Improvised Ma Po Tofu

Feed the craving for homemade Ma Po Tofu with this fast and easy recipe:

Homemade Ma Po Tofu Soup

I call this soup Improvised Ma Po Tofu, because, when the craving strikes, and you have no intention to shop for specialty ingredients on a frigid Sunday night in your PJs, you improvise. For this soup, I used a David Tanis recipe in the New York Times as a template and dabbled with the ingredients I had, while adding extra smidges of this and that to ramp up the flavor and spice to my taste.

With that said – and in the spirit of planning ahead – I recommend preparing yourself for any future nocturnal cravings with two Asian condiments I relied on for this recipe. These ingredients add lip-smacking flavor to a smattering of dishes, Asian or otherwise. They also have a long shelf life and can easily be tucked away in your refrigerator, so they are worth the effort to purchase.

The first condiment I recommend is gojuchang. It’s a Korean fermented hot chili paste, which adds a smoky kick of heat, mild glutinous-rice sweetness, and that elusive umami flavor to sauces, marinades, and soups that makes them positively addicting.

Another useful ingredient is fermented black bean and garlic sauce, which has a murky, almost meaty quality that adds depth and savory flavor to stir-frys and marinades. Both of these staples can be found in most well-stocked supermarkets or in specialty shops, and they can be stored in your refrigerator for up to a year.

And while we’re talking about cravings, I’ll add that once the ingredients for this soup are assembled, you can whip it up in a matter of minutes. This is a close to instant gratification you can find on a PJ-clad wintry Sunday night.  

Ma Po Tofu

Active Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 25 minutes
Serves 2 to 4

1 ounce dried Porcini mushrooms
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 large red jalapeño chile, seeded, chopped
2 tablespoons fermented hot chili paste, such as gojuchang
1 tablespoon fermented black bean and garlic sauce
2 tablespoons grated fresh peeled ginger
1 large garlic clove, minced
1 cup plus 3 tablespoons chicken or mushroom stock
2 tablespoons soy sauce or tamari
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
15 ounces semi-firm tofu, patted dry, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 to 2 teaspoons sugar, optional
4 scallions, white and green parts thinly sliced

1. Bring 1 1/2 cups water to a simmer in a small saucepan. Turn off the heat, add the mushrooms, and let steep for 15 minutes.
2. Heat the oil in a skillet or wok over medium-high heat. Add the chile, fermented chili paste, and black bean sauce and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the ginger and garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the mushrooms and water to the wok. Stir in the 1 cup stock, soy sauce, and sesame oil. Slide the tofu into the soup, reduce the heat to medium.
3. Whisk the 1 tablespoon cornstarch with the remaining 3 tablespoons stock. Stir into the soup and simmer until the soup is hot. Taste for seasoning and add sugar, if desired. Stir in the scallions and serve.

Flourless Double Chocolate Cake

The quintessential little black dress of cakes:

Gluten-free Double Chocolate Cake

A flourless chocolate cake is the “must-have” dessert in your recipe repertoire. Minimal, simple and universally pleasing, it’s a classic for all occasions. And, short of intravenous therapy, it’s one of the most intense forms of chocolate consumption you will experience. A tiny sliver of this luscious, gluten-free cake goes a long way (or maybe not, depending on your will-power).

Since the cake is flourless, it demands a very short list of ingredients, which means that the spotlight is rightly on the chocolate. Don’t skimp in this department. Choose the best quality dark (70-72%) chocolate you can lay your hands on, because it makes all the difference, and you will be rewarded with a stunning cake. Like the go-to black dress, you can keep it simple or accessorize it with extra bling. Serve it “naked” with a dusting of powder sugar, or, for more sparkle, you can wrap it in a shiny sheen of chocolate glaze. Either way, feel free to serve the cake with gently sweetened whipped cream, which adds a cooling ethereal contrast to the inky chocolate wedge. And if fresh strawberries are available, for goodness sake, don’t hold back.

Glazed Flourless Chocolate Cake

Active Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour and 30 minutes, plus cooling time
Makes 1 (9-inch) cake; serves 8 to 10

Cake:
Unsweetened cocoa powder for dusting
12 ounces high-quality dark chocolate (70-72%), chopped
1 cup / 8 ounces unsalted butter, room temperature
6 large eggs, separated, room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar, divided
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt

Glaze:
4 1/2 ounces dark chocolate, finely chopped
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup dark corn syrup

Whipped cream and fresh strawberries, for garnish

1. Heat the oven to 350°F. Butter a 9-inch diameter spring-form pan. Line the bottom with parchment paper and butter the parchment. Sprinkle with unsweetened cocoa powder and tap out the excess.
2. Combine the chocolate and butter in a double boiler or heatproof bowl placed over a saucepan of barely simmering water. Stir frequently until the chocolate is melted and smooth and remove from the heat.
3. Beat the egg yolks and 1/2 cup sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment until light and thick, about 3 minutes. Transfer the eggs to a large clean bowl and then stir in the melted chocolate, vanilla, and salt.
4. In a clean mixing bowl, beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. With the machine running, add the remaining 1/2 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, until medium-firm peaks form. Stir in 1/4 of the egg whites to the chocolate to blend, and then gently fold in the remaining whites, in 2 additions, without over-mixing. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and spread evenly.
5. Bake until the top of the cake is slightly puffed and cracked and a knife inserted into center comes out with moist crumbs, 40 to 50 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and cool completely in the pan. (If desired, the cake can be served unglazed at this point. Dust with powder sugar before serving.)
6. To make the glaze, place the chocolate in a heat resistant bowl. Heat the cream in a small saucepan until it just reaches a simmer and pour over the chocolate. Add the corn syrup and vanilla and whisk until smooth. Keep warm.
7. Remove the side of the cake pan, invert the cake onto a plate, and discard the parchment. Pour the glaze over the center of the cake. Spread the glaze over the top and down the sides of the cake, using an off-set spatula to smooth the glaze. Chill in the refrigerator until firm, about 10 minutes.
8. Serve at room temperature with whipped cream and fresh strawberries.

Mortar and Pestle Guacamole

 Tap into your inner caveman with this guacamole recipe:

Homemade Guacamole Recipe

My favorite kitchen tool is my stone mortar and pestle. It sits proudly on my kitchen counter, holding its own in a caveman-esque sort of way, flaunting its primal elegance in between the stove and the espresso machine. It’s smugly confident in its weight and kitchen hierarchy (deemed decorative) while my food processor and standing mixer are banished behind cabinet doors (deemed clutter). New kitchen techniques are awe-inspiring and futuristic, yet my mortar is old and wise with a lineage extending as far back as the Old Testament. Sous-vides, anti-griddles, and smart ovens may be cutting edge, favored by professional chefs and culinary buffs, but my mortar has a stellar history as an essential tool to Native Americans, ancient Romans and Greeks, medieval pharmacists, and home cooks spanning the ages. It is the embodiment of simplicity and timelessness, pleasingly tactile and massively elemental. And it’s affordable.

What can you do with a mortar and pestle? You can grind, pound, and smash to your heart’s content (a useful method of expression these days), making pestos, pastes, sauces, dips, dressings, and marinades. You can grind seeds into powder. (I assure you that the results of lightly toasting cardamom, cumin, or coriander seeds, and then grinding them to a fine powder in a mortar will yield results unparalleled by the pre-ground versions.) The mortar is also the perfect place to smash garlic with sea salt, adding fresh-cut herbs, such as rosemary, thyme, sage, basil, and mint. Crush the garlic first with the salt, then add the herbs and bruise them by giving them a few turns with the pestle to release their juices and flavor. You will be left with a powerful, aromatic paste you can smear on meats and poultry before roasting.

You can make guacamole, a perfect crowd pleaser, just in time to make for your Super Bowl party. Serve with chips, and you have one-stop-shopping in a primitive vessel. If you don’t have a mortar, then simply combine all of the ingredients in a bowl and mash with a fork to achieve a chunky consistency.

Guacamole

Active Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 15 minutes
Makes about 2 cups

1 small red or green jalapeño pepper, stemmed and seeded, finely chopped
1 garlic clove,  chopped
1/4 cup finely chopped red onion
1/4 cup cilantro leaves, plus extra chopped leaves for garnish
3 to 4 large ripe Hass avocados
2 tablespoons coarsely grated yellow onion with juice
Juice of one lime
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon salt, or more to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 to 3 dashes hot sauce, such as Tabasco (optional)

1. Combine the jalapeño, garlic, and red onion in a mortar. Press on the ingredients with your pestle, and grind them around the mortar in a circular movement, 3 to 4 times. Add the cilantro and gently bruise the leaves with the pestle.
2. Add the avocados, yellow onion, and lime juice and mash to form a blended but chunky consistency. Mix in the cumin, salt, black pepper, and hot sauce, if using, and taste for seasoning. Serve garnished with additional chopped cilantro.

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup

Butternut squash mingles with its fall friends in this festive soup:

Curried Butternut Squash Soup

There is something magical about roasted butternut squash. Its brilliant orange flesh softens into buttery squidginess, and when roasted, its natural sugars are coaxed out and gently caramelized, accentuating the squash’s inherent nutty flavor. It’s hard to believe something so rich and sugary can be loaded with nutrients and beta-carotene, but so it is. One cup of butternut squash provides a health nut’s worth of Vitamins A and C, as well as a robust shot of potassium, manganese and fiber. In this recipe, roasted butternut squash mingles with its fall buddies – apples, cider, and loads of warming spices – yielding an essential autumn soup. Serve it as a starter to any meal, or dress it up in little shot glasses as a fancy soup starter when hosting a crowd. It’s a great way to kick off the holiday season.

Curried Butternut Squash and Apple Soup

Active Time: 40 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour and 30 minutes
Makes 4 to 6 large bowl servings or 16 to 18 small appetizer shots, depending on size of glass

1 medium butternut squash, about 2 pounds
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 large Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored, diced
1 tablespoon curry powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon cayenne, or to taste
3 cups chicken stock (or vegetable for vegetarian option)
1 cup apple cider
1 tablespoon light brown sugar
1 to 2 teaspoons salt, to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1. Heat the oven to 375°F. Cut the squash in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. Lightly brush the exposed flesh with olive oil. Place squash, cut-side-down, on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake until the flesh is fork tender, 50 to 60 minutes. Remove from oven and cool slightly. When cool enough to handle, scoop out the flesh and set aside.
2. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onions and cook until softened without coloring, 3 to 4 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the apple, curry powder, cumin, coriander and cayenne. Cook until fragrant, about 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add the roasted squash and chicken stock. (There should be just enough stock to cover the squash and apples. If needed, add additional stock to cover). Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat, cover the pot, and simmer until the apples are very soft, about 20 minutes.
3. Carefully purée the soup in batches in a food processor (or with an immersion blender). Return the soup to the pot and stir in the apple cider, brown sugar, salt and pepper. Warm thoroughly over medium-low heat and taste for seasoning. Serve warm, garnished with a small spoonful of crème fraîche or sour cream if desired.

Herb and Cheesy Hasselback Potatoes

These baked potatoes are not a hassle:

Cheesy Hasselback Baked Potatoes with Parsley and Garlic

I can’t think of a better way to prepare a potato than hasselback-style. You may have seen these baked potatoes, with their distinctive accordion pattern. Thinly sliced, but still intact, the flesh is exposed while creating a cascade of ridges and edges ready to crisp. As the potato bakes, a flavorful basting sauce dribbles into the potato, flavoring the interior while hastening the browning of the skin. Apparently, you can have your baked potato and your crisps and eat them as one.

Russet potatoes, large Yukon Gold potatoes and sweet potatoes are all fair game for hasselback-style. The key to the prep is to first thinly slice a piece of each potato base lengthwise to stabilize them, so they won’t wobble or tilt while baking. Then cut thin slices crosswise, 1/8 to 1/4-inch thick, nearly to the bottom without cutting through the base. A trick to doing this is to lay 2 chopsticks, or 2 thin cutting boards lengthwise on either side of the potato, to act as a buffer for the knife as it cuts through the potato, and prevent it from reaching the work surface.

Then, brush the potato all over and in the crevices with a melted butter basting sauce, and continue to baste the potato once or twice while it bakes. About halfway through the baking process you can gently fan the slices to spread the potato further open to expose to the interior. If some of the slices break off, no worries! They will be delicious chips on the side.

Herb and Cheesy Hasselback Potatoes

Active Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour and 30 minutes
Serves: 4

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus extra for finishing
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus extra for finishing
1/4 cup finely grated Gruyère or Parmesan cheese
1/3 cup chopped fresh herbs, such as parsley, mint, and/or chives

1. Preheat the oven to 400°F.
2. Cut a very thin slice lengthwise from the bottom of each potato to stabilize the bottom. Cut each potato, crosswise, as thinly as possible, 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick, to about 1/4 inch from the bottom, without piercing the base. Place in a baking pan or cast iron pan.
3. Melt the butter with the oil in a small saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the garlic, salt, and pepper and remove from the heat. Brush the potatoes all over and in the crevices with some of the butter mixture.
4. Transfer to the oven and bake until the potatoes are tender and beginning to crisp, 45 minutes to 1 hour, depending on the size of the potatoes, basting once or twice with the butter. In the last 10 minutes or so of cooking, sprinkle with the cheese and continue to bake until the cheese is melted.
5. Remove from the oven and immediately brush all over with the remaining butter. Season with additional salt and black pepper and sprinkle with the herbs.

Farmers Market Potato Salad

Tasting Potatoes, Danish-style

I discovered this fresh and light-handed salad years ago when I lived in Denmark. Most likely it was at one of our frequent family gatherings, seated outdoors at a long wooden picnic table in the shadow of a thatched roof farmhouse with the summer sun hanging, as if caught on the hook of the horizon, refusing to sink as the evening set in. It was certainly summer, because that’s when new potatoes are at their peak in Denmark, and considered not only a staple but a delicacy to be greedily devoured.

I was smitten by the salad’s restraint, simply tossed with oil and vinegar, and generously layered with freshly snipped flowering sprigs and herbs from the garden. As an American, my experience with potato salads to that point had been the heavy-handed mayo and egg sort, tasty for sure, but more of a cloak and disguise to the mild-mannered potato. I would prod a fork through those murky salads swathed in cream, sugar, and oil in an attempt to fish out any intact morsel of potato, which by then had no flavor except that of the coating with which it was blanketed. The Danish potato salad was delightfully different, and appropriately Scandinavian in its understatement and use of fresh ingredients, celebrating the humble potato with a confetti of garden herbs. Most importantly: I could taste the potato.  And when the season’s newest potatoes are available, delicately sweet and faintly redolent of butter, there is nothing as sublime as the taste of potato.

As you can see, I chose blue potatoes for this salad, since I love their unusual color and how they contrast with the flowering yellow mustard greens I found at the farmers market. You can also use yellow or red new or small potatoes. The combination of herbs is up to your taste and whatever might be growing in your garden or stashed in your fridge. If you can find flowering mustard, add it to the mix or use it as a garnish, since it adds a nice peppery bite and vibrant color to the salad.

Danish Potato Salad with Garden Herbs

Active Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 20 minutes plus cooling time
Serves 6

3 pounds new potatoes or small potatoes (red, white, or blue), washed
Salt
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup white balsamic vinegar
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 cups fresh herbs, such as parsley, mint, dill, chervil, chives, tarragon, coarsely chopped
Flowering mustard sprigs for garnish

1. Place the potatoes in a large pot. Cover with cold water and add 2 teaspoons salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Partially cover the pot and cook until the potatoes are fork tender, but not mushy, 10 to 15 minutes depending on the potatoes. Drain the potatoes and let stand for 5 minutes to cool slightly.

2. Cut the potatoes in half or large bite-size pieces. Add the potatoes, the oil, vinegar, scallions, garlic, 1 teaspoon salt, and the black pepper to a large bowl and stir to thoroughly combine. Cool to room temperature.

3. Before serving, taste for seasoning and add more salt and pepper if desired. Add the fresh herbs and stir to blend. If the salad is too dry, add additional olive oil. Serve at room temperature.

Rhubarb Berry Fruit Crisp

What Grows Together Goes Together – in a Fruit Crisp

Rhubarb Berry Fruit Crisp Gluten Free

There’s no better way to enjoy ripe fruit than in a good old-fashioned crisp. In the summer, stone fruit and berries reign supreme, while in the fall, apples and pears take over. This crisp is inspired by late spring’s fresh rhubarb and boysenberries. I spied the berries at our local farmers market this weekend. Boysenberries peak in a relatively short window from late spring to early summer here in California. They resemble a floppy cone-shaped blackberry, and taste like a tart cross between a blackberry and raspberry. Next to the berries was a wicker basket filled with dainty upright new rhubarb stalks awash in green and pink. The colorful message was clear: Come and get us.

The topping for this dessert is gluten-free. It’s crisp, nutty, and sweet, faintly spiced with cinnamon. Whether you are gluten-free or not, it’s delicious. If you don’t have access to boysenberries, feel free to substitute blackberries or raspberries.

Rhubarb Boysenberry Crisp

Active Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: about 1 hour, plus cooling time
Serves 6

Topping:
3/4 cup almond meal
3/4 cup rolled oats (gluten-free or regular)
1/2 cup walnuts
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup (12 tablespoons) unsalted butter, chilled

Filling:
1 1/2 pounds rhubarb, cut into 1/2-inch pieces (about 4 cups)
2 cups boysenberries
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Combine all of the topping ingredients, except the butter, in the bowl of a food processor and pulse to coarsely chop the walnuts. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse meal.

2. Place the rhubarb and half of the boysenberries in a bowl. Sprinkle the sugar over and gently mix to combine. Whisk the lemon juice and cornstarch in a small bowl. Pour over the fruit, add the zest, and gently stir to coat. Spread the fruit in an 8 x 8-inch (or similar size) baking dish, or, alternatively, divide the fruit between individual gratin dishes. Arrange the remaining boysenberries over the top of the fruit, and then evenly spread the topping over the fruit.

3. Bake in the oven until the topping is golden brown, the rhubarb is soft, and the juices are bubbling, about 45 minutes. If the topping browns before the filling is fully cooked, then loosely cover with foil to prevent burning. Remove and cool. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.