tofu deli slices

Summer hit Syracuse last weekend with the impetuosity of a season long-forgotten. Blazing down during a Sunday bike ride, it left its pink hand print squarely between my shoulders. Yesterday it reached 30°C (87°F) and today the mercury is still up in the high 20°s (70°s). Our apartment, in good second-floor sun-drenched form, is responding as expected.

One of my favorite things about hot weather is eating cooler foods. Anything I can make without turning on my oven or standing over my stove gets my immediate approval. Coming in at a close second are things that can be cooked quickly or on low heat.

But first, a warning: I can’t promise you this will be the prettiest post. But food doesn’t always present us with the most photogenic subjects does it? In this case, tofu came out a little camera-shy, looking rather drab drenched in marinade. But once it was tucked into a toasted sourdough sandwich, it was reunited with greatness.

Tofu, which a wonderfully healthy source of natural soy protein (as opposed to all those junky bars, shakes, and factory-produced cereals), seems to have this way of sitting in my fridge too long. For some reason, I seem to have this horrible tendency to neglect it. But you know what? It deserves to be loved. And topped with avocado, sprouts, and fresh tomatoes, tofu-love comes easily. Even if you’ve been known to say a mean word or two about it.

And that’s where this tofu saver comes in. When I stopped buying deli meats, I missed the thick, juicy filler they gave my summer sandwiches. Egg salad and tuna got old fast. And so I hauled out the tofu, tapped it three times, and politely asked it to become something wonderfully sandwich-worthy. I’ve been making these slices ever since. And best of all, they last (almost) forever in the fridge.

Tofu Deli-Slices

Slice firm tofu in ¼ to ½ – inch slices.

Mix up a marinade: There’s almost no limit to what you can do here, just mix up any liquid things you think go together. In the past I’ve used brown sugar, soy sauce, worchestershire, even ketchup. You could use pesto, or a curry-coconut milk mixture, or any supermarket bottled peanut, Thai, or Indonesian sauce. I’m sure some salad dressings would do a great job, too. For a smoky taste, try a few dashes of liquid smoke, or BBQ sauce.

Marinate the slices in a plastic container or bowl for a few hours, overnight, or until it  starts calling your name.

Preheat oven to 275 degrees F. Lay the slices out on a piece of parchment or foil, and bake until they become dry and leathery at the edges, and maybe start to brown slightly, usually over an hour. You can continue to bake them until they’re completely “meaty” all the way through, or leave them soft an squishy at the centers. Up to you.

Cool, and store in the refrigerator to use in sandwiches.

the chi of kimchi

If only there was something yummy and exotic that made itself. Something you could just quickly cut up, stir, and plop in a container, only to turn out 5 days later in a delicious new guise.

Wait! There is! It’s called kimchi, and for its tart and tangy goodness we can thank the Koreans.

I’m seeing Korean food turn up everywhere. On the pages of Bon Appetit, on food blogs, and even in the New York Times. It’s even gone fusion, with a Twittering taco truck that brings mobile eats to its loyal followers. Kimchi is so important that the Korea Aerospace Research Institute even developed space kimch. Why? To accompany the first Korean astronaut to the Russian space ship, Soyuz, of course.

I can’t remember when I first tasted kimchi, but it wasn’t too long ago. I then started buying some locally-made stuff, available at the Central New York Regional Farmer’s Market, in all sorts of shades and styles. Being the fermentation freak that I am, my next thought was  “OK, my turn.”  Anyone who’s been to my apartment has seen the various fermenting things lying around my house. And before you run away scared, know that each one of them is darn delicious.

Food that is fast, easy, healthy and given to leftovers is manna for me right now. Finishing up my masters leaves little time for poring over new recipes (sad face #1), therapeutic vegetable chopping (sad face #2), and Zen-like-stove-top stirring (sad face #3). To this sorry state came my new friend kimchi.

The fabulous ferment did not only arrive to a dire, time-crunched situation, but to a household with a brand-new mandolin. Picked up for a steal of a deal on Amazon with Christmas money, this Japanese slider-knife is a miracle in a drawer. With this little beauty and a far superior recipe, my second batch of kimchi turned out much better than my clunky, over-garlicked first batch.

What, you may ask, is kimchi? It’s a Korean side dish with an inimitable taste, yet a Korean proverb reads, “if you have rice and kimchi, you have a meal.” To me, it’s crunchy ribbons of daikon and carrot folding over each other between layers of ruffled Napa cabbage. It’s chilies melding with garlic and ginger, and crisp veggies fermented to perfection. Served at room temperate over fried rice or a plate of egg rolls, or just eaten out of a jar, kimchi is a great snack full of healthy probiotics.

Best of all, the do-it-yourself kind pretty much does it itself. Just make sure you don’t spill it all over your gym bag.

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fresh spring rolls

Spring rolls in. Rolls of spring. Freshly spring rolls in. I tried coming up with a more clever title, but sometimes simplicity is best.  Besides, even with today’s showers, experience tells me flowers are still a ways off. Until then, food will have to brighten my spirits.

Fresh spring rolls. I’ve made them a few times now, varying the ingredients and dipping sauces according to my mood and the contents of my fridge. They are much healthier than the fried spring roll variety, and an impressive contriubution to bring to a party. (The last one I brought them to inspired this Epicurious blogger’s partner to take a picture of them! Fame felt so near it tickled.)

A trip to an Asian market or specialty food store should set you up with everything you need for these appetizers. Rice paper comes in packages of a lot. They look like tortillas made of overhead projector paper. Or the velum paper that brides-to-be love to use on home-made wedding invitations. They are hard, and need to be softened first in warm water.

You can steer Thai, Japanese, or Chinese in your choice of ingredients. I used matchsticks of carrot (which I can do now thanks to my new Japanese mandolin!) bean sprouts, lettuce (crunchy iceberg works better here), red pepper, scallions, and cilantro or Thai basil.  (See recipe following for guideline amounts.)

You’ll also need finely chopped peanuts, and some type of sauce: purchased or whipped up from bottles of chili, soy, and fish sauce camping out in your fridge behind last week’s leftovers.

After all that slicing and stirring comes the fun part. Boil a few cups of water and pour it into a wok or shallow bowl. Add cold water until the water is no longer boiling, but still hot. It shouldn’t burn your fingers. Take a sheet of rice paper and immerse it in the water for no more than ten seconds. If you over-soak the paper, it will rip when you try to roll it and yield mass frustration. (Trust me.) It will continue to soften as you work with it.

Remove the paper carefully, and place it on a clean, dry towel. Arrange your ingredients in whatever order makes the most sense to you. Whatever you put down first will be what people see. Laying your thai basil out first makes for an attractive presentation.

Play. Basil, lettuce, bean sprouts, carrots, scallions, red pepper, a sprinkling of peanuts, a little bit of hot sauce. (Next time I would pack them fuller than these pictures show.) You can also add leftover shrimp, chicken, pork, or tofu cubes.

Roll the bottom of the paper up over the filling, pressing it down onto itself on the other side. Press and tuck the paper around the filling, trying to get it rolled as tightly as you can without ripping the rice paper.

Fold the sides in. If I’d used more filling, the sides would get tucked in rather than draping over like this:

Tuck your fingers in ahead of the fililng and continue rolling the whole thing up towards the top of the paper. Press it all together tightly. Fill up your favorite portable container or arrange the rolls on a platter.  They are most fun to eat as one, but if you like you can cut them diagonally as the first few pictures show.

I don’t usually follow a recipe for these guys, but consulted the great Bittman in order to bring you more precise amounts if you so desired them. He also provides a good chili dipping sauce recipe (although a little watery), which I’ve included. Add some plum sauce for thickness. Here on fresh cracked pepper there’s a great peanut sauce recipe that compliments these nicely too.

Have fun experimenting, and hopefully these little crunchy bursts of color will drive this late winter rain away.

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spring in a jar

Outside my window the world is white. I’m not sure if the snow is here to stay quite yet, but one thing is sure: the cold is. Winter’s boney fingers slowly graze the once cushiony ground, casting December’s spell. The trees stand out against the white-grey sky, proudly showing their shape, leafless and spindly.

My apartment is warm and my desk is graced with overflowing mugs of tea.  As long as my shelves are full of heavy squash and my fridge is stocked with soup, I don’t mind that the days of fresh, delicate greens are so far off.

But there is one hideout. In a small jar in my cupboard, things still grow. Like a reminder that this cold death can’t last forever, their green curls bring a smile to my face and a bittersweet crunch to my sandwiches. 

It’s quite a miracle, really. Seeds and water, soaking; life in a jar. 

*Sprouting jar with three different sized draining lids, and sprouts provided by Sprout People. These people have a great selection of organic beans and seeds on which to try your sprouting hand. Their site also offers hints, information about the health benefits of sprouts, and interesting recipes.

when life gives you apples

A few weeks ago, on a Saturday saturated with the smell of fallen leaves baking in the sun, I went apple-picking. For for the first time. Ever. I know, I had a deprived, prairie childhood.

Sure I’ve plucked a few sour crab apples from the tree we had out back as kids. But that doesn’t count. This was good old-fashioned, eastern-style apple picking, right in the heart of the Empire state.

We debated the merits of Galas, Macs, and Cortlands. We ate fresh apple fritters, just out of their hot oil bath. We bought salty cheese curds and they squeaked against our teeth. We wandered the orchard in the feeble fall warmth.

Normally I don’t post photos of myself on here, but I got kind of a kick out of this one. It’s so posed, and I look so proud. With all the time I’ve spent in grocery stores in my lifetime, apples seem ubiquitous. Perfectly piled, row upon row, making ruby pyramids that greet you from the produce section.

Picking them from the tree is an entirely different thing. The apples, Empire in the case, appear like swollen purple grapes nestled in their spindly trees and pruned for prime production. You wrap your hand around one of the firm fruits, pull gently, and feel the snap of stem dislodged from its lifeblood. It’s such a simple gift of nature.

And when nature gives you apples, there’s just so much you can do. We ended up eating most of them raw, shined up on shirt sleeves, but I did managed to eek out a few containers of applesauce.

This stuff was a mainstay of our family’s dessert repertoire. Ladled out into bowls or over ice cream, the cinnamon-laced chunky brown applesauce was all the bedtime snack we needed. I’ve hated the baby food jarred stuff ever since; chunkiness and sauce go hand-in-hand in my world.

This year, the applesauce surprised me with its bright shade of pink. It must be those Empire apple skins, redder than a whole bushel full of blushing Republicans.

So many dear dear apples, straight from the tree into my pot. My childhood, slurped up from a silver spoon.

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a lesson in pumpkin gingerbread

I knew there was a difference between baking powder and soda, but this pumpkin gingerbread really hammered it home. Before trying two different versions, I just trusted recipes. Baking soda? Yes sir. Now powder? All right, you’re the experts. But good food is chemistry, and that means open to all kinds of experiments. Once you understand the basics, the possibilities explode.

I made one version of pumpkin gingerbread for my cousin’s visit last weekend. Unfortunately, we gobbled it up before I could get the Nikon to it, so it’s not featured here. I used a recipe in Prevention magazine, which I’d picked up at a talk given by the magazine’s fitness editor just days before. I was surprised by the breadth of the little magazine. In flipping through its pages for the first time, I found two recipes that looked worthy of a shot.

A fall dessert with only 1/4 cup of oil that uses pumpkin for sweetness and moisture? Sign me up. Not to mention the health benefits of the humble orange squash: beta carotene, potassium, vitamins A, C, B6, B3 and fiber.

The first round of this cake was dense and moist, with the warming flavors of cinnamon and nutmeg. It was popular, but I wondered if it would be better with a little more lift. Really I just wanted so badly to incorporate kefir, my new best friend. I went searching for a recipe that included an acid ingredient, and began to experiment.

Because I had this huge can of pumpkin puree to use up, I went at it a second time. I was amazed, it yielded an entirely different species of dessert. I used a muffin recipe that otherwise looked almost exactly the same, and adapted it to the baking pan. What I got was something resembling a gingercake more than a traditional gingerbread.

I’m no chemist, but according to Mark Bittman, when you’re working with acidic ingredients (yogurt, buttermilk, kefir, lemon juice) you use baking soda as your leavener. The acid reacts with the baking soda and causes the cake to rise. Baking powder is used when there is no acid–just liquid, eggs, and heat causing the leavening. By playing around with ingredients, you can create your own custom texture.

Because, you know, all of us just have tons of time to sit around doing this.

I leave you with the two experiments while I scheme about ways to finish off that still leftover pumpkin puree. My ideal for this particular gingerbread would lay somewhere in between. Until then, both, I assure you, are delightful with coffee on a day full of woodsmoke and crunching leaves.

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i want you: to drink kefir

If you’ve spent any time around me lately, you’ve heard me singing the praises of fermented foods. If you haven’t, then allow me to introduce you to kefir, the best thing to come my way since kombucha tea.

As fermentation teaches us, good things take time. And so too with this post. I’ve been trying to craft a really great one for this, my latest obsession. Finally I’ve shot enough photos and schemed enough ways to convince you to bring kefir into your home.

Whether or not I succeed, this is what I’ve got; I happen to think it’s good. Better than does a body good, good. I bring you kefir: beloved breakfast champion, superhero of lactose-intolerants, rescuer of milk + vinegar buttermilk substitutions. Apparently they’ve been doing it for years, and I’ve been stuck in the dark with plain old milk and yogurt laced with added sugar (and who knows what else).

Red Raspberry

Now that I’ve lured you in with the pink tart and tang of a fresh raspberry blend, I’ll show you how it’s done. There are TWO STEPS here. Got that? TWO STEPS. Try to follow the complicated procedure as best you can. Really, it’s very scientific:

obtain some kefir grains from a fellow fermentor*

put the grains into a jar of milk and let everyone hang out for a few hours

Contrary to making yogurt, kefir pretty much takes care of itself. I have tried making yogurt about four times, to no avail. I wanted it so badly, but it just wouldn’t happen: The first time, tasting like the pickles that had occupied the jar prior to it, the second time refusing to thicken. Despite tedious temperature testing and the more sophisticated hot-tub incubation method of the third go, the milk still wouldn’t yogurtize. I gave up, dejected, forced to live with mediocre milk lacking the happy bacteria I’d so earnestly sought.

And then, kefir arrived on my doorstep. My dear mother had heard my plea, and sent me a container of the grains via husband-on-Amtrak, as I had done only weeks prior (with a kombucha colony in a Nalgene bottle). It was all so old-fashioned, trading gifts like this through a handsome rail messenger. We both succeeded in bringing the other over to the world of fermented foods; “good milk,” as Alton Brown says, “gone bad.” Or as I say, “gone better.”

Orange Nectarine

Orange Nectarine

Properly pronounced “keh-fear,” this fermented milk drink comes to us via the Caucasus region, comprising the geographical areas of Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Southern parts of Russia, and North Eastern Turkey. It used to be made in animal skins and hung from doorways. Passersby would bump their heads against the bag, helping to keep the grains and milk well-mixed. In our house we keep it in a jar. We only bop our heads against it once in awhile, but it works out just fine.

Kefir is rapidly gaining on yogurt in popularity. (Go kefir, GO!) You can find it in grocery stores that have a good selection of health foods, but it’ll cost you about double that of yogurt. Now that I’ve got a never ending supply of the stuff, I’ve stopped buying yogurt altogether. It satisfies my craving, is much more versatile, contains even more healthful bacteria, and tastes like the champagne of smoothies.

best supporting actor . . . blueberry blend

Bannana-rific Blueberry

Lactose intolerant people benefit especially from consuming kefir. Why? Well, the yeast and bacteria in the grains survive by eating sugar. Guess what the sugar in milk is called? You got it: lactose. Being the only sugar those little guys can get their jaws on, they quickly gobble up all the lactose and leave a nice tangy product in its place. I’m not lactose intolerant, but apparently kefir (and its cousin yogurt) are more easily digested by such folks. See Alton Brown’s video for a cartoony lesson on the hows and whys.

Strawberry-Nectarine Blend

Strawberry-Nectarine Blend

Not only is kefir wonderful with all the above additions, quickly blended in with a convenient immersion blender, it makes a great buttermilk substitution. I mean, how often do we have buttermilk around, really. But kefir? In our house, all the time. Not only does it make wonderful smoothies, kefir can be used in creamy salad dressings, muffins, quick breads, buns, pancakes, waffles, and ice cream. Yup, you heard that right, and we deem it a success.

Have I hooked you yet?

The other day I was haranguing a friend we’d given kefir grains to turn his kitchen into a probiotic factory like ours. He told me to send him a photo of me, Uncle Sam style, and he’d make me an I WANT YOU TO MAKE KEFIR poster of my very own. I’ve got to get on that. When I do, I’ll post it next to Sammy here…

In the meantime, I’ve got a Mango Kefir Lassi on the kitchen counter with my name on it.

*Sites for finding kefir grains:

International Kefir Community

The Kefir Lady

Kefir Country