heavily in to punk rock at the time so I remember being surprised that Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride” made the cut. As someone who has always loved music, I thought it was an interesting idea but how to choose? There are a bazillion songs out there and I easily tire of even those that I like. I worked in radio for a number of years and having a speaker above my desk blaring music that I couldn’t turn off (or turn down) spoiled even some of my very favorites for me.

I came up with the idea that a song that truly belonged on my top 10 would be one that, if I heard it on the radio while driving in my car, would cause me to say, “I love this song!” and turn up the volume. Maybe because of my years working in radio, I am a chronic station flipper. I feel like I am sick of almost every song that comes on – even relatively new ones. But one that I am happy to hear? That must really be a favorite.

In thinking about my favorite foods, I came up with a similar strategy. There are so many things that I love – how do I know if it’s really a top 10? Now I know – if I see it on a menu, my eye goes right to it and I order it 9 times out of 10. Or if I see it in a display case (a nice one, not at Safeway), I end up with it in my shopping cart. It’s like the world get shut out and all I can think about is this food.

My list is a work in progress but I can tell you one of the very top things on there. Lentils. I love all kinds of lentils in all kinds of preparations. Soups, stews, salads, you name it and I love them. I love the good old fashioned pedestrian brown lentil, the firmer and fancier Le Puy lentil, and I love love love red lentils. Unlike their siblings, red lentils break down when cooked and become mushy but with a lot of texture and bite to them. They have an incredible buttery and rich taste to them but they are, of course, almost fat free and incredibly healthy with loads of protein, iron, and fiber.

This week I made a Stir-Fried Rice and Dal dish to go with a Spring Curry with Sri Lankan Spices (and a Cucumber Raita and a Mango Papaya Chutney). It was so good that I could have eaten it for all my meals for the rest of the week. There were a few more steps to it than warrant an “everyday meal” for me, but it made me think of another recipe which is one of my absolute favorites. This one gets extra points for being easy, relatively quick, very nutricious and for keeping well (up to 5 days!). AND it is so tasty, you won’t believe it. Don’t be put off by the long list of ingredients, the hands-on time is short.

Curried Red Lentil Stew with Vegetables
Adapted from Gourmet Magazine
Serves 4-6

Vegetable Oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 (2 x 1 inch) piece of ginger, grated or minced
5 large garlic cloves, minced
3 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 tsp. curry powder
3/4 tsp. tumeric
1/2 tsp. cumin
1 cup red lentils, picked over and rinsed
3 1/2 cups water
1 15 oz can reduced-fat coconut milk
3 medium carrots, quartered lengthwise, then cut cross-wise in to 1/2 inch pieces
3 cups baby spinach (3 oz)
1 cup frozen peas (not thawed)
1/2 cup chopped cilantro

Heat a 4-5 quart heavy pot over moderate heat. Add just enough oil to lightly coat the bottom, then add the onion with a sprinkling of salt. Stir occasionally until golden, 8-10 minutes.

Add ginger and garlic and cook 2-3 minutes. Add curry, cumin, and tumeric and cook over low heat, stirring, 1 minute. Stir in lentils and add water and coconut milk and simmer, covered, stirring occasionally, 30 minutes. Add carrots and another pinch of salt and simmer, covered, stirring occasionally until carrots are tender and lentils have broken down in to a coarse puree, about 15 minutes.

Stir in spinach and peas and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until peas are tender, about 3 minutes. Stir in cilantro and salt and pepper to taste. Add additional water if necessary (especially if you are reheating this out of the fridge) to thin the dal so it can be ladled over rice.

By the way, here is my preliminary Top 10 Foods List. (You will notice that several faves on this list are in the above recipe – no wonder I love it so much!).

Coconut milk
Wide noodles (either egg or rice – Veggie Pho can put me over the edge)

Really Really Good Brownies

June 11, 2008

Today I almost drowned in an ocean of brownies. Not a bad way to go, huh?
Do you see this pan? It’s big. Typically brownies are made in a 13×9 inch pan and sometimes even just an 8×8 inch pan. This is an 18×12 pan, also known as a half sheet pan, and this glorious recipe makes enough brownies for a large crowd. Today I doubled it. I had two half sheet pans full of brownies. That is 8 sticks of butter, 3 1/2 pounds of chocolate chips, a dozen eggs, and you don’t want to know how much sugar. Thank goodness I bought some gigantic mixing bowls at the Cash n’ Carry back in January.
I have this little motto: “When in doubt, double!” and for the most part it serves me well. I would so much rather have too much food than not enough. I like to be generous with my food rather than stingy and if I really do make too much, well there is always leftovers or the freezer (or the neighbors).

Two of my clients are in need of brownies. Stephanie is hosting a lunch on Thursday for her large family to celebrate her brother’s upcoming wedding. She asked me to help out with some salads and some desserts. The other client’s daughter is due to have a baby at the beginning of July. She asked me recently about food that her daughter might want post-partum. Her daughter is a vegetarian and I think she assumed I would recommend all kinds of healthy and satisfying food, but the first thing that popped in to my head was BROWNIES.

After I had both of my sons, my appetite was enormous. They say you burn somewhere around 600 calories a day nursing so it would make sense that you want to eat more. Assuming that a typical brownie has somewhere between 400 and 600 calories, I’m not sure how I can explain that I was eating at least three a day. All I know is that I had to have them. So, I think E’s daughter will be happy that she has some good ones on hand.

And these are really really good. In my opinion, they are the perfect cross between fudgy and cakey and there are chocolate chips and walnuts strewn throughout so there is enough for your mouth to do. I will tell you, if you want your brownies to basically be just a huge square of fudge, check out this recipe. But if you like them cake-ier and you want to make a LOT of them, see below.

If you don’t own a half sheet pan, it is a great thing to have in your kitchen. I use mine constantly. It is perfect for roasting all sorts of veggies and can double as a cookie sheet. I’ve also used mine to make granola. I got mine at Williams Sonoma, but they have them everywhere.

Outrageous Brownies
The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook
Makes 20 very large brownies

Ina Garten always calls for extra large eggs in her recipes but I always use large with no ill effects.

1lb. unsalted butter
1lb. plus 12 oz. semisweet chocolate chips
6 oz. unsweetened chocolate
6 extra large eggs
3 tbsp. instant coffee granules
2 tbsp. pure vanilla extract
2 1/4 cup sugar
1 1/4 cup flour
1 tbsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
3 cups chopped walnuts

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Butter and flour a 12x18x1 inch baking sheet.

Melt together the butter, 1 pound of the chocolate chips, and the unsweetened chocolate in a medium bowl over simmering water. Allow to cool slightly. In a large bowl, stir (do not beat) together the eggs, coffee granules, vanilla, and sugar. Stir the warm chocolate mixture in to the egg mixture and allow to cool to room temperature.

In a medium bowl, sift together 1 cup of the flour, the baking powder, and the salt. Add to the cooled chocolate mixture. Toss the walnuts and 12 oz. of the chocolate chips in a medium bowl with 1/4 cup of flour, then add them to the chocolate batter. Pour in to the baking sheet.

Bake for 20 minutes, then rap the baking sheet against the oven shelf to force air to escape from between the pan and the brownie dough. Bake for 10-15 minutes more, until a toothpick comes out clean. DO NOT OVERBAKE! Allow to cool completely and then cut in to bars.

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