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.

Chilled Pea Soup with Tarragon and Cream

Cool Soups Are Not Just For Summer. This light and luscious pea soup is a lovely spring teaser:

Chilled Pea Soup with Tarragon and Cream

With warmer days on the way, chilled soups are a bright and refreshing alternative to a steaming bowl of soup. And while cool soups are certainly a solution to the heat of summer, they are also delicious year round. In fact, the slightly chilled temperature often amplifies the flavor and freshness of the ingredients, especially when the soup is as elegantly simple as this pea soup.

I prefer the savory flavor of the chicken stock in this recipe, but additional water may be substituted for a vegetarian version – in which case, be sure to taste and adjust the seasoning accordingly. The soup may be served slightly chilled or at room temperature. Serve as a light first course for 3 to 4 people, or divvy it up between 6 to 8 demitasse cups for a pretty appetizer.

Chilled Pea Soup with Crème Fraîche, Lemon, and Tarragon

Active Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 20 minutes, plus cooling time
Makes about 2 1/2 cups

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 large shallot, finely chopped, about 1/4 cup
3 cups shelled English peas
1 cup chicken stock (or water)
1 cup water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup crème fraîche (or plain whole-milk Greek yogurt)
1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
Sliced radishes and fresh tarragon leaves, for garnish

1. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the shallots and sauté until translucent without coloring, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the peas and sauté until bright and crisp-tender, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the stock, salt, and pepper and simmer until the peas are very tender, 3 to 4 minutes.
2. Carefully transfer to a food processor and process until smooth. Add 1 cup water, 1/4 cup at a time, until you reach your desired consistency. (The soup should be a little thick and not too runny.) Taste for seasoning and transfer to a bowl to cool to room temperature.
3. Whisk the crème fraîche and lemon zest in a small bowl.
4. Divide the soup between serving bowls or small cups. Add a spoonful of the cream to the soup and gently swirl, leaving light traces of the cream visible. Garnish each serving with 1 to 2 radish slices and sprinkle with snipped tarragon leaves.

Greek Tomato and White Bean Stew with Feta and Ouzo

 A splash of Ouzo and a sprinkle of feta add Greek inspiration to this hearty vegetable stew:

White Bean, Kale, Tomato Ragout with Ouzo and Feta

I love hearty vegetable soups in the winter. They are quick to prepare and non-judgmental when it comes to emptying the vegetable drawer in the refrigerator for a healthy dinner. One of my favorite stocks is Italian inspired and tomato based, sometimes with a splash of wine, and often with a rind of cheese added into the mix to exude delicious umami flavor while the soup simmers. I’ll then finish with beans or grains and handfuls of winter greens which wilt in the simmering stock just long enough to soften without discoloring. For this soup, I tweaked my favorite method and took a detour further south to Greece for inspiration. A splash of Ouzo (a Greek anise liqueur) amplifies the fennel in the soup and adds an extra layer of flavor that rounds out the tomatoes’ natural acidity. Rather than submerging a rind of cheese in the stock, I sprinkled feta over the soup for garnish. I must say I was pleased with this little detour, and I hope you are too.

Greek White Bean Stew with Tomato, Feta, and Ouzo

Active Time: 35 minutes
Total Time: 35 minutes
Serves 4 to 6

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large yellow onion, chopped
1 fennel bulb, thinly sliced, fronds reserved for garnish
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1/4 cup tomato paste
1 1/2 cups dry white wine
1 (28-ounce) can Italian plum tomatoes, with juices
1 1/2 cups chicken stock (or vegetable stock for a vegetarian option)
2 to 3 tablespoons Ouzo or anise liqueur
1 bay leaf
2 teaspoons granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 bunch lacinato kale (or chard)
1 (15-ounce) can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
Crumbled feta for garnish

1. Heat the oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. Add the onion and fennel and cook, stirring, until the vegetables soften, and the onion is translucent without coloring, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, oregano, thyme, and red pepper flakes and stir until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in the tomato paste to blend and then add the wine. Simmer until the wine is reduced by about one-third, about 2 minutes.
2. Add the tomatoes, chicken stock, 2 tablespoons Ouzo, the bay leaf, sugar, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat to medium-low. Partially cover and simmer 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste for seasoning, and add a little more salt or another tablespoon of Ouzo if desired.
3. While the stew is simmering, remove the tough stems from the kale, stack the leaves, and slice crosswise into thin ribbons. 
Stir the kale and white beans into the stew and cook until the kale wilts, stirring frequently, 3 to 4 minutes. If the stew is too thick, top off with additional chicken stock and adjust the seasoning as necessary. Ladle the soup into serving bowls and serve garnished with crumbled feta and the reserved fennel fronds.

Beef and Guinness Chili with Black Beans and Barley

bison chili tastefood

Winter and the Superbowl demand a hefty bowl of chili, and this recipe will surely do the trick. Loaded with beef, black beans and barley, the key to this thick and rich stew is a heady tomato stock fortified with chipotles and stout beer. While you shouldn’t tinker too much with the aromatics, do feel free to adjust the meat and grains. The beef chuck can easily be switched out with turkey, chicken, or pork – or entirely omitted for a vegetarian option (just double up on the beans instead). I like to add barley to the mix – it adds great texture and extra nutrients. Other whole grains such as farro or freekah can be substituted as well.

Beef and Guinness Chili with Black Beans and Barley
Serves 4 to 6

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 pounds beef chuck, cut into 3/4-inch chunks
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 large yellow onion, chopped
1 large poblano pepper, diced
1 large red bell pepper, diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 to 3 chiles in adobo, chopped
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 (28-ounce) can Italian plum tomatoes with juice
8 ounces stout beer, such as Guinness
1/4 cup tomato paste
2 bay leaves
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1  cup pre-cooked black beans (or 1 [15-ounce] can black beans, drained and rinsed)
1 cup pre-cooked barley (I used purple heritage) – optional

Optional garnishes:
Sliced jalapeño pepper, cilantro leaves, crumbled cotija cheese, chopped red onion

1. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Season the meat with salt and pepper. Add to the pot in batches and brown on all sides. Transfer to a plate.
2. Add 1 tablespoon oil to the same pot. Add the onion and saute over medium heat until softened without coloring, about 3 minutes. Add the peppers and saute until brightened in color, about 2 minutes. Add the garlic and saute until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the chiles in adobo, the chili powder, cumin, and paprika and cook, stirring, for 1 minute.
3. Return the beef to the pot and add the tomatoes, stout, tomato paste, bay leaves, brown sugar, and 1 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low. Partially cover the pot and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste for seasoning and add more sugar or salt if desired. Stir in the black beans and barley and continue to simmer for 10 more minutes.
4. Ladle the chili into serving bowls. Serve with the garnishes for sprinkling.

Warm Wild Rice Salad with Dried Fruit and Nuts

Rice Stuffing

I am just going to come out and say it: I am not a fan of turkey stuffing (or dressing), and neither is my family. Whenever I make stuffing, it sits uneaten at the Thanksgiving table, before banishment to the refrigerator, labeled “leftover,” where it continues to sit for days, forlorn, neglected, and, frankly, wasteful. So, now I don’t make a stuffing for our turkey. Instead, I jam bunches of fresh herbs, such as parsley, thyme, and sage, as well as wedges of lemon or orange in the cavity to provide aroma and moisture while the turkey roasts. For serving, I provide potatoes and a grain dish to balance and fill out the feast. This rice salad is always a hit. It’s a great gluten-free starch substitute for stuffing, and the dried fruit and nuts stud the rice like festive jewelry, providing a pretty addition to the holiday table. Feel free to mix up the fruit and nuts, substituting raisins, chopped prunes, dried figs, walnuts or hazelnuts. For a vegetarian option, substitute vegetable stock or water for the chicken stock.

Wild Rice with Dried Fruit and Pecans

Serves 6.

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 medium carrot, finely diced
1 ½ cups wild rice or wild rice blend
1 garlic clove, minced
3 cups chicken stock
2 teaspoons fresh thyme
1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ cup chopped dried apricots
½ cup dried cranberries
½ cup chopped toasted pecans or walnuts
½ cup chopped Italian parsley leaves

Heat the oil in a medium pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion and carrots and saute until they begin to soften, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the rice and garlic and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Add the chicken stock, thyme, salt and black pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low. Cover and simmer until the rice is tender but not mushy, about 45 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the  dried fruit and pecans while fluffing the rice with a fork. Let stand, partially covered,  for 10 minutes. Stir in the parsley and transfer to a serving bowl. Serve warm.

In Praise of Lentils and a recipe for Soup

Lentil Soups tastefood

Why do I overlook lentils? These humble legumes resembling tiny pancaked pebbles are often bypassed in my pantry, as I reach for rice, farro, couscous. When I finally do cook with lentils, I remember how good they taste, how satisfying they are to eat, and how easy they are to prepare. Imminently flexible, they can stand in for a grain, starch, even a protein. They are healthy too – rich in nutrients, high in protein, iron, and fiber, arguably placing them neck and neck with other lauded superstar foods in the nutrition department. They cook quickly and without any fuss, gamely absorbing the flavors and seasoning from their fellow ingredients and braising liquids, adding a hearty, earthy, and rich base to soups, stews, side dishes, even salads. Really, I must eat more lentils – and you should too.

Lentil Soup

This soup is simple, to the point, and deservedly all about the lentil.

Serves 4.

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 large carrots, cut into 1/4-inch dice
2 garlic cloves, minced
6 cups chicken stock (or vegetable stock)
1 1/2 cups brown lentils, rinsed and sorted through
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon light brown sugar
1 tablespoon Madeira or Port wine
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley leaves for garnish

Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until softened, about 2 minutes. Add the carrots and garlic and sauté until the carrots begin to soften and brighten in color, about 2 minutes. Add the stock, lentils, bay leaf, and thyme. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer. Cover and cook until the lentils are tender, 30 to 40 minutes. (The soup should be somewhat thick. If desired, thin the soup to your preferred consistency by adding additional chicken stock 1/4 cup at a time.) Stir in the sugar, wine, vinegar, salt, and pepper and taste for seasoning. Simmer the soup, partially covered, over low heat to thoroughly heat through and meld the flavors, 8 to 10 minutes. Taste for seasoning. Ladle into serving bowls and garnish with the parsley.  Serve hot.

Thanksgiving Sides: Wild Rice with Dried Fruit and Pecans

Rice Stuffing

~ Wild Rice with Dried Fruit and Pecans ~

This rice dish is a hearty and flavorful accompaniment to pork, poultry and game. It’s a great addition to the Thanksgiving table, where you might be tempted to call it a stuffing. Dried apricots, cranberries and pecans stud the rice, adding substance, sweetness and festive color. Whether you use it to stuff a bird or simply serve in a bowl as a side, this is a pretty autumn dish. Feel free to mix up the fruit and nuts, substituting raisins, chopped prunes, dried figs, walnuts or hazelnuts. For a vegetarian option, substitute vegetable stock or water for the chicken stock.

Wild Rice with Dried Fruit and Pecans

Use all wild rice or a blend of rice. A blend of wild rice, brown rice and red rice is pictured. Serves 6.

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 medium carrot, finely diced
1 ½ cups wild rice or wild rice blend
1 garlic clove, minced
3 cups chicken stock
2 teaspoons fresh thyme
1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ cup chopped dried apricots
½ cup dried cranberries
½ cup chopped toasted pecans or walnuts
½ cup chopped Italian parsley leaves

Heat the oil in a medium pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion and carrots and saute until they begin to soften, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the rice and garlic and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Add the chicken stock, thyme, salt and black pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low. Cover and simmer until rice is just tender but still firm, about 45 minutes. Add the dried fruit and pecans. Cover and remove from heat. Let stand for 10 minutes. Stir in the parsley and transfer to a serving bowl. Serve warm.

Pearl Couscous Salad

Pearl Couscous Salad

If you haven’t met pearl couscous yet, then it’s high time you did. Despite its name, pearl couscous differs from the finely-grained North African semolina couscous, typically served with tagines. Pearl couscous, also known as Israeli couscous, is made of baked wheat instead of semolina, and its granules are much larger in size, similar to fregola sarda. It retains it’s shape while cooking, and, before simmering in liquid to soften, it should be sauteed in olive oil which imparts a lovely golden hue and toasted flavor. It’s delicious simply tossed with olive oil and lemon, or as a component of a chopped salad. Serve it as an accompaniment to grilled meats and fish, or dress it up with chopped vegetables and herbs from the garden and sprinkle with feta for a vegetarian option.  Continue reading Pearl Couscous Salad

Red Quinoa and Kale Slaw

Red Quinoa and Kale Slaw

I served this Quinoa and Kale Slaw the other night as an accompaniment to grilled pork tenderloin. Quinoa is a hearty, gluten-free grain packed with nutrients. It’s tiny seeds are toothsome and nutty, yet, in my opinion, somewhat wanting for flavor and brightness when served alone. I prefer to tumble the little sprouted grains with a smattering of leaves, chopped vegetables and spices for a healthy and immensely satisfying side dish. This recipe pairs red quinoa with handfuls of chopped Tuscan kale. While it may sound like a lot of kale, the sturdy greens easily make themselves at home in the salad and provide a perfect foil to the quinoa seeds. The result is akin to a cole slaw, which, in this case, would be kale slaw.

Red Quinoa and Kale Slaw
Serves 4 to 6

1 1/2 cups red quinoa
2 1/4 cups chicken stock
2 teaspoons salt, divided
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 small red bell pepper, stemmed and seeded, diced
1 jalapeno pepper, stemmed and seeded, finely diced
1 large garlic clove
1/2 cup chopped red onion
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon Tabasco or hot sauce
1 bunch Tuscan (Lacinato) kale, tough ribs removed, chopped

Bring quinoa, stock and 1 teaspoon salt to a boil in a medium saucepan over high heat. Cover and reduce to heat to low. Simmer until liquid is absorbed and quinoa grains sprout, about 20 minutes. Remove from heat. Add lemon juice and olive oil and toss to coat. Cool slightly. Add remaining ingredients, except for the kale, and toss to combine. Stir in the kale. Taste for seasoning. Serve warm or at room temperature.

If you like this, you might enjoy these TasteFood recipes:
Mixed Greens with Roasted Beets, Wheat Berries and Goat Cheese
Roasted Provençal Vegetable Salad
Fregola Sarda with Asparagus and Lemon

Fregola Sarda with Asparagus and Lemon

fregola tastefood

If you have never tried Fregola Sarda, then you should. Fregola (also known as fregula) is a semolina pasta hailing from Sardinia, Italy. It’s quite similar to pearl couscous which is made of wheat. It consists of tiny rolled balls which have been sun-dried then toasted, lending a satisfying and unique nutty flavor and mottled texture. Fregola is delicious on its own, served simply with olive oil, sea salt and a dusting of cheese, in  soups, or combined with vegetables and fresh herbs as a side dish or light meal.

Fregola Sarda with Asparagus and Lemon

Serves 4

1 pound fregola
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
Salt
1/2 pound thin asparagus
1 medium shallot, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
1/4 teaspoon red chili flakes
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup chicken stock
1/4 cup finely grated Pecorino cheese
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil. Add the fregola and cook until al dente, about 10 minutes or per package instructions. Drain and transfer to a large bowl. Add 1 tablespoon olive oil, the lemon zest and 1/2 teaspoon salt and toss to coat.
Cut the stalks of the asparagus into 1/2-inch pieces while keeping the tips intact. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the shallot and saute until softened, about 2 minutes.  Add the garlic and chili flakes and saute until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the asparagus stalks and tips. Season with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper. Saute until asparagus brightens in color, about 2 minutes. Add the chicken stock and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until asparagus are crisp tender and most of the liquid has evaporated. Remove from heat and add to the fregola. Add the Pecorino and toss to combine. If the fregola are too sticky, add 1 tablespoon olive oil. Serve warm with additional black pepper.