Monday, 28 May 2012

Mango-Ginger Tofu

As you may know, ginger is one of my favorite ingredients ever. In stir-fries, marinades, vinaigrettes, teas, soda... even in pastries! Nothing equals that hot, bitter, tangy taste. When I see a recipe that features ginger as a star component, I am compelled to try! It's nice to know that on top of tasting good, it has the following therapeutic properties: it helps lower cholesterol, relieves anxiety, settles an upset stomach, diminishes nausea, boosts energy levels, fights the common cold and soothes sore throats. In other words, ginger kicks ass.

This recipe instantly made me think of my dad, who is bananas about ginger, lime juice and mangoes. The apple didn't fall far from the tree when it comes to our love for those three ingredients. I found it browsing the pages of "Vegan with a Vengeance" by Isa Chandra Moskowitz, and thought "Wow!".

Carnivores can definitely use the marinade for chicken, but try it with tofu at least once, and let it marinate overnight so it absorbs all the tasty goodness. Don't let the long ingredients list scare you: they are all easy to find and the combination is flawless. This is a perfect summer meal (yes, we are still technically in spring, but the weather is very summery), with it's refreshing mango and orange flavors; but the spices can make it a nostalgic dish to enjoy in January, to remind yourself that weather as sunny as this sauce will come back… eventually…

2 teaspoon peanut oil
3 cloves garlic
1/4 cup fresh ginger, coarsely chopped
1 fresh chile, seeded and chopped
2 large mangoes, peeled and coarsely chopped
1/4 cup pure maple syrup
1 cup white wine (or vegetable broth)
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 limes, juiced
1 cup orange juice (or a blend of mango and orange juice)
1/4 teaspoon allspice
Sea salt and ground pepper to taste

2 pounds extra-firm tofu, pressed and cut into large triangles
1 mango, sliced into long, thin slices
1 red bell pepper, seeded and cut into long, thin slices

Preheat a medium-size saucepan over moderate heat; combine oil, garlic, ginger and chile and sauté for 7 minutes, being careful not to burn the garlic. Add the chopped mango and sauté for another 5 minutes. Add the maple syrup and wine, cover and simmer for 35 minutes. Uncover and simmer for 5 more minutes. Add the vinegar, lime juice, orange juice, allspice, salt and pepper; let cool and transfer to a blender and purée until smooth (or use an immersion blender in the saucepan). Place the prepared tofu in the marinade in a sealable plastic bag or tightly lidded plastic container. Marinate in the fridge for at least an hour and up to overnight.

When ready to cook, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Reserve half the marinade. Lay the marinated tofu in a single layer in a large rimmed baking sheet or baking pan. Bake for 20 minutes. Flip over the tofu and add some marinade. Coat the peppers and the remaining mango in the reserved marinade and add to the pan. Bake for another 15 minutes. Heat the remaining marinade in a saucepan and put in a bowl so your guests can pour it over the tofu. Serve over jasmine rice and steamed vegetables.

If, like me, you prefer the texture of grilled tofu, you can cook your tofu triangles in the following fashion: preheat a grilling pan over medium heat, and in batches of 6 or 8 pieces (depending on the size of your pan), grill the tofu pieces 3 minutes on one side, then flip the pieces and grill for an additional 2 to 3 minutes. You can still use the bell pepper and grill it alongside your tofu, but sliced mango might be trickier, so if you plan on grilling, substitute the last mango for a yellow or orange bell pepper, to keep the lovely colors and give the dish an extra crunch. While everything is grilling, reheat the marinade in a small sauce pan over medium heat, and generously spoon over the plates before serving. This method also works well over a barbecue, if you are lucky enough to have room on your balcony for one.

You can also use this marinade as a sauce to prepare your tofu stir-fry style! Instead of marinating your tofu, press it and cut it into small cubes or triangles. Preheat a large wok over medium-high heat with a glug of peanut oil and fry your tofu and bell peppers, stirring constantly, for about 5 minutes, until the tofu is crispy outside. Pour your marinade in the wok, and stir to coat everything well. The sauce should heat up quickly; serve over jasmine rice with some steamed vegetables as soon as you notice it bubbling!

It makes a great light and healthy lunch, and tastes just as yummy reheated the next day! The fruity, spicy tropical taste of this dish is awesome with a good rosé wine.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Niçoise Salad

The nice weather is sticking around, and so is my insatiable appetite for fresh stuff! At the risk of being redundant, here is another salad recipe, but this one is way more bulky: a real meal-salad, the famous Niçoise! My coworker mentioned making some last week, and I have been craving it ever since. The Niçoise is a salad that became strangely fashionable in recent years, which amuses me very much, as it was originally meant as a cheap, filling salad. Just like when jeans (which used to be a strictly lower-class garments) ascended to haute couture, the working-class meal transcended to fine cuisine!

The recipe was first introduced to North America by none other than Julia Child, and some of the ingredients are still hotly debated by purists, particularly in the Nice region, where they don't like the addition of steamed potatoes (as this salad originally contained no cooked vegetables of any kind). Personally, it reminds me very much of puttanesca sauce, because a lot of the ingredients are preserves. In fashionable restaurants, the canned tuna is often replaced with fresh pan-seared tuna. Though very elegant, this luxurious twist on the original recipe seems a bit odd to me, as a salad made mostly of preserves ought to be a fairly inexpensive, yet elegant and nourishing meal. If you have the budget to afford fresh tuna, feel free to indulge, but there is nothing wrong with the canned stuff (as long as it's dolphin-safe, of course!).

A word about hard-boiled eggs: I know it can seem a bit scary if you've never hard-boiled an egg before. How do you know it's done? That's when a kitchen timer comes in very handy, because there are no external signs that the egg is done. Get a small sauce pan, fill it halfway with water, add a pinch of salt (this helps prevent the egg from cracking) and bring to a boil. When the water is boiling, dip your egg in the water with a spoon a couple of times (again, to prevent the abrupt temperature change-related cracks), then lower the egg so it is submerged. You may have to experiment a bit, but the general rule of thumb is that it takes 10 minutes to hard-boil a large egg. Take it out of the saucepan with a spoon, and when it's cool enough to handle, gently knock it with the back of that same spoon until the shell cracks, and peel it off.

Kill two birds with one stone and marathon-steam your potatoes and green beans! Get your steaming apparatus ready and steam the potatoes for 10 to 15 minutes (depending on the size), until they are easily pierced with a fork. Add the beans to the steamer and steam for 2 minutes, until they are bright green. Fill a bowl halfway with ice water while everything steams. As soon as the veggies are done, transfer them to the ice water bowl and let them cool while you get everything else ready.

Yes, I know, it's an awful lot of prep for a salad. But trust me, it's worth all the fussing!

Older recipes for Niçoise salad contain raw red bell pepper and anchovies, two things that I am not especially fond of even if they are prevalent in southern French cuisine, so my version omits them (I decided to replace anchovies with artichoke hearts), but I kept the spirit of the salad alive with tuna, green beans and black olives. At the risk of shocking purists, I decided to add some steamed baby potatoes. Just because I love potatoes.

8 cups Romaine lettuce, washed, drained and dried, chopped
12 cherry tomatoes, halved
1/2 pound green beans, steamed, stalks trimmed
1/2 pound red-skin baby potatoes, steamed and quartered
3 hard boiled eggs, sliced
1/2 cup Niçoise or Kalamata olives
1 can flaked white tuna, drained
1 can artichoke hearts, drained and quartered
Chopped parsley, for garnish

In French cuisine, presentation is almost as important as composition, and Niçoise is no exception. Of course, you can toss everything together in a big bowl (it's what I do most of the time if I am not entertaining), but to create an traditionally elegant plate like what you'd be served if you wandered in a fancy café, here is what you do! Create a bed of lettuce in 4 serving plates. Then divide the tomatoes, potatoes, eggs, artichoke and green beans between the plates, keeping the ingredients together (e.g. a small pile of tomatoes, a small pile of potatoes, etc.), scoop some tuna in the middle of the place and sprinkle with black olives. Sprinkle with the parsley and serve the dressing on the side so your guests can add it to their taste.

Obviously, it's not a vegetarian-friendly salad, but there is a vegan version "Appetite for Reduction" which, although highly inauthentic, makes a very decent substitution for veg-heads, or for people like my boyfriend, who simply don't like canned tuna. It's also a lighter version, because as yummy as it is, classic Niçoise salad is not exactly diet food. Try the following version if you are watching your waistline:

1 (16 ounce) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
2 tablespoons capers
1/2 pound baby red potatoes, steamed
1/2 pound green beans, stalks trimmed, steamed
1/2 small red onion, cut into thin strips
1/3 cup of Niçoise or Kalamata olives
8 cups chopped red leaf lettuce
1 cup cherry tomatoes
Fresh parsley and chopped chives, for garnish

Place the chickpeas in a mixing bowl, and mash them with a fork or small potato masher. There should be no whole chickpeas left, but it shouldn't be completely smooth either. Add the capers and 2 tablespoons of whichever dressing you decided to use (dressing recipes are just below). Mix well and set aside. Place the lettuce in wide bowls or plates. Place a handful each of potatoes and green beans in piles on the lettuce, along with a wedge of sliced onion and a handful of tomatoes. Place a scoop of the chickpea mixture in the center and top with the olives. Garnish with fresh herbs and serve the dressing on the side.

You could also use a ripe avocado, thinly sliced, to replace the eggs, instead of the red onion.

Here are a few great dressings that go well with this French classic. There require the use of a food processor; when I make dressings, I like to use the blender attachment of my little Cusinart Smart Stick immersion blender. That gizmo was worth every penny!

This one is from Nadia G.'s "Cookin' for Trouble", and I have to confess that it's my one of my favorite salad dressings. Ever. It's sweet, with just enough tang from the garlic and mustard, and if you use walnut oil, the nutty finish is to die for:

2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons honey
2 garlic cloves
1/3 cup cider vinegar
2/3 cup walnut (or olive) oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper

Combine the ingredients in a food processor and blend until smooth, thick and emulsified.

The following two are from the aforementioned "Appetite for Reduction".

Balsamic Vinaigrette:
1/4 cup cashews
2 tablespoons scallions, chopped
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon agave nectar
3/4 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Put the cashews in a food processor and pulse. Add the rest of the ingredients and blend for at least 5 minutes, using a rubber spatula to scrape down the sides often, until completely smooth. Transfer to a sealable container and refrigerate until ready to use.

Green Goddess Garlic Dressing:
2 to 3 garlic cloves, peeled
1/2 cup fresh chives
1/2 cup fresh parsley
2 tablespoons tahini
2 tablespoons nutritional yeast
1 tablespoon miso
1/3 cup water
2 tablespoons fresh squeezed lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon salt

Pulse the garlic, chives and parsley in a food processor until chopped up. Add the remaining ingredients and blend until smooth. Use a rubber spatula to scrape down the sides a few times. Transfer to a sealable container and refrigerate until ready to use. It will thicken a bit when chilled, so don't be temped to thin it with more water!

Whichever version you decided to make, Niçoise is really a full meal of a salad, and is a perfect lunch or light summer dinner. A crisp, slightly sweet white wine or rosé is de rigueur here; C'est La Vie would be my pick.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Garden Salad Season

I don't know when salads got such a bad rep as boring food, barely worth to be an entree or a side-dish. Nice weather having finally decided to warm up my neck of the woods, I get the urge for fresh crisp veggies to sink my teeth into, as I sit on my sun-basked balcony with a glass of wine. Can you tell I am looking forward to my vacation?

Salads never have to be boring or bland, so put away your prejudices that they are barely fit to feed rabbits. This recipe is a fresh garden salad my dad used to make all the time in summer. I give quantities, but really, he eyeballed almost everything. He insisted on cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil at all times. Thanks to him, I always use that liquid gold, and I am a better woman for it, both because it's amazing to cook with, but also because it's the healthiest cooking fat out there. Don't be afraid to shell out a few extra bucks for good oil: your arteries will thank you!

There are a few things to remember when you want to make a kick-ass salad. Fresh ingredients are the obvious key here, so hitting the farmer's market is a good idea. Try to use the veggies in your salad the day you buy them for extra-freshness! Rinse everything well with water and pat the excess water with a clean cloth. A salad spinner is great for all leafy greens, but if you don't have one, dry your lettuce leaves by laying them between paper towels for a few minutes.

Complementary flavors are a great combo for a good garden salad: try paring one sharp tasting veggie (red onion) with a sweeter one (cucumber). Also try blending textures for an interesting mouthful. Very importantly, resist the urge to overcrowd your salad bowl; five ingredients is enough to get a colorful and delicious bowl.

Here's a little trick I use when I have an especially busy week: I'll get all my salad ingredients and throw them together in a large plastic container, and mix them up. Whenever I have a meal, I simply take a few handfuls of salad and put them on my plate next to my main course. Yes, it compromises a bit of the freshness, but when you are on the run, cutting a few corners can be excused if it helps you eat your veggies.

I know that home-made dressings sound intimidating to some, but I dare you to read the label of a commercial salad dressing and understand half of the stuff listed there. The simple and healthy alternative is to get a few jam-jars, fill them with some spices, oils and juices, and give them a vigorous shake before serving! Or better yet, do what my father did, i.e. throw the dressing ingredients directly in the mixing bowl on top of the veggies and mixing it all up.

Dressing should never drown the salad, but rather, coat it lightly to bring out the flavors and freshness of the ingredients. Dose it carefully, and toss well before adding more. Don't be afraid to use your (clean) hands here: spread your fingers and play with your food! I promise it will taste better!

And now, here is my dad's good old garden salad:

8 cups Romaine lettuce, leaves trimmed and cleaned
1 English cucumber, cut into half-moons
2 tomatoes, cut into wedges
1/2 pound cremini mushrooms, halved
1/2 red onion, thinly sliced

6 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 lemon, juiced
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

Vigorously blend the dressing ingredients in a small bowl or jam-jar and set aside. Shred the lettuce into bite-sized pieces and place in a large bowl. Add the other vegetables and toss until well-mixed. Pour the dressing on and toss again until everything is coated. Divide into serving bowls and serve.

It's pure simplicity, with a tangy dressing. I find it always makes a great complement to simple meals, like a nice piece of pan-fried fish or some soup, as pictured above, but it can make a meal on it's own if you pair it with some nice crusty bread and a few pieces of cheese.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Where the F*%# is Spring or Tome Yum Soup with Mushrooms and Tofu

The last few weeks were cold, humid and rainy. I spent them wrapped in hoodies and scarves, wondering what happened to spring. Serious soup weather, if I ever saw it. That disgusting weather coincided with me getting the worse case of flu I've had in years. I spent 4 days in bed, lost my appetite for almost 2 weeks and felt generally miserable.

I had flagged a recipe in "Real Vegetarian Thai", thinking I wouldn't get to try it until the fall, but Mother Nature (and my immune system) clearly had other plans. This soup was described as the ideal meal for someone nursing a cold, so I had the perfect reason to try it ASAP. It was spicy (great, as I couldn't taste a damn thing), filling (also good, as I had to force myself to eat) and full of lemongrass, a ingredient that Thais believe to be especially helpful when one is afflicted with a cold or the flu.

I have been meaning to try making my own curry pastes for Indian and Thai food for a while, but grueling schedules always seem to kick my good intentions' ass. Being someone with a full-time job, a boyfriend and a life, I've come to rely on Patak and Thai Kitchen brands to provide the fragrant pastes, and since the results are always awesome, I saw no need to go out of my way. I still mean to give it a shot eventually, but it wasn't gonna happen while I was dragging myself around in a NyQuil haze. I was quite glad to get my hands on a jar of roasted chili paste, which was the only ingredient I was missing to put this dish together. Thank you, Thai Kitchen!

Also, about lemongrass. Some grocery stores carry them in their unprocessed form: they look kind of like bamboo shoots, and you have to remove the hard "leaves" to get to the soft yellow-green heart. If your local store doesn't have the unprocessed stalks, they often carry packaged lemongrass cores, either in a bag (look for it where they keep the fresh herbs) or jarred (usually in the "Asian" section). All those options work great for this soup.

4 cups vegetable stock
3 stalks lemongrass, hard leaves removed
12 wild lime leaves (optional)
2 limes, juiced
3 to 5 scallions, cut diagonally
1 fresh green chile, chopped
1 pound firm tofu, drained, pressed and cut into bite-sized chunks
1 package fresh button mushrooms, sliced
2 tablespoons roasted chili paste
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon salt

Using the blunt side of a knife, bruise the lemongrass stalk on every side, and cut into 2-inches chunks. In a large pot, bring the vegetables stock to a boil. When the stock is boiling, add the lemongrass stalks, and half the lime leaves (if using) and reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook until the stock is fragrant and the lemongrass has faded from bright green to a dull khaki, 5 to 10 minutes. While the soup simmer, combine the lime juice, the remaining lime leaves, scallions and chile in a bowl. Reserve. Scoop our the lemongrass from the stock and discard. Raise the heat to high and add the tofu, mushrooms, chili paste, sugar, soy sauce and salt and stir well. When the soup boils again, pour the reserved lime juice mixture and remove from the heat. Stir to combine, adjust seasoning if necessary, and serve at once, with some jasmine rice.

In Thailand, soups function as one of the many parts of a meal, and they are either drunk straight from the bowl, or spooned over jasmine rice. I find a side of rice to complement the soup very well, especially since this makes 4 small servings.

The broth is very rich and tasty, and it was perfect to comfort me while I shivered and sneezed. Adjust the chile and roasted chili paste to taste, but if you are in the same sorry state I was in when I made this soup, go crazy and it will warm you from the inside out. It really is the perfect soup to nurse colds: filling, warming and tasty!