Monday, September 30, 2013

Baked Tofu with Peanut Sauce

Baked Tofu with Peanut Sauce and a side of Hot and Sour Mushroom Stir fry

This is a very quick dish or you can do some steps ahead and end up with something very different. Both are really tasty. Just different.

If you start with frozen and pressed tofu, the tofu will cook up very firm, making it excellent for putting in vegetarian spring rolls or using in stir fries. If you start with tofu that is fresh from the carton, it will be saucier - the water that you would have pressed out will combine with the peanut butter mixture and make a sauce. It's good over plain rice or noodles either way.

Baked Tofu with Peanut Sauce
(serves 4, costs $2.50)

1 carton of firm tofu, 14 to 16 oz.
3 Tablespoons smooth peanut butter
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
1 clove garlic, minced
1 pinch of cayenne
1 Tablespoon soy sauce, regular or low-sodium

Drain the tofu and slice it into 6-8 slices, about ¾" thick. You have a few choices at this point:

Lots of time: Freeze tofu, thaw, then lay on a baking rack between paper towels over a dish to catch any drips. Cover with a baking sheet and weight down with a couple of heavy cans to press out even more moisture. Let drain for 30 minutes.

Little time but you planned ahead: Freeze the tofu and then thaw.

No time: Pat dry.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Combine the remaining ingredients in a small bowl. Spray a baking pan with nonstick cooking spray. Pour the sauce into the pan. Place the tofu on top and turn to cover both sides with sauce. Bake for 10 minutes. Turn over tofu and bake for another 8-10 minutes until sauce is bubbly and hot.

This can also be made in the microwave, which is even faster. Make sure to use a microwaveable baking dish and cook it for 3 minutes on each side.

Note: You can slice and freeze the tofu in advance. I keep some frozen tofu in the freezer so I can make a chewy tofu dish quickly.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Teriyaki Sauce

At some point, a bottle of commercial Teriyaki sauce showed up in my fridge. I have no idea how it got there. Given the list of ingredients (below), I can't imagine ever buying it.

Naturally brewed soy sauce (water, wheat, soybeans, salt), wine, high fructose corn syrup, water, vinegar, salt, spices, onion powder, succinic acid, garlic powder, sodium benzoate (a preservative).

I do find it somewhat odd that they say "naturally brewed soy sauce" while also adding cheap sugar, a mysterious acid, and a preservative. I guess that "naturally brewed" part is supposed to balance out the other stuff. To be fair, succinic acid is not unnatural. It's an intermediate product in the primary energy pathway in every cell and produced during sugar fermentation. But, it is interesting to read that it is also a precursor for some speciality polyesters and was originally derived from amber (that fossilized pine sap with trapped insects). Salt, which appears twice as an ingredient, may be natural too but there is an awful lot of it in commercial Teriyaki sauce.

Why wouldn't I buy this? Because it's so easy to make at home. The results are far superior and you can tweak it to make it your way. Don't like garlic? Leave it out. Really like ginger? Add more.

Teriyaki sauce can be used as a marinade, a basting sauce, and a condiment. If you use it for a marinade, discard it after marinating because it will be contaminated by the raw meat. Use fresh sauce to baste the meat when the food is about 10 minutes away from finished. It has sugar in it and will burn if cooked for too long. Then use some more as a dipping sauce.

A single recipe is enough to marinate about 1 - 1½ pound of meat, so double it if you want to use it for basting and dipping too. A sturdy zip-topped bag is a great container for marinating. Put in the meat, pour in the marinade, squish it around, and pop in the fridge. I like to put the bag in a bowl, just in case the bag springs a leak.

Teriyaki Sauce
(makes ½ cup, costs 80¢)

¼ cup Low Sodium Soy Sauce
2 Tbl Sake Or Dry Sherry
2 Tbl Firmly Packed Brown Sugar
2 Tbl Rice Vinegar (natural or seasoned)
2 cloves Garlicminced or pressed
1 tsp Grated Fresh Ginger
¼ tsp Red Pepper Flakes (optional) 
Mix well to dissolve sugar. Use as a sauce or a marinade. Will keep for a week in the fridge.

Marinate beef for 8-24 hours. Marinate pork or chicken for 1-4 hours.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Kimchee Quesadilla

My other blog, World on a Platter, has a pretty simple recipe up today: Kimchee Quesadilla. The toughest part of the recipe is finding the kimchee, which isn't so hard these days. Head over there and check it out.

Kimchee Quesadilla - an easy, multicultural recipe if you like spicy food.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Well-Dressed Salad

On the left, oil and vinegar. On the right, an emulsion.
I usually make a simple green salad for our classes. It's easy. It's sophisticated because it's...well dressed. :-) Vinaigrette is so useful that everyone should know how to make it. Unlike salad dressings in the bottle, it contains very few ingredients. It's simple to make too. Though chefs (and restaurant reviewers) make a big deal about broken vinaigrette, this isn't some kind of kitchen disaster for most of us. In fact, most of the time when I make a salad, I sprinkle on a little bit of vinegar, salt, pepper, and oil. Give it a toss. Done!

If you want to make a real vinaigrette, it's not much harder. It does take a little bit of patience. Or a blender. Wand or immersion blenders work particularly well for this. If you are making a small amount, enough for 2 servings, you'll need to do it the old-fashioned way, by hand, with a whisk.

We all know that oil and vinegar don't mix and the trick to vinaigrette is getting those two components to stay together. You can create an unstable emulsion with careful mixing but it won't hold together for very long. Enter mustard. Classically, it's Dijon mustard. It's an emulsifier, which means it gets oil and vinegar to stay together through some chemistry you don't need to understand (if you want to understand it, here's the link to Wikipedia's page on emulsion). Just know that it works.

The basic proportions are 1 teaspoon of mustard to 1 Tablespoon vinegar to 3-4 Tablespoons of oil. If you can remember this, you can always make salad dressing.

The method is as follows:
  • Dissolve the mustard in the vinegar. 
  • Start adding the oil a very little bit at a time, whisking as you add. If you add the oil too quickly, you may never get an emulsion to form with a whisk. In a blender, you don't have to be quite as careful because those quickly spinning blades mix together the oil and vinegar far more efficiently. If whisking, start adding the oil drop by drop. 
  • Once your emulsion forms, you can add the oil more quickly. You'll know the emulsion has formed because the you won't have two different liquids that separate but one creamy, cloudy liquid.
  • Season with salt and pepper. You can also add some fresh herbs now such as chopped parsley or basil.
How much dressing do you need for your salad? This depends on taste. I do not like my lettuce swimming in dressing so I go rather light, 1 teaspoon for a small salad and 2 Tablespoon for a entree-sized salad. You can drizzle it on and toss, but I like Bobby Flay's method the best. You drizzle the dressing over the sides of a bowl and then toss the greens against the sides of the bowl to coat the leaves with the dressing. You don't need much dressing and no part of the lettuce gets soaked.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Chocolate Dipped Strawberries

This was dessert for my most recent cooking class. It doesn't get much easier than this when it comes to dessert. Since this is all about the strawberries and the chocolate, get ripe, fragrant strawberries and a good quality chocolate (milk, semisweet, or bittersweet depending on your preference). Most recipes recommend using long-stemmed strawberries because you can hold the berries by the stem to dip them. This isn't necessary. Stick a fork into the stem end and dip them to cover them until just below the stem end. Then gently push the berries off the fork from the stem end. Or do like my students: use your fingers and enjoy licking the chocolate off afterward!

Chocolate Dipped Strawberries
(covers about 1 dozen medium strawberries)

½ pound medium strawberries
½ cup chocolate chips or chocolate bar, chopped finely

Wash strawberries and dry thoroughly. This is important for getting the chocolate to hold on to the berries.

Line a small cookie sheet with aluminum foil or waxed paper.

Place the chocolate chips in a medium microwaveable bowl. Microwave at 50% power for 1 minute. Stir. Microwave for another 1 minute, again at 50% power. Stir again. Microwave at 50% power for another 30-60 seconds until chocolate is liquid. You don't want to cook it too long because chocolate will burn.

Immediately dip the berries into the liquid chocolate and lay out on the foil lined sheet. When you've finished all the berries, place them in the refrigerator to chill for about 30 minutes or until chocolate is set. If you can wait that long...

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Start of another year of classes!

On Wednesday, I'll be back in front of students at CU, teaching them basic cooking skills (and a few cooking tricks, too). They have requested risotto, which isn't what I consider *basic* cooking. But, it's not really hard either. We'll be cooking two recipes: Risotto with Chickpeas, Sun-dried Tomatoes, and Greens which has already appeared on the blog and this recipe for Shrimp and Mushroom Risotto.

Risotto takes attention and lots of stirring. It's not particularly challenging aside from paying attention to what's on your stove for about 30 minutes. It's more expensive than white rice, but not so expensive. I found Italian risotto for $2.25/pound which isn't bad at all. Risotto is creamy and rich without being full of fat. The starch in this short-grain rice dissolves out of the rice grains with all that stirring, making a "creamy" mouth feel whether or not you add lots of butter or cream. A little bit of fat is added for flavor but you don't need it for richness. It's a bit of culinary magic!

Risotto is a great place to use up leftovers: add some vegetables or cooked meat at the end. Add a little cheese. Add some cooked beans. Mushrooms. Risotto is a neutral background that backs up all sorts of delicious lead singers. Experiment!

The shrimp in this recipe is cut into ½ inch pieces, so feel free to use whatever size of raw shrimp is cheapest at the market. There are folks who instantly dismiss any  Italian recipe that combines cheese and seafood. This is is a regional thing - depending on where you are, they will either revile or adore cheese combined with seafood. I'm not from anywhere in Italy, so I'm glad to be agnostic in this debate.

Shrimp and Mushroom Risotto
(makes 6 servings)

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Nuts and Nut Oils: Green Beans with Almonds

Nut oils are very expensive. They are also perishable, not nearly as shelf-stable as refined oils. That's because nut oils are simply pressed, not treated with solvents and cleaned up before bottling. And, it's why they taste so good, retaining the flavors of the nut. They make a divine vinaigrette. Not everyone wants (or can afford) to spend $8 on a small bottle of oil. Know what? You can use nuts. They taste like nuts too. They are significantly cheaper than nut oil and more nutritious because they contain fiber, protein, and micronutrients. They are lower in calories than nut oils. Oils have 120 calories per Tablespoon. Nuts vary, but 2 Tablespoons of sliced almonds contain 66 calories. That's a pretty good bang for you flavor buck.

Want your salad to taste like almonds? Throw in some sliced almonds. Not only will your salad taste like almonds, it will have some great crunch too.

Green beans amandine is a classic French vegetable dish. This is a quick version of that dish. You cook some green beans, sauté the nuts in a tiny bit of oil or butter, then toss the beans with the sliced almonds. Now, isn't that simple? Impress your friends by called it green beans amandine. They don't need to know.

Here's more information on cooking fresh green beans.

Green Bean with Almonds (Amandine)
(serves 4, costs $1.50 to $2, depending on price of green beans locally)

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Knife Sharpeners

In the past, I've recommended that knives be professionally sharpened. Until fairly recently, getting a good edge with inexpensive home sharpeners was next to impossible. You can get a great edge with any number of expensive sharpeners (tri-stones and Chef's Choice brand electric sharpeners, for example). Have the inexpensive ones improved enough to recommend them?