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.