Roasted Tomato Salsa

It is my genuine belief that if summer in Chicago was a year-round experience, literally the entire population of America would live here. It is absurdly, catch-you-when-you’re-not-expecting-it beautiful, on days when you’re touristing, on days when you’re just walking through the park, on days when you’re stumbling for coffee, even on days when you’re commuting home from work. Contrastingly, though, a full year of Chicago winter would make this place the most desolate waste land south of rural Alaska. I guess that’s why Chicagoans are the only ones who really understand the gravity of the change of seasons for this city. I feel wasteful, napping this gorgeously sunny and clear 75-degree day away, but how can you possibly experience enough, when you stay out late in the cool-but-temperate evening drinking beer at a summer festival bright and loud from happy party-goers? As long as you drive with the windows down, I guess, to and from the places you need to go.

When you’re feeling especially pressed for time, or eager for socialization, dinner is pushed far down on the agenda. My recipes of late promise to be quite quick, not because I don’t find cooking “worth it,” but rather because I’d rather be enjoying this perfect season before it passes. I don’t know the punishment for spending June indoors, but I assume it’s fierce. I’ve actually been grilling out much more often than I ever have, which is an awesome development. Maybe one day I’ll create a grill-worthy recipe, since I’m definitely a novice in that territory. For now, I want to share this salsa, which is the easiest thing ever to make. It’s actually ridiculous that I always buy salsa, when it takes almost no time to pull together and is exponentially more fresh and delicious homemade. It’s great with chips, of course, but also really good on top of the giant salads you’re supposed to be eating now.

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Roasted Tomato Salsa

Makes about 2 cups

5 roma tomatoes, quartered

1 small yellow onion, quartered

2 jalapenos, seeded and halved

1 red bell pepper, quartered

5 cloves garlic, whole

2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1/4 tsp. salt

1/8 tsp. freshly cracked black pepper

Juice of 1 lime

1/2 cup cilantro

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Rinse and chop vegetables (hold lime and cilantro for later) and toss on a large cookie sheet. Drizzle olive oil over the top and mix the veggies with your hands to coat fully with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Roast for 20-25 minutes, until the tomatoes have softened and the vegetables are just browning.

Add the vegetables to a large food processor (or add to a large bowl and use an immersion blender). Blend the vegetables to a just chunky puree consistency. Add the lime juice and cilantro and blend again briefly. Taste and season appropriately (you may prefer an additional dash of salt). Store in a large mason jar. Or with a massive pile of chips. Or on top of a cheesy quesadilla. Or as the dressing for your mock-Chipotle salad. In any way, enjoy. This should keep in the refrigerator for about 1 week.

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Delicious serving suggestion.

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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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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.