Tag Archives: main course

Further Experiments in Tofu: Now With 100% More Pho!

20 Aug

vegetarian pho with tofuA few months ago I wrote about my very first foray into tofu. And…that was pretty much the last one. Asian cuisine is one genre in which I’m not particularly confident. Part of it’s just familiarity: I grew up in a smallish town, and I didn’t have regular access to anything other than ultra-Americanized Chinese food until I left for college, which led to several situations like this:

Cosmopolitan Friend: “Hey, I heard this place has the best pad thai—want to check it out? I have been craving pad thai for weeks!”

What I said: “Definitely! Pad thai, yum!”

What I thought: “Oh my god I hope I like pad thai.”

Turns out I do like pad thai and all other sorts of things I ordered blindly during my first months at school. I never really got around to making Asian food at home though, aside from a few half-hearted attempts at tossing diced chicken with hoisin sauce and calling it a day. I was put off partly by the sheer number of ingredients I’d have to start stocking in my pantry and partly by the fact that I can’t walk in any direction for more than five minutes without hitting a Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, or Chinese restaurant. At one point my husband and I were such regulars at a Korean takeout place that the owners would ring up our order the second we walked in the door.

Then, after weeks and weeks of record-setting, tomato-killing heat, Chicago got a wet, gloomy, chilly day. I was so thrown off by the absence of sun and warmth that I started thinking I had a summer cold, or a headache, or some other ailment that meant I needed to go back to bed. Incidentally, another thing that happened when I moved away was that I started hearing people talk about pho the way I would have talked about chicken soup as the cure for what ails you. I also heard people describing the innumerable varieties of pho: apparently the more unusual the cut of meat in the soup (tripe, anyone?) the better. The consensus seemed to be that the pho adapted for “western” tastes (white meat chicken, even vegetarian) wasn’t particularly good, even sort of an afterthought at the best pho places. But it was cold and wet and I was afraid the sun would never shine again and I wanted hot, spicy soup. So I consulted my new kitchen oracle. Success! And the addition of tofu croutons replaced the protein sacrificed for a vegetarian version.

Anyway, the sun did shine the next day, but now I’m prepared should it try any of that funny business again.

Vegetarian Pho with Tofu Croutons
Adapted from Mark Bittman’s Faux Pho

for the croutons

  • 1 pound firm tofu, patted dry and cut into ½-inch cubes
  • 1-2 tablespoons coconut oil or similar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment.

Gently toss the tofu cubes with the oil until well coated. Season with salt, pepper, or other spice blends if you like. (I left mine plain just to see how well they’d go with the pho.)

Bake for 1 hour. The cubes will shrink and become a nice golden brown. Use immediately or cover tightly and refrigerate for up to 3 days.

for the soup

  • 12 ounces rice noodles
  • 2 tablespoons coconut oil or similar
  • 2 tablespoons minced garlic
  • 2 tablespoon minced ginger
  • ½ teaspoon ground anise or coriander
  • ½ teaspoon ground cloves, cinnamon, or nutmeg
  • -or- ¼ teaspoon each cinnamon, clove, cumin, and cardamom (for those of us without coriander, like me)
  • ½ teaspoon red chile flakes
  • 6 cups water or low-sodium vegetable stock (perhaps reduce the soy sauce if you use stock)
  • ½ cup soy sauce
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 pound mixed fresh vegetables: I used a combination of bok choy, shitake mushrooms, and snow peas, along with a bit of kelp and dulse (prepared according to package directions). Carrots, cabbage, onions, and other greens also make regular pho appearances.

for the garnish

  • fresh basil leaves
  • fresh chile slices
  • red chile flakes
  • lime wedges
  • sliced scallions
  • bean sprouts
  • tofu croutons

Prepare the noodles according to package directions. Rinse well in cold water and set aside.

In a deep saucepan or dutch oven, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and ginger and cook until soft, about one minute. Add the spices and stir until fragrant, about another minute. Add the water, soy sauce, and bay leaves. Bring to a boil, then cover and reduce to a simmer while you prepare the vegetables and garnishes.

When you have all the garnishes prepared and set aside, add the pound of mixed vegetables to the broth and simmer until just tender. Remove from heat and stir in the noodles.

Serve in big bowls and let everyone garnish as they like.

vegetarian pho with tofu croutons

So You Forgot to Eat at Your Wedding? Have Some Quiche.

9 Aug

One of my favorite parts of our wedding last summer was the backyard brunch my parents hosted the next morning. It was nice to have the chance to catch up with everyone in a more relaxed setting and while not wearing several pounds of lace. And there was food. Glorious, glorious food. See, I had made Bride Mistake #1, the mistake I never should have made, because it had been drilled into my head by every wedding magazine and every friend who had been through it: I didn’t eat at the reception. We had a cocktail reception, so there was no designated time for me to grab a plate and sit down. I distinctly remember my matron of honor offering to fix me a plate and I distinctly remember saying, “Oh, no, don’t worry, I’ll get my own in a few minutes.” Midnight found me eating stale Oreos from a vending machine in my wedding gown while my much smarter and not hungry husband looked on and shook his head.

I tried my best, then, to do the brunch justice. I parked myself at a table and did not budge until I had made up for the reception and then some. But try as I might, my mother was left with six or seven quiches–spinach and mushroom, cheddar and bacon, ham…Lucky for us, the quiches froze well. The next day my parents drove us, our wedding gifts, and several quiches back to Chicago.

We had two days in the city before we were scheduled to leave for the honeymoon. During those two days we lived off quiche, wedding cake, extra bottles of champagne (did I mention there was extra champagne too?), and trippy Nicholas Cage movies.

So in honor of our first anniversary, I decided to try my hand at quiche. My recipe is basically a mashup of advice from Michael Ruhlman (caramelize your onions! shallots!), Julia Child (naturally), and my own kitchen. Technically, my kitchen did not provide advice, but I am becoming more and more averse to shopping trips for a single ingredient. Hence the 2% milk rather than cream, and a parmesan topping rather than a softer cheese incorporated throughout. And really, this is comfort food, which should be simple and flexible. But if you feel the need to use French cuisine to make you doubt yourself and the very world we live in,  try one of these. Which I, arrogant little thing, did for French class when I was in high school. It went…it went.

But live and learn, and celebrate with quiche instead.

Rustic* Caramelized Onion & Mushroom Quiche

  • 1 pastry crust , rolled out large enough to accommodate the high sides of a springform pan
  • 2 yellow onions, sliced
  • a few tablespoons of butter
  • salt
  • 1 pound mushrooms, sliced (cremini or button)
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 3 oz ounces baby spinach
  • 2 cups milk (2%, whole, or cream–pick your poison)
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 tablespoon fresh thyme
  • 1 ounce grated parmesan

the crust:

Unlike pies and cheesecakes, you can’t get away with not parbaking the crust, so preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Foil the seam of your springform pan and place a parchment circle in the center. Gently place the rolled crust over your springform and press it to the bottom and sides of the pan. Trim any excess from the top edge. Place the pan on a rimmed baking sheet.

Now, if you’ve got pie weights, you’re smarter than me. I ended up making a contraption that mostly worked. I wrapped a round cake pan slightly smaller than my springform with folded strips of aluminum foil until the sides touched the crust. There were a few puffy spots in the parbaked crust where the foil wasn’t perfectly flush with the sides, but that didn’t seem to hurt the final product.

Bake the crust for 30 minutes; set aside while you prepare the filling. Turn the oven down to 375 degrees.

the filling:

First, the onions: Melt a little butter in a dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion slices, toss to coat, add a little salt, and put the lid on. Keep covered for 10 minutes–this will give the onions time to steam themselves and get the caramelization process rolling.

After 10 minutes, remove the lid and turn the heat down to low-ish (a 2 on my gas range, not the “low” setting). The darker the onion, the sweeter and more complex the flavor, so give yourself enough time to get the onions where you want them. I kept mine on for about 35 minutes, stirring more frequently toward the end to prevent sticking. If you have some on hand, deglaze with a splash of red wine. Balsamic vinegar works well too.

When your onions are done, remove them from the pot and set aside. Melt another tablespoon of butter. Add the mushrooms and shallots and a little salt and cook over medium heat until the mushrooms have reduced by at least half–they should be soft, but not floppy. One round of mushrooms cooperated very nicely, but another batch produced much more liquid than usual. I couldn’t cook it off without overcooking the mushrooms, so I simply ladled it out. You don’t want too much liquid going in with your filling.

While the mushrooms are cooking, whisk together the milk, eggs, a little salt, and thyme in a bowl or large (at least 4 cup) measuring cup.

When the mushrooms are done, turn the heat off and put the onions back in the pot. Add the spinach and mix everything together. The spinach will wilt a bit. Spread the vegetables evenly in the parbaked crust. Pour the eggs/milk over the filling. (Note: depending on how much your onions and mushrooms cooked down, you might not be able to fit all the egg/milk mixture; the crust should accommodate at minimum 3 1/2 cups, though.) Sprinkle the parmesan over the top.

Bake at 375 for 30-35 minutes, or until the quiche is puffed and browned. Let it rest for at least 20 minutes before removing the springform and slicing. (Don’t worry, it will still be warm to serve.)

* Why am I calling it “rustic”? Because I can. And “rustic” things seem to be in vogue, so maybe it will improve my SEO. But mostly because it’s not one of those pretty quiches in a fluted tart pan. Which have their place, of course, and I’m sure this recipe could be halved to accommodate such a device.

Lasagna, Sticky Green Style

1 Aug

I make no claims of being able to make a proper lasagna. How could I, when you can order the dish in five different restaurants and get five very different lasagnas? Ricotta, no ricotta, béchamel, no béchamel, beef only, beef and pork ragù, marinara…Every family with a real stake in the debate (my own is ambivalent, not being anywhere close to having any Italian relatives) has a gold standard against which all other lasagnas are held. At minimum there is some kind of tomato sauce, some kind of dairy, and long, wide noodles. I am not interested in settling the Great Lasagna Debate or offending anyone’s grandmother. What I am interested in is meals that are hot, filling, make good leftovers, and are meatless.

That last requirement gave me a bit of trouble. My favorite meal–nay, my favorite taste–is my mom’s spaghetti sauce. I would eat it every day and smell like garlic forever if I knew it wouldn’t negatively affect my social life. It’s the sauce she uses for lasagna, too, and thus would have been my first choice for any lasagna I would make. But I went and banned meat from my kitchen, so…

One feature of my mom’s sauce is sliced mushrooms. Mushrooms have a rich, earthy depth to them, as well as a texture that lends itself well to lasagna. But without the benefit of the real meaty-ness of…meat…to tie everything together, I was worried that I’d end up with tomato sauce with mushrooms, not the singular, cohesive flavor of my mom’s sauce. She cooks her sauce for a long time, at least three or four hours, so what if I cooked mine for a really long time? I decided that a slow cooker was the way to go, and I allotted a minimum of six hours to my sauce.

My husband is pretty lukewarm on pasta. He likes the occasional bowl of pasta or slice of lasagna, but he doesn’t dream of fresh pappardelle like I do. Credit for the inclusion of eggplant slices and spinach goes to him, which he rightly identified as both a means to cut down on the pasta and give it a nutritional kick.

You’ll also notice that my lasagna is ricotta free. My cheese threshold is pretty low, and most lasagnas simply have too much for my taste. There’s plenty of mozzarella and parmesan though, and I really don’t think final product loses anything for it.

Eggplant Lasagna with Slow-Cooked Mushroom Sauce

for the sauce:

  • 2 pounds button mushrooms, sliced 1/4″ thick
  • olive oil
  • 2 cans diced tomatoes (no salt added variety if you can find it)
  • 2 cans tomato sauce
  • 1 can tomato paste
  • 2 cups water
  • 5 cloves garlic, crushed*
  • 2 tablespoons dried** oregano
  • 1 tablespoon dried basil
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1 teaspoon dried rosemary
  • kosher salt
  • fresh ground black pepper

Place the mushrooms in the slow cooker and drizzle with about a tablespoon of olive oil. Toss to coat. Add the diced tomatoes, tomato sauce, tomato paste, water, and crushed garlic.

If you’ve got a mortar and pestle, combine the herbs and crush them a bit. If not, put them in the palm of your hand and rub your hands together over the slow cooker. Salt and pepper to taste; the amount of salt will depend on whether you used low-salt canned goods, and I usually use five or six grinds of pepper. You’ll want to taste the sauce as it cooks and adjust as you see fit.

I put the slow cooker on high for at least two hours and then turn it to low for another three or four. If you’re going to be away from the kitchen, I’d put it at low for the duration.

to assemble:

  • 1 large or 2 small eggplants, sliced into 1/4″ thick half-moons, and salted and drained***
  • 4 cups baby spinach
  • 8 ounces fresh mozzarella, cut into little cubes (Of course you can grate it, but have you ever tried grating fresh mozzarella? It’s a disaster.)
  • 3/4 cup grated parmesan
  • 8 ounces lasagna noodles (no-boil has worked fine for me)

Here’s the order I work in:

1. pasta
2. sauce
3. mozzarella
4. eggplant
5. spinach
6. parmesan
1. pasta

I usually end up doing three rounds, with the final layer always sauce topped with cheese.

Bake at 350 degrees for 45-50 minutes. Let stand for 15 minute before serving.


Wait, where’s the photo of this deliciousness?

There is no photo, for several reasons. My phone makes a better phone than a camera, and the lighting sucked that day, and I was really hungry and I didn’t want to bother. But I promise you that there was a bubbly, golden lasagna in my kitchen last week.

So I will leave you with some photos of the progress my porch garden is making. I have three huge, lovely tomato plants with tons of beautiful blossoms, and this is the only tomato I have to show for it. It seems my plants are experiencing something called “blossom drop,” which is a pollination problem caused by excessive heat. And excessive heat we have had. I won’t be making salsa anytime soon, but I can console myself with fussing over this little guy.

a blossom that is not likely to become a fruit

I don’t have much hope for the cucumbers either, but the tendrils are so neat.


* Since garlic’s flavor does depend somewhat on the way it’s prepped, crushed gives you the strongest flavor. I, however, use a garlic press, since that’s the official way. But I know that garlic presses are verboten by many serious cooks.

** I feel fresh herbs would be a waste here since they would get cooked to death. A bit of fresh oregano and thyme just before you turn off the cooker would not be a bad idea though.

*** I place the slices in a large colander over a big bowl, salt the slices, cover them with plastic wrap, and then put a heavy-ish saucepan on top. Allow about an hour for draining.

Potato Salad of Peace

28 Jul

I love vinegar. Love it. It’s hereditary: family lore has my uncles fighting over who got to drink the pickle juice when the last dill was gone. So naturally the German potato salad my maternal grandmother made for every potluck and family dinner since forever will curl your hair. My paternal grandmother took it a little easier and was liberal with the sugar. My mother and I come down somewhere in the middle, and I expect my sister will do the same. But we all agree that mayonnaise, miracle whip, and their ilk have no business near the potatoes.

We vinegar-loving women, however, had the misfortune to marry men whose potato preferences are strictly of the mayo-based variety, or, in my case, run to no potato salad at all. This makes for some very tense potlucks and cookouts, and, depending on whose turf the potatoes are on, someone is either unhappily eating the wrong salad or eating none at all.

So I ditched the vinegar and the mayo (I also aced myself by not cooking bacon anymore) and came up with something that has the potential to please any of the vinegar- and/or mayo-haters in your family. The black beans can make it a meal (protein!), but if you want the focus on the potatoes, leaving the beans out and using 2 pounds of potatoes would be equally tasty.

Summer Roasted Potato Salad

  • 1 1/2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, or a similar variety, quartered
  • 2 ears sweet corn, unshucked
  • 3 scallions, thinly sliced
  • 1 can black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 chipotle chile in adobo, finely minced
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • olive oil
  • 1 lime
  • salt

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a baking dish large enough to let the potatoes sit in a single layer, toss the quarters with a little olive oil and salt. You’ll bake the potatoes for 1 hour, but after 30 minutes put the unshucked corn in the oven. You don’t have to do anything to it–the corn will sort of steam itself in the husks. (Hearing about this method was magical–nothing worse than standing in front of a big pot of boiling water in the summer.)

In a large bowl, combine the black beans, scallions, chile, cumin, about two tablespoons of olive oil, a good pinch of salt, and the juice from the lime.

When the corn is cool enough to handle, shuck and remove the silk. Place the wide end of the cob on a cutting board, and with a sharp knife gently slice downward to remove the kernels. Combine the kernels and the roasted potatoes with the beans. Season to taste with salt, extra lime, or a little more oil if the potatoes seem dry.

Serve warm, at room temp, or cold, and make everyone happy.

Cold Lunch For a Hot Day

7 Jul

There were several reasons why this recipe seemed like a Very Good Idea for lunch today:

  • Chicago has been flirting with 100 degree temperatures this week.
  • Turning on any heat-producing device (stove, oven, hairdryer…) seemed like a Very Bad Idea.
  • Cold lunches usually = sandwiches, and I don’t really care for sandwiches. (I know.)
  • I should eat more greens.
  • My basil needed pruning.

And lo, all my problems solved in a single recipe!

Cannellini Bean Salad with Spinach and Lemon-Basil Dressing
adapted from Heather’s Dish

I made some adjustments to fit my preferences and scaled down since I was the only one eating. Multiply as needed to serve as a main dish or as a side for a group.

  • 1 can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed well
  • 1 scallion, thinly sliced
  • 3 good handfuls of baby spinach
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon dijon mustard
  • juice & zest of 1 lemon
  • 2 small or 1 large clove garlic, minced or microplaned
  • 1/2 cup loosely packed basil leaves
  • kosher or sea salt to taste

Combine the beans and the sliced scallion in a bowl.

In a blender, pulse the spinach a few times until it’s coarsely chopped. No need to worry if some whole leaves remain. Add the spinach to the bowl with the beans.

Put the rest of the ingredients in the blender and pulse until the dressing has emulsified. Pour over the beans and spinach, mix gently, and salt to taste. Eat, and be very, very glad you decided not to use the stove.

Chili For a Hot Day

15 Jun

Part II of the June Conscious Box review is on its way, but first, a story.

It’s been a long road to this chili. Not a difficult road, but a long, tasty road. You could say this is now my official chili recipe. For the first few years I lived away from home, my chili was exactly like my mom’s. Then I started experimenting with shredded chicken breast instead of ground beef. And then I started doing crazy things like adding onions and jalapenos and diced tomatoes, all of which would have caused a major revolt (led by me) in our household had my mom tried it. Finally, I ditched the chicken in favor of an all-bean recipe.

But that made for a lot of beans. A lot. And after a few rounds, my husband suggested we figure out a less bean-y version. Replacing part of the beans with carrots seemed like a good solution, but I didn’t want to use so many that it was more carrot stew than chili. Then I remembered we had a vacuum-sealed pouch of cooked lentils from Trader Joe’s hanging around. I think my husband intended them for a lentil burger experiment, but the chili was a great success and my fridge theft was thus forgiven. We couldn’t find the lentils again (this is the trouble with Trader Joe’s) so I switched to dried, which is cheaper and requires no extra effort for this particular recipe.

The best part? Using a slow cooker means a satisfying dinner and tons of leftovers without having the stove and/or oven on when it’s 85 degrees.

And that, friends, is the absolutely fascinating story of lentil chili.

Lentil & Bean Slow Cooker Chili

I should mention that I have a 7-quart slow cooker and a husband who loves leftovers, so this makes a giant batch of chili.


  • 2 cups brown lentils, rinsed
  • 2 cans kidney beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 can tomato sauce
  • 2 cans diced tomatoes*
  • 4 cups vegetable stock*
  • 1 large red onion, chopped
  • 1 pound carrots, peeled and sliced ¼ inch thick
  • 2 jalapeno peppers, cored, seeded, and diced
  • 5 heaping tablespoons regular chili powder (or hot, if that’s your thing–though I would probably use less)
  • 1 tablespoon ground guajillo chile**
  • 2 teaspoons cumin
  • 1 generous teaspoon red chile flakes (or more, to taste)
  • healthy pinch or two of kosher salt


Dump everything into your slow cooker. Give it a stir, set the cooker to low, and come back later. Later for us usually means between five and seven hours.

I often make a pot of whole wheat macaroni to go along with the chili. Chili mac was one of my favorites growing up, and it’s a great way to stretch the batch. To avoid mushy pasta, I keep the macaroni and chili separate until ready to serve rather than mixing it all together.


* I try my best to find the low-sodium versions when I’m buying canned goods like tomatoes and stock. If you can’t, you might want to swap the stock for water and be a little more liberal with the kosher salt. It’s the sodium in processed products that’s the problem—it’s nearly impossible for a home cook to salt something enough to produce the crazy percentages we see on product labels. I hate to sound all righteous and whatnot, but if spending an hour or two making vegetable stock is something you have time for, I have discovered it’s well worth it.
** Guajillo chiles are popular in Mexican cooking. It’s not a critical element of the recipe, but since I have it on hand I use it. Ground anchos or chipotles would be another option.

Southwestern Stuffed Sweet Potatoes

5 Jun

I know it’s June, which isn’t exactly sweet potato season. In my defense, I found this recipe weeks ago and it’s just been sitting on one of my Pinterest boards since then. All the ingredients are pantry staples for us too, which made for a quick and easy Sunday night dinner. For the original recipe (that is, without my “What do I actually have in the fridge?” tweaks) head over to Pinch of Yum.

Southwestern Stuffed Sweet Potatoes

  • 3 large or 5 small sweet potatoes, scrubbed
  • 1 cup corn kernels (fresh is ideal, defrosted frozen is just fine)
  • Mexican seasonings to taste. The original recipe was vague here; I used 1 teaspoon cumin and 1 teaspoon guajillo chile powder.
  • 1 can black beans, drained and rinsed well
  • 1 tablespoon olive or canola oil
  • 1/2 yellow onion, chopped
  • 1-2 jalepeno peppers, depending on how spicy you like things
  • salt to taste
  • 1/4 cup fresh mexican oregano or chives
  • 1/2 cup shredded cheese (cheddar, jack, or queso fresco if you can find it)
  • sour cream

In a 350 degree oven, bake the sweet potatoes for 45-60 minutes, until they’re pieced easily with a fork.

In a dry skillet, roast jalepenos over medium heat until they develop black spots. When they’re cool enough to handle, core, seed, and dice them.

Add the corn to that same skillet and sprinkle with your chosen seasonings. Roast the corn over medium high heat until it begins to brown. Mix the roasted corn and diced roasted peppers with the beans and set aside.

Heat the oil (can you guess where?) and sauté the onion until soft and translucent. Mix into the bowl with the other vegetables.

When the potatoes are cool enough to handle, slice them in half and scoop out the flesh, leaving the skins intact. Mash the potato and salt to taste. Stir in the corn/bean/pepper/onion mixture. Spoon the filling into the skins and sprinkle with shredded cheese. Pop the skins into the oven until the cheese is melted.

Top with the fresh herbs and a bit of sour cream.