Pho’nomenal Soup

It’s been warm in North Carolina for several weeks, but recently the trees, flowers, and fauna have agreed to come alive and welcome Spring. The collective attitude of this area, the state, probably most of the country is lightened and optimistic, and everything seems fun and exciting. It’s almost hard to sit at home when you see the bright blue skies out of your window and know full well that the sun is warm and the breeze is light and soothing. I’m endlessly thankful that blending into life in Durham has been fluid and inspiring. It’s not without effort that I’ve made this community home, but the effort is easy to succumb when the opportunities are so prevalent. Durham shares features of Chicago that I loved, the primary being that it becomes so vibrant and positive in the warm weather. Everywhere it seems people are out, active, and socializing. Every restaurant and brewery offers the option to dine in the open air, and the myriad trails winding through this area are overflowing with people. It’s so fun to be happy and warm.

The above paragraph does not segue appropriately into the recipe at all. Rather, I’m blogging because I think I’ve exhausted my outdoor experiences for the weekend, and since the sun is setting, I find myself anxious for something new to do besides read quietly or numb to TV. So I’ll use this blog post as a way to believe I’m talking to someone since my dogs insist on napping and not engaging with me at all.

I want to call this recipe pho, because it is, I presume. However, I hesitate to comment on a culinary genre so profoundly outside of my personal experience and, in doing so, cheapen the years of creativity and influence that eventually inspired what is now appreciated as pho. It seems that in becoming a trendy- or at least well-known- food, there are of course a variety of manipulations that may stray egregiously from the original source. But I’ll attempt to throw my recipe into the forum, not to promise authenticity, but to encourage expansion of this beautiful and flavorful dish into even the most benign kitchens. This is truly one of the most straightforward meals I’ve made, with such outrageously delicious results. The ratio of effort to pay-off is trending towards infinity. So I call this soup, with a heavily obvious pun- pho’nomenal-  because it is phenomenal and it, for lack of a better descriptor, is pho!

Vegetarian Pho

Serves 2

(Inspired by this recipe)

Broth

  • 1 onion, cut in half
  • 1 large knob of ginger, cut in half
  • 2 stalks lemongrass
  • 3 cardamom pods
  • 1 tbsp whole coriander
  • 1 tbsp fennel seeds
  • 1 tbsp peppercorns
  • 1 tsp whole cloves
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 2 tsp salt

Mix-ins

  • 1/2 block tofu, diced into 0.5 inch cubes
  • 1 tbsp. canola, sunflower, safflower, or other high-heat oil
  • 2 bunches bok choy
  • 1 jalapeno, sliced
  • 3-5 oz enoki (or other interesting) mushrooms
  • 3 oz rice noodles, prepared according to package directions

Sriracha and soy sauce to serve

To prepare the broth, halve the onion and ginger and place in the broiler. Broil until a dark golden color but not quite burnt. Flip and broil the opposite side. Watch carefully- this takes 2-3 minutes per side.

In a large stock pot, add the broiled onion and ginger, lemongrass, and whole spices. (Buyer’s note: I purchased all of these spices from the bulk bin at whole foods for approximately 25 cents… some were so light they were free! So don’t be discouraged by a long list of potentially expenses cabinet-dwellers… just buy what you need!). Add 6 cups of water to the pot and bring the mixture to a boil. Once boiling, reduce the heat to low and simmer for about 90 minutes. I actually prepared the broth entirely ahead of time, cooled it, and stored prior to reheating when I was ready with the mix-ins the following night. But, alternately, prepare mix-ins while the broth is simmering. Once an appropriate amount of time has elapsed, strain the broth. It should be a deep, rich brown color. If needed, add a bit more salt.

Prepare the tofu by cubing, tossing with oil, and placing in the broiler for 5 minutes. Toss and continue to broil for 5-7 minutes longer, until lightly browned and crisped on the edges. While the tofu is cooking, prepare the rice noodles. Most packages ask for them to be added to boiling water then sit, covered, for about 10 minutes. Add the bok choy, mushrooms, and sliced jalapenos to the bowls. Once the tofu is done, add that as well. Top with the rice noodles.

To serve this in a pretty way, present the bowls with mix-ins then pour the steaming broth over the top. (My photos look a little low on broth, and that’s because I split it into 3 servings so I could get more food out of it [still living cheap], but this would be more substantial/ characteristic of massive pho bowls just split into 2 servings). Top with as much sriracha as you dare, as well as a splash of soy sauce. Serve with large spoon and chopsticks!

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Spotlight On: Tofu

Per the request of some readers (eh hem, mom), I wanted to start sharing ingredients I routinely use while cooking. Where to buy them, how to prepare them, good recipes to start with… etc. I thought the most appropriate ingredient to discuss was tofu, notably because I’ve used it for two recipes in the past week, but also because it’s probably my most frequent source of protein. I love tofu, and I think it gets a seriously bad rap as an easily-dismissed “vegetarian” food, that has no use outside of replacing steak or chicken. While vegetarians certainly flock to tofu as a substitute, it’s also a delicious, substantial, and, yes, flavorful ingredient on its own. While I probably eat vegetarian most of the time, I most nights prefer tofu to other options, simply for its adaptability, cost, and quick cooking time.

But, what exactly is tofu? Tofu is really coagulated soy bean curd (I guess you could almost compared it to a really pressed yogurt, to compare soy milk to cow’s milk), which, I know, sounds so appetizing. The soy curd is pressed firmly into a block shape, usually; however, there are many varieties of tofu that alter the consistency and flavor of the final result. One major difference to note is between silken tofu and firm tofu. Silken tofu is not pressed or drained, and thus has a very high moisture content. It’s best applied to dessert recipes, or can be used as a substitute/ almost thickening agent in pies and shakes and all sorts of vegan treats. I’ve never even bought silken tofu (although I’d like to try it), and you should probably bypass it if you’re looking to make a dinner recipe. Firm tofu, by comparison, is pressed. It is usually sold as firm or extra firm tofu, although I from time to time have seen “medium” varieties. Considering most recipes call for pressing the tofu further prior to applying marinades, I see the most value in buying the lowest moisture content variety- extra firm tofu. Extra firm tofu is easily pressed into a dense, sliceable, formed block that absorbs marinade incredibly well and stays together nicely when tossing in a pan. If trying tofu for the first time, I’d go with this variety, as it (in my opinion) has the best texture after cooking. While I could in theory go on for days about tofu and its varying components and varieties, I’m going to direct you to wikipedia if you want more information.

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My favorite place to buy tofu is Trader Joe’s. This is probably because Trader Joe’s is my favorite grocery store for price and varied (and interesting!) ingredients, but I love their extra firm tofu as well as their sprouted extra firm tofu (I especially love that the sprouted tofu comes divided in half, thus creating single serving sizes for this lonely dinner-eater). Tofu is available at nearly every grocery store now, usually located near the dairy section, and always labeled “extra firm” or whatever type it is. I can’t differentiate much between brands, so go for whichever suits your fancy. Usually tofu comes in 4-5 servings, which I think is laughable because I nearly always eat half a block at a time. As a single serving, it’s much less caloric than chicken or any red meat. If doubled up, it’s about comparable calorie-wise. (Of note, this Trader Joe’s brand is a bit more calorie-dense than most other brands).

And in case you’re interested, here’s a calorie and protein comparison:

1/4 block tofu: 9g protein, 80 calories

1/2 block tofu: 18g protein, 160 calories

4 oz. (1/4 lb.) chicken breast: 13g protein, 120 calories

3 oz. ground beef (85% lean): 16g protein, 180 calories

As I’ve prepared tofu time and time again, I have definitely come across my favorite cooking methods. I’ll share a few here, but my absolute, hands-down favorite is pan-fried/ sautéed tofu cubes. When prepared correctly, the tofu is delightfully crisp with a soft interior, perfectly dippable and easily combined in rice dishes of varying ethnic influences, stir fries, salads, and more.

How To: Pressing Tofu

Pressing tofu releases excess moisture from the block, dehydrating the tofu further and thus making it extra thirsty for marinades. Pressing also improves the texture, allowing for a more toothsome, chewy yet smooth inside. I personally enjoy the flavor of tofu plain; however, if using a marinade, apply it immediately after pressing.

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  1. Remove tofu from packaging and drain off excess water
  2. Place a hefty pile (about 3 sheets) of paper towels onto a sturdy surface
  3. Place the tofu on top of the towels
  4. Top with another hefty pile of paper towels
  5. Top with another sturdy, flat surface, such as a small cookie sheet or baking pan
  6. Weigh down the tofu with light pressure, using a small can other 1-2 lb. item
  7. Keep compressed for 30 minutes
  8. Ready to prepare and use!

How To: Perfectly Pan-fried Tofu

This is my favorite way to prepare tofu, and really very easy. If you’re somewhat impatient, this may be tedious, as it involves flipping to every side of the tofu cube (yes, 5 times). However, it really does cook quickly, and if preparing the rest of your dinner at the same time, you’ll barely notice the process. If marinating, cube the tofu and marinate prior to cooking, then sauté directly from the marinade.

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  1. Cube tofu into blocks (if not already done)
  2. Heat a sauté pan or griddle over medium high heat (or 400 degrees Fahrenheit)
  3. Lightly oil the pan with grapeseed or other high-heat oil
  4. Place the tofu down evenly on the pan- I like to space them into rows so I can easily keep track of flipping
  5. Allow to cook for 2-3 minutes per side (the first side may take a bit longer as the pan is still warming)
  6. I usually flip by turning towards me, towards me again, and towards me once more to get all 4 “middle” sides. I then flip all of them to the right, then flip it 180 degrees/ twice over to get the last raw side. Again, it’s easier if you just keep them all lined up. Alternatively, you could just toss frequently, although the sides will not be evenly browned.
  7. Season with salt, pepper, and other spices as desire and serve, either plain to dip or with your recipe of choice.

How To: Other Tofu Preparations

I’ve tried a few other methods for preparing tofu, and these are notable standouts (although not winners):

Baked Tofu:

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit
  2. Cube tofu, or, if already marinaded, remove from marinade. If not marinated, toss with 1 tbsp. oil
  3. Place evenly on a baking sheet
  4. Bake for 20-30 minutes, flipping once 180 degrees halfway through baking, until golden brown

This yields a pretty similar product to pan-fried tofu, so, if you’d rather be more hands-free, this may be a better option. I find the final product to be a bit more chewy and lacking in that truly crispy exterior, so if eating plain or in a dish in which tofu is highlighted, I’d spend the extra time with the sauté pan.

Broiled Tofu:

  1. Turn on the broiler
  2. Slice tofu into 1/4 inch slices and marinate… or not. If not, coat lightly with oil
  3. Place the tofu on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper
  4. Broil for 5-6 minutes, until golden brown, then flip
  5. Broil for another 3-5 minutes, until the opposite side is browned to your liking
  6. Serve

Broiled tofu is quick, and does yield that good, crispy exterior. You lose the creamy middle, and I find it much less flavorful unless marinated because of that. It does make good dippers, though.

Sofritas:

See this recipe!

And finally, in case you want to enjoy your pan-fried tofu, and try out an easy recipe, here’s a delicious way to enjoy them, simply with a bit of Mexican flair.

Tofu Lettuce Wraps with Avocado Cream

Serves 2

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1 block extra firm tofu, pressed

1 tbsp. oil

8 romaine leaves

1 avocado

1/4 cup Greek yogurt

1/4 tsp. garlic powder

1/4 tsp. salt

1/8 tsp. freshly cracked black pepper

Cholula chili pepper sauce

Prepare the pan-fried tofu as directed above. Mix together the avocado, greek yogurt, and seasoning into a smooth cream. Place a dollop of avocado cream on the lettuce leaf and top with 3-4 tofu cubes. Top with just a few drops of chili sauce and enjoy.

I hope something here encourages you to give tofu a try. Any and all questions or helpful facts are welcome!