Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Recipe: Soba Noodle Salad With Tofu

Tofu. A lot of people think of “big cube of bland whiteness” when they hear that word. I, on the other hand, grew up eating tofu and never thought negatively about it until I realized how the poor loaf has been butchered into some pretty insane and tasteless creations in order to fill some hole in the healthy food world. Although it certainly makes a good, high-protein substitute in one’s diet for chicken or fish, it doesn’t always mean tofu will be good when used in the same way that meat or fish is used. It’s got a completely different makeup, texture and flavor than any meat or fish so it should be treated like the unique ingredient it is.

I have to admit, tofu does make a pretty great substitute for eggs. When mashed with a fork and sautéed with veggies, salsa and spices, the texture comes close to that of scrambled eggs. However, just because you miss a juicy burger doesn’t mean that forming mashed tofu into a patty and throwing it on a grill will make you kiss beef goodbye. Tofu is a great added to dishes that need some neutral tasting protein kick and works best, in my humble opinion, with Asian flavors.

Here’s a simple recipe for a refreshing summer noodle salad that is a perfect vehicle for seared tofu. Although chicken or beef would work fine in this dish, the softer texture of tofu marries especially well with the slightly al dente-ness of the soba noodles.


Soba noodle salad w/ tofu

Whenever you’re cooking tofu, try to get the water out of it by putting it in between two thick layers of paper towels, then setting a plate on top of the top layer of paper towels. Let it sit for about 20 minutes and it will drain a lot of the water out.

½ pack of extra firm tofu

1 package dried soba (buckwheat) noodles

1 cup shredded carrots
2 cups shredded Napa cabbage
½ cup diced scallions
¼ cup chopped cilantro

4 TBS soy sauce
2 TBS toasted sesame oil
2 TBS grated fresh ginger
2 TBS honey
2 tsp sambal oelek (chili paste)
1 TBS rice wine vinegar

Sesame seeds

Take tofu out of the pack and drain between two thick layers of paper towels for 20 minutes.

Put the tofu in your hand, and cut the tofu while holding it very carefully (so you don’t cut yourself). This is the traditional way to cut tofu- Japanese don’t put it on a cutting board because tofu is so absorbent. If you are careful you should be able to do this easily, and tofu is very soft so it doesn’t require a lot of pressure. Cut into rectangles about 2 inches long and ½ inch thick. Sear tofu for about 3 minutes on each side in a hot, non-stick skillet. Set aside.

Mix all of the ingredients of the dressing in a blender or a jar- blend well. Set aside.

Cook the soba noodles in boiling water for 4 minutes, then remove from the heat and shock in cold water to stop the cooking process.

In a large bowl combine the noodles with the vegetables and dressing, toss well, top with tofu and sesame seeds. Serve cold or room temperature.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Recipe: Farro, Black Bean & Corn Salad

Lately, I look at the bookshelf in the kitchen just heaving with cookbooks and I feel a bit, well, guilty. After all, up until a few short months ago I was a bona fide cookbook addict. When I wasn’t reading one of the 100 or so that I have, I’d be surfing through Amazon looking for the next fix or printing out recipes from Epicurious and stuffing it into my “homemade” cookbook – AKA The Overstuffed Folder. There was never a Sunday morning spent without one cookbook in hand while three others were piled in front of me on the coffee table, waiting for me to take a look. It was a good relationship we had, the cookbooks and I, although I might have been a little dependent.

It’s odd now- I cook a lot but haven’t used a recipe in months. If I have thumbed through a cookbook recently it was merely to gain inspiration, not to follow any recipe word for word. The deciding factor in terms of what I will cook is one question- “What do I want to eat?” Seems simple, but for those of you who are recipe lovers like me, you’ll understand that sometimes the challenge and technique of a new recipe is the biggest motivator in what you make. I did that for so long and believe me- it resulted in plenty of delicious and beautiful meals- but I’m in this phase of just listening to my senses, collecting all of the knowledge that is floating around in my brain and then combining it all into a dish that is exactly what I want to consume at that particular moment.

Last week, after a tequila-and-wine-fueled trip to Mexico- I wanted to have a big batch of something hearty but healthy to take for lunch each day. So I decided to whip up a batch farro, black bean and corn salad. Farro (type of wheat, also called emmer) has become one of my favorite grains over the last year and is great in so many dishes. It’s becoming more readily available in supermarkets but can almost always be found at any Italian market. I love the toothsome bite it retains after cooking and its slightly nutty but generally neutral flavor is very versatile. In the cooler months I like to toss it with sautéed mushrooms, thyme and baked butternut squash, but now that it’s warmer it’s the base of many great cold salads. This farro, black bean and corn salad is the perfect example of a recipe borne from what my body and taste buds were craving at the moment it was conceived, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Farro, Black Bean & Corn Salad

(The key to flavoring any salad using farro is to bathe the still-hot farro with whatever dressing you’re using so it really soaks up the flavors. In this instance I made a cilantro vinaigrette but you can use whatever dressing you prefer (creamy dressings probably won’t be as good) as long as you make sure you coat the farro grains while they are still warm).


1 ½ cups farro, rinsed
3 cups vegetable or chicken stock (I used Wolfgang Puck Vegetable Stock because it was on sale!)
2 ears sweet corn
1 can black beans, rinsed clean
2 red bell peppers
4 green onions

Cilantro vinaigrette

1 large handful of cilantro (about 1 cup packed). Stems and all are fine.
1 medium jalapeno pepper
1 tsp cumin
2 tsp chili powder
3 TBS red wine vinegar
3- 4 TBS good extra virgin olive oil

Make the vinaigrette first: With tongs, hold the jalapeno directly over the flame on your stovetop or gas grill to blacken it all over. Cut the stem off, cut in a few pieces and pop into a food processor or blender. Add all of the other vinaigrette ingredients except for olive oil and pulse until relatively smooth. While the food processor or blender is running, slowly add the olive oil in a stream until it reaches a slightly-thicker-than-salad-dressing consistency. Season with salt & pepper to taste and set aside.

Bring vegetable or chicken stock to a boil, add the farro. Boil on medium heat for about 15-20 minutes- just check the consistency of a farro grain- you want it to be “al dente” so to speak. The farro probably won’t soak up all of the stock so if it doesn’t, simply drain it in a colander. Put drained farro in a large bowl and immediately toss with about ¾ of the vinaigrette. Mix well and set aside.

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil and add corn. Boil for about 3 minutes, then drain and rinse under cold water until corn is cold. Cut the kernels off by standing one ear of corn up at a slight angle and cutting down each side of the corn. A lot of it will come of in chunks but you can crumble it up into kernels with your fingers. I like to leave a few of them chunky so it looks more homemade. Add to the bowl of farro.

Rinse the beans in a colander under cold running water until clean, add to farro bowl.

Chop the red pepper into fine dice and the green pepper crosswise into thin circles, add both to farro bowl.

Toss in remaining vinaigrette and mix all ingredients together. Serve cold or at room temperature.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Mexico City #2: Mercado de la Merced

On my final day in Distrito Federal we visited the massive Mercado de la Merced. It is one of the largest markets in Mexico and covers an entire city block. We took the subway to Merced station and you can take the exit directly into the market itself.

The sheer volume of food and goods was overwhelming at first- my eyes just kept darting from left to right trying to take in all of the colors, smells, sounds, people…..it was incredible! The fruit stands showcased tons of mangoes and papayas that just permeated the air with a tart, tropical scent that made me want to pluck one up and take a bite. There were piles of different kinds of mole and stacks of dried chiles next to stands selling shoes and purses. Well-priced denim skirts hung directly over the delicious-smelling smoke rising from carne asada being tossed on hot cast iron grills and there was a constant stream of people navigating their way through all of this lively activity. It was awesome.

Instead of trying to explain it any further, I’ll just treat you to a bunch of photos I snapped while making my way through the Mercado de la Merced. If you’re even in Mexico City I highly recommend you take a few hours to join the parade of people shopping in the market.

Giant blankets of crispy chicharrones

For more information here's an excellent (and very long!) essay on Mercado de la Merced. Photos and a map are also here.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Mexico City part 1: Izote de Patricia Quintana

I’m back! I know- it’s been absolutely forever since I last blogged and I promise (if anyone is still reading this!) that I won’t take such long blogging breaks anymore. Life, work, Scrabulous and other things have gotten in the way of Tuna Toast but I am happy to be back and even happier to report about my recent trip to Mexico City.

I went for just a few days last week to meet up with J, and saw and tasted so many gorgeous things that I think I’ll have to break my Mexico City posts into several. First of all, I love Mexico City. It’s such a vibrant city with so many smells, colors and flavors and is definitely what I like to dub a “real big city.” To me, Paris, Tokyo and New York also fall into that category- and Los Angeles, the one I actually live in- does not. Sure LA is technically a big city but with a lame mass transit system that few people use, the inability of residents to get anywhere without a car and restaurants closing their doors at around 11:00 PM, it just doesn’t have the energy or convenience of the other cities I mentioned.

Having planned my trip in advance, I’d made reservations at Izote de Patricia Quintana for our first night in the city. I’d read a lot about this restaurant whose chef has helped put Mexico City on the gourmet map by drawing heavily on indigenous ingredients and was very excited to try it. The restaurant was very colorful and was filled with fashionable men and women- it is located in Polcano, which many call the “Beverly Hills” of Mexico City. We ordered drinks (tequila for my friend, a dark beer for J, margarita for me and “Coke Light” for my friend LS who doesn’t drink) and looked over the English menu. There were so many interesting options that it was difficult to make a choice, but after consulting each other on what we were getting (to make sure there were no duplicates!) we ordered our food.

We were given a basket of large, crispy tortillas made with blue corn and a trio of salsas. All were very tasty, with the salsa verde being everyone’s favorite. They were the perfect accompaniment to our drinks- my margarita was perfectly tart and strong, while JI’s tequila shot came with a second shot glass filled with a savory, spicy tomato juice. It was so delicious I would have drank it as a soup had it been served to me in a bowl. I also loved that the waiters would bring your glass to the table and then fill it up with the tequila of your choice. Ditto if you ordered a tequila and tonic- they would pour the tequila into your large glass until you said to stop, then top it off with the tonic. I’m not really sure if they would keep pouring if you just sat there until the tequila filled your glass but I imagine they would.

Shredded venison


We had decided to share a couple of appetizers to whet our appetites. The shredded venison with achiote and picked onions was my favorite- it had a very chewy texture that was strange at first, then became addictive….each rope-like piece was so flavorful and, when rolled in warm, handmade corn tortillas, was pretty much all you needed with any cocktail. The four small tamales were also good but so tiny that it was really a challenge to split them all up between the four of us. Since they were each a different flavor we wanted to try them all, and the one with huitlacoche (black corn mold) was definitely the winner. It was slightly pungent in the way a truffle is and added a nice contrast to the slightly sweet masa surrounding it.

Ceviche in chile


Chile and cinnamon rubbed filet

After those plates were cleared, our main courses arrived and so many different scents wafted through the air I could hardly wait to dig in. J had a beautiful fresh chile stuffed with sweet, tender chunks of salmon ceviche. It wasn’t tart like most ceviches but just slightly tangy and mellow- I definitely tasted pineapple juice in there somewhere- and was so perfectly cooked in the acid. JI’s chile and cinnamon rubbed steak was so flavorful and aromatic- it’s something I’d love to try at home- and we noticed that a lot of people had ordered it as well. L ordered the rib eye with an apple and sweet potato puree which was less sweet than you may think and a wonderful match to his juicy steak. I went with the lobster enchiladas with pumpkinseed sauce which, quite honestly, was the best I’d ever had. The pumpkinseed sauce was sweet and creamy at first bite, but that sweetness slowly evolved into a mellow yet fiery heat in the back of my throat. It was so deep in flavor and, had I used a few pieces of bread to sop up the sauce after I’d eaten the enchiladas.

Rib eye with apple and sweet potato puree

Lobster enchiladas with pumpkinseed sauce

Being vacation and all, we had to order dessert (of course) and the four we chose were all very impressive. J went with a trio of sorbets- the guava being the best one- which came with a Florentine made with pumpkin seeds. L had to go with the chocolate box with chocolate truffles, blackberries, raspberries, and a vanilla custard sauce which we all pretty much dug into once we saw the creamy custard literally spilling out of what looked like a paper bag made of chocolate. Talk about over the top! JI’s crepes filled with a hazelnut chocolate filling and a vanilla custard sauce were voted our favorite, and my crème brûlée of mamey (a melon that looks kind of like a mango and I saw everywhere at the Mercado) had a golden, crispy topping and hid a pile of warm berries at the bottom of the dish. I took a couple of bites and couldn’t eat anymore but the rest of the table ended up making a pretty big dent in it.

We rolled ourselves out of Izote with full bellies and big smiles. I saw Patricia Quintana wandering around the dining room but was too shy to say anything to her. I think it’s cool that a female chef is making such an impact on the culinary world, and we certainly enjoyed her unique creations.

Izote de Patricia Quintana
Av. Presidente Masaryk 513
Between calles Sócrates and Platón, Col. Polanco, Chapultepec Park & Polanco
Mexico City, Mexico
55/5280-1671, 55/5280-1265