Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Tofu Erotica

Let's face it, when you hear the word 'tofu', you probably don't think 'erotica'... yet. This dish is complex in taste and texture and just so luscious that it has earned its name.

Before I tell you how to make it, I want to tell you the story of how this dish came to be. For me, it's a highly personal story that reflects many phases of my life.

Many years ago, I checked out a book from the library called Mrs. Chiang's Szechwan Cookbook. This book has been tremendously influential on my cooking for two reasons: 1) it taught me many of the secrets of Chinese cooking, and 2) it was a library book so I had to take it back and that gave me the freedom to improvise on what I had learned rather than continuing to reproduce Mrs. Chiang's food. One of the dishes in the book that I loved was Anise Chicken, which became the seed of what over about 20 years eventually evolved into something entirely different, Tofu Erotica.

Each time I made Anise Chicken, I changed it a little. I added more mushrooms and more hot peppers. I added different kinds of mushrooms. It became one of my favorites.

One year, after I had recently come out, my life was in a lot of turmoil and I found myself living in a new town and alone at Christmastime. On Christmas eve, I knew that rather than feeling sorry for myself I needed to do something special. I went to the store and found all the ingredients, went back home and made Anise Chicken, just for me. After a lifetime of cooking for a family and always thinking about the tastes of others, it was a revelation that I could take the same care and cook something special just for me. It wasn't a traditional holiday food, but I wasn't having a traditional holiday experience - or rather, without realizing it then, I was creating one for myself.

For the next several years, even though I had more and more people around me in an extended, chosen family, I would make Anise Chicken sometime near Christmas to remind me to take care of myself. One time, I had some friends, John Nanci and Penny Jacobs over and they tasted it and I think it was Penny who said, "This is so good you should call it Chicken Erotica."

The next year, I was hosting a large gathering of family, friends, lovers, and lovers of lovers for a holiday we made up called "Winter Warmth Day". I believe in starting one's own traditions. Winter Warmth Day falls somewhere between the winter solstice and Christmas. The food ritual is to make and eat what you like without regard to other traditions. For me, at the time, that meant Chicken Erotica. One of the guests was vegan and I wondered if I could make a vegan version of the dish. I tried using tofu instead of chicken. Not only did it work, it was so much better! The tofu picked up the subtle flavors of the sauce better than the chicken and the texture in the mouth contrasted with the mushrooms in a way that was, well - best described as erotic. I've been making it with tofu ever since, not as a substitute for chicken, but an improvement. Tofu Erotica was born!

I still make this every year for my personal Winter Warmth Day.

When you first read this 'recipe' it will seem like it's full of exotic ingredients. While many of them can be found in the bigger, urban grocery stores, a trip to your local Asian market will be a fun outing and you will find everything in this recipe much cheaper there. You will find that you'll have more of some ingredients than you need. The star anise and peppers will keep for a long time in the freezer and you can also share with friends.

How to Make It

Begin by rinsing about 10 whole dried shitake mushrooms and soaking them in 3 cups of boiling water. It's important to rinse them first, because the tea-like liquid that results from the soaking will also go into the dish. In a separate vessel, soak about 1/4 cup of dried tree ear fungus in about 3 cups of boiling water.

Next, do a bit of preparation at the cutting board before starting to cook. Rinse and slice a 2 inch piece of fresh ginger cross-wise into pieces about 1/4 inch thick (no need to peel). Rinse and trim a bunch of scallions (a/k/a green onions - about 12) and cut both the white and green parts into 1 inch long pieces. Slice 1 pound of fresh mushrooms. These could be portabella, baby bellas, garden-variety button mushrooms, or a mixture. It's ok to buy them already sliced to save yourself a bit of work. Cut up a 14 - 16 oz block of extra firm tofu into 1/2 inch squares x 1/4 inch thick. Precision is not necessary, it's just tofu and will break up a bit as it cooks.

It's time to start cooking. Heat a couple of tablespoons of good high-temp oil, such as peanut, in a wok over high temp, then add the sliced ginger, 10-12 whole dried red hot peppers, and 8-10 whole (or equivalent pieces) star anise. It's helpful to count the number of each that you use - you'll see why later. Keep everything moving with a cooking paddle and pay attention! These ingredients are mostly dry, so they don't have water in them to bring down the temp of the oil and can scorch easily. If you scorch it, throw it away and start over. What you are doing is extracting the aromatic molecules from these ingredients and infusing them into the oil.

After 30 sec to 1 min, throw in the green onions and keep everything moving.

When the green onions begin to wilt, throw in the fresh mushrooms. You can breath a little now, because the mushrooms have enough water in them to moderate the temp of the wok, but don't leave your post. Stir-fry the mushrooms until they've released much of their water and reduced in volume.

Add the tofu and stir everything together. You can relax a little now, because there are enough watery things in the wok to bring the temp down to 212F. Let this cook for about 10 minutes, stirring gently occasionally.

Remove the shitake mushrooms from their soaking water and pour the liquid into the wok. Add 4 Tbs soy sauce. Add 1/4 cup of Chinese shao shing wine. If you can't find this kind of wine, dry sherry will do or you can leave it out.

Slice the shitakes into strips. If they have tough stems, cut them off and discard them. Put the strips into the wok and stir it all together.

Reduce heat and let it simmer, uncovered for about 40 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Employing a great deal of patience, pick out the peppers, star anise, and ginger slices. This is why it was helpful to count the number of pieces you put in earlier.

Drain and rinse the tree ear fungus. Pick or cut out any woody bits, then slice into strips and add to the wok.

Stir in 1 tsp sugar.

Dissolve 1 Tbs corn starch in 1/4 cup of cold water. Drizzle half the corn starch mixture into the wok and stir well. It should make a sauce the consistency of a thick gravy. If necessary, stir in the 2nd half.

Finish the dish by stirring 1 Tbs of sesame oil.

Serve with rice or rice noodles and garnish with sliced green onions, if you like.

This dish is even better the next day. It's best served warm rather than piping hot.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Festive Red Cabbage

Tomorrow is our annual holiday potluck at Bulls Head Friends Meeting, so instead of making soup, I'm making my contribution to the potluck.

Our potlucks tend to be rather heavy on desserts and carbs and rather light on protein and vegetables, so I'm making a healthy veggie dish, Red Cabbage.

The cabbage I have is a big purple-red one and is one of the long-storing vegetables from my last CSA share this year. This is a simple, easy, and cheap dish to make.

I started by slicing a large onion into julienne strips, the I sauted the onion in a big of olive oil in my wok until it was a lovely golden brown and smelled like the good part of the county fair. While the onions were browning, I cut my red cabbage up into thin strips. My cabbage was bigger than my head, so I only used about 2/3's of it. The rest I'll save for something else. When the onions were caramelized, I put the cabbage into the wok and stir-fried them together. The big challenge was getting all that cabbage to stay in the pan - I ended up getting another paddle and gently tossing the veg with both hands. When it was still crunchy, but warmed through, I added 1/4 cup of apple cider vinegar, a good squirt of soy sauce, and a dash of liquid smoke. I reduced the heat, covered the wok, and let it simmer/steam for about 10 minutes. When the cabbage was tender and crisp at the same time, I stirred in about 2 Tbs of sugar, turned off the heat and let it sit uncovered for about 5 minutes.

The cabbage will absorb the taste of the vinegar and sugar while it waits in the fridge until I take it to the potluck tomorrow. Right before we eat, I'll warm it up just enough to take the chill off before I put it on the table.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Butternut Squash & Carrot Soup

This week, Friends at Bulls Head Meeting will be treated to a rich, pureed butternut squash soup. Some of the vegetables I'm using - squash and celeriac - are some of the long-storing produce I got from my CSA earlier in the fall.

I started by seeding, peeling, and chunking 2 large butternut squashes. This takes a bit of muscle, as these are formidable vegetables. To get started, I cut them in half longitudinally using a cleaver and a hammer. Yep, it was loud. I also peeled and chunked a celeriac and 4 large carrots.

I heated a bit of olive oil in my soup pot and added 2 finely chopped medium onions. After they were cooked until translucent and just beginning to brown, I added 8 cups of water (2 quarts), the chunked veggies, 3 bay leaves, salt, pepper, and about a tsp of cardamom. I let this simmer until the veggies were cooked.

If you google 'butternut squash soup', you'll find a lot of recipes and many of them call for nutmeg. I've been reading books about food history and the spice trade lately and that has put me in the mood to do a little exploration with spice, so I'm trying cardamom instead. I like the taste of it in Indian restaurant food, so I'm hoping it will work well in this soup. My initial taste of the broth in progress was promising.

When the veggies were tender (the carrots were the last to be done), I removed the bay leaves and pureed the soup. I used an immersion blender that I borrowed from my landlady, right in the boiling pot on the stove. If you try this, be careful! I did not injure myself, but I could see it happening, especially if I hadn't been wearing long sleeves.

After the soup was pureed, it immediately thickened. I added water and then fortified it with 1/2 cup of quinoa. This will give the soup a bit of protein. The quinoa was cooked after about 20 minutes.

The soup is sweet and comforting. We are expecting some cold weather in the coming week and this soup will be good way to stay warm on the inside. Oh, and the cardamom worked.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Full Spectrum Chili

Saturday is usually my day to make soup for Friends at Bulls Head Meeting, but yesterday, I was in New York City for the memorial meeting of a member of the meeting, Adam Pinsker. As a result, I didn't get home in time to make the soup. Fortunately, many other Bulls Head Friends were also present and they were very understanding.

This week, the weather here in the Hudson Valley has started to get wintery. Although we haven't had snow yet, as some other parts of the U.S. has, it has been cold enough to bring me into a mood for chili.

The soups I've been writing about on this blog have not been spicy so far because I've been cooking for a variety of palettes, but when I cook for myself it's all about the heat. I'm serious about my love of peppery heat and if it doesn't have burn, for me, it's not much worth eating. Making chili is a chance to really indulge my love of hotness.

I've done a bit of observation about hot food in myself and I've checked them out with friends. There is a lot more subtly to the experience of heat than simply the Scoville rating. It seems that different kinds of hot food effect different areas of the mouth. I feel jalapenos and other hot green chilies right in the front of my mouth, including the lips and the tip of the tongue. The red, ripe chilies such as cayenne and many used in Chinese foods are felt primarily in the back of the throat and seem to have a delayed and accumulating effect. Yellow banana peppers and those pickled in vinegar, I feel right in the middle of the tongue. Horseradish, fresh radishes, mustards, and wasabi hurt so good in the sinus cavities. I feel black pepper in the top of my palette and the back of my throat.

What I've noticed in dining with friends is that individual people seem to be more sensitive in different places to different kinds of heat. One friend who can barely tolerate paprika can dowse her sushi with wasabi. I, who can tolerate extreme levels of heat with red and yellow chilies, am only moderately bad-ass when it comes to green Serrano chilies.

What I aim for when I make chili is to tickle the heat sensors, no matter where you are most sensitive. So, I use green jalepenos, red cayenne, ground black pepper, hot yellow banana peppers, and wasabi powder to cover ALL the bases. I don't want anyone to feel left out from feeling the heat. Hence the name: Full Spectrum Chili.

One more thing before I get into the actually making of the chili. It's about heat, but it's not ONLY about heat. It has to taste good too.

Here's how I make it:

I heat a bit of olive oil in the bottom of my soup pot. Then I add 2 large cloves of chopped garlic, a large chopped onion and a pound of lean ground turkey. While it's browning, I break the meat up with my cooking paddle and cut up a large green bell pepper (see, not everything is hot). When the meat is cooked, I throw in the pepper. Next I pour in a large (28 oz) can of whole tomatoes with the juice. I used canned products in this pot of chili because it's winter and that's what's available. If fresh is available, I would use it. I break the tomatoes up coarsely with my cooking paddle and then add a large (28 oz) can of diced tomatoes and an 8 oz can of chopped green chili peppers, both with their juice and an 8 oz can of tomato sauce. These chilis are not hot, but add a wonderful rich flavor that complements the green bell peppers well. I drain and rinse 2 15.5 oz cans of red kidney beans and add them. If the resulting mixture seems too thick, I will add a bit of tomato juice or water at this stage, know that it will thicken more as it cooks.

The fun part comes with seasoning the chili. I don't measure anything, but throw these things in and taste often, knowing that the flavors will improve as they have time to mingle. The tasting is mostly to make sure it result is hot enough, but not too hot and that I haven't forgotten anything.
Here's what goes in:
  • A couple of liberal dashes of Worcestershire sauce.
  • A generous couple of tablespoons of ground cumin. This is essential for deliciousness.
  • About the same quantity of chili powder.
  • Ground or crushed oregano.
  • 2 or 3 chopped fresh jalapenos or equivalent preserved green hot peppers. Use the seed and insides if you really like heat.
  • One or more of these: crushed red pepper, ground cayenne, Tabasco sauce, or Sriracha sauce (also known affectionately as 'Rooster sauce').
  • A good handful of pickled hot yellow banana peppers, chopped, with a shot of juice.
  • A hit of dry wasabi powder.
  • About 2 Tbs granulated white sugar.
  • A couple really generous shakes of black pepper.
  • Adobo seasoning. I use this instead of salt because it tastes better.
  • A couple of spoonfuls of recaito base. You could add fresh chopped cilantro after cooking instead.
I cook this over low heat to give the flavors a chance to mingle. It's usually ready to eat in about an hour. I make a lot so I will have it for days. This is one of those foods that's better the next day. It's great with corn muffins.