Friday, December 2, 2011

ode to tomatoes (+ salsa + lasagna!)

Oh, you shiny, red beauties. I think that I must have some Italian blood in me (not that you can tell it, with the red hair, pale skin, and freckles) because I love tomatoes with everything. And I mean E. VERY. THI. NG.

Witness Exhibit A above, which was my breakfast one day last week: a bowlful of grape tomatoes, splashes of balsamic vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil, and a sprinkling of sea salt and pepper (there was also a poached egg and a slice of toast to go with it). Another favorite breakfast: thick slices of salted tomato on toasted sourdough bread with mayo and bacon - how I love using the crust to swipe up those pink splotches of mayonnaisey pulp that drip onto the plate!

For years, with the zeal of a fanatic, I have proselytized to D about the joys of tomatoes - he likes them cooked but hates them rawto the point where it's a minor miracle when he concedes to having enjoyed raw tomatoes in something. A few years ago, he admitted that he had eaten a slice of tomato on a sandwich from Zoë's that was delicious and looked as beautifully red, in his words, "as a piece of raw tuna." (From an avowed carnivore, this is the highest praise.)

Friday, November 18, 2011

truffled vichyssoise + butter lettuce salad with lemon-mustard vinaigrette

The first time I ever had vichyssoise, I was sixteen years old and staying in a rented house in the North Carolina mountains for a church weekend with my parents and siblings and several other families. As a first course one evening, our congregation's unanimously elected cook, Marcia, served us a cold potato and leek soup. We ate it out of mugs, sitting at a picnic table in the yard, all of us still flagging from the day's early July heat, which was formidable even after sunset and even at that altitude. Vichyssoise was the perfect food for that evening and its quintessentially blue Appalachian twilight, and Marcia's version was, not surprisingly, the perfect one to serve as my introduction to the dish.

Marcia was one of my first Sunday school teachers when my family started attending church again in 1982. Powell Presbyterian had a small congregation, and some Sunday mornings I was the only kid in the class. Stories have always appealed to me; I often say I'm a sucker for a narrative, which is probably why I became an English teacher. Marcia's explanations of biblical tales gave me a familiarity with the narratives of both testaments that would eventually help me win a partial Bible Scholarship to Montreat College ten years later. (I wrote my scholarship application essay on Noah and the significance of the rainbow's promise). Though Marcia always wore ladylike skirt suits to church, she was no shrinking violet. She had studied chemical engineering in college and then worked for eighteen years as a safety analyst in the nuclear industry, in addition to having raised three sons. Even now, whenever I think of the Biblical St. Paul, I always picture her bearded, intelligent, kind-faced husband of the same name. Marcia was kind, too, yet she was also outspoken and had a certain earthiness: she made my high school church friends and me blush furiously when she remarked baldly, during one youth group outing to her house to harvest peaches from her orchards, "Hmph! Sex is the smallest part of what marriage really is." (I suspect we had probably been giggling and whispering about something along those lines.)

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

bram stoker's pot roast

Happy Belated Halloween!

So, I was talking with my friend Valerie recently about my fascination with maps. This love affair with cartography began when I was in elementary school: my favorite subject next to English was social studies. Later, as a thirteen-year-old, I kept a journal; in it, there's a notebook page filled with the names of ten U.S. cities, chosen during a couple of summer days I spent poring over an atlas, where I'd decided I might want to live when I grew up. One example: the intriguingly named Snowflake, Arizona. When I got my driver's license, I became an avid railfan, so I have a box full of paper maps in the basement from my days of chasing trains on zigzagging back country roads. (Those days are far from over, actually.)   

In our current technological age, with the advent of Google Maps, I can freely explore new places, revisit old ones, and find all of the railroad tracks I want, anywhere on earth. Google's Street View makes this even better, because not only can I see a bird's-eye satellite view of a location, but I can virtually walk past it and see what it looks like from a Heather's-eye view. I do this a lot more often than I'm guessing the average person does. Over the past few months especially, it hasn't been unusual for D to come home and ask me what I did that day, and for me to answer, "Well, I walked past our old apartment on E. 101st and then I went to that little place in midtown where I used to buy jump rings," or "I was trying to find the restaurant where my parents and I ate one evening in Cañon City, Colorado, back in 1999," or "I spent the afternoon revisiting Paris/Venice/Seattle/Lenoir City."

So, last week when Valerie and I were talking, I told her that a couple of days before, I had been strolling through the real Dracula's hometownSighișoara, Romaniavia Google Street View. I also confided to her that my new mission is to spot a train passing by on Google Street View. The idea hit me after I happened to look "up" on a particular Tuscan freeway at dusk and see a beautiful waxing crescent moon, and I suddenly realized that these pictures were taken at random moments by a camera on a Google Maps car traveling through the region. Surely, these cameras might serendipitously catch other cool things, too?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

noodle bowl with green curry broth

Every semester in English 102, I teach a unit on food. Every semester I assign Perri Klass's delightful article, "How to Invent a Family Recipe," for my students to read. And every semester, when we discuss the article in class, my mouth starts watering so much I can hardly talk, at the thought of spicy broth and noodles.

As I often do, yesterday I was craving some noodles in broth with maybe some chicken and vegetables. To put it another way, I was hankering for what I've recently nicknamed "slurpy pasta" (as distinguished from, say, "cheesy pasta").

For the broth, I took my inspiration from Heidi Swanson's vegetarian recipe blog, 101 Cookbooks, which I've followed since late 2007, when I had just moved to Manhattan and was trying to cook more adventurously. Swanson takes the most alluring photos of her food, and the woman loves interestingly flavored broths and vividly colored vegetables - also some of my favorite things to eat. She often does slurpy curries, and they always look so prettily yellow or red or green in the pictures that I've long wanted to try my hand at one of my own.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

grandmother's lace cookies

I don't know where my grandmother got this recipe, but she used to make these cookies all the time when I was a kid.

My grandmother was a spitfire. Even her name, Eddie (her real first name, by the way, and not a diminution of something more feminine) made her the scrappy girl equivalent of a boy named Sue. It only occurs to me now that she was one of my best friends during my college years. On Friday nights I used to go to her house and watch The X-Files with her, and I took her to see the movie when it came out. She had always loved that weird sci-fi stuff. In fact, when my dad was a kid, the two of them had likewise been avid viewers of eerie movies and episodes of The Twilight Zone.

By the time she was in her seventies, she was spending most of her days watching inflammatory political news shows and C-Span, and these topics comprised the majority of her conversation starters when I came by to see her. Unfortunately, she and I had, shall we say, divergent political leanings. I say "unfortunately" because I'm the kind of person who tends to avoid conflict whenever I can. But I learned something important from knowing her: sometimes the best way to love someone is to give her what she actually wants, and not what you would want if you were in her shoes.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

shrimp + cheese grits

I love carbs. Pasta is my Achilles' heel.  Potatoes... heck, I'm Irish. Rice: yes, please, and make it jasmine or basmati.  And grits?  Grits are a Southern staple. I admit that I quite frequently make these cheese grits for breakfast, so it almost feels like cheating, including them in a fancy dinner recipe, because they're completely simple to make.

The last time I made shrimp and grits, I used one of those pre-done trays of steamed shrimp from Costco, pulled the tails off and stirred them into the sauce at the last minute, and used water instead of shrimp stock in the sauce. It was still delicious, but nothing like the wonder it was this time. Cooking the shrimp in the sauce just adds a whole new layer of shrimpishness to the whole thing, to say nothing of the yummy brightness of the lemon and wine in the stock. However, if you don't want to take the extra step, I don't blame you. And it'll still be good, trust me.

Bought at Whole Foods.
Grown in Athens, GA!
So, last week I was in Louisville for the annual AP English Literature Exam reading, scoring essays for seven days. (And yes, I went back to the sublime Proof on Main twice while I was there, though the Gold Rush was unfortunately gone from the cocktail menu this year.) While it's tons of fun in the evenings to socialize with old grad school friends, drink bourbon (and complete the Urban Bourbon Trailfor which I got a t-shirt, thankyouverymuch), and eat Kentucky Hot Brown (best version: the English Grill at the Brown Hotel), the icky part of the week tends to be the food in the cafeteria, which, while I'm sure it's pretty much the best thing they can offer two thousand people who all have to eat in a centralized location thrice daily, starts to wear on you around the second day. Even I was sick of salads, and you all know I LOVE SALADSI was born in a Year of the Rabbit, after all. All week, I craved a bowl of pasta that I had made: fettuccini with a tiny bit of sauce mixed with some starchy pasta water, butter and wine, and a ton of Parmesan. I wanted to cook something with lemon thyme in it.

When I got home, the first thing I did was buy a ball of mozzarella, fresh basil, and some vine-ripened tomatoes. That's the closest I'm gonna get to a salad for the moment. In addition, for the last couple of days, I've been dreaming of making something home-cooked that would involve lots of chopping and simmering fresh ingredients. Luckily, last week I also rediscovered how much I love to run outdoors, so I might just manage to avoid gaining weight in my current state of gustatory enthusiasm. :)

plz ignore dirty dishes in the sink
Anyway, I invented this recipe a couple of months ago, after D got home from what he said was the worst day he had ever had at work. For me, food always makes coming home from a hard day (or week) feel even better. Here's hoping this recipe does the same for you...

shrimp and cheese grits
for the grits:
1 cup water
1 cup skim milk
generous 1/4 cup shredded cheese (any kind)
generous 1/4 cup shredded Parmesan
2 tbsp. grated Parmesan
1 tbsp. butter
6 tbsp. quick grits

for the shrimp:
1 lb. fresh, raw shrimp (peeled and de-veined, shells reserved)
1 to 2 tbsp. unsalted butter
1 to 2 tbsp. canola oil
3 vine-ripe tomatoes, seeds and pulp removed, and diced
half of a medium yellow or orange bell pepper, finely diced
half of a red onion, finely diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/3 cup dry white wine
1/2 to 3/4 cup shrimp stock (see below) or water
6 sprigs of fresh thyme, stripped and chopped
5 leaves of fresh basil, chopped
black pepper and kosher sea salt

for the shrimp stock:
reserved raw shrimp shells
1/4 cup dry white wine
lemon wedge (or two)
1 tbsp. unsalted butter
2 sprigs of fresh thyme
1 tbsp. whole black peppercorns
1/2 tsp. Old Bay seasoning (or more, if you like)
1/2 tsp. kosher sea salt

stocky... yet delicate
Prepare the shrimp and stock: Peel and de-vein the shrimp, reserving the shells and discarding the veins. Place shrimp shells, wine, lemon wedge(s), butter, thyme, peppercorns, Old Bay, and salt in a small saucepan and add just enough water to cover it all. Boil gently until reduced and concentrated, about 15 or 20 minutes. Let the stock cool, and then strain it into a bowl or measuring cup. (Bonus: there should be more stock left over than you will use for this recipe, which means you can freeze the extra cup or two and use it later in a soup or another sauce.)

Make cheese grits: Add water, skim milk, grits, and a little salt and pepper to a saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil and cook until grits are thick, about three to five minutes. Remove from heat and add butter, a sprinkling of fresh thyme, and cheeses. Stir until the cheese is melted. Cover and set aside. (If the grits thicken too much while they sit, you can always stir in a few tablespoons of leftover shrimp broth, milk, or half-and-half to thin them a bit later, as well as re-warming them before serving if needed.)

Now for the shrimp: Heat the canola oil and 1 tablespoon of the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onion and pepper and cook until it is beginning to soften, several minutes. Melt a tiny pat of additional butter and add the garlic. Cook just until fragrant, about 30 to 45 seconds.

This right here is a good moment.
Stir in tomatoes and thyme, turn up the heat a little, and cook for 3 to 5 minutes, until they are incorporated into the sauce and beginning to caramelize, but not brown. Add wine and cook until reduced a bit. Add shrimp stock (or water) in small amounts and let it evaporatethis will concentrate the sauce and add flavor.

During the last few minutes, while you still have some liquid in the pan, stir in the shrimp and saute for 2 to 3 minutes, tossing occasionally so that they cook on all sides. Reduce heat to low and add basil and remaining tablespoon of butter. Heat through. Spoon shrimp and sauce over cheese grits, and garnish with chopped fresh basil or Italian parsley.


Friday, April 22, 2011

chicken with olives + pine nuts

This is my favorite dish on earth. ON EARTH. I dream about it. In fact, I find myself counting the weeks since I made it last, wondering whether enough time has elapsed for me to suggest making it again, or whether D will think I'm totally crazy and obsessed.

I watched Lidia Bastianich make Pollo con Olive e Pignoli on her show back in 2009, and as soon as she raised the lid on this pot full of browned chicken and salty-buttery-winey-nutty goodness, I knew I had to try it myself. It was the first thing I ever made in the gorgeous, tomato-red Le Creuset Dutch oven that was D's Christmas present to me that year, so every time I pull it out of the cabinet, my mouth starts watering because it associates that pot with this dish.

Though the best batches of this recipe by far have been the ones using bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs, I often amend Lidia's original recipe by using boneless, skinless chicken breasts instead. I like chicken breasts just fine, but only when they're cooked the right way. In order to keep the meat from drying out and becoming tough, which can happen very easily with chicken breasts, it's worth taking the extra step to brine the chicken for at least a couple of hours so that it stays juicy and tender. (Brining is super simple: in a large bowl with a lid, whisk together 4 cups water and 3 tablespoons each of sugar and salt until it's dissolved. Add chicken breasts, cover, and refrigerate for 1 to 4 hours. When you're ready to cook, remove chicken from brine, rinse it with cold water, and pat it dry with paper towels.) Using chicken breasts also cuts a bit of the fat in the dish - though in all honesty, this is absolutely not a diet recipe. It's something I only bring out when I'm feeling kind of what-the-hell about being healthy.

Me want.
This is a great recipe for a dinner party. It's super rustic, makes your house smell fantastic, and - bonus! - is a one-pot, one-bowl meal. Put a bottle of wine, a big bowl of salad, and a basket of crusty baguette chunks with it, and you're done.

Recipe notes: For the olives, I feel pretty strongly about Cerignolas because I think they have a really distinctive flavor that makes this dish, but I have read the reader comments on Lidia's recipe, and apparently other cooks have used regular green olives and loved how their batches came out. I increased the amount of pine nuts in the recipe because, let's be honest, I am never mad at more pine nuts. I have also called for more wine so that it makes more pan sauce, which is like crack. My friends, there are no words strong enough to express how I feel about it. (I might also venture so far as to say that I view the chicken, which is ostensibly the "star" of this dish, as almost ancillary to the sauce.) And P.S.: the soft garlic chunks are maybe the best part of eating this. Getting one on your plate is a bit like finding the toy baby in the king cakeexcept better, because you can eat the garlic...

chicken with olives + pine nuts
(adapted from Lidia Bastianich's Pollo con Olive e Pignoli)

3½ to 4 lbs. chicken pieces ("happy chicken" if possible)
1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2 tbsp. plus 1 tbsp. unsalted butter
3 to 4 plump garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
2 bay leaves
1 c. pitted Cerignola olives
7 to 8 small, oil-cured black olives (just a few will do - they're really salty and a little bitter)
3/4 c. white wine
1/2 c. toasted pine nuts
at least one crusty baguette

Pit olives by smashing each one under the side of a large, wide chef's knife and removing pits. Leave them in large chunks; it's so rustic and pretty that way! You might also go ahead and toast your pine nuts at this point. Heat a dry skillet over medium heat. Add nuts and stir occasionally. Keep a close watch on them; they burn very easily. When they're lightly browned, take them off the heat and put them in a small bowl. Let them cool and set them aside, along with the olives.

If you have brined the chicken, rinse it and pat it dry. Pepper it but don't salt itthe brine and the olives will add plenty of salt. If not, pat it dry, and a light dusting of salt and pepper on both sides is fine. Remove to a plate.

Melt 2 tbsp. of the butter and all of the olive oil in a large, heavy Dutch oven over medium-low heat. Let it turn into a bit of a beurre noisette if you wanta little light browning will actually make it taste even yummier.

Add the chicken pieces to the pot and flip them back and forth once so that both sides get a coating of oil and butter. Arrange the pieces so that there’s as much space between them as possible. Scatter the smashed garlic chunks and bay leaves in the oil/butter, in the spaces between the chicken breasts. Cover and let the pieces gently brown for around 10 minutesyou might cut that time a little shorter, depending on how quickly the pieces are browning. The less cooking you have to do, the more tender the chicken will be.

Uncover and flip the chicken pieces, moving them around a bit in the pan so that they all get the same amount of heat and oil. Cover again and cook for 5 to 10 minutes on gentle heat.

After around 15 to 20 minutes total, scatter olives around the pan and pour in the wine. Raise heat just enough so that it starts bubbling again, and then immediately reduce it as low as it will go. Cover and gently simmer for about 10 minutes, turning chicken pieces periodically so that they stay covered with the pan juices. Sometimes I also pile a couple of olives on top of the chicken so that they stay moist.

Finally, stir in pine nuts and cover tightly again. Turn off the heat and let the whole thing sit for about 5 or 10 minutes. At the end, melt an additional tablespoon of butter into the sauce.

Serve with rice or torn chunks of baguette. Depending on which you choose, take my advice and think about not serving this on a plate. I recommend either putting the chicken and rice in shallow bowls so that you can pour lots of pan juice over it, or if not, then at least pouring the sauce into little ramekins so that you can dip hunks of bread in it.

Tender! Juicy! Salty! Buttery! Mmmmmm.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

creamy curried shrimp + brown rice + vegetables

This week in my world literature class, I taught an excerpt from Marcel Proust's seven-volume novel, Remembrance of Things Past. I had been looking forward to it because a couple of months ago for my birthday D made me a present of Alain de Botton's book, How Proust Can Change Your Life. I have loved taking my time, reading it a chapter at a time, because de Botton so skillfully distills the wisdom and insight of Proust into this wonderfully wry, nerdy self-help manual for how to live, and I like to digest its lessons slowly.

So, I was excited to get to discuss an excerpt from Proust's actual work. In one section of the novel, the narrator Marcel recalls one evening when he experienced his usual overwhelming longing for his mother to come up to his room and kiss him goodnight, but also felt a simultaneous panic at the knowledge that this would not happen: he had been sent to bed early because the family friend Swann had come to dinner, and Marcel's parents were busy entertaining their guest. At the end of the excerpt, the narrator abruptly transitions to a recollection of having come home with a cold several years earlier. Though at the time he was a little too old for it, his mother coddled him by giving him a cup of lime-blossom tea and a madeleine to make him feel better. As he describes it, at the moment when he dipped the cookie into his drink and tasted it, his entire childhood world at Combray suddenly reappeared in his memory and, "taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea." In a flash of insight, he comes to the realization that he associates the taste with Sunday mornings as a child, when his Aunt Léonie would offer him a bite of a madeleine that had been dipped in her tea.

Olfactory and gustatory memories, I would argue, are some of the most underestimated of all sensory recollections. They can overcome us so suddenly and powerfully when we bite into, sip, or smell something that makes us remember being children. These "involuntary memories," as Proust calls them, are far more potent than our voluntary attempts to remember things, precisely because they are so deeply buried and so often take us completely by surprise.

Back to the recipe at hand. One evening this week, making a quick stop at Publix on my hour-long commute home from teaching in Tuscaloosa, I was trying to come up with some plan for dinner on the fly as I wheeled my cart efficiently (read: get out of my way) up and down the aisles, grabbing stuff left and right as I went. We hadn't had shrimp in a while, so I ordered some, pre-cooked and peeled, from the seafood counter. But what to go with it? Suddenly I had an idea.


My mom used to make a version of this recipe when I was a little girl, and it was one of my very favorite dishes. It was pretty plain the way she made it, but that was exactly the way I liked it: tiny salad shrimp, white rice, almonds, and a mild, creamy curry sauce. Often she would use diced chicken instead of shrimp, which was equally wonderful. I used to dream about eating a big plate of it all by myself.

Since it was kind of exotic, she usually only made it for company, so we didn't have it very often. Hence, the taste of curry powder is forever linked in my mind with the mingled excitement and dread I felt, as a painfully shy kid, whenever guests came to the house for dinner. Guests also meant, of course, that there would be fewer leftovers, since there were extra mouths to feed besides the five of us and it wasn't always easy for my mother to judge beforehand how much food would be sufficient. Therefore, I also associate the taste of shrimp curry with a sinking suspicion that there might not be enough left for me to have a second helping, either that evening or at lunch the next day - as well as a selfish fear that even if there were enough, I would probably have to share, which would likewise mean a smaller portion.

Don't we all have some dish like this? One of the great things about being an adult is that you can do what you couldn't when you were a kid: make a big batch of something that you used to have to share with everyone else and eat as much of it as you like, and then get up in the middle of the night, warm it up, and eat the rest of it. You can bake a whole package of cookies and eat them yourself, or even, hell, omit the baking entirely and just sit there all evening surfing on your computer, eating blobs of cookie dough, and drinking a glass of wine, instead of sitting down at the table and having a proper dinner. (Whoa. Grad school flashback.) But a childhood dish never seems to taste quite as satisfying as you remember - there's a kind of melancholy about it because it reminds you of a time and of relationships that, if they aren't forever gone, have at the very least been irrevocably transformed into something more adult. Which is, in itself, not entirely a bad thing - just a bittersweet one.

At any rate, on Tuesday evening I made this tribute to a favorite childhood dish, and D ate it and thought it was delicious, too. As everyone knows, this doesn't always happen when you enthusiastically try to introduce a loved one to some food that you thought was sublime when you were a kid (I'm looking at you, Vienna sausages), so when he said I should post it, I figured it meant that others might like it, as well.

What's funny about this is that it also reminds me of my brother Jeff, who has the opposite response to curry powder: he despises not only the taste but also the smell of it. Maybe it's linked in his mind with some unpleasant memory, or maybe he ate it and later got sick. I'm not sure. All I can say is that my parents won't even cook with it in their own house if there's a possibility that he might be coming over in a day or two. It's a joke in our family that usually involves one of us facetiously saying something along these lines: "Hey, Jeffy, want some dinner? You'll like it! I put a big scoop of curry powder in it." (To be fair, these days he does actually like other kinds of Thai and Indian curries.)

All of that's to say: I hope you enjoy this dish, which tastes like all the fears and desires of my childhood. ;)

creamy curried shrimp + brown rice and vegetables
for the sauce:
1/4 c. olive oil mayonnaise
1 small (5 or 6-oz.) container nonfat Greek yogurt
1 tbsp. curry powder
1 tsp. ground ginger powder
1/2 tsp. ground mustard powder
1/2 tsp. garlic powder
1/2 tsp. onion powder
1/4 tsp. ground black pepper
juice of a couple of lemon wedges

1 tsp. olive oil
1 tsp. butter
1/2 c. frozen peas, thawed
1 small zucchini, quartered or sixthed and then sliced
1 small carrot, finely diced
1/2 c. celery, finely diced
3 green onions, finely chopped (white parts and green tops kept separate)
3/4 lb. cooked shrimp, shelled, deveined, and de-tailed
2 small containers pre-cooked brown rice, warmed in microwave for 60 seconds
2 tbsp. slivered blanched almonds

Whisk together mayonnaise, yogurt, curry, ginger, mustard, garlic, onion, black pepper, and lemon juice in a bowl. Mix in green onion tops. Allow it to sit at room temperature for at least 10 or 15 minutes so that the flavors blend.

Heat olive oil and butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add vegetables and sauté for a couple of minutes, just until a little soft but still crisp and green. Crank heat down to low. Stir in shrimp, dressing, brown rice, and almonds. Heat until it’s all warmed through. Serve with a sprinkling of Parmesan on top.

Note: When I made this, there was a bit too much sauce for the amount of rice, shrimp, and veggies I had, so I stirred in a little at a time at the end and ended up having some left over. Feel free to use as much or as little as you like. It would also be fine to thin the sauce with a little water or lemon juice, if you like it less dense. Also, I sprinkle Parmesan on well nigh everything, so you are welcome to omit it if you're not as crazy for cheese as I am.

Monday, March 7, 2011

herbed balsamic tofu

A few months ago, I watched this video on TED:

I still haven't committed to becoming a weekday vegetarian yet; it's been kind of tricky, what with all the high-protein Men's Health diet and fitness plans we've been doing for several months. Still, I've been thinking seriously about it for a while, and the fact that I'm finding some excellent ways to prepare tofu doesn't hurt because it means that D and I are eating it more often than we used to. Maybe we can gradually work our way up from one-night-a-week veg to five.

I basically have three recipes for tofu. They all involve marinating the tofu and then cooking it at a high temperature so that it gets nicely browned on the outside. Two of them - one Indian-spiced and the other Asian-flavored - come from Heidi Swanson's miraculous blog, 101 Cookbooks, but for this post I'm including the one I came up with myself.

The tofu turns out delicious: it's kind of sweet, garlicky, and tangy, all at the same time, and it gets so wonderfully brown that you could almost convince yourself that you're eating meat. A serving suggestion: last week I served this tofu mixed into some brown rice, and in a brilliantly serendipitous move, D suggested that we also stir in some sliced almonds and raisins. Delicious. A sprinkling of cinnamon, and it might taste a little Moroccan. The best news is that it's really good for you. The only fat comes from the olive oil and the tofu, and it's mostly unsaturated.

So, on to the vegan goodness...

herbed balsamic tofu

1 package extra-firm tofu (the firmest you can get), cubed or in a block
1/3 cup good, dark balsamic vinegar
1 tsp. sesame oil
2 to 3 tbsp. reduced-sodium soy sauce
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
1 tbsp. olive oil
2 tbsp. fresh chives, chopped
1 tbsp. fresh thyme, stripped and chopped (reserve 1 tsp. for garnish)
4 cloves garlic, chopped
salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper

Take the tofu out of its package and drain it. If it’s in a block, cut it into one-inch cubes. Lay it out in a single layer on a thick tea towel (not the fuzzy terry kind). Put another towel on top of it, and gently press and squeeze the cubes with the towel until some of the liquid has been blotted. Let it sit under the towel, pressing it again gently a couple more times, while you prepare the marinade.

In a medium-sized bowl with a tightly-fitting lid, whisk together remaining ingredients. Add tofu and very gently toss it with a rubber scraper until the marinade has coated all of it. Cover tightly and place in the refrigerator for at least a couple of hours. Once or twice, pull it out and gently turn the bowl upside-down and then right side up to recoat the pieces with the marinade.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Empty the tofu and marinade into a shallow oven-safe skillet and arrange tofu in a single layer. Bake for 15 minutes or so, and then pull it out, shake it or move it around a little to turn the tofu cubes. (WARNING: Keep your head back when you open the oven door unless you want a face full of hot, vaporized vinegar.) Repeat this step a couple of times during the cooking period so that all sides of the tofu cubes get browned. You’ll probably need to cook the tofu for about 30 minutes total, but just keep an eye on it. If it’s nicely browned but not burned, and most of the marinade has evaporated, then it’s ready.

Remove to a bowl and cool a bit – it’s much better at room temperature! Sprinkle with reserved thyme and serve.


Sunday, January 9, 2011


I've mentioned the annual summer beach trip I take with my girlfriends before, in my Cream of Mushroom Soup post, and here's another recipe inspired by that vacation. Before we started renting a house that was too far down the beach for it to be practical, every year we used to set aside one evening and drive almost an hour to a little Cuban restaurant in Cocoa Beach for some ropa vieja, Cuban sandwiches, and a pitcher of sangria. Last year, since we didn't go to dinner there, I found a recipe so that we could make our own batch of that potent, festive libation. While we sipped our way through an experimental pitcher, we started playing the celebrity name game, which is hilarious if you're tipsy. (I'm told it was Casie who declared at one point, "I just can't stop thinking about Reba McEntire!" and the rest of us burst into hysterical laughter.) The next day, we all agreed: that stuff was strong.

I mean, you have to love a beach 
house that stocks bubbles.
  This year, I brought the
  recipe with me, but because I 
  forgot to get several of the 
  key ingredients when we made 
  our grocery run, we had to 
  improvise. One morning, while 
  the other ladies adjourned to
  the beach to soak up some
  sunshine, Valerie and I 
  stayed in the kitchen, 
  doctoring a pitcher full of 
  wine, fruit, and liquor, 
  sampling it with a big spoon 
  anytime we added something to
  it, until it tasted good.
  Yes, it was ten o'clock in 
  the morning, but to be fair,
  you kind of have to do this 
  early in the day so that the
  fruit has a chance to sit for 
  a while and get all wine-y 
 (and the wine can get fruity).

We started out with a concoction that, when we tasted it, caused us to make sour lemon faces and then shudder a little bit. Potent stuff. So from there, the objective was to keep it dangerous but also make it delicious. (I should add that our plans for the evening only included coming back after dinner, putting on our pajamas, and drinking sangria while sitting around the dining room table playing the Harry Potter board game. There was to be no more driving that night.) In the cupboard we found a box full of sugar packets that the previous renters had left behind, so we kept adding them to the pitcher in threes and sixes until we each drank a spoonful, our eyes got big, and both of us said, "Oooooh." Then we left it in the fridge all day. When we broke it out that night, we made sure to caution everyone that our sangria was a beautiful woman who would probably do you wrong. I should confess that later in the evening, after imbibing some of it, I ended up whacking my head hard on the towel rack in the bathroom and also falling partway down the stairs (not that I'm ever particularly graceful, honestly, even stone cold sober). Again, we only made the one pitcher, and it was shared among five of us. You've been warned. There's a reason why I put an exclamation point after the title in this post... 

our glorious, deserted beach
 1 1.5-L bottle dry red wine 
 2 airplane bottles Bacardi   
    Limon rum 
 2 airplane bottles brandy
 2 apples, cut up
 1 orange, cut up
 1 lemon, cut up
 1 lime, cut up
 1 lime, juiced
 1 lemon, juiced
 1 to 2 oranges, juiced
 3/4 cup sugar (or to taste) 

 1 L raspberry seltzer water

Stir all ingredients 
together in a pitcher 
until fully dissolved, 
and then let it sit in 
the refrigerator for 
at least a few hours so 
that everything infuses everything else. Keep in
mind two things. One, this is sangria, so it is perfectly acceptable, and even advisable, to use cheap red wine. Two, another warning: of all the fruit, the apple pieces in particular seem to really soak up a disproportionate amount of liquor flavor, so when you bite into one, it's probably gonna bust you in the chops. You might use that information to decide whether you want to dip yourself out a few extra apple chunks or, alternatively, leave them alone. :)

Cheers for real,