The recipe that convinced me to cook with tofu

I discovered the joys of tofu as a college student trying Thai food for the very first time. But I could never really figure out how to cook the tofu so that it came out like the wonderful pad see-ew or Pad Thai I got at restaurants. If I’m honest, I still haven’t mastered it.

So, instead, I’ve found an alternative way to make tofu that tastes amazing, has a million uses, and yes, even works in noodle dishes. That’s right; it’s baked tofu.

Baked tofu ingredients.

The thing is frying tofu just right is very difficult, but baked tofu is about impossible to mess up.

Plus, it comes pre-flavored with the saltiness of soy sauce and the spiciness of sambal oelek. Oh, and there’s wine. And that, combined with time, is about all it takes to transform the flavorless, spongy soy protein into something that is good enough to eat by itself.

I couldn’t even tell you where I initially found the recipe, but I know the blog post similarly raved about the ease. And frankly, I think I added the sambal oelek. I just know that I make it often enough, and it’s easy enough that this is the first time I’ve written it down.

My favorite uses for it are for spring rolls, stir fry (but keep it separate, otherwise it absorbs the liquid), and simple vegetable wraps. But options are endless as long as you have the delightful base.

I used these little guys to make *both* spring rolls and stir fry this week. Yum!

Here’s what I did:

Ingredients

  • 1 (18 oz.) container tofu (extra firm is preferred but firm will work in a pinch)
  • ¼ c. soy sauce
  • ¼ c. white wine (or water, or cooking sherry)
  • 1 heaping T. sambal oelek (usually found in the Asian section, or Sriracha will work in a pinch)
  • 1 T. sesame oil (optional)
  • Canola oil

Directions

Open and drain the tofu. Then, press it to drain more of the liquid for at least an hour. I’ve worked out a system where I use the sheet pan as the catch for the excess liquid, then place an upside-down rounded plate on top of the sheet pan, put the tofu on the plate, and then use a heavy lid like for a Dutch oven or another plate with a weight on top to press the tofu. (This can also be done a day in advance, and store the drained tofu in a Tupperware.)

Once the tofu is strained, cut it into 15 to 20 long slices. Again, I use the overturned plate to do my cutting so I don’t dirty more dishes.

Heat the oven to 325.

Then, mix together the soy sauce, wine, sambal oelek and sesame oil, if using.

Rinse and dry the sheet pan, and then coat it with canola oil. Place the slices of tofu on the sheet pan in a single layer. Brush on about half of the soy sauce mixture, and let sit for 5 minutes so the tofu absorbs most of the flavorful liquid, Turn over the slices carefully, and brush the remaining sauce on the other side. Let it absorb into the tofu for another 5 minutes. It’s OK if not all the liquid absorbs.

I usually spray with a little more oil because I’m paranoid it’ll stick.

Bake the tofu for 15 minutes, take out of the oven, and *carefully* flip over the slices. Bake for another 15 to 20 minutes until nice and browned and the liquid absorbed. Let cool slightly, and enjoy!

First time for everything

The cookbook we got for Christmas, British chef Jamie Oliver’s “5 Ingredients,” has some interesting ingredients and in the case of sheet pan-like recipes, an interesting choice of preparation dishes.

It’s kind of like that Eddie Izzard joke about the difference between American English and British English, only less funny. But it is fun to suss out the differences in British cuisine and American, and sometimes challenging.

Saffron rice ingredients. Thankfully, easy to find.

Mostly in the US it’s getting easier to find the ingredients (yay rogan josh curry!) or find substitutes (no double cream, no problem, just mix sour cream with cream). But I’ll admit I’ve been kind of stumped by his use of a “roasting tray.”

It seems quite a bit like a rimmed sheet pan, but as with this week’s recipe, it calls for cooking ingredients on the stove in the tray before baking. As far as I know my sheet pan shouldn’t be used the same and I wasn’t willing to risk ruining my main shtick to test it out.

Given this difference between British cooking and American cooking, I’m not sure it made a ton of sense to prepare this week’s meal on a sheet pan, but part of me just wanted to prove that it was possible to do it.

See, it was baked saffron rice, and I’ve never baked rice and wanted to see if it worked.

It maybe wasn’t practical but it did work and made a nice side dish for some lamb kofta. And because it wasn’t made like normal rice, it had a little more texture.

All in all, I think it was pretty worth it. And since it was only 5 ingredients (plus some pantry items), it was pretty easy. And tasty!

Baked rice, who’d have guessed?!

Here’s what I did:

Ingredients

  • 2 medium red onions, or 1 large
  • 2 pinches of saffron
  • 1 (5.3 oz.) container plain yogurt
  • 1 (2.8 oz.) tube of sun-dried tomato paste
  • 1 ⅓ to 1 ½ c. white basmati rice (it actually calls for 300 grams, and I have a scale so I measured 300 grams, but for those that don’t, the Internet gave me a cup equivalent)
  • 1 to 2 T. olive oil
  • 2 ½ c. boiling water (again, this is 600 milliliters, which should be on a measuring cup, but just in case, this is the conversion)
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

Directions

Heat oven to 400 degrees.

Chop the onions, and fry with olive oil in a large pan for about 4 minutes. Meanwhile, place half the saffron in the boiling water. In a small bowl, cover the remaining saffron with 1 T. boiling water, steep for a short while (he recommends 10 seconds, I did mine for minutes)  and then mix it with the yogurt. Set aside the yogurt mix.

Once the onions are ready, stir in the tomato paste, rice, salt and pepper, and then pour on the saffron water. Bring to a boil, and then transfer to a large rimmed sheet pan (about 15 inches by 12 inches). Bake rice in the oven for about 15 to 20 minutes, or until the rice has absorbed the water and fluffed up.

Spoon the yogurt mixture onto the rice, and enjoy!

Thank god for a family of foodies

This year for Christmas we got a cooking utensil and a cookbook from my brother and his wife. They know us so well.

At first I wasn’t sure why a Jamie Oliver cookbook was the one my brother chose. But, of course, he is the type to read through a cookbook like a book, and therefore, understand cooking better. And this book is perfect for that.

It’s the British chef’s “5 Ingredients,” and as its name implies is cooking with just 5 ingredients (and OK, also 5 pantry items that you likely have lying around if you have this book, and full disclosure, we do). And because of that, it’s perfect for both its simplicity but also understanding how flavors interact and how to build from just 5 ingredients.

So far, we have only made a handful of things out of it, but every single one of them has been my new favorite dish.

This week’s recipe here is no exception.

It’s got 5 ingredients, plus two I added (one that’s optional and one that amends a hard-to-find item), and one pantry item (pepper, which I hope most people have in their pantry), and a bit of water. It took time only because it roasted potatoes, fennel and artichokes for a long time, and then had a cheesy cream sauce.

Vegetables covered in cream and oil, so you know it’s delicious

It’s pretty healthy, though I did add more of the unhealthy bits than Oliver’s original calls for. And other than the time, it takes just cutting potatoes and fennel for prep.

So, yeah, this is a good one. Here’s what I did to amend the original:

Ingredients

  • 2 lbs. yellow potatoes, quartered or eighthed depending on size (His recipe was in grams)
  • 2 bulbs fennel, sliced thinly, and including the clean stalks
  • 1 jar (14 oz) marinated artichoke hearts, quartered (including the oil!)
  • 1 sprig rosemary (optional)
  • 1 c. heavy cream (the recipe called for double cream, which I think is thicker so I mixed in sour cream too)
  • ½ c. sour cream
  • ⅔ c. grated Parmesan, divided
  • Pepper
  • 1 c. water

Directions

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Spread the potatoes and fennel on a large, sided sheet pan (about 15 ½ x 12 inches). Add the quartered artichoke hearts and their oil. Season with rosemary and pepper. Pour over the water.

Cover the vegetable mix with olive oil and bake for 1 hour.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl, mix together the heavy cream, sour cream and ½ the Parmesan cheese. When the vegetables have baked for an hour, remove the foil and dot the vegetables with the cream mixture, and sprinkle on the remaining Parmesan cheese.

Bake uncovered for another 20 minutes until the cheese has browned. Let cool slightly and enjoy!

Extra Post: Let’s celebrate Casimir Pulaski Day

So, I didn’t make this recipe recently, but I couldn’t resist a Polish post to celebrate Casimir Pulaski Day.

Since I grew up in Illinois, there were two extra holidays we got each year. They were Abraham Lincoln’s birthday (of course in the Land of Lincoln, we celebrated the 16th president individually), and Casimir Pulaski Day.

Pulaski isn’t celebrated much outside of Illinois, but he was a Revolutionary War hero from Poland and is credited as a founder of the U.S. cavalry. And he seems like a pretty cool and worldly dude.

Usually I try to make something each year to celebrate my Polish roots and celebrate the Illinois holiday. This year I didn’t have my [expletive deleted] together to get something Polish together in time for today’s holiday.

Fortunately, I made bialys a few years ago in my previous life as a newspaper reporter, and the little not-bagels are made on a sheet pan.

Bialys, a tasty Polish treat

So, here’s a little recipe extra for lyal readers:

Ingredients

For the starter or polish

  • ½ c. all-purpose flour
  • 1/3 c. water
  • ¼ t. active dry yeast

For the bialy dough            

  • 1 starter
  • 1 ½ c. warm water
  • 2 ½ t. active dry yeast (or one package)
  • 1 ½ T. honey
  • 2 T. olive oil
  • 1 ½ t. salt
  • 3 c. bread flour
  • 1 c. all purpose flour

For the bialy filling

  • 5 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 medium onions, chopped
  • 2 T. oil
  • 2 T. poppy seeds
  • Salt, to taste

Directions

The night before you plan to make the bread, make the starter before going to bed. Stir together the flour and yeast. Mix in the water until a sticky dough forms. Cover and let rest overnight.

When ready to make the dough, mix together the yeast, water and honey. Let the yeast activate for about 15 minutes. Then, add the starter, olive oil, salt, all-purpose flour and about 2 c. of the bread flour.

Turn out on a floured surface, and knead, adding in the remainder of the bread flour as necessary. Knead for about 5 to 10 minutes.

Place dough in a large bowl that has been coated with oil. Over with oiled plastic wrap and let rise in a cool place for about 2 hours.

Once dough has about doubled in size, punch it down in the bowl and then divide it into about 20 even pieces. Roll each dough piece into a ball and then stretch out to about a 3-inch round. Place round on floured baking sheet and indent around the middle, leaving about a 1-inch lip around the edge. Repeat with remaining dough pieces, leaving enough space in between dough rounds so the bialy can rise a second time.

Cover with oiled plastic wrap or a tea towel and let rise for about 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

During second rise, mince garlic and chop onion. Pour oil into large cast-iron skillet and let warm over medium heat. Once hot, add in onions and garlic and cook for a few minutes before turning heat to medium low. Cook for 20 to 30 minutes over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally until caramelized. Once browned, remove from heat and add in the salt and poppy seeds.

Once second rise is complete, add ½ to 1 T. of the filling into each of the bialy indentations until it’s all used up. Place baking sheet (or sheets) into oven and cook for 12 to 15 minutes. Enjoy warm and with cream cheese!

Nachos for everyone!

I wasn’t sure about this week’s recipe for a lot of reasons.

First, are they nachos or chilaquiles? Second, I wasn’t following any real recipe, so I had no idea the amounts to use or how long to bake it. And that meant I had no idea if it would turn out well.

So, it was a good thing I decided to try it out on some friends.

Sheet pan nachos ingredients.

As for the name, eh, whatever.

Fortunately, it was too easy to fail, and they turned out great. Frankly, I think part of the reason there’s no recipe for sheet pan nachos — or no need for one anyway — is it’s all about what you like best. I even saved a little side to be onion-free so my onion-hating friend could still enjoy this snack.

That means that while I will lay out below what I did to make this treat for friends, there’s no reason you have to do the same thing. For instance, I used fake beef seasoned with taco seasoning, but you could use shredded chicken or skip the meat altogether.

Yummy loaded nachos

I’d say the recipe below offers a good guide on how much of each item to add, but again, maybe you don’t like cheese as much as me or you’re another onion-hater. So, you do you, but in case you have the same tastes as me, here’s what I did:

Ingredients

  • 1 (15 oz) party-size bag tortilla chips
  • 1 lb. prepared and seasoned taco meat (1 lb. meat of your choice and 1 package of taco seasoning of your choice)
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 green pepper, diced
  • 2 (15 oz) cans black refried beans
  • 1 (16 oz) jar salsa
  • 3 c. shredded Mexican cheese.

Directions

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Meanwhile, spread the tortilla chips onto a large sheet pan with sides (about 15 ½ x 12 inches). Full disclosure, I reserved some of the chips so I could use those to scoop up any extra food left behind, but you can spread them all.

Top with the beans, meat, peppers and onions, salsa, and finally top with the cheese.

Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until the cheese is melted and the other ingredients are warm. Let cool slightly and enjoy with friends!

Be lazy *and* impress your friends with this easy snack

Some years ago at a dinner party, a friend broke out these incredibly delicious treats that looked so fancy. Then, she told me what was in them, and I have been hooked ever since.

You see, these delicious, gorgeous snacks had just three ingredients — fillo dough shells, cream cheese and jalapeno jam.

Ingredients for this unnamed treat

It was so easy. I couldn’t resist stealing the recipe and using it to impress other friends.

But there was just one problem. At the time, one of those ingredients was not so easy to come by, and in fact, her jalapeno jam was homemade.  But nowadays, you can find many different store-bought brands that are quite good. I’m partial to the Tabasco brand.

Since then, I’ve used the snacks to dazzle family and friends alike.

Whenever I need to bring something to a potluck or gathering and I have no time, this is my go-to. In fact, I made them this past week specifically to take to a game day with friends when I hadn’t planned in advance enough to bring something else.

Fortunately, too, it was back in Waterloo so I had occasion to let the cream cheese soften during the drive.

Treats were made under duress so not as pretty as they could be. They still taste good, though.

Now, not that you dear readers need it for this treat, but here’s what I did:

Ingredients

  • 2 packages fillo dough shells (about 30)
  • 1 (8oz.) cream cheese package, softened
  • Pepper jelly (I use about half of a 10 oz. jar)

Directions

Heat oven to 325 degrees. Place fillo shells on a sheet pan — any size will do as long as all the shells fit. Put the cream cheese into the shells — I prefer to put the cream cheese into a gallon bag, cut of the tip of the bag and squeeze the cheese in like an icing bag but you do you. Carefully spoon the jelly on top of the cream cheese.

Bake for 12 to 15 minutes until the cream cheese and jam are warm. Put on a fancy-looking plate, pretend you were hard at work, and let everyone enjoy!

Impossible to fail pasta dinner

After last week’s miserable failure (twice!), I was looking for something a wee bit easier this week, so I turned to the New York Times Cooking page and found a spicy roasted broccoli pasta recipe.

It was perfect for our little family. My sweetie loves broccoli (which I like fine), and I love carbs and cheese (which he likes fine), and this dinner has plenty of all of that. Plus, it’s hearty for these cold Iowa winter nights, and it’s none too difficult to boot.

Broccoli pasta ingredients

But what really helped make this such a gem was that I completely fiddled with the recipe to make things easier on myself, and it turned out just fine. It was impossible to fail!

It was hard to judge the what the recipe meant when it called for “2 ½ lbs. broccoli, cut into bite-size florets.” Did that mean 2 ½ lbs. of broccoli, and then cut the florets from that? Did it mean I should have 2 ½ lbs. of just florets? If I didn’t have enough florets, could I skim the rough edges from the stem and chop that too? It turns out, who knows and who cares? It worked fine.

I bought two bundles of fresh broccoli (about seven pieces in total), because I couldn’t find a scale at the store and figured that *had* to be enough. Well, when I cut the florets, at home I learned with my scale I only had 1 ½ lbs. of florets. I added some pared stems, but didn’t want to overwhelm it with them so I added enough to get to nearly 2 lbs. And, it turned out, I’m sure it would have been fine either way, just depending on how much you like broccoli.

Then, I totally changed the amounts of ricotta and pasta, because I didn’t want to be left with scant-ish amounts of both. So, extra pasta and extra cheese, it all fit on the baking sheet and turned out fine.

It’s one of those great recipes where you can kind of bend it to your tastes. If you want more broccoli to carb ratio, go for it; if you love cheese, toss on a little more.

All in all, it is well worth the (limited effort) to make.

Nom nom noms. I’m hungry just looking at it again.

Here’s what I did:

Ingredients

  • 2 bunches of broccoli, cut into bite-size florets and some stem if desired (or whatever)
  • 2 T. extra virgin olive oil (I estimated), plus at least as much for drizzle
  • 1 T. cumin seeds, optional (more than it called for but I love cumin)
  • ¾ t. kosher salt (again, I estimated)
  • ½ t. red pepper flakes (I’m sure I used more)
  • 16 oz. tube shaped or shell pasta (more than it called for but I wanted to use the whole box)
  • ⅓ c. grated Parmesan cheese
  • ⅓ c. panko bread crumbs
  • Zest from one lemon
  • ½ t. ground black pepper (I didn’t measure)
  • 15 oz. whole milk ricotta cheese (more than it called for but I wanted to use the whole tub)
  • Fresh lemon juice, optional (hey, I already zested the lemon, may as well use the juice)

Directions

Heat oven to 425 degrees. On a 15 ½ x 12 inch sheet pan (or so) toss together the cut broccoli, the oil, the salt, red pepper flakes, and cumin, if using. Roast until tender and browned, 18 to 25 minutes, and tossing while halfway through. Remove from oven, set aside, and turn the oven up to broil.

Meanwhile, bring a pot of (salted) water to boil, and cook the pasta according to package instructions and then drain. Separately, in a small bowl, mix together the Parmesan, panko, lemon zest, and salt and black pepper.

Toss the pasta together with the broccoli, and then dollop with the ricotta. Sprinkle with the Parmesan mix, top with salt and black pepper, and drizzle with (a good amount of) oil. Broil the mixture until golden, about 2 to 3 minutes.

Sprinkle with lemon juice, if desired, and enjoy!