Kim Chee had a party…

Go kim chee! It’s your birthday! Or rather, it’s your “done fermenting” day, although that doesn’t have the same ring to it.

If you recall, my Culture Club (a club for fermenting, pickling, canning, and preserving) made Radish and Roots Kim Chee from the book Wild Fermentation a little while back. I eagerly checked it every day, making sure my two jars (Medium and Spicy) had enough brine to cover all my veggies, and tasting (what a hardship!) to see if they tasted done. And when it was all fermented and ready to go, and I wanted to do something special for that first kim chee meal.

If you memory goes back eveeeen farther, you may remember that I got a book from the library called Glorious One-Pot Meals, with a patented (!) system for cooking a complete meal – including your rice/pasta/polenta/etc. – in a single Dutch oven, in the oven. I tried a lot of recipes from the book and had a lot of problems, which after a frustrating time of eating really gross food I traced to the fact that my oven thermometer was off by 50-75 degrees. By then the book needed to be returned to the library, so I wasn’t able to really give it a proper chance. But one recipe stuck with me, even under such trying circumstances.

The author calls this dish “Sesame Shitake Tofu.” I call it “My name is Scrumptious, and I am a vegetarian bibimbap addict. Please help me before I walk, zombie-like, to the nearest Korean restaurant and spend another $15 on a single bowl of food.” (We all know how much I object to spending $15 on a single bowl of food…)

I became a bibimbap addict during the year I lived in Massachusetts. Every weekend I would commute for a couple of hours each way from the rural area where I lived and worked to a town outside of Boston where I volunteered for an amazing organization called The Children’s Room. On the way home I’d be so hungry and tired I would stop first to get dinner. I’d been curious my whole life about Korean food but it never seemed to be vegetarian. But when I found a menu with something called “vegetarian bibimbap” I decided to give it a try.

The bibimbap in the Dutch oven, so you can see how the layers look after it's cooked. Check out that sexy browned rice!

The first thing that was unusual to me was that there were two prices for the bibimbap. For a several dollars more, you could get what seemed like the exact same ingredients, but served in a “stone pot.” I figured this was my one shot at Korean food, so I splurged and went the distance. What arrived at my table was a revelation. A bowl of rice with vegetables and an egg on top – but somehow so much more! The stone pot is heated to a high temperature and then coated with sesame oil. The egg cooks from the heat of the bowl, and the rice sizzles and browns in the best way. The veggies are sauteed and subtly seasoned, and there is often tofu, seaweed, bean threads, and other delicious unidentifiable morsels. Mostly it’s all about the rice, sizzling and browning to form an incredible crust.

Every time I order bibimbap and take the first bite, I invariably think to myself, “Why do I love this so much?” Despite the seasoned veggies and the crispy rice it has a kind of bland, sesame-oiliness to it that is a bit ho-hum. (Especially at $15 a bowl…) But you are meant to add hot chili sauce and other seasonings to it, to make it saltier and spicier. And once you do this, your second bite will be incredible. By the third bite you’ll be burning your mouth on the hot rice as you shovel it in.

When Duck and I made our first batch of Sesame Shitake Tofu and I took my first bite, that same thought crossed my mind. “This is so bland, and kind of oily… But wow, that rice crust is really great… and that seaweed… and those mushrooms… What if I added some tamari and hot chili sauce?… OH MY GOD IT’S BIBIMBAP MORE MORE!”

Something like that.

So when it came time to premiere the kim chee, I knew just the star vehicle to show off its spicy, salty talents to the utmost! It’s an incredible gift to have found this recipe, since most bibimbap recipes understandably (and authentically) are very complicated and time-consuming what with preparing all the seasoned vegetables and so on. (For example this Fat Free Vegan recipe that says “You will need to prepare at least 3 of the following recipes to go on top (4-5 is preferable).”) So even though I hate to pay so much (although it’s so totally worth the extra for the stone pot) I have never attempted to make bibimbap at home. To find a recipe that recreates, if not the exact composition, then very much the experience, and that recipe is made entirely in ONE POT… it’s like a Fermentation Day miracle!

One-pot Vegan Nearly-Bibimbap
Adapted from Sesame Shitake Tofu recipe from Elizabeth Yarnell’s very cool cookbook Glorious One-Pot Meals. Her method is very carefully designed, and I may have strayed from it in my adaptation, so any cooking snafus are my own error, not an error of her method! This recipe, written for a 2-quart Dutch oven, will serve two very generously. To fill a larger (3 1/2 – 4-quart) Dutch oven, simply double the recipe and add a few minutes to the cooking time – go by the “aroma” test, rather than the timer. You should also be able to make the smaller recipe in the larger Dutch oven with no problems.

2 t. sesame oil
1/3 cup dried arame seaweed
4-7 oz. extra-firm tofu, drained, pressed, cut into small cubes
1/4 C. + 1/4 C. Annie’s Sesame Shitake Vinaigrette (or other sesame dressing) (I used Annie’s)
1 C. sushi rice
8-10 dried shitake mushrooms, soaked in boiling water until tender, about half an hour (reserve soaking water)
1-2 C. napa cabbage, chopped
10 oz. package frozen spinach (no need to thaw!)

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
Wipe the inside and lid of a 2-quart Dutch oven (cast iron or enamel-lined) with the sesame oil.
Place the arame in a small bowl and cover with water, set aside.
Stir the tofu cubes with 1/4 cup of the vinaigrette, gently coating the cubes.
Put the rice in the bottom of the Dutch oven. Add 1 cup plus 1 tablespoon of liquid – using the shitake soaking water if you have enough, or adding more water as needed to reach the desired amount. Smooth rice and liquid to make an even layer in the bottom of the pot.
Chop the shitake mushrooms into small cubes and scatter in a layer over the rice.
Spread the tofu cubes in the next layer, making sure to get all the extra dressing from the bowl.
Drain and rinse the arame and sprinkle over the tofu.
Spread all the napa cabbage on the next layer.
Then top it all off with a layer of frozen spinach. (Don’t worry about frozen/not frozen ingredients – it all works out!)
Pour the remaining 1/4 cup of vinaigrette over the spinach.

Cover and bake for 45 minutes, or, as Elizabeth Yarnell says, “until 3 minutes after the aroma of a fully cooked meal escapes the oven.”

Scoop a big hunk from the pot, getting all the layers. Don’t be afraid to mix it up together on the plate or in the bowl. Serve with spicy and salty condiments on the side like kim chee, tamari/soy sauce, hot chili sauce, chili garlic sauce, etc…

“Semi-homemade” from scratch

Yuck. I’m sick. (*whine, whine, whine*)

I have some kind of sore throat, stuffy nose, achey sinus thing and I feel gross all over. When I feel this way, there is only one food I want: Tom Yum soup. Lovely clear broth so it’s light on the system, lots of heat to open up those sinuses, enough veggies and tofu that my body has some fuel to keep going. And that lilting, incomparable flavor – lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves and lime juice – like sweet-and-sour refined and taken to the pinnacle of possibility.

tomyum_soup

Usually when I’m sick I get a big tub of it from the Thai place down the street, but lately their tubs have been shrinking and besides we had take-out from them last night, before I knew I would be sick and require my Tom Yum fix. So I decided to try to make my own version, figuring if I could at least hit the basic notes – acid, heat, sweet – I would get a similar medicinal effect if not the exact flavors. I started surfing the web for ideas and it quickly became clear that I had one major problem: no lemongrass.

You can’t make Tom Yum soup without lemongrass. It would just be some other kind of soup. And you can’t really make lemongrass flavor from something else, either. But then in my web travels I came across an old Slashfood post called “Semi-homemade: Tom Yum” that sang the praises of using prepared Tom Yum paste (that the author buys, coincidentally, at my favorite Asian-foods market here in SF) to whip up a bowl of Tom Yum in minutes. No need to keep lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, etc., around the house at all times. All very well and good, only I didn’t have any prepared Tom Yum paste, either. Or did I?

I did a search for Tom Yum paste and found the ingredients: Lemongrass, soya bean oil, onion, salt, chili, water, galangal, lime juice, sugar, garlic, msg, kaffir lime leaves, shrimp extract flavor, citric acid. Leaving aside the fillers and the non-veg ingredients, I realized Tom Yum paste was an awful lot like the homemade yellow curry paste I had sitting in my freezer.

yellocurry2a

See, I love those little jars of red and green curry paste made by Thai Kitchen. I find them perfectly acceptable for making curry at home. But my favorite, above all other Thai dishes, is yellow curry, and I have been unable to find prepared yellow curry paste anywhere. So last summer I found a wonderful recipe from Jugalbandi, bit the bullet, and made my own yellow curry paste (more complicated in the ingredient-gathering than the actual preparation) and ended up with an extra 1/4 cup wrapped in wax paper in my freezer.

tomyum_paste

The soup itself was a very improvised affair. I’m not going to bother with giving a recipe, because if you have the ingredients around to make curry paste from scratch, which you would have to do in order to reproduce my version of the soup, then you might as well make actual Tom Yum soup from scratch. And if you are using a prepared Tom Yum paste, your flavorings may be completely different and the proportions of lime juice, etc., that I used won’t be very helpful.

tomyum_ingreds

I’ll sketch a basic outline, though, in case you happen to have some yellow curry paste around and feel like making Tom Yum soup with it.

Vegetarian Tom Yum Soup from Yellow Curry Paste

Bring 4 cups broth plus 2 cups water to a simmer and add 1/4 cup yellow curry paste. I threw in 3 large kaffir lime leaves I had in my freezer as well. At this point I also added half a pack of firm tofu, cubed. The tofu comes out pretty bland, but that’s part of the Tom Yum experience for me. Simmer everything for 5 or so minutes. Then add half an onion, thinly sliced, 1 carrot, thinly sliced on the diagonal, a few sliced shitake mushrooms (already soaked in hot water for 30 minutes), half a can of sliced water chestnuts, and some frozen peas. If you have canned straw mushrooms, canned baby corn, button mushrooms, and/or baby bok choy, these would all be yummy to add.  Cook for a few minutes, then add a tomato, sliced into thin wedges. Also add lime juice (at least 1 lime’s worth – I use a plastic squeezie lime), and a little mirin or sugar. Season to taste using lime juice, mirin or sugar, and a tiny bit of soy sauce if necessary (I do not like soy sauce in my Tom Yum, but Duck loves it). Serve immediately, plain or over cooked rice noodles, topped with full stalks of cilantro if you have it.

Oh, pretty!

pink_noodle

Duck was craving noodles. I wanted something satisfying and filling, but also fresh and healthy. I looked in the fridge and found red chard, baby bok choy, and tofu. A quick consultation of my beloved Moosewood Cooks at Home spreadsheet offered up Gingered Greens and Tofu, page 232, and things just kind of went from there. I riffed off the Moosewood recipe to end up with something delicious and stunningly beautiful. An unexpected side-effect of red chard + rice noodles is a sea of gorgeous, sunrise-tinted noodles. They tasted of lime and, somehow, lime tasted of pink.

pink_tofu

Sunrise Noodles with Gingered Greens and Tofu (adapted from Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home)

Rice noodles (I used half of a 14 oz packet from Thai Kitchen)

Tofu marinade:
1/2 c. soy sauce
1/2 c. dry sherry or Shaoxing cooking wine
1/4 c. rice vinegar
3 T. brown sugar

1-1.5 lbs firm tofu, blocks cut into 1/2-inch slices and then into 1-inch squares

4 T. peanut or vegetable oil
2 T. grated fresh ginger root
2-3 cloves garlic, minced or crushed
1 bunch red chard, lower stalks removed (but don’t pull the stalks out of the leaves), coarsely shredded
1-2 baby bok choy, coarsely shredded (optional)

3 T. lime juice
2 T. thinly sliced scallion + more for garnish
pinch of cayenne or splash of chili oil

To cook rice noodles: Bring 4 cups of water to a boil. Turn off heat and immerse rice noodles in hot water for 3-5 minutes until noodles are soft, cooked through but still firm and al dente, not mushy. (Check firmness frequently, as you would regular pasta.) Rinse with cold water for 30 seconds. Drain well and set aside.

Make tofu marinade: In a small saucepan, bring the marinade ingredients to a boil. Simmer for one minute and remove from heat. Add the tofu squares to the pot of marinade, immersing them as much as possible. Gently stir in 2 T. of the peanut oil. Set aside for 5 minutes.

Make lime juice mixture: Combine lime juice, scallions, and cayenne or chili oil in a small dish and set aside.

Preheat broiler. Prep all the remaining ingredients and have them at hand before beginning to stir-fry.

Place the tofu in a single layer in a nonreactive heatproof pan, covered with the marinade, or remove tofu from marinade, reserving marinade for later, and place on a piece of foil (depending on how your broiler works). Broil the tofu for 7-8 minutes; then turn it over with a spatula and brown the other side. Ideally, the tofu will get nicely browned and firm on the outside, chewy on the inside.

While the tofu broils, heat the remaining 2 T. of oil in a wok or large skillet over high heat. Stir in the ginger and garlic for a few seconds and then quickly add the chard and bok choy. Stir constantly on high heat until the greens wilt. When the greens are just tender, gently stir in the rice noodles and lime juice, scallion, and chili mixture. Gently toss the noodles and greens together until the rice noodles are heated through. The noodles should turn a lovely shade of pink. Remove from heat. When the tofu is browned, gently toss it with the reserved marinade and the noodles and greens, reheating if necessary. Top with a few raw scallions slices and serve immediately.

Serves 4.

Box gets spicy: I taste and create!

Duck and I took the train on an adventure last weekend with my niece and her mom. During lunch at an Indian restaurant my niece (who I can, without bias, report is the cutest, smartest, and most awesome three year-old in existence) asked about her meal, “Is everything here vegetarian?” When Duck asked her what vegetarian meant she reported knowingly, “Vegetarian means delicious!”

Big kudos to her mom not only for raising a healthy and thoroughly nourished vegetarian kid, but for providing the kind of quality meals that lead to such synonymous linkage. I came across some other synonyms for “vegetarian” while reading through the food blog Spice of Life, a “homecooking made simple” chronicle of one couple’s kitchen adventures. Spice of Life is my partner for this month’s Taste & Create event, which pairs food blogs and has them each make a recipe from the other’s blog.

Spice of Life is a lovely blog with beautiful photography and very yummy and sophisticated recipes, including some intriguing Filipino recipes (the chief blogger is originally from the Philippines). I had the same problem picking a recipe, though, that I had with my last partner – most of the recipes are meat or wheat!

I finally came across a recipe for Chili-Glazed Tofu over Asparagus and Rice that sounded delicious and also well within my parameters. It was here that I learned some new synonyms for vegetarian, and, let me tell you, I wish I lived in Jescel’s world! Over there, vegetarian is synonymous with “healthy” and also with “feel[ing] like we could eat more and still not feel guilty at all.”

As someone who is entirely vegetarian, I wish I wish I wish this were true! I wish I could be healthy and eat as much as I wanted as long as I just never, ever, ever let a piece of meat cross my lips. Oh beautiful world, I will dream of you as I devour my mountain of lovely, spicy, sticky-sweet tofu fried in peanut oil.

The tofu was even better than I imagined it would be. It’s a pretty similar technique to my everyday Deborah Madison tofu, but the sweet and spicy glaze was sooooo good. It’s not asparagus season, and I feel like I’ve been eating too much rice lately, so I decided to serve the tofu over a quinoa-sesame pilaf prepared Chinese-restaurant-style, little frozen-veggie bits of corn and peas and all!

Thanks so much to Jescel at Spice of Life for a great recipe that will probably get added to my regular weeknight repertoire, to Min at Bad Girl’s Kitchen for organizing this month’s Taste & Create, and to Nicole at For the Love of Food for inventing T&C! You can check out Jescel’s adventure with my recipe at her post, here.

The Ur-Meal

I mentioned in a recent post about tat soi my proto-dinner, the meal from which all other meals spring. (Okay, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but if all cooks have a meal they can rely on, make in their sleep, fit to suit the occasion, and, most importantly, are pretty much always in the mood for, then this is mine.) Ur-DinnerTonight, at the bare dreg ends of my last box (even the lettuce is gone! but not the napa cabbage, of course), I had to break down and buy myself some kale. Yes, at the store. My new box comes tomorrow and, seeing as how it is winter, and that the universe is a good and loving place, there will probably be kale in my box. But sometimes a girl needs kale, and she needs it now. So I bought some kale at the store, and I mixed some red and white quinoa and threw it in the steamer with some broth and I cooked up my Deborah Madison simple tofu and I put it all on a plate and man, it was just perfect. So perfect I could eat it every night this week, and maybe I will, when my box arrives all full of kaley goodness.

So, not technically from my box, but I get to show you this cool architectural photo of the ur-meal in its simplest form, and I get to give you the great recipe for tofu, which is so satisfying I pretty much never eat tofu any other way. (Well, except in curry.) (And frozen and marinated and cooked into casserole.) (And… well, you get the point. It’s a great way to cook tofu.)

Perfect Tofu (with liberties, from Deborah Madison’s wonderful cookbook, Vegetarian Suppers)

1 block of firm tofu (If you can get Sacramento Tofu Company tofu you will be in bliss here)
2 tsp. canola oil
salt & pepper
soy sauce
sesame oil (optional)

Slice the tofu into thin slices (see photo above). Lay slices on paper towels and pat down with more paper towels (this allows you to skip the offputting tofu-pressing step so often required, and Debbie says it’s okay, so it must be legal!). Heat the oil over medium or medium-high heat in a pan big enough to lay all the slices flat. Put the tofu in the pan. It may skitter and sputter at first because of the water in the tofu. It’s all good. Sprinkle salt and pepper on the tofu (don’t go overboard with the salt since you will add soy sauce in a few minutes). When the tofu has browned on one side, flip it over, sprinkle soy sauce over the tofu, and let the soy sauce kind of get sticky and evaporate in the pan, leaving a yummy crusty layer on the tofu.
Et, voila!