Glazed Tofu Banh Mi

When you’re living in a big city, you without intention are exposed to new ideas and cultures and references on an almost daily basis (depending on how much you go outside). One of the fantastic things about Chicago is its diversity, and the fact that the variability in culture penetrates even the most “gentrified” neighborhoods. Because even though I live in a high-rise full of more-often-than-not wealthy-ish older white people, I’m also steps from 4 Asian fusion, 1 upscale Mexican, 1 classic American, 1 Swedish brunch, 3 chain, and countless other restaurants. One of these includes a Vietnamese sandwich shop, known most for their banh mi sandwich. I coincidentally lived very near a Vietnamese sandwich place last year as well, so I’ve essentially passed by this delicious delicacy on an almost daily occasion for 2 years now. I don’t know why, but I’ll say it: I’ve never had a classic banh mi sandwich. Cue shame.

Now, in actuality, banh mi refers to a type of bread, not a specific sandwich. But in the westernized United States, it almost always refers to a baguette-type sandwich with roasted pork, pickled vegetables, chili sauce and/or mayonnaise, and cilantro. Variations come off of this base model, usually exchanging the pork for other meats or, in this case, vegetarian soy products (tofu!). Basically, this sandwich is a dream of beautifully combined products that promise to sooth and challenge all parts of your palate. But, probably, you’ve been passing it by, either literally or figuratively, without knowledge of its potential power over your sandwich cravings. I’m here to remedy that problem, by offering up a means to make this sandwich at home. I promise it is worth the (marginal) trouble to prepare each component, as it really takes about 45 minutes of time and is worth every second of the 2 minutes you’ll spend wolfing it down. Again, this is a tofu variety, which is quite easy to prepare, but you could certainly go traditional by preparing some pork or chicken (the same marinade can apply).

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Glazed Tofu Banh Mi

Makes 4 sandwiches

2 small baguettes (I used take and bake varieties, which freeze well)

1 cucumber, sliced

4 stalks green onion, sliced

Cilantro, chopped

Glazed tofu:

  • 1 block extra firm tofu
  • 1/2 cup soy sauce
  • 1/2 tsp. ground ginger
  • 1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
  • 1/4 tsp. red pepper flake
  • 1/4 tsp. smoked paprika

Pickled vegetables

  • 5 small carrots, julienned
  • 1 bell pepper, sliced thinly
  • 1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
  • 3 tbsp. sugar
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 tsp. freshly cracked black pepper

Sriracha cilantro mayonnaise

  • 2 tbsp. mayonnaise
  • 1 tsp. sriracha
  • 2 tbsp. cilantro, chopped

First, press the block of tofu (per this post) for at least 20 minutes. Once the tofu has been pressed, slice the tofu thinly into 16, 1/4 inch slices (or, slice into quarters, then slice each quarter into 4 slices). Whisk together the tofu marinade, then dip each slice of tofu into the marinade and allow to marinate in a large pan for 15-20 minutes.

While the tofu is pressing, prepare the pickled vegetables. Thinly slice, or julienne, the carrots and bell pepper and place in a dish (ideally that can be covered for later). Bring the rice wine vinegar, water, sugar, and S&P to a boil, until sugar has dissolved in the liquid. Pour the pickling liquid over the vegetables and allow to rest in the liquid for at least 30 minutes. You can store the remaining vegetables in the pickling liquid for several days (if these sandwiches will be prepared as “leftovers” as well later… a good idea).

Next, prepare the sriracha cilantro mayonnaise by combining the ingredients in a small bowl and mixing well. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Next, heat a griddle to 375 degrees Fahrenheit or a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add 1 tbsp. oil and the tofu to the pan (if using a sauté pan, this may require two batches). Heat the tofu for 3-5 minutes, until the first side is crisped and brown. Flip, then sauté the second side for an additional 3 minutes. Remove from the pan and set aside.

Now, time to prepare the sandwich! Split the baguette in half and then slice longitudinally to make 2 sandwiches. Spread about 1 tbsp. of sriracha cilantro mayo on one side. Top with 4 slices of glazed tofu. Pile on as much of the pickled veggies as you’d like, then top with fresh cucumber, green onion, and cilantro.

Eat the sandwich! Bits will certainly fall off as you eat, but relish in your unstable sandwich, should-be-take-out glory. I absolutely loved these sandwiches for lunch the next day, prepared the night before then eaten cold. Once all the components are prepared, it’s quite quick to put together. I’d imagine if you used meat you could just hold onto some extras for leftover sandwiches as well. Now I’m off to try the sandwich shop next door, just to compare…

 

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Coconut Chocolate Chip Cookies

Yesterday was a nice day. A little chilly, but sunny. I was a little busy, but not too much. But then I came home from some work and errands and decided to make cookies rather than go for the run I need to do this weekend or clean the kitchen that was dirtily taunting me. (Except then I cleaned it while cooking… it was starting at me). I was just overwhelmed by the need to have cookies in the house, ASAP. I have a favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe that’s kind of a derivation from the classic Tollhouse recipe, and is actually a recipe I found on Food 52. But I wanted to doctor those cookies up a bit, because I had some shredded coconut I wanted to use and also because it sounded delicious. I was actually first interested in trying my hand at macarons before realizing I’d need almond flour. Hence the insight to use some coconut, a macaron classic. The coconut adds a delicious moisture to these cookies, keeping them intensely soft and chewy with nicely light-brown crispy edges. I maybe under-bake by 30 seconds or so as well. Another thing making these cookies awesome (and which makes my chocolate chip cookies better as well) is using chocolate chunks rather than chips. I actually just buy mini chocolate bars (or sticks, really) and dice those into 1/4-1/2 inch chunks before adding to the batter. It adds these delectably noticeable chocolate moments more so than the lost-at-sea chips ever will.

It’s kind of a strange time to be craving cookies. It’s warming up. People are outside, happier. Fresh fruit is finally coming into season. And it’s time to be “toning up for summer” or whatever. I don’t care though. Cookies are good all of the time. And if a craving strikes; go for it.

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Coconut Chocolate Chip Cookies

Makes 16-20 cookies

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup unsweetened shredded coconut

1/2 tsp. baking soda

1/4 tsp. salt

1 stick of softened butter

1/2 cup packed brown sugar

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1 egg

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1/2 cup chocolate, diced (or chocolate chips or chunks)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.

In a small mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, coconut, baking soda, and salt. Dice the chocolate and set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a large bowl, using a hand mixer to combine), cream together the butter, brown sugar, and white sugar until lightened and creamy, about 3 minutes. Add the egg and beat into the batter until well-mixed. Add the vanilla and beat for another 30 seconds, until well-combined.

Lower the mixer speed to stir and add in about half of the flour mixture. Mix into the batter until just combined, about 15-30 seconds. Add the chocolate to the remaining flour mixture and toss to combine. Add the chocolate and remaining flour together into the mixer bowl while mixing on low. Stir until the flour is just absorbed into the batter, about 15 seconds. Remove the bowl from the stand mixer. Stir a few more times with a spoon if there is a bit of dry flour in the bowl.

Use a small ice cream scoop (or fill one only about half-full) to drop cookies onto the parchment paper. Bake at 375 for 9-11 minutes, until lightly-browned at the edges and just cooked through. Remove from the oven and let cool on the baking sheet for 2 minutes. Then, transfer the cookies to a cooling rack (I just slide the parchment paper over).

They will be droopy and soft until cooled, so you can eat them hot and melty or wait about 30 minutes. I’m pretty sure I know which you’ll do. Just prepare to have some sips of milk on the side.

Store at room temperature in a covered container for 2-3 days. Otherwise, freeze.

Light and Lemony Tuna Salad

After long runs in the sunshine, or even just a delightful day outside, I find myself craving light, fresh, and bright-flavored foods. Little fish tacos with a margarita, or cucumber salad, or guacamole and super thin chips. Or, when you’re in a pinch, a quick and easy tuna salad. A can of tuna is a ubiquitous pantry member, yet it usually lies dormant on the shelf for months, until someone remembers it and either tosses it out or finally puts it to use. It’s definitely considered a back-up food, as most foods with long shelf-lives are, but it certainly warrants a bit more attention. Tuna salad can be heavy, rich, and, frankly, pretty gross if prepared poorly. Which is how I feel about it when I see it in a cafeteria. But by swapping some of the fat-laden components for more fresh ingredients, tuna salad can elevate to a truly delicious salad topper, dip, or sandwich.

There are pros and cons to tuna consumption, weighing on contrasting sides the mercury content and over-fishing against the nutritional benefits (when consumed in moderation). It can be considered a health food when eaten on a weekly to monthly basis, which, to be fair, it never is. The economical and moral impact of buying and eating tuna has more controversy, and you can follow-up with your documentary of choice. I always buy dolphin-safe, sustainable tuna, but that is admittedly pretty hard to find. Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods both have a good selection to choose from. Other choices range from albacore to white tuna to super white, packed in water or oil with or without salt. Go with whatever sounds good. I usually select albacore packed in water, lightly salted. But I love salt and buy everything with it, so take that as you will.

The best pairing, I think, to the slightly dense-tasting fish, is lemon and fresh greens. Lemon and herbs have the magic ability to freshen and lighten almost every food, and combined they almost transport you to the garden somehow. In Spring-time, of course. Herbs obviously have great variety of flavor, and alternating your choice here can give your lunch the diversity it needs, if you’re a tuna-salad-eater. But this combination I would say is pretty classic.

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Fresh and Lemony Tuna Salad

Serves 2

1 can albacore tuna packed in water

1/4 cup non-fat Greek yogurt (I love Fage)

1 tbsp. mayonnaise with olive oil (or mayonnaise of choice)

2 tbsp. minced chives

2 green onions, diced

1 lemon, zested

Dash of cayenne

Salt & pepper to taste

Drain the tuna thoroughly, then add to a small mixing bowl. Break up the tuna with a fork. Add the yogurt and mayonnaise and stir to combine. Add the chives, green onions, lemon zest, and seasonings. Stir to mix completely. Taste and adjust seasonings as necessary.

Serve the tuna salad over a bed of mixed greens, on a pita, on a sandwich, with crackers, in a wrap, or whatever way your head can dream up.

Caramelized Onion, Sun-dried Tomato, and Goat Cheese Quiche

Quiche. Oh my god, quiche. I love quiche. It is astoundingly underrated. For instance, when you go to brunch, what do you have swimming in your head, what options are you fanning through mentally? Omelet, egg scramble, french toast, pancakes, eggs benedict, fresh juice, eggs-in-a-basket, biscuits and gravy… the classics. But as you frustratingly toy between deciding sweet or savory (eventually just going for the huge breakfast platter that combines both), quiche is just sitting there on the side, being absurdly perfect, waiting for you to remember. Quiche isn’t offered at every restaurant or brunch place. It’s a little bit “fancy,” and it may only be available at your delicious-yet-kind-of-hipster/trendy neighborhood haunt. (I can think specifically of my favorite brunch place in the city- Birchwood Kitchen- with their quiches sitting poised atop a glass cabinet of salads and baked goods). So it’s fair that it’s not a regular go-to when you’re sitting down for brunch on a Sunday morning at 11am. But I am here to fight for it. Fight for its representation. Because, guys, it’s basically PIE filled with EGGS. With fillings that are delightful and usually perfectly fresh and almost always healthy yet delicious.

So you can’t get it out all the time, or maybe you still insist that you can’t make french toast at home (eh hem, you can), but there’s no reason not to delight in the wonder that is quiche when the craving hits. (It’s actually hitting you right now, you just don’t remember). There is a crust to quiche, and I personally am annoyed when Pinterest links and Internet sites quote recipes for “crustless quiches,” because those totally already exist, everyone; they’re called frittatas, and they are too delicious, in their own way. But making a crust can scare people away, moreso than even French toast or pancakes from scratch. If you have 5 minutes, a rolling pin, and butter and flour, you can make pie crust. It’s even easier in a food processor, but absolutely not necessary. If you were to be making an actual fancy pie, I’m certain there would be more crust rules. But you’re making a brunch item. This just needs to taste good.

Now, the second part of quiche that has people worried is the filling. What should you put inside there!? Eggs, obviously, but the additional components and flavor combinations are endless. It’s at least as expansive as the variety afforded to omelets, but with the benefit of not compromising the tedious and delicate cooking process of preparing an omelet. I like things to be relatively simple, in the interest of highlighting genuine flavors, and am a huge sucker for caramelized onions all the time. The beauty of these ingredients (which are listed below) is that they are available and delicious at any time of the year. If it’s summer and you would prefer to highlight the bounty of summer vegetables then available, by all means do so. But this quiche is a good staple and a good place to start.

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Caramelized Onion, Sun-dried Tomato, and Goat Cheese Quiche

Serves 6

Crust

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour (or a 50/50 ratio of all-purpose and whole wheat)
  • 3/4 tsp. salt
  • 8 tbsp./ 1 stick/ 1/4 lb. of unsalted butter, cold and diced
  • 3-6 tbsp. ice water, reserved

Filling

  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 yellow onion, sliced thinly
  • 2/3 cup sun-dried tomatoes, roughly chopped
  • Salt & pepper to season, to taste
  • 5 eggs
  • 3/4 cup milk, anything but skim
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 2 oz. (about 1/4 cup) goat cheese, crumbled

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Prepare a 9-inch pie pan by coating it thinly with butter and set aside.

Begin by preparing the filling. In a medium sauté pan, over medium heat, add 1 tbsp. olive oil and the sliced yellow onions. Cook until lightly browning and softened, about 15 minutes. Add the chopped sun-dried tomatoes, mix, and heat through. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.

To make the crust, mix the flour(s) and salt together in a medium mixing bowl. Add the cold and diced butter, and, using your fingertips, mix the butter into the flour. The butter should gradually breakdown to pea-sized pieces, and the whole mixture will look almost sandy with small clumps. Then, slowly add the ice water, starting with 3 tbsp. then adding by 1/2-1 tbsp. as needed. Mix the water into the flour mixture with your hands until evenly distributed. You should continue to add water until you have a shaggy dough that forms the shape of your first when you squeeze it and just stays together in a small ball. Pour the dough out onto a floured surface or counter (there should be some dry scraggly bits) and mold into a flat disc. Use a rolling pin to roll out the dough into a circle about 2-3 inches wider in diameter than the pie pan. The dough will likely break a bit as you roll it out, but just push the broken pieces back together. The easiest way to transfer the dough to the pie pan is to roll it onto the rolling pin and then unroll it over the pan. Press the crust dough into the pan, consolidating the dough at the edges to form an even, slightly thickened ridge elevated about 1/2 an inch above the edge of the pan. Your dough will likely be an uneven circle, so just transfer pieces as needed to more “thin” areas. From here, you can flute the edges of the dough if you want, or just leave it as is. To flute the crust, indent the crust from the outside with the pointer finger of your right hand against the counter-pressure of your thumb and pointer finger of your left hand, making a triangle of dough, essentially. Go around the entire crust that way. It won’t look perfect. That’s fine.

Once the dough is complete, add your vegetables. Ideally, you should have about 2 cups of vegetables in your quiche with a standard pie pan (if your pan is deeper, you may want to amp up the veggies by another cup or so). Whisk together the eggs, milk, and 1/2 tsp. of salt and pour over the veggies. Scoot the veggies around some if needed so everything is evenly distributed. Top the filling with goat cheese, sprinkling it evenly over the quiche.

Place the quiche in the oven and bake for 40-50 minutes, until the center is set (the eggs shouldn’t wiggle or jiggle in the pan, but rather look quite firm and fluffy). Remove the quiche to cool slightly, for about 10 minutes, and serve.

 

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Delicious, buttery pie crust, with creamy eggs and the burst of sweet then savory then cheesy flavor. Make a quiche next time. Please.

Carrot Cake

Happy Easter! I’m choosing to celebrate today with a delicious breakfast and carrot cake for dessert (which comes sometime in the afternoon, I’m predicting). I’m a little bit (read: very much) jealous of my brothers having fun together in North Carolina without me, and my dog prancing along (read: napping along) with them, but at least it’s a nice day here in the city. I also have a long run to do today, which is somewhat anxiety-producing, making the cake doubly necessary.

Now, per tradition, on Easter my grandma or mom would prepare a bunny cake, which is obviously named based on the appearance rather than the type of cake or flavor. I don’t even remember what kind of cake we usually used, but there was always white frosting, coconut, licorice whiskers, jellybean eyes and nose, and a bowtie of M&Ms. I begrudgingly removed most of these decorations, because licorice and jellybeans are not my candies-of-choice. The cake was good, but there was always too much, and with all of the other food and desserts (and CANDY) available on Easter, I don’t remember too much focus on the bunny cake outside of a few pictures.

As someone who enjoys dabbling in baking, and with the cake tradition arming my resolution, I decided to whip up my favorite carrot cake this weekend. I’ve made this cake once before, several years ago, and my roommate and I devoured it over the course of a week or so. It keeps well in the refrigerator (which is necessary due to the icing), and it tasted fresh and delicious that whole time. I’m not a big frosting person, in that I usually find it too saccharine or heavy or chemically (if that’s a word), but cream cheese frosting is THE BEST. Especially with some coconut. Cream cheese frosting makes carrot cake the divine, wonderfully dense cake it is. And all of the above prepared from scratch, with fresh carrots and walnuts? So good.

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Carrot Cake

Based off of this recipe

Serves about 16-20

9 inch round x 3 inches deep pan or 9×9 square pan

Unsalted butter, for the pan

1 1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour (or whole wheat flour)

1 cup all-purpuse flour

1 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. baking soda

1 1/2 tsp. cinnamon

1/4 tsp. ground ginger

1/4 tsp. ground cloves

1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg

1/2 tsp. salt

6 medium carrots, grated

1 1/3 cup white sugar

1/4 cup packed brown sugar

3 large eggs

2/3 cup vanilla yogurt (or plain yogurt)

1 tsp. vanilla extract

3/4 cup vegetable oil

1 cup walnuts

Coconut Cream Cheese Frosting

  • 8 oz. cream cheese or Neufchatel cheese
  • 1/2 stick of butter (4 tbsp.)
  • 3 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 cup of unsweetened shredded coconut

1/2 cup unsweetened shredded coconut, to top

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter the bottom and sides of your baking pan, and place parchment paper on the bottom of the pan.

In a large mixing bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, spices, and salt.

In a food processor, grate the carrots. Or, alternatively, shred the carrots with a grater. Add the shredded carrots to the bowl with the flour and other ingredients. Mix together until the carrots are evenly coated.

In a stand mixer (or with a hand mixer), cream together the sugar, brown sugar, eggs, yogurt, and vanilla extract. Once smooth and creamy, drizzle in the vegetable oil while on a slow mixing speed. Beat until combined.

Pour the liquid mixture into the carrot-flour mixture. Add 1 cup of walnuts. Stir with a large spoon to just combine.

Pour the carrot cake batter into the prepared baking pan. Place the pan in the 350 degree oven on the middle rack and bake for 45 minutes. After 45 minutes, reduce the heat to 325 degrees Fahrenheit and bake an additional 10-20 minutes, until the cake is cooked through. Test the cake’s doneness by dipping a toothpick in the center and ensuring that it comes out clean. Or use a thermometer to identify when the center of the cake has reached 205-210 degrees Fahrenheit.

Remove the pan from the oven and allow to cool for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, turn the cake out of the pan onto a cooling rack. Allow the cake to cool completely, at least 1hour.

While the cake is cooling, cream together the butter and cream cheese in a stand mixture, until smooth and creamy. Integrate the powdered sugar about 1 cup at a time, beating slowly after each addition, until thoroughly blended. Add the vanilla and beat until blended. Add the shredded coconut and mix until well distributed.

Once the cake has cooled, frost with the coconut cream cheese frosting. Top with shredded coconut. The cake will keep at room temperature for a few hours, but should otherwise be refrigerated between servings. It tastes really quite good straight from the refrigerator, but is slightly more flavorful once allowed to rest at room temperature for 30 minutes or so.

*Just FYI, my cake is long a narrow because I actually sliced it in half and frosted each half individually, so I could give half the cake out to others. I can’t eat an entire cake! Awkward frosting due to me not having enough, really, to individually frost several miniature cakes!

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Also, you can feel so healthy, because this cake is really not too sweet, full of carrots and walnuts, and lightly frosted (note: if you want a thicker frosting coating, you may want to 1 1/2 the recipe. I find the thickness (about 1/4-1/2 inch) to be appropriate for the cake). And anyways, you should indulge all you want, it’s Easter! And nice outside! Celebrate.

Sriracha Roasted Red Pepper Soup with Coconut Cream and Cilantro

Soup season may be “over,” but I think there’s a free soup pass if it’s under 50 degrees, and that’s still the case in Chicago. But I did want to amp up the “Spring-time” feel with coconut and cilantro, which actually are probably a Summer feel, but I digress. I also wanted to try a new trick for soup: thickening with soft tofu. I’d read about using tofu as a thickener ages ago, and when the idea of a spicy, Sriracha-inspired red pepper soup jumped into my brain, I immediately remembered that advice. Something in my brain begged for this soup to have an Asian spin (probably the Asian lettering on the Sriracha bottle), and this seemed to be the perfect application for using tofu as a thickening agent. Partially, also, because I wanted to impart a subtle-if-at-all-discernable tofu flavor. So there’s some insight into my brain, and an explanation of my recent Google searches. I have to say, though, as someone who loves Sriracha and its unique kick, and loves tofu’s just-present flavor, this soup really, really hit the mark. It may be a new favorite. Because, come on, it’s mostly just a ton of roasted red peppers, which may be the best “vegetable” purchasable at your neighborhood Trader Joe’s (or other grocery store).

If it’s Spring where you are, I truly hope you are enjoying it in hours of sunlight-laden evenings and relishing the feeling of warm skin. When in California, I realized the little things you miss when you’re on your 7th month of unrelenting cold: hot metal railings, warm wood on your feet, sun-kissed shoulders, enjoyable breezes. I know it’s all coming soon, and I’m optimistic in general at this point, but I’m allowed soup in the interim, and you should have it just to delight in the flavor (and maybe enjoy as a tongue-in-cheek tribute). Ah, winter; Sriracha kills you every time.

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Sriracha Roasted Red Pepper Soup with Coconut Cream and Cilantro

Serves 4

1 tbsp. olive oil

1/2 yellow onion, diced

4 cloves garlic, minced

12 oz. jar roasted red peppers, roughly chopped

2 tbsp. sriracha

1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper

1/2 tsp. salt

1/4 tsp. cracked black pepper

3 cups vegetable or chicken stock

1/2 cup light coconut milk

1/2 block soft or silken tofu, cubed

Coconut cream, to serve

  • 2 tbsp. Greek yogurt
  • 2 tbsp. light coconut milk

Fresh cilantro, chopped, to serve

In a large saucepan, over medium heat, heat the olive oil and add onion. Sauté the onion until lightly browning, about 5-8 minutes. Add minced garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 30 seconds- 1 minute longer. Add the diced roasted red peppers and stir. Add salt, pepper, and spices. Mix and heat for 1-2 minutes. Add the sriracha and stock, stir, and bring to a boil.

Once boiling, remove from heat and puree until smooth using an immersion blender. Add the coconut milk and blend to combine. Add the soft tofu cubes and blend until the soup is smooth and thickened. (I found the tofu didn’t blend entirely, meaning I could see small flecks of tofu. Probably a Vitamix or intense blender could get this smooth, but it’s really a visual thing more than anything). Pour the soup back into the sauce pan and heat until hot (the coconut milk and tofu will cool the soup). Once heated, pour into bowls.

Top the bowls with coconut cream and cilantro to serve. I think a grilled cheese would pair nicely, too, if desired.

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In real life, you add a mountain of cilantro and a ton of coconut cream, because it’s amazing. The cream is so, so cool and delicious against the spicy, intensely flavored soup. I was expecting to be off-the-roof spicy, but it’s really very manageable (to my moderately-tolerable spice palate). Obviously, you could use more or less Sriracha to taste. I’m sure Brian would like an additional squeeze. And really, don’t let the tofu scare you; I think it’s the perfect way to complete this soup.

Oh, and yes that is a dachshund towel. Of course.

 

California

imageI’ve been gone for over a week, not a single recipe created, but delicious food and sights and experiences were consumed. A week (or so) in California was the perfect start to the “Spring” that won’t come in Chicago. This trip was the perfect mix of wine country indulgence and mountain and beach-side hiking.  A little time away from work, the kitchen, the car, and the cold was absolutely what I needed. So here’s a snapshot, to apologize for keeping you hungry.

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Beringer Winery, St. Helena, CA

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Wine country 

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Organic garden overlooking the Pacific Ocean at Treebones Resort in Big Sur, CA

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Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur, CA

This already feels like so long ago. But at least recipes are coming soon.

Inverted Shepherd’s Pie

Or something. Sorry, that’s the closest thing I could come to for a “title” of this dinner. It’s delicious, though? I mean, in a sense, it’s very similar to shepherd’s pie… minus the potatoes, plus some polenta, minus a few veggies, plus a few veggies, served from the stove-top, not baked… it works, I think. In any case, it tastes delicious. It actually reminds me nearly as much of my grandma’s classic creation: hamburger gravy. It sounds kind of gross, to strangers anyways, and actually is ground beef over potatoes (pretty similar to shepherd’s pie as well!), but it was a midwestern classic in a too-many-children household. Ground beef, sautéed with onions, tossed with flour and milk, served over creamy mashed potatoes and corn- it’s definitely comfort food. And no one makes it as well as my grandma, because that’s the kind of food that has to be served by an older relative. Kind of like Bisquick pancakes, some things are just better coming out of grandma’s kitchen. Not to be limited by flour and water, my grandma actually has a great variety of things she loves to cook, and we eat all of it heartily and happily. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen her make polenta, though, so from here we diverge.

I think it’s probably obvious now that I am loving polenta. It’s creamy, it’s warm, it’s got just enough flavor to really amplify its corresponding ingredients (rather than just sitting there mashed on the plate), and it’s easy to prepare. I bought probably 2 cups a month or two ago, and it’s gone now, which is saying something for me. Usually I buy bulk grains and use them slowly, in a random pattern, until they’re finally exhausted months later. I suppose I just tire of the same thing too many times in a row. Polenta, though; it’s working for me right now. I guess I need to buy more.

But beyond the polenta, the ground beef in this recipe is really a great accompaniment. With some diced spring vegetables, it’s hearty yet flavorful and fresh. It feels awkward preparing dishes with ground beef, I realized as I thought of what I wanted to do with it besides make a hamburger. It always looks a bit unappetizing in its plain form, and it’s hard not to smother it in sauce and call it a day. Ground beef always seems to be a component of a dish, rather than a main ingredient (excusing said burger). It really doesn’t need too much though, I believe. A few veggies serve the purpose of diversity on the palate, and a hearty starch creates immediate comfort food, regardless of the recipe. Don’t let the pictures deceive you; this tastes more than what it looks.

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Inverted Shepherd’s Pie (I guess)

Serves 4

1 cup polenta

3 cups chicken stock

1 cup milk

2 tbsp. butter

1 lb. grass-fed ground beef

4 spring carrots, diced

4 radishes, sliced into slivers

1/2 yellow onion, diced

1 tbsp. olive oil

2 tsp. thyme

1/4 tsp. dried red chili flake

Salt and pepper to taste

1 tbsp. corn starch

1/2 cup chicken or vegetable stock

2 tbsp. soy sauce

First, prepare the polenta. Bring 3 cups of stock and 1 cup milk, whisked, to a boil. Once boiling, add the polenta to the pot while whisking constantly. Continue to whisk until the polenta is suspended in the liquid, ever so slightly thickened. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook for about 30-45 minutes, until the liquid is fully absorbed. Whisk every few minutes initially, then stir occasionally with a wooden spoon, making sure to scrape the bottom of the pan. As noted before, the polenta may be “done” a bit earlier, but cooking longer yields deeper flavor. Once cooked, add 2 tbsp. of butter, and salt and pepper to taste, and stir into the polenta. Keep covered and set aside.

Heat 1 tbsp. olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Cook the carrots and onions until they’re just softened and the onions are translucent, about 5-8 minutes. Add the radishes and stir. Add the ground beef to the pan and cook until browned, about 10 minutes. Add the thyme, chili flake, and salt and pepper to taste and stir. In a mason jar, add the corn starch, 1/2 cup of stock, and soy sauce. Shake to combine. (Alternatively, whisk in a bowl). Pour the thickened stock over the meat and vegetables and bring to a boil. Let the stock reduce until thick and adherent to the meat and veggies. Remove from the heat.

Plate a serving of polenta and top with the meat and vegetable mixture. Something about carrots and radishes makes it feel French to me somehow, with an obvious Italian (polenta) influence. Maybe it’s just European. Maybe it’s a mish-mash. Either way: it’s good.

 

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Spring Vegetable Quinoa Salad

It’s been warm for the past two days, which would be exciting if the weather channel didn’t have that 10-day-forecast of anxiety available. So while it broke 50 degrees (60 yesterday!) for three days in a row, I know it’s fleeting, with promises of colder, rainy weather later this week. I also had no opportunity to enjoy a spare minute of warmth with travel and working late, so I’m hardly feeling like Spring is around the corner. It’s nice wearing a different coat, though, and not freezing walking to my car. But, man, everybody is talking about the weather these days. Maybe because we’re all desperate for it to change. Onto other topics- salad. Vegetables in salad. Spring vegetables in salad. Because agreeable weather or not, it seems as though lighter, brighter vegetables are finally coming into season, and that is something to truly enjoy. My grocery list is now just a list of various vegetables, with Greek yogurt and eggs tacked on to the end. It’s my favorite. So I wanted to use these vegetables in a way that would truly spotlight them. Vegetables don’t need to be relegated to the side of the plate, shadowed by a hunk of meat and barely seasoned. They can and should be the center, the flavor of the dish! This salad is absolutely bursting with veggies, which may or may not seem natural to you, but it tastes so cohesive and delicious. Holding the asparagus, broccoli, and radishes together are the quinoa and a quick and easy lemon vinaigrette. I’ve been eating this for lunch all week (with a side of Greek yogurt- yum [by the way, some Bonne Maman jam swirled into Fage is the. best. snack/lunch side. ever.]).

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Spring Vegetable Quinoa Salad

Serves 4

1 cup quinoa, rinsed

2 cups chicken stock

2 stalks broccoli, chopped into small florets

12-15 asparagus spears, chopped into 1 inch segments

3-4 spring onions, chopped into 1 inch segments

4-5 radishes, sliced thinly into rounds

1 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1/4 cup chicken stock

Lemon vinaigrette

  • 2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tbsp. lemon juice (from 1 large lemon)
  • 2 tsp. honey
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • Dash of freshly cracked black pepper

Romaine lettuce, sliced/ chopped

Goat cheese, crumbled, to serve

Hard-boiled egg, diced/ crumbled, to serve

To prepare the quinoa, add to a hot pot over medium-high heat. Toast the quinoa for 3-5 minutes, stirring regularly, until lightly toasted and fragrant. Add 2 cups of chicken stock and bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook until the liquid is fully absorbed, about 12-15 minutes. Stir to fluff and set aside.

Prepare the vegetables. In a large sautee pan over medium heat, add 1 tbsp. olive oil. Sautee the asparagus and broccoli until softening and lightly browning, about 5 minutes. Add 1/4 cup of chicken stock and allow to boil, steaming the vegetables. Continue to cook until the liquid has boiled off, about another 5-10 minutes. Set aside to cool slightly.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the lemon vinaigrette. Add the cooked broccoli and asparagus, as well as the radish rounds and spring onions. Mix to coat. Add the cooked quinoa and stir to combine. Season with additional salt and pepper if needed. Refrigerate for several hours or overnight.

To serve, add the chopped Romaine lettuce to a plate. Top with the spring vegetable quinoa salad. Sprinkle on goat cheese and/or a chopped hard-boiled egg for additional protein to round out the meal. Serve with a small side for a complete lunch.

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This isn’t exactly dinner, necessarily; but would be a great side or main lunch component. The lemony spring flavor and fresh, bright vegetables are so inviting with the nutty quinoa holding everything together. This is how I like to eat salad.