Friday, September 24, 2010

Salt and Pepper Tofu

One of the joys of cooking is making things for the people you love. This often involves trying to replicate a restaurant recipe and more often than not, it doesn't work out as well as the restaurant makes it. It usually takes some trial and error and I have to admit that sometimes I just give up. But tonight, I did it just right!

My sons adore Salt and Pepper Tofu - actually they like salt and pepper anything - pork chops, fish, shrimp.... One of our local Chinese restaurants makes this dish very well and it's something we order a lot. So, I got inspired to try doing it myself because I had a carton of tofu about ready to expire. And having just returned from traveling, I was craving tofu. Guess that's because of my Chinese genes. My biggest dilemma was to decide what to coat the tofu in to get that crispy exterior. I knew that the tofu pieces had to be dusted with either cornstarch or rice flour. I only had cornstarch so that answered that question. I also didn't want it to be too greasy so I was determined not to deep fry it, only pan fry it with a minimum amount of oil. I also knew that the tofu needed a lot of flavor so I increased the amount of garlic, ginger and green onions. These are the trinity in Chinese cooking and can make almost anything taste good! I often use these three ingredients with tofu that I stir fry with soy sauce and sesame oil - it's really good on rice. Salt and Pepper dishes classically have slices of hot chiles added in also, but I had only a shriveled Serrano and I wasn't actually in the mood for hot food so I left it out. I think it would actually be prettier with some of those beautiful red Thai Bird chiles if you want it spicy.

I cut up the tofu into 1 inch squares and sprinkled them with salt and pepper. Then I rolled them in cornstarch and pan fried them one side at a time until just barely crispy. I took the tofu out before I sauteed the garlic, ginger and green onions until soft and then I added the tofu back in and waited until they got a bit browner. Then I sprinkled the dish with a little more salt and pepper. It was so good! The tofu was crunchy and the green onions, garlic and ginger were wonderfully savory. The interior of the tofu squares was soft and pillowy which was a great contrast. Even if you don't think you like tofu, you may be surprised by how much like this dish if you are brave enough to make it. If you already like tofu - you have to try it!

Salt and Pepper Tofu

1 14 oz carton Firm Tofu, drained
1/2 cup cornstarch
4 - 5 Tablespoons vegetable oil (I used High Heat Safflower)
4 - 5 green onions, washed and trimmed
1 large garlic clove
1 Serrano Chili or several Thai Bird Chiles (optional)
1/2 inch slice of ginger, peeled
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon white pepper

Cut tofu cubes into 1 inch squares and pat dry. Season with salt and pepper on one side, turn over and season other side as well. Be sure to reserve some salt and pepper for the plating. Let the tofu sit for 10 minutes while you get other ingredients ready. Slice green onions and chiles into 1/8 inch rings and mince ginger and garlic. In a large frying pan, heat the oil until it is smoking. Place cornstarch in a bowl and roll each piece of tofu in cornstarch until coated on all sides. Add the tofu carefully to the hot oil. Using tongs, turn each piece over when lightly browned. Then turn on sides until browned all over - about 5 - 7 minutes. Remove to a plate and press lightly with a paper towel to remove excess oil. Add extra tablespoon of oil if needed. Put garlic, ginger and green onions in the pan and stir until the green onions are soft and the garlic is just beginning to brown. Add tofu back in and stir until tofu gets darker brown. Be careful not to burn the green onions. Sprinkle with remaining salt and pepper and serve immediately or it can be placed in a warm oven while other dishes are being prepared.

Five Element Analysis

This dish is very Metallic and therefore very useful when you need to add the Metal Element to a larger Asian meal. However, it is not balanced by itself! The tofu is from the Metal Element as are the garlic and green onions. The salt brings in a small amount of the Water Element, the Pepper a bit of the Fire Element and the chiles do too (if you use them). The ginger adds a smidgen of the Earth Element, but this dish obviously needs some help to round out the elements. I served it with stir fried broccoli and red pepper to bring in the Wood and Fire Elements and some cucumber salad that added the Earth Element. I dressed it with sesame oil and sesame seeds from the Water Element to bring some balance to the dinner.

Thursday, September 9, 2010


One of Stephen's favorite foods is usually something Greek so we made Moussaka. Now, no one knows why he loves Greek food so much, but then so did his beloved grandfather, "Poppy." So, I just consider it one of his genetic traits. It's because of him that I learned how to make Greek food at all because he asked me to as my repertoire for many years consisted of mostly Chinese or Pennsylvania Dutch food from my heritage. Anyway, I decided this time that he should learn how to make Moussaka with me since he is now living on his own and he became my Sous Chef. I think he actually has quite a talent for cooking! Or at the very leas,t he is very good with a sharp knife and he cut up lots of vegetables! We made Moussaka with lamb, eggplant, zucchini and potato. It's really quite a light dish even with the cream topping and we all ate too much. We served it with a Greek olives as an appetizer and a salad that included chopped cabbage, yellow peppers, tomatoes, red onions and cucumbers in a lemon, olive oil and honey dressing. It was a crisp and refreshing counterbalance to the creamy, soft textures of the Moussaka. We had fresh figs for desert and were all stuffed, but happy. Here's our recipes:


Meat Sauce:

2 pounds lean ground lamb
3 Tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 large or 2 small onions chopped
2 garlic cloves minced
3/4 cup white wine
2 1/2 cups tomato sauce
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon thyme
1 bay leaf
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup bread crumbs

Heat oil in a large pot and add garlic and onions. Cook until onions become translucent and add ground lamb. Stir and cook until no longer pink. Drain fat if necessary. Add wine, tomato sauce, sugar and herbs. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat to a simmer. Cook covered for 30 minutes. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed. Stir in bread crumbs and let cool. (Can be made ahead and refrigerated.)

Cream Sauce:

5 Tablespoons butter
5 Tablespoons flour
2 1/2 cups milk
1 bay leaf
1 cup Parmesan Cheese (reserve 1/2 for topping)
1/8 - 1/4 teaspoon of nutmeg to taste
salt and pepper to taste

Melt Butter in a large frying pan and add in flour. Whisk until mixed and pour in milk. Continue to whisk until blended. Add the bay leaf and stir until thickened. Take off heat and add 1/2 cup parmesan cheese and remove the bay leaf. Leave to cool until ready to assemble the Moussaka (can be made ahead and refrigerated)

1 pound of Eggplant (I used 2)
1 teaspoon salt
2 medium zucchini
2 medium potatoes boiled in their skin and cooled
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil (or more)

Cut off top stem and the very bottom of the eggplants. With a peeler, slice some of the peel off the eggplants about every inch around in stripes. Cut into 1/3 inch round slices. Place eggplant slices in a colander in the sink and sprinkle both sides with salt. Leave for 20 minutes then rinse and place on paper towels until ready to cook. Cut off tops and bottoms of zucchini and cut into 1/3 inch slices. Cut potato into 1/3 inch slices and remove peel.

Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large frying pan. Add in zucchini and cook until one side is lightly browned. Turn and brown the other side. Remove to a plate. Then add additional 2 Tablespoons of olive oil and put in potato pieces. Brown lightly on both sides and remove to a plate. Add remaining oil and panfry eggplant until lightly browned. You may need to add a little extra oil if you are frying in two batches as eggplants soak up a lot of oil. Then remove to a plate.

Butter a 9 x 12 " baking dish or two 8x8 glass baking dishes. Lay eggplant slices on the bottom of the pan - squish them until they fit together. Cover with 1/2 of the Meat Sauce. Lay out zucchini and potato alternately over the meat sauce below then cover with the rest of the meat sauce. Very carefully cover the meat sauce with the cream sauce and sprinkle with 1/2 cup of reserved Parmesan Cheese. Sprinkle nutmeg lightly over the top.

Put into a 350 degree oven for 45 minutes or until lightly browned and bubbling. Cool for 15 minutes. Cut into squares and serve with a wide spatula.

Five Element Analysis

Eggplant is such a lovely dark purple color with lots of little seeds inside so you know it has to be from the Water Element. Lamb is a Fire Food and so is the tomato sauce. The zucchini and potato add the Earth Element and the herbs and cream sauce and Parmesan Cheese with it's wonderful Umami flavor bring in the Metal Element. It looks like the Wood Element might be deficient but all that wonderful olive oil contributes that element. Moussaka ends up being a very balanced dish! Then the Chopped Greek Salad certainly added Earth from the cabbage and cucumbers, Fire from the tomatoes and peppers, Metal from the red onion and Wood from the olive oil and lemon juice. The only thing missing was the Water Element and the figs for dessert brought that element in. This turned out to be a doubly balanced Five Element meal!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Lamb Ragu

I'm visiting a friend in Switzerland and he just got a lot of wonderful lamb from a farmer friend. Lamb is a meat I don't have much experience with since my mother couldn't eat it so I couldn't and didn't cook it at home. My first experience with lamb was at my high school boyfriend's house, when his mother served a roast leg of lamb with mint jelly for special occasion. It was a revelation as I didn't think I would like it and I did. But there was a time when I was served lamb at another friend's house and I think it was more like mutton because the flavor and smell of that lamb was too strong for me. For the record, the best lamb chops I have ever had were in New Zealand. My oldest son loves lamb and he always orders it at Greek or Middle Eastern restaurants but usually it is something involving ground lamb. So I did learn to make a few lamb dishes - meatballs with gyro flavors, moussaka and dolmades is about it. Those recipes I'll post another day. But I still felt slightly daunted by big pieces of lamb.

So, I picked a bag of cubed lamb out of the freezer and I decided to make some kind of lamb stew. I figured it couldn't be much harder than beef stew but there was a limit to what was in the pantry and I was too jetlagged to go to the store. I love the challenge of cooking with what's on hand and actually, the less there is, the more creative I feel. And, it makes me happy to cook even when I am tired as it grounds me and I definitely needed some comfort food after traveling across the world. I assembled a can of tomatoes and some penne pasta from the pantry, some frozen peas from the freezer and some carrots from the fridge and I found a jar of Herbes de Provence - actually called Krauter der Provence here in Schweiz. Voila! I had the makings for Lamb Ragu.

I cut the lamb into smaller pieces than usual and I used olive oil to brown the meat to give it a slightly Mediterranean flavor along with the Herbs de Provence - this brand contained Rosemary, Oregano, Thyme, Basil and Lavender (some commercial versions include fennel and savory instead of the Rosemary and Oregano). I served it on top of the penne pasta, which is why I call it a Ragu instead of a stew. However, it would be equally good on mashed potatoes or cubed potatoes could be added in for the last 1/2 hour to make it into a more traditional Lamb Stew. I served it with a salad of radishes, cucumbers and yellow peppers in a light lemon and olive oil dressing. It was so good that I'll definitely be making it again!

Lamb Ragu

1 pound lamb cut into 1/2 cubes
3 Tablespoons flour
1 medium onion chopped
2 cloves garlic minced
4 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 14 1/2 ounce can whole tomatoes
2 cups beef broth (or 2 cups water with two small beef bouillon cubes)
1 teaspoon Herbes de Provence
2 large carrots peeled and cut into half and sliced into thin half circles
1/2 cup frozen peas
Salt and Pepper to taste
Optional - peel and cube 2 medium potatoes and add them in with the carrots and peas.

Heat oil in large pot and put in garlic and onions and stir with a spatula until the onions are translucent. Sprinkle salt and flour over the lamb and coat both sides of the meat lightly. Put into pan and let brown on first one side and then the other. Then add in the tomatoes - cut them up with the spatula and beef broth and the Herbes de Provence. Bring to a boil and then turn the heat down to a simmer. Cook for 2 hours. Then add carrots and peas (and potato if desired) and cook until carrots are just tender - about 20 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve over the pasta of your choice - or potatoes or even rice.

Five Element Analysis

Any food that is cooked a long time over low heat belongs to the Earth Element. However, the meat or vegetables involved change the elemental emphasis. Lamb is a Fire Element food and is considered very good for the heart and tomatoes are also Fiery. The beef broth adds more of the Earth Element as do the carrots, peas and the cooked onions. The wheat in the pasta contributes the Wood Element. The garlic and the pungent Herbes de Provence bring in just a bit of the Metal Element but this element still needs some enhancing. So, I added a salad that included radishes - a pungent Metal vegetable that helps round out and balance the meal.