For my birthday this year, I decided to run the Chicago Half Marathon. I finished, and it was fun. Those were my two goals. Running down Lake Shore Drive with about 20,000 other people on my birthday, which also happened to be the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, was quite an experience.
I was unsure of vegan cupcake availability on a Sunday in Chicago. We also detest city driving, even if it’s for cupcakes. So I brought along some cupcakes from Strawberry Fields here in Urbana, and took them on the road to share with the rest of the family.
These were serious cupcakes – enormous, jumbo-sized, and loaded with enough sweet frosting to send anyone into a sugar coma. They were delicious, but I’m surely not going to order as many of them next year! One half of a giant cupcake per person would be plenty!
Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting
German Chocolate – we detected a hint of coffee flavor in this one
Hazelnut – my favorite. Very hazelnutty, throughout the cake and frosting.
I love tofu, but I haven’t always felt this way. I had to fail at tofu many times before I learned to prepare it in many tasty ways and appreciate its versatility.
Lance always liked tofu in miso soup, but I give credit to Scrambled Tofu for fully recruiting him to Team Tofu. Dave will eat it too, usually with seitan chorizo in a burrito. If you are skeptical about the taste, texture, or mere idea of tofu, try the scramble. The texture and taste are very similar to (and in my opinion, better than) scrambled eggs. If you don’t like it, we’ll help you eat it.
Tofu can be used in a lot of ways. It can take on a “meaty” when grilled or fried. As a nutritious, low-fat, and cholesterol-free source of complete plant-based protein, it can stand in for meat in sandwiches, stir fries, kebabs, soups, stews, casseroles, or just eaten on its own.
One of my favorite tofu preparations is to simply slice and grill extra-firm tofu on my Breville Panini Press. I marinate the slices on a cutting board with a simple mixture like tamari, sesame oil, and a few drops of liquid smoke. The oil isn’t necessary for my press because it’s nonstick, but if you’re grilling this outdoors, you will want to start with a very clean and well-oiled grill grate and use some oil in your marinade. It’s fun to skewer larger chunks of marinated tofu and grill them kebab-style.
I like to let Lance blend his own spices and use them on his food. He gets to know flavor and spice, and a sprinkle of “Lance’s Special Seasoning” works like magic to get him to eat all sorts of vegetables. Tofu is the perfect “blank canvas” to let him test new flavors. Getting your kids used to a wide range of flavors at an early age is likely to make them more adventurous eaters. They might even turn into better cooks – and be more likely to eat a larger variety of healthy foods throughout their lives.
You might end up with a kid like Lance who asks for the Frank’s Red Hot, sriracha, Cholula, and Tabasco. But I digress! Back to tofu. Wanna try some?
It can be intimidating to crack open that odd little watery plastic tub and pull out a wiggly block of… whatever it is. Tofu is simply coagulated soy milk that forms a curd – a bean curd.
If you’re new to tofu, it helps to have some bean curd background.
Tofu comes in two types: “regular” and silken. Regular tofu is just soy milk that’s coagulated (like cheese) to form curds, which are then pressed into blocks. It’s firm and slightly brittle, almost like cheese. This type of tofu is most suitable for slicing, crumbling, or cubing. This is the variety you want for frying, baking, grilling, skewering, stuffing, simmering, or scrambling. Regular tofu comes in varying degrees of firmness, from medium to super-firm. I have found that the extra-firm is the most versatile, but use what your recipe suggests.
“Silken” tofu is made with a different process, resulting in a smooth and more gelatinous texture. Silken tofu is more suited for dishes in which the tofu is pureed to a creamy consistency. I use silken tofu in recipes, and it’s a key ingredient salad dressings, sauces, and yummy vegan desserts like Maple Pecan Pie and Vegan Chocolate Mousse.
Silken tofu is usually packaged in aseptic cartons which do not require refrigeration, so it might be located in a different section of the store than regular tofu.
Tofu must be drained and (usually) pressed. If you’re using regular tofu (not silken) the first thing you want to do is pour off the water in which the block of tofu was stored. Then you need to press out some of the water that is still in the block. Pressing helps the tofu absorb more of your marinade and gives it a firmer texture when cooked.
A simple pressing technique is to slice the block into pieces about 1/2 inch thick (or however thickly you want it sliced to grill, fry, or bake). Place the slices on a clean white dishtowel (not terry cloth) or paper towels, and press the slices firmly but gently with another towel to blot out the excess water. I’ve found that my favorite kind of tofu from Common Ground Co-op (pictured above) doesn’t contain a lot of water, so I can get by pressing it in this manner.
You can also set the block of tofu on a cutting board, and slice it in half so you have two flat rectangles. Place a clean dishtowel (or several paper towels) on top of the tofu and top with another cutting board of flat plate. Weight the plate down with a few books or heavy cans, and place it in a sink or area where the water can drain off. You can press it for as long as you’d like, but it should usually be pressed for at least a half hour if you really want to remove a lot of water.
Regular tofu can also be frozen, right in its little pack of water. Freezing will change the texture of the tofu, making it more spongy and crumbly. I’ve made tofu taco filling with frozen tofu, and it looks just like ground beef taco filling.
When your tofu has been pressed, you’re ready to…
Marinate it! Tofu is very bland. If you’ve tried it straight out of the box and said, “I don’t like tofu” then you need to try it again and add some flavor. Tofu takes on the flavors of the marinade or sauce in which it’s cooked. I will eat it plain because I like the taste if it’s very fresh and extra firm, but I usually marinate and cook it.
There are a ton of tofu marinades out there, if you search for them on the web. (Here: five basic marinades to get you started.) You don’t need to look for a marinade that’s specific to tofu either, you can use your favorite marinade meant for meat. I’ve marinated tofu with steak sauce, and it tastes great grilled on a sandwich. The longer you leave your tofu in the marinade, the stronger the flavor will be. And if you have leftover marinade, you can always throw it in a hot pan and reduce it to a thick sauce to top your tofu.
Cook it correctly. My favorite ways to cook tofu are scrambling, grilling, dry-frying, and simmering.
Scrambling tofu is quick and easy. There are lots of recipes for it on the web and in cookbooks, but the scrambled tofu recipe I follow most often is from Savvy Vegetarian. I vary the vegetables I toss into my scrambles, but they always contain tofu, onion powder, garlic powder, black pepper, white pepper, turmeric (for yellow color and “mustardy” flavor), tamari or soy sauce, and nutritional yeast. Sometimes I don’t even measure ingredients, I just eyeball and season to taste.
Grilling tofu is easy on an indoor or outdoor grill. I like to add a little liquid smoke to indoor grilled tofu, but it’s not necessary for outdoor grilling. As stated above, keep your outdoor grill clean and oiled to avoid sticking, or use a nonstick grill basket. You could also use one of those baskets meant for grilling fish, so you could turn all your tofu slices at once. I haven’t tried this, but it seems like it would work.
For the texture and flavor of tofu used in Chinese restaurant dishes, dry-fry your extra-firm tofu, then add a marinade. Dry-frying removes a lot of the water from the tofu as it cooks, and it results in a crispy, chewy exterior. It will really soak up the flavor of a marinade. And it’s a great low-fat way to prepare tofu, which is already a relatively low-fat food.
I like to simmer cubes of super-firm tofu in Indian dishes to simulate the texture and flavor of paneer. We eat a lot of Indian food that we make at home, and tofu is a good way to add protein to our dishes. I cut the tofu into 3/4 – 1 inch cubes and add it near the end of cooking. Stir the pot gently to avoid breaking up the tofu cubes. I’ve also had success placing tofu cubes in to-go containers when dividing the leftovers out into lunches for the week. I just ladle warm sauce over the tofu cubes, and they marinate in the refrigerator and during reheating. By the time I eat the dish later in the week, they’re infused with flavor.
Tofu cubes are also a great addition to curries and soups. We love miso soup made with small cubes of tofu, and curries with tofu cubes cut about the same size as the veggies.
But is tofu good for you? I’ve heard that soy is bad, causes cancer, will “turn you gay”, etc. There is a lot of conflicting information circulating around about the healthfulness of soy, but many of the arguments against soy consumption are based on sketchy evidence, or from studies hand-picked to show a desired conclusion. Many articles warning about the alleged dangers of soy are put forth by individuals or organizations who have economic interests in promoting a meat-centric diet. It’s important to scrutinize the scientific methods and funding sources behind all nutritional recommendations, especially for or against specific foods. I’m talking about animal products too. There’s plenty of research out there! For me, the most consistent and strongest conclusions point to the health of a vegan diet.
(I am not a doctor, so it’s important to talk to your doctor if you have specific questions of adverse reactions to soy, because there are some medical conditions like goiter in which soy should be avoided.)
Thankfully, most reputable studies show that whole soy foods can be a healthy, beneficial part of a well-balanced diet. The key is to consume soy in its less-processed forms – such as tofu, tempeh, miso, edamame, and soy milk. Fermented and sprouted soy products like miso, tempeh, and sprouted tofu are living foods with active enzymes which make them easy to digest.
I try to avoid highly-processed soy protein isolates. They are present in a lot of highly-processed vegan meats and cheese substitutes. And because soybeans are among the most highly-genetically-engineered food products, I always buy organic soy foods.
Some of the most long-lived people in the world, the Okinawans, eat soy every day in the form of miso and tofu, and not processed soy products. It can’t be said enough: eat real, whole, unprocessed foods whenever possible. (For more information on Okinawans and other long-lived populations, read The Blue Zones by Dan Buettner.)
I hope you’ve learned something about tofu. It’s nutritious, versatile and easy to keep on hand in your refrigerator (regular-type) or pantry (silken). I hope you also learn to love tofu, if you don’t already. It will love you back.
On Friday night we made homemade pizza with a lot of improvisation. First, I ran out of semolina flour for my usual crust recipe, so I substituted garbanzo bean flour. It worked! Then I ran out of Daiya mozzarella, so I decided to make a Mexican pizza and use the cheddar I had.
It’s topped with smoky oaxaca salsa, seitan chorizo, onions, portabella mushrooms, avocado, cilantro, and Daiya cheddar. It was delicious.
August’s Meetup for the C-U Vegan Meetup Group featured the most underrated meal of the day: brunch. Our small group gathered at Jason’s house to admire his staghorn fern (vegan taxidermy!), discuss how it gets watered, contemplate restroom fixtures and the people who love them, and enjoy some delicious vegan brunch dishes.
Amber scrambled up a delicious combination of Soyrizo, tofu “eggs”, potatoes, peppers, and onions. I could eat this every day.
Dana found a great sale on red raspberries and shared the bounty, along with some cucumbers from her CSA.
Dana also made Masala Spiced Donut Bites from Meet the Shannons. She did not disclose the calories per bite, which she actually dared to calculate. They’re baked, but rolled in melted Earth Balance and spiced sugar, resulting in deliciousness.
Amelia baked a delicious coffee cake, filled with cinnamon streusel and walnuts. It contains yogurt, and was extra rich and tasty.
Amelia and Chase also brought delicious Herbed Breakfast Sausage Patties The recipe is from Vegan Diner, and the author, Julie Hasson, is a genius with seitan. I need to make these at home NOW since I found vegan English muffins last week. Veg McMuffin, anyone?
And on top of all this goodness, this weekend I found the scribbled-on-a-post-it recipe I made for Seitan Gyros! So now I just need to find some sumac and give it a little tweak, then unleash it upon the world. I’m contemplating shaping it into a big cone and steaming it that way for a little more authenticity.
Seitan Fajitas: Simple Seitan from Veganomicon (similar recipe on Post Punk Kitchen), sauteed with taco seasonings (chili powder, paprika, cumin, onion, garlic), water, and vinegar. I was going for a chorizo-type flavor. It was very tasty, but I’m not sure about the texture of simmered seitan. I like it more chewy, like what you get from the Julie Hasson steaming method.
It was still hot this week (it’s September already!) so I had a few smoothies. This is a Peaches and Greens Smoothie: coconut milk, agave nectar, kale, frozen bananas, frozen peaches.
Lunch at work: red peppers and basic homemade hummus, grapes, waldorf salad (granny smith apples, black raisins, walnuts, cinnamon, low-fat Vegenaise), with Ukranian Borscht from Common Ground Co-Op.
This week I finally tried Za’atar. I am SO addicted! I’ve seen this many times at World Harvest foods, always sold in what seemed like very large bags, and wondered… who would need that much of a spice? Now I know.
Za’atar is a mixture of thyme, oregano, sumac, sesame seeds, salt, and other spices that you can mix with olive oil and use as a spread, dip, or condiment. I like it mixed with olive oil on bread. I sprinkled it on some spring mix salad. It’s also good with hummus. I should make some chapatis for dipping.
Here is more za’atar, with basmati rice and channa masala.
Despite the 90 degree heat this week, I made a big hot crock pot of vegan chili to share with colleagues. Everyone liked it. I’ve made chili twice in the last two weeks, and I’m a little tired of it, so I think I’ll freeze the leftovers for later.
There’s a best practice in debugging computer programs that recommends changing only one variable at a time in order to isolate the problem. I’ve also found this to be true when trying new ingredients, techniques, and combinations in cooking: try only one new thing at a time!
Failure to follow this rule resulted in some really bad ravioli last weekend. My vision was to combine Indian flavors in an Italian preparation: Indian-spiced lentils and carrots, stuffed into a chickpea flour ravioli, topped with a creamy makhani sauce made with coconut milk.
I’ve never made fresh pasta, or worked with chickpea flour. The result? Gummy, chewy, too-thick pasta with an odd, beany flavor. Not good.
At least the other components of the dish worked well on their own. These Indian-spiced French green lentils were simple to make and worked well as a side dish later in the week. The Coconut Makhani Sauce tasted like a warmly-spiced, slightly creamy tomato soup. They worked well together, too!
Lentils are fantastic. These are French green lentils, prior to cooking.
I’m offering the lentils and sauce as separate recipes. If you have other uses for one of the recipes, please share them!
Indian Spiced French Lentils
1 tsp olive oil
1 1/4 cup french lentils, sorted and rinsed
2 cups vegetable broth
1 medium white onion, diced
1 large carrot, shredded (about 3/4 cup)
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp ground coriander
2 tsp ground cumin
2 black cardamom pods
In a saucepan, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion, carrot, garlic, cinnamon, coriander, cumin and cardamom pods and sauté until tender. Add lentils and broth, and stir to combine. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 30 minutes, or until lentils are tender. Do not overcook lentils, or they will become mushy. Cooking time will depend on the age of your lentils. Older lentils are generally more dry and may take longer to cook, or require a bit more water.
Serve with rice, or add to Coconut Makhani Sauce to create a soup.
Coconut Makhani Sauce
1/4 cup Earth Balance, melted
1/4 cup ginger, finely minced
6-7 garlic cloves, pressed
2 black cardamom pods
1 tsp mustard seeds 1/2 tsp celery seed, crushed
5 cups tomato sauce
1/8 tsp cayenne
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon powder
Salt to taste
1 14 oz can coconut milk
Heat Earth Balance in a saucepan. Add cinnamon, cardamom pods, and mustard seed.
Once the seeds start to sizzle, add ginger, garlic, salt, and cayenne. Cook until small bubbles form on surface of the mixture.
Add tomato paste or tomato puree, cinnamon powder and celery seed.
Simmer the sauce for about 30 minutes, until reduced by about one third.
Just before serving, whisk in coconut milk and simmer for about 5 minutes.
My kitchen is not a mess. It is a celebration of expression.