Tofu and I have a long, sometimes fractious relationship. We didn’t start off well.
When I was in high school, I decided to become a vegetarian. Suddenly disgusted by meat, I announced to my mother that I didn’t want to eat it. My brother joined along too.
Mom announced that I would be cooking my own meals from now on.
Okay. I liked to stand in front of the electric griddle and flip the grilled cheese sandwiches. This shouldn’t be hard.
However, at the time we were eating the typical American diet: meat with a couple of sides. Learning to cook without meat was like diving into cold dark water. Yikes it was tough to stay in there. Laurel’s Kitchen offered recipes for Savory Dinner Loaf with soy grits and bulghur wheat, neither of which was in our kitchen. Lentil Nut Loaf seemed do-able, until I saw torula yeast and soy flour. I had never heard of either. In the breakfast section, Uppuma involved turmeric powder and black mustard seeds, along with cracked wheat. Oh dear.
(My memory isn’t that great. I still have the copy I bought at that Malibu garage sale, all these years later. And flipping through it, I notice just how many recipes call for whole wheat or wheat germ. Trying to be healthy, I was making myself sick.)
Mostly I made a lot of grilled cheese sandwiches and iceberg salads with bottled ranch dressing.
One day, however, I decided to make veggie burgers. My parents were grilling steaks. I wanted something good to go on the grill too. I didn’t have a recipe. I made one up on the spot. I squelched tofu through my fingers to break it up, then threw in sunflower seeds, ketchup, wheat germ, and spinach, then shaped them into patties.
I stopped being a vegetarian after that.
(By the way, there are tremendous recipes for veggie burgers out there. I love eating them, now that I know more what I’m doing.)
No wonder I didn’t like tofu for awhile.
My mistake was the one most folks make: thinking of tofu as a meat substitute. That’s what Danny thought for years. However, tofu is so much more.
Tofu has a fairly neutral taste, so it takes on the flavors of the foods you throw on it. Chile oil or peanut butter — they both work with tofu. Instead of thinking of it as a substitute for meat, think of tofu as a convenient holder for the flavor you want to build.
However, it’s easy to cook tofu badly, really badly. I’ve eaten tofu sautéed in a cold pan with lukewarm oil and I’ve wanted to spit it out at the dinner table. I refrained, but I wanted. I’ve eaten barely warm tofu with curry sauce thrown at it. That didn’t help my cause of convincing Danny to like tofu.
He swore for years that he hated tofu, one of the few foods he wouldn’t eat.
However, after a couple of years of hearing him talk trash about tofu, I realized something: he had never tried it before.
When we were at a friend’s house, a friend who is a vegan, Danny tried the roasted tofu done Canary Islands style, and he went back for seconds. Seconds! When I said to him later that night, “See, tofu can be good!” that’s when he admitted that was the first time he had ever eaten it.
After that, I convinced him to try it more often. He still didn’t love it. He tolerated tofu.
However, this past year, Danny has been creating weekly specials at the restaurant where he’s a chef. (We always say Daddy’s Restaurant when we talk to Lu, but he neither owns it nor runs it. He likes the fact that he goes in to cook and leaves at the end of the night with nothing left behind.) He creates a new fish special every day, as well as a gluten-free dessert. However, every Monday he thinks all day long about what to start cooking for his weekly special.
His gluten-free, vegan special.
Danny, in the past, could be a little derisive about vegans. He loves feeding everyone, and he would never slip meat or cream into a vegan diner’s dish. But like many chefs, he used to believe that bacon or butter made everything better.
His food has been transformed this year. Now he makes vegan bouillabaisse with gluten-free focaccia croutons that leave the entire staff begging for more. Or a three-rice stuffed pepper with romesco sauce. Or chickpeas and black rice with bok choy, lacinato kale, sunchokes, and a blood orange-white balsamic vinaigrette.
When I go into his restaurant to eat with Lu, I almost always order the vegetarian special. It’s almost always the best meal on the menu.
In some of these dishes, he has been making grilled tofu. We have a tofu factory here on Vashon. Danny loves to use local ingredients. People love his vegan specials with grilled tofu. The staff loves them. Danny was tempted to eat some grilled tofu and wanted more. He started liking tofu, a little.
Last week, we made a tofu dish inspired by Michelle Stern’s lovely new cookbook, The Whole Family Cookbook: Celebrate the Goodness of Locally Grown Foods. Michelle is passionate about getting kids in the kitchen and involving families in every step of the cooking process, as well as the need to use as many local foods as possible. Her kind and thoughtful book is meant to help busy families make healthy meals together. Of course we wanted to help spread the word about this.
When I saw the recipe for tofu triangles with dipping sauce, I told Danny we had to make it. He wasn’t particularly enthusiastic, but he agreed.
We changed it up a bit — Danny can never make a recipe as written — and decided to roast the tofu instead of baking it. Roasted tofu has a crisp skin with a soft interior. It squeaks sometimes when you bite into it — there is that much crunch. As Danny said when I pulled them out of the oven, they look like homemade marshmallows. They puff up that much.
Roasting is my favorite technique for making great tofu.
We let them cool a bit, then took these photos, and then we three ate together.
“Wow,” said Danny. “This is really good. Can we make more?”
ROASTED TOFU WITH TAMARI DIPPING SAUCE, inspired by a recipe in The Whole Family Cookbook: Celebrate the goodness of locally grown foods
Pull out the ingredients for this and you could be having a great snack within half an hour. These are pretty addictive – this batch disappeared pretty quickly. However, if you have any leftover after the initial eating excitement, the roasted tofu would be great in salads or over brown rice with roasted vegetables. The dipping sauce makes a great marinade for seared salmon or roasted chicken, as well.
The wasabi powder here is optional but it adds a great zing to the sauce. Wasabi root, known as Japanese horseradish, has a bit of a kick, which breathes some fire into otherwise bland dishes. You probably know it best as the green glob that appears next to your sushi. It has so many other uses, however. The McCormick Gourmet folks sent us some of theirs (remember that we’re part of their blogger group and thus paid to talk about their spices) and we have been using it in unexpected dishes. Just a pinch adds great heat.
16 ounces firm tofu
Kosher salt and cracked black pepper
2 tablespoons grapeseed oil
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1 nub ginger, peeled (about the size of half your pinky finger)
2 tablespoons wheat-free tamari
2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
1/8 teaspoon wasabi powder (optional)
3 tablespoons sesame oil
9 tablespoons grapeseed oil
Preparing to roast. Preheat the oven to 450°. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Roasting the tofu. Cut the tofu into 1-inch cubes. Season the tofu with salt and pepper. Pour the oil over the tofu and gently toss them with oil to coat. It’s probably best to do this with your fingertips, taking care to not crumble the tofu. You want solid cubes.
Tumble the seasoned tofu onto the baking sheet. Slide it into the oven and roast the tofu for 15 minutes. Take the baking sheet out of the oven and flip over all the tofu cubes. Slide the baking sheet into the oven again and roast until the tofu cubes are puffed up and browned, about another 15 minutes.
Making the dipping sauce. While the tofu is roasting, toss the garlic cloves and ginger to a food processor. (You could also use a blender for this.) Whirl them up until they are pulpy. Add the tamari, rice wine vinegar, and wasabi powder (if you are using it) and mix up the sauce. With the food processor running, pour in the sesame and grapeseed oils, slowly, a bit at a time. This will emulsify the dipping sauce, which means the ingredients will hold together.
Remove the tofu from the oven. When they are cool to the touch, dip them in the sauce and eat.
I want to tell you a story.
On New Year’s Day, I received a message from one of my dearest friends. She’s in New York now, far away, but we still talk frequently. All through the fall, however, we barely talked. After we saw her in the city in September, and stayed in her apartment while she was away on business, she sort of disappeared. Oh, there was phone tag and text messages and the occasional Facebook exchange. We were a mite busy as well, so I didn’t worry. The best friends always allow each other space and silence. Still, I missed her.
So when I received this message on New Year’s Day, I was thrilled: “Sweetie, I have the most wonderful news. I’ve never been this happy. Let’s talk soon.”
As soon as I read it, I knew. I turned to Danny, read it to him, and said, “If this is about a new job, I’m going to kick her.”
It wasn’t about a job.
The next day, Lu was taking a nap and I was out for a walk, clutching my cell phone, waiting for my friend to call. There she was.
I could hear the happiness in her voice at hello. She sounded lighter than I had ever heard her before.
You see, my dear friend was heartbroken when she was in her early 20s. Actually, heartbroken isn’t even the word. Heart-stomped-upon-and-smashed is perhaps the more apt phrase. The story of what happened is hers, and I don’t want to encroach on her privacy. Just suffice it to say that it involved a trans-continental four-year romance and a wedding called off a few days before it was supposed to happen because of horrible betrayal. I think, for the first decade after it happened, my friend sealed up tight against the world so as not to get hurt again. By the time I met her, eleven years ago, she had opened just a crack.
We laughed, a lot. The two of us were fast friends the last years I was in New York, and then in Seattle together. We lived in apartments across the hall from each other; we joked that we were living in a sitcom. We grew up together, in a lot of ways. We both opened to the world because we were friends.
And then I met Danny. At first, she didn’t approve. Of course, it makes sense to me now. It all happened so fast. I knew within a few dates that this was the man I would love for the rest of my life. With her history, my friend grew frightened. She closed up again. She didn’t want to hear about it.
Once she met him, however, she relaxed. It was Danny. She recognized us. He adores her too.
The day after our wedding, she left for New York. My heart broke a bit, but I knew she needed to go home.
In all that time I knew her, my friend didn’t really date anyone. Neither did I, before I met Danny. We were the two musketeers. Danny and I broke that up, unwittingly. I hoped that when she moved back home to New York, she would meet a new person, someone who could embrace her and soften her more. But she found a job that sucked up all her time and she seemed to be growing tighter again, instead.
And then this fall of silence. And this phone call.
“I’m in love with a wonderful man,” she told me, her voice full of soft amazement. “And last night, he proposed.”
I screamed with joy, out in the woods, jumped up and down. Yahoo!! And who was he?
“You know him. Do you remember P?”
It all came flooding out. Of course.
My friend has been good, close friends with this man for over 20 years. He is smart, kind, aware, courageous, and funny. The two of them understand each other, deeply. I knew that when I met him, years ago in Seattle. I watched the banter between them, the sympathy and understanding, the history. They were connected, in all the best ways.
My friend had been good friends with this man for years. She had also been friends with his wife.
His wife battled cancer for years. My friend walked with them through those struggles, marveled at their strength, helped them in any way she could. For a few years, it seemed she would be okay. Then, four years ago or so, the cancer came back. Pernicious. Fatal. The man stayed with his wife through her cancer. She died over a year ago.
Several months ago, my friend connected again with her friend. They spent time together as friends. He had moved away from New York, but he returned for visits, again. It made sense. They had been friends for two decades. Why would they not want to spend time together?
But something shifted after the visits and conversations, the connections and laughter. My friend bought her friend a series of cooking classes for his birthday. He called to thank her. And then he said, “This feels like more than an act of friendship.”
I imagine my friend in that moment, terrified and exhilarated both. Would she open to this? Could she be honest?
She said yes, even though she didn’t know what he would answer next. She said yes.
So did he.
And now, they are madly in love, together, and engaged. I think every day about the two of them, about their connection and friendship, their courage in loving again. This is no one’s perfect Hollywood-ending love story. This is the hard choice — to love again in spite of enormous heartbreak. I think every day about the joy in my friend’s voice and I start laughing.
They are getting married this summer, in the backyard of a dear friend of ours, here on our island. Lu might even be a flower girl. And I will be crying.
I’ve been thinking about my friend’s story in the midst of this Valentine’s Day week. I see all kinds of websites offering chocolates and roses, singing telegrams and lingerie. Ew.
I never liked Valentine’s Day when I was single. In spite of the fact I knew it was a Hallmark holiday, I still felt bad that other people were out there celebrating their love with champagne and truffles, arms intertwined around each other, and I was home in my pajamas.
Now that I’m married to a wonderful man, with whom I am more in love every day, I still spend the night of Valentine’s Day in my pajamas. Danny will be cooking (“…for the people!” as Lu likes to say), not home until late. I’ll be reading bedtime stories to our daughter, laughing and hoping she’ll go to bed early enough that I can finish a blog post before midnight. Danny will arrive home late, and we’ll kiss. I’ll have some dinner for him — the earlier the kid’s bedtime, the more elaborate the dinner will be — and we’ll sit on the couch and talk about our days, perhaps with a Law and Order: SVU on the television. Probably there will be mashed potatoes.
That’s my love story at the moment.
We all could use more love right now. When could we not use more love? But these are fractured days, full of bad news that only seems to multiply with the internet and 24-hour-news cycles. However, there are heroic stories and small moments of glory happening all the time.
I think of my dearest, oldest friend in the world, whose father has been in my life since I was 14. He’s not doing well. In fact, last week, we all thought he was dying. I walked around with joy in my heart for one friend and grief in my heart for the other. The day she told me it didn’t look good, she said, “I just miss him already. I want him back now.” We cried together on the phone. Last week, however, he had an unexpected recovery. An astounding recovery for an 80-year-old. We’re not out of the woods yet, but it’s much easier to deal with today. I think of my friend, all her siblings, her father’s partner gathered around his bed, willing him to breathe. And now, cheering him on as he learns to use his swallowing muscles again.
I think of my friend who visited us on Sunday, bearing pie. We all enjoyed our time together, in one of our boisterous brunches, filled with kids running through the house and bouncing on the bed. As our friend was leaving, she realized someone had left our gate ajar. Her dog was nowhere to be found. She and another friend and Danny went running, calling through the neighborhood. No luck. We all grew anxious. Lu went into her room and came back out, the dog following her. She had fallen asleep in Lu’s room. We ran outside, calling in joyful voices. Our friend came running back. The look on her face as she embraced her dog was grateful relief.
If you can read this story about Liam Witt, and his courageous battle with cancer without any complaining, and not cry, you are made of brittle stuff. “He loved to bake cakes so he could decorate them. He loved Valentine’s Day because he always loved telling people he loved them. He did that every day.”
And I am moved by the mother love and patience of my friend Lecia, who created incredible Valentine’s Day cards with her sons.
Love stories. I want to hear more of them.
How about you?
So here’s what we’d like to do for Valentine’s Day. We want to hear your love stories.
Write your most important love story, on your blog, or in a comment here. We will compile them all next week, on Valentine’s Day, to create a far more nuanced meaning for the day.
Imagine the effect of reading hundreds of love stories, one after another.
We have some prizes to give away, including copies of our cookbook (it’s sort of made for Valentine’s Day, in a way), cookware, baking supplies, and other books about love. We have a few details to share. We’ll tell you about those later. That’s not what this is about right now.
We just want to hear your love stories.
PAN-SEARED BEEF TENDERLOIN WITH BALSAMIC ONIONS AND PORT SAUCE
This is a dish from our cookbook, Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef. I suppose we should make you buy the book to learn how to make this dish, but that doesn’t seem in the spirit, does it? We want to share it here with you now, in case you would like to make a lovely dinner at home for the one you love. (Pssst. That’s much better than a restaurant, any day.)
Danny made this in our kitchen, in the home we had just started sharing, back in June of 2006. He went to slice up some bread, some bread with gluten. (He had his own drawer and knew to not kiss me directly after he ate it.) I asked him if he had to eat bread that night. (I wanted to kiss him.) He said, over his shoulder, “Honey, you’re marrying a chef. He’s going to eat bread.”
At that, I turned his face toward me and asked him, “What did you just say?”
He blushed and stammered. We laughed. I knew he’d ask when the time felt right. (We had only been together for 2 months but we knew.)
When I took a bite of this meal, and he saw my joy in tasting it, he got down on one knee.
Let me tell you, however — and I’m going to make you buy the book for the entire story — love stories in real life are rarely as perfect as they are in the movies. Danny’s proposal involved South Park and farting. And it was wonderful.
“I made this dish for Shauna the night I proposed (even though I didn’t know I was going to) because I knew she would love it. The first time I ate this flavor combination was at Gramercy Tavern. As I worked, I set aside some scraps to eat later. There’s a rich meatiness to the balsamic onions, as well as the tender beef, and the veal stock in the port sauce rounds it all out. All the textures and flavors blend together.
This dish is one of my favorites to cook for people I love. The night I first made it for Shauna, she swooned. And I didn’t need the bread after all.”
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 large yellow onions, peeled and sliced
3 tablespoons brown sugar
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
Kosher salt and cracked black pepper
2 pieces beef tenderloin, 3 to 3[1/2] ounces each
Kosher salt and cracked black pepper
2 tablespoons canola oil
Port reduction sauce
1 cup port
2 cups veal stock (you can also substitute chicken stock, see below)
Kosher salt and cracked black pepper
2 tablespoons butter
Caramelizing the onions. Set a large sauté pan over high heat. Pour in the olive oil. When the oil starts to smoke, add the onions. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions have wilted and shrunk, have turned brown in color, and smell sweet, 7 to 8 minutes. Add the brown sugar to the pan and cook, stirring, until the sugar begins to melt into the onions.
Finishing the onions. Pour the vinegar into the pan and cook, stirring occasionally and tasting continually, until the liquid is reduced and thickened, but not burnt, about 7 minutes; if you reduce it too much, it becomes tarry with a burnt taste. Instead you want a strong balsamic flavor, followed by the sweetness of the onions. Season with salt and pepper, if necessary. Set aside.
Searing the beef tenderloin. Season the tenderloin medallions with salt and pepper. Set a large sauté pans over high heat. Pour the canola oil into the hot pan. Put the tenderloin pieces in the hot oil; don’t crowd the pans, or the beef will boil in the oil, and that wastes a good piece of beef. Cook until the bottom of each piece has a lovely brown crust, 2 to 3 minutes. Flip over the tenderloin pieces. For medium-rare doneness, the medallions should have a little firm push at the center when pressed, but with softness all around, and the internal temperature should be 150°. Remove the pans from the heat, transfer the beef to a plate, and allow the beef to rest while you prepare the sauce.
Reducing the port. Pour ½ cup of the port into each pan, scraping the goodness from the bottom. When you have deglazed both pans, pour the contents of one pan into the other. Set the pan with the port over medium heat and simmer until the port is reduced by half its volume.
Finishing the sauce. Scoop the balsamic onions into the reduced port. Pour in the veal stock. Simmer until the liquid is reduced by half its volume. Taste the sauce and season with salt and pepper, if necessary. Drop in the butter and whisk the sauce until the butter is fully incorporated.
To serve, spoon the sauce with the onions onto each plate. Place a tenderloin piece on top of each serving.
Feeds 2. (You could easily double or triple the amount of beef if you wanted to cook for more people. You will have plenty of onions and port sauce.)
Variations: This dish would work well with rib-eye, porterhouse, or top sirloin steaks in place of the tenderloin. If you don’t want to use veal stock, you can substitute chicken stock, but the sauce might take longer to reduce. You might also have to thicken it with a cornstarch slurry (cornstarch mixed with cold water, then mixed into the stock for 1 to 2 minutes).
Suggestions: Whenever we eat this, we serve it with potato puree. In fact, these potatoes really should be part of the dish.
You will probably have some balsamic onions left over. The next day they can also top lamb, hamburgers, or chicken, or make a simple quinoa dish better. The port sauce is great on roasted vegetables, pasta, brown rice, or anything you want.