eat tang

Anyone who cooks vegetarian regularly knows, a portion of your kitchen time is spent turning recipes you find for sides into convincing main dishes. I had some fresh broccolini I was keen to use, and a recipe on NYT caught my eye. It wasn’t a perfect fit, but without much effort, it could work. My first goal was to make the rice itself a tad more robust. I also added caramelized onions and ricotta to the finished dish, for more complex flavor and texture.

1 cup brown rice
1 pat of butter
1 minced clove garlic
½ tsp mustard powder
2 cups vegetable stock
3 tsp dijon
1½ tsp tamari
¼ tsp sriracha
2 md. bundles of broccolini, trimmed from the long stems
½ an onion, sliced
⅓ cup fresh ricotta

Heat a pat of butter in a sauce pot over medium high heat. As it melts, add in the brown rice garlic and mustard powder, stirring frequently until the rice toasts slightly. Add the stock to the pot and bring to boil, then reduce the heat and let it simmer covered for around 40 minutes.

Turn the oven on to 400˚. While your rice is cooking, heat up a skillet over medium heat. Add the sliced onions and cover. Stir them as infrequently as you can mange. The point here is to sweat them out, until they are dry again and sticking to the pan, just slightly. When you get there, uncover them add a generous bit of olive oil and sprinkle with salt. They should turn golden as they quickly caramelize. Remove from the heat and set aside.

As you’re sweating the onions, combine the dijon, sriracha and tamari in a large mixing bowl and whisk into a dressing. When the rice seems like it only has a minute or two left, lift the lid and place the prepared broccolini on top, then cover again to steam it slightly with what’s left from the end of the rice cooking process.

Dump the rice and broccolini into the large bowl with the dressing, tossing quickly to coat it well. Transfer the mixture to a medium casserole dish. Spread it evenly then make small divots in the top. Drop a tablespoon of ricotta or a teaspoon there, into the divots. Cover the top of the dish with the caramelized onions in a single layer then place in the oven until heated through (and maybe the edges of the onions are charring just slightly). Let cool a couple of minutes and serve warm.

If you want, cut the leftovers broccolini stems into quarter inch discs and fry them in a skillet of high-heat oil (like grape seed) for a minute until slightly charred , remove to paper towel, pat dry and toss with salt to make a snack, for later.

comfort and compromise

The first time I tried to go vegetarian, my unstated intention was to eat Kraft Mac-n-Cheese every single night. My parents quickly figured this out and put the kibosh on my plan, for health reasons. They're not the boss of me anymore. In college, I would rejoin the vegetarian ranks—where I still am today. Unfortunately, I eventually grew up and acquired taste buds, so the Kraft variety no longer cuts it. 

I don't know many vegetarians who don't take their mac-n-cheese seriously. In my stubborn way, though, I don't want a bunch of other stuff or weird cheeses. This is supposed to be comfort food. Which is like code for 'not very healthy', as my parents rightly cited. So in my middle aged, worried-about-my-gut years, I've compromised on my mac's purity to make it a somewhat more sensible meal. Which is more to say that I've added some of that other stuff to make it nutritionally valuable (rather cut back on the fatty cheese sauce—I'm not insane).

Although I eat dairy, I don't often keep regular milk around. In this recipe, I'd say the real deal is important. The amount of time it takes a soy or almond milk roux to thicken is interminable—your stirring arm might fall off. My partner is also celiac, but a good gluten free pasta works great in this. I now use Bob's Red Mill Gluten-Free All-Purpose Flour in the roux with no noticeable difference. 

If you're young and brave, leave out the tofu and the cauliflower, but double up on the noodles, for more classic mac stylings.

1 head cauliflower, cut into florets
1½ tbs. smoked paprika
1 lg. onion, halved and thinly sliced
8 oz. elbow pasta
1 pkg. tofu, cubed
5 tbs. butter
6 tbs. flour
1½ tsp. mustard powder
5 cups milk
8 oz. extra sharp cheddar, grated
8 oz. smoked goude, grated
salt, pepper, olive oil

PHASE 1: overture and prep
In a mixing bowl. Toss the cauliflower with the paprika, a healthy splash of olive oil and some salt. Put that in a 9x12" casserole dish. Set the oven to 400 and roast it all in there, uncovered until the cauliflower is not only cooked, but browning.

While that's happening, heat the onions in a pan over med-low heat, covered. Check on them periodically but not often. You want them to turn translucent and sweat it out, then cook off most of that sweat without drying out too quickly. If you pull the lid off all the time, steam just escapes rather than cooking in. When they've dried out enough to just starting to stick the bottom of the pan, uncover it, reduce the heat slightly, and pour a generous tablespoon of olive oil over them along with a good dash of salt. They should turn golden quickly. When you are satisfied with their caramelization, remove the pan from the heat and set 'em aside.

While you've got your onion sauna going, bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Once you've got full bubbles, add the poast and cook uuntil it's al dente. Drain and rinse with cold water to stop it softening too much, after the fact.

If you're using plain tofu. During all of this I would drain and sear it. Smoked or pre-baked tofu, can be used as is.

PHASE 2: symphony of cheese
Combine the flour, 1 tsp of salt and the mustard powder in small bowl. In the now-empty pasta pot, melt the butter over med-low heat. Let it get foamy—but you're not trying to brown it. Add the dry ingredient mixture and whisk constantly for a minute or so, until its yellow color deepens  a bit. Start pouring in the milk, stirring aggressively at first. 

Bring this mixture to a boil then reduce it immediately to a simmer. You have to whisk this constantly or it will quickly develop a gross skein on the top. After 10 minutes or so, it should be the consistency of heavy cream. Turn off the heat and fold in the grated cheeses. Stir this to combine—it will melt rapidly.

PHASE 3: coda and contentment
Add the cooked noodles, roasted cauliflower and tofu to your cheese sauce. Stir to combine. Transfer this to the casserole pan you roasted the cauliflower in, and then top it off with the caramelized onions. Finish with some fresh ground pepper and place it in the oven, uncovered for 10 minutes or so, until the cheese sauce on top starts to brown a little. Remove it, but let it cool for a few minutes before serving.

A lot of the items in each phase above can be done simultaneously, so this all actually comes together a lot quicker than you would expect. Not Kraft quick, but it can be done in an hour, flat, once you've got it down.

Originally this post seemed to beg for  a soundtrack of AM-radio styled sophistipop, but I kind of did that already… Instead, I've included some vintage soul jazz that rides the line between funk and exotica.

glazed tofu blues

As a vegetarian, I long ago settled on glazed tofu steaks as an enjoyable but simple way to up my protein intake without making dinner too unhealthy. A good glaze is not as easy as it sounds, though—especially for the fumbling kitchen improvisor.

The mistake I repeatedly make is heat. If you want to cook something down from a liquid to a thickened glaze, it seems like simple logic to set it on a full blaze to boil off the water. This is more problematic than you would think. The oil separates from the rest of the mixture and ends up—quite literally—deep frying the other ingredients while the water quickly evaporates, leaving you with charred lumps of foodstuff rather than an even glaze. This has happened to me countless times.

But let's start at the beginning…

1 pkg firm tofu
1 tbs peanut butter
1 tbs miso
1 lime, juiced
1 tbs tamari
1 cup vegetable stock
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 tsp sesame oil
1/4 tsp crushed red pepper
1/2 tsp corn starch

Drain yr block. 
I've used a microwave to dry out tofu before—it works, but honestly, it doesn't feel any easier than just using gravity. Set the tofu on a cutting board at the edge of the sink. Prop the other edge up with something stable: another cutting board, some legos, whatever you can find—it should no more than an inch high. Place a plate on top of the tofu, upside-down. It should  be large enough to cover the brick on a single surface. Then, place a heavy, dictionary-sized book on top of that; I use Bittman's How to Cook Everything: Vegetarian, appropriately enough. Without the angle towards the sink, you'll get water all over the counter; with too much of an angle, you'll get your book in the sink.

Whip yr sauce.
While that is draining, whip the rest of the ingredients together in a large measuring cup or small mixing bowl. Whisk it real good.

Sear yr bricks.
Heat a large pan over medium high heat. If it is non-stick, you don't need oil at first, if not, make sure to use an oil with a good heat resistance, like avocado. Cut the drained tofu in half, lengthwise and place the two halves in the hot pan and cover it. Let it sear for a few minutes and flip it. Keep this up until both sides have a browned crispy face to them.

Get yr sauce on.
Give the glaze an additional whisk and pour it in. It will splatter and pop but make sure it gets to a good boil then immediately turn the heat down to a simmer and cover it again. It's my understanding that reaching full boil is an important step. Something happens, chemically, to activate an effective thickening agent.

Hang tough.
Check it once or twice to make sure there's some glaze on top of the tofu. After 5-10 minutes, flip the bricks. If the sauce doesn't seem to be thickening fast enough for you, prop the lid so that some steam can escape—but wait, patiently. Once it seems to have thickened to a sauce consistency (if not a full glaze), turn the heat off and uncover the dish. My experience tells me, that it will thicken some as it cools slightly.

As this is a dish that, despite how often I make it, I still cock it up as often as not, I thought I would provide the blues from the title to accompany it. Maybe some day searing simple tofu steaks will not cause me such agita.

sometimes, sauce happens

I remain firmly convinced that true quality is shown in simplicity. For instance, pad si ew is a dead simple thai dish, so it's my litmus test at new restaurants. I know what I expect and can gauge my assessment from there. Alternately, at some italian joint I've never been, I'll order something that's, essentially, tomato sauce and pasta. I want to know how well they do that before I stray further afield.

At home, I cannot and will not be held to my own impossible standards. Yes, I know, your Sicilian Bu-Bah's  sauce, slow-cooked over out 16 days (or some shit), is the high-water mark. Really though, I come home from a 10-hour work day and I have some pasta and canned tomatoes in the cupboard. I want dinner, and I want it before 9pm. So here, is my impressionistic recipe for a quick, homemade tomato sauce from the most basic ingredients.

2 cloves garlic, minced.
1 small shallot, finely chopped. (if you have it)
2 tbs olive oil
1 tbs chopped fresh basil, or, 1/2 tsp fresh thyme leaves
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1/4 cup red wine
1/2 tsp tomato paste
28oz can diced tomatoes
1/4 tsp crushed red pepper
fresh ground black pepper

Garlic and olive oil.
You start here. The garlic is minced, and the olive oil is quality. For one, 28oz can of tomatoes, I'd say… 2 cloves and 2 tablespoons, respectively. If you have a small shallot, that works too. Heat the oil on very low and add the garlic (and shallot) and let warm slowly until it's good and fragrant (but don't let it start to crisp).

Have any fresh basil or thyme?
Both of these things are great, but not requisite. You can use dried. Or, if you lack basil entirely, try a mixture of dried rosemary and marjoram. Add them to the mixture for a minute or so, stirring it a couple of times.

Wine and spice tea.
Add the wine, tomato paste and salt then increase the heat, bringing it to a light boil. Let it steep for a just a few.

The rest.
Add tomatoes and remaining spices. Cover it and let it come to a boil. Once there, reduce the heat to a simmer and prop the lid to let the steam out. You want moisture to escape, allowing the sauce to thicken, but you don't want it bubbling and splattering all over your stove, right? After 10 minutes or so, if you see it starting to look less watery (you know, en route to sauce) start the water for your pasta.

I called this an impressionistic recipe, because (honestly) I do this pretty much by eye. Minus the tomatoes, olive oil, garlic and salt, I don't sweat it too much if one thing or another is out of stock. I can make it work. from start to finish, this should take 30 minutes and could serve  up to 4 people.

Will it beat your Italian grandmother's sauce? Fuck no. But, it'll do, pig, it'll do. 

This is my first attempt at conveying a real recipe, instead of just tips. As recipes go, in practice, this is down and dirty and (mostly) improvised. So for this italian(ish) sauce I thought I would include a couple of songs by the thrash-jazz maestros from Italy, ZU.