back to basics . . .

Sometimes, you just want to strip things back to the basics.  Unfortunately, life really doesn’t seem to work that way, instead only getting more complicated with time.  Growing old makes one long for simpler times, as cliche as this may be.

Lately, I have felt as though I am constantly in ‘fight or flight’ mode, trapped by circumstances beyond my control and to which I can only react.  I have been trying to make the best of it and to focus on what I can do, but it is hard not to worry and fret about the things beyond my reach or influence.  Hence, back to basics this weekend for me, and focusing my energy on even mundane things that keep me centered.  I need to fight my tendency to look at things from too many angles and just pare things down.

College was my first time away from home and also my first time being truly away from the comfort foods of my mother’s and grandmother’s kitchen.  There were times when I really did not find anything appealing to eat in the dining halls … and since I felt guilty eating out when I already had a meal plan and didn’t really have the funds to be doing so all the time, I had to figure out other ways to adapt.  One of them was by simply steaming tofu with a little soy sauce, scallion, and sesame oil, which were readily available at the very consistent (and boring) salad bar.   J claims to have taught his cousin Nancy this ‘dish,’ but I think anyone with Asian roots would have thought to put these ingredients together instead of eating raw, naked tofu on a pile of lettuce.  Regardless, it was a tasty, easy, and basic combination that tasted of home, evidently for all of us!

I have since prepared tofu many different ways beyond this basic preparation, and a day like today called for comfort food.  Enter: steamed fragrant jasmine rice, stir-fried seasonal sugar snap peas with ginger and garlic, and this robustly-flavored tofu dish:  Black Pepper Tofu.  A riff on a familiar dish, inspired by none other than Ottolenghi.

I ran across the recipe in BOTH my Ottolenghi cookbook and Food52’s Genius Recipes cookbook, which attests to its flavor and appealing textures.  I had to modify it, though, because 11 tablespoons (150gm) of unsalted butter does not belong in my comfort food repertoire…

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Black Pepper Tofu (serves 2)

Ingredients:

  • ~3 tbl canola or grapeseed oil, divided use
  • ~9.5-10 oz (270 gm) firm tofu (1/2 block)
  • cornstarch, for dusting
  • 3 small shallots, thinly sliced
  • 6 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1.5 tbl finely chopped fresh ginger
  • 4 fresh mildly spicy chiles, thinly sliced
  • 1.5 tbl dark soy sauce
  • 1.5 tbl low sodium light soy sauce
  • 2 tsp black bean soy sauce
  • 1 tbl sugar, or to taste
  • 1.5-2 tbl coarsely crushed black peppercorn (adjust to taste)
  • 6 scallions, cut into 3 cm (1.25 inch) segments
  • sesame oil, optional
  • Instructions:
  1. Cut tofu into 1 inch square cubes.  Toss tofu with cornstarch to coat, shaking off excess.
  2. Heat 2 tbl oil into a large well-seasoned wok over medium-high heat.  Add half of the tofu cubes to the oil in a single layer.  Pan-fry, turning them around as you go, until they are golden all over and have a thin crust.  Transfer finished tofu onto paper towels and repeat with second batch.   (You may need to use additional oil for the second batch.)
  3. IMG_3557Drain remaining oil and wipe out the wok.  Add 1 tbl oil to the wok over medium heat.  Add shallots, chiles, garlic, and ginger.  Stir-fry, stirring occasionally until the aromatics become softened and fragrant.  Add soy sauces and sugar and stir, and then add the crushed black pepper.  Adjust seasoning to taste.
  4. Add the tofu to warm it up in the sauce for about 1 min.  Stir in the green onions, and drizzle with a few drops of sesame oil, if using.  Serve hot with steamed rice.

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On books, books, and more books.

IMG_2627“Is this a case of the rich getting richer?” J asked me when he saw me happily engrossed in Ottolenghi’s Plenty.  I think the answer would have to be unabashedly yes.

I have now also added Plenty More to my growing cookbook collection, courtesy of my thoughtful sister at Christmas.  Despite less and less free time to read over the years, I’ve continued to amass quite a few books, as my poor family and friends can attest after all the times they have had to help me move them – sometimes across the country!  (I have a hard time letting go of my books, academic or not).  Cookbooks have come to occupy more and more space in that library, despite the wide availability of resources online.  There is just something so engrossing about flipping through pages of beautiful pictures and recipes – recipes occasionally accompanied by others’ stories, but which also call out to be contextualized in new ways, in my own kitchen.

I would love to have a wall to wall library (like Belle in Beauty and the Beast!) someday.  A walk-in closet would also be nice, but I think J will really accuse me of being one of those “rich getting richer” if I insist on that.

Despite all of the zigzagging I’ve done on planes since college, I have yet to really travel the world.  Cookbooks are my window into other places and countries, a chance to discover other cuisines and cultures through taste, texture, and smells.  I’ve been fortunate to live in metropolitan areas rich in ethnic restaurants and cooks adept in translating the tastes of their homelands, but I know nothing compares to actually traveling there.

I recently made shakshouka* and this celery salad with feta and soft-boiled egg from Ottolenghi’s Plenty and Plenty More.  Both were fantastic, and I can not wait to try more recipes (I may or may not have bookmarked almost the entire book 😉 ).  I love the vibrant simplicity and bold flavors of both – delish!

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