Tag Archives: pasta

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

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.