Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Best Darn Tofu Dish Ever: Mapo Tofu

Vegan Mapo Tofu

A Vegan Remake of a Sichuan Classic

The name of this dish translates as “pock-marked woman’s bean curd”— so-called because it originated with a roadside vendor who was scarred by smallpox.  English spellings for the dish vary and include Mapo doufu, Ma po dou fu, and Ma-po tofu.

But however you spell it, Mapo tofu is the best tofu dish.  Ever.

Traditionally, Mapo Tofu includes ground beef (sometimes ground pork).  These versions are good, but they gild the lily; the meat seems superfluous to me.  Classic Mapo Tofu is also oil-laden and fiery hot — not a dish that suits everyone’s digestive system.

My version eliminates much of the oil, tames the heat, and replaces the meat with portobello mushrooms, which pack a flavor punch of their own.

The result is a vegan beauty that your whole family can enjoy.  And they probably won’t even realize it’s vegan unless you tell them.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Roasted Sichuan Pepper Powder

The Forbidden Pepper

Most people in the United States have never tasted Sichuan peppercorns. From 1968 to 2005 they couldn’t, because it was illegal to import them into the US.

Were they banned because they were, like, really powerful? The good stuff, you know, that would propel your taste buds into spasms of wild abandonment? Were they heavily addictive, leading you on a lifelong downward spiral in your desperate search for more and better pepper highs?

Alas, no. They were banned because they could carry citrus canker (which can cause unsightly blemishes, making citrus fruit difficult to sell). Now Sichuan peppers are street legal again, as long as they’ve been heated to 160 degrees Fahrenheit before import (the high heat kills the canker bacteria).

Sichuan peppers aren’t really peppers at all. They’re not related to black pepper or chile peppers. They are actually the dried out pods of woody shrubs in the Zanthoxylum genus. Nor are Sichuan peppers really “hot” or pungent in the chile sense. Rather, they produce a kind of tingling numbness in the mouth or on the tongue that somewhat resembles a mild dose of novocaine.

For most people, the biggest attraction of Sichuan peppers is their glorious fragrance. They have a lemony-pepper aroma (and flavor) that is quite pleasing. The flavor adds an almost summer-like quality to food.

You can add whole Sichuan peppercorns to a dish as you’re cooking it. But I prefer to roast the peppercorns and then grind them into powder.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Split Pea Soup with Bacon

Split Pea Soup with Bacon

Ham Bone Flavor Without the Ham Bone

All dried beans, legumes, and pulses have their own distinctive flavor, but split peas turn it up to eleven.

And we all know the best split pea soup is one that’s simmered with a ham bone for several hours.  The aroma alone is irresistible; the flavor, incomparable.

But making long-cooked soup takes a while — two hours at the very least, often three.  Who has that much time?  Besides, few people prepare whole (or even half) hams these days, so ham bones are scarce.

What to do when you crave a split pea soup with the flavor of long-cooked ham bone, but don’t have a ham bone handy or enough spare time to cook for three hours?

My Split Pea Soup with Bacon – which includes a secret ingredient – is just the ticket.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Fast Homemade Croutons

Homemade Croutons

The Kitchen Riffs household rarely buys croutons.  Store-bought croutons usually are too dry and crunchy and often have a weird aftertaste.

Besides, I never want more than a handful or two of croutons — and then only occasionally.  So the half-used package ends up shoved to the back of a pantry shelf, only to be discarded six months later.

Still, sometimes a salad or a soup cries out for a crouton garnish.

Well, no need to make a special trip to the store.  There’s an easy, quick solution that uses ingredients you probably have on hand.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Easy & Tasty Braised Cabbage

Braised Cabbage

Saint Patrick’s Day Cabbage Never Tasted Better!

Although green cabbage is ubiquitous in every supermarket, for most of us it’s not on the weekly — or even monthly — grocery list.

It’s one of those foods that we may have only occasionally, and then in the same predictable ways — often in coleslaw. Sometimes in stuffed cabbage or cabbage rolls.

And, of course, many of us eat it (or at least serve it) as an accompaniment to corned beef on Saint Patrick’s Day.

Maybe we neglect cabbage because, fairly or not, it is seen as a staple food of “poor” folk — perhaps including our own cash-strapped immigrant ancestors. Even though many of us seek out “ethnic” food, cabbage doesn’t seem to qualify as the right sort of ethnic.

Then there’s the preparation problem. Too often, cabbage is boiled to a pulp, resulting in a limp, bland-tasting, stinky mess.

Well, it’s time to give cabbage its due. Molly Stevens has developed a recipe for braised cabbage that she calls the “World’s Best Braised Green Cabbage.”

After you taste it, you may conclude that it’s not just the best braised cabbage recipe — it’s the best ever cabbage recipe!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Pasta with Quick Tomato and Bacon Sauce

Pasta with Tomato and Bacon Sauce

Combining Two Italian Classics

Two of the more famous tomato-based pasta sauces can be found in pasta all’arrabbiata and pasta all’amatriciana.

Pasta all’arrabbiata — which means “angry” pasta — features a sauce that combines tomato, olive oil, and red pepper flakes (the “angry” part).  Many recipes add garlic.  This sauce traditionally is served over spaghetti, though other pasta shapes often substitute.

Pasta all’amatriciana, which originated in the Italian town of Amatrice, adds guanciale or pancetta and (usually) onions to the mix.  But it leaves out the garlic.  Guanciale is salt-cured pork jowl and pancetta is salt-cured pork belly — it’s like American bacon, except that it’s unsmoked and contains no sugar (which often is added to bacon).  The traditional pasta for all’amatriciana is bucatini.  This shape is similar to spaghetti, but has a small hole running down the center of the pasta strand.

Both of these sauces are excellent and quick cooking, and either one makes a great topping for pasta.  But I like to mix the two recipes together to form a sauce that (to me at least) is even tastier.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Sazerac Cocktail


The Mardi Gras Drink

Next week is Mardi Gras (or Carnival) and people around the world will celebrate.

There are several popular customs associated with Mardi Gras — a/k/a Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent begins. One tradition involves emptying the larder of fats and rich foods by gorging on them in preparation for the lenten fast (hence “Fat Tuesday,” the literal English translation of Mardi Gras). When I was growing up, pancakes were traditional on Shrove Tuesday. Some cultures favor doughnuts.

Parades and festivals are another widespread tradition, often featuring people dressed in costume (or sometimes undressed). In the United States, my own St. Louis celebrates Mardi Gras (Naughty Gras) with particular vigor and enthusiasm. But no city the US is as synonymous with Mardi Gras as New Orleans. They do Mardi Gras proud.

Many of us will imbibe a few alcoholic beverages while enjoying the Mardi Gras festivities. And what could be better to sip than a Sazerac, the official drink of New Orleans?

Let's mix one!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Simple Syrup

Sugar Cubes on Black Acrylic for Simple Syrup

Sugar has a split personality.

On the up side, it tastes good — really good.  A small amount can enhance and highlight flavors in many foods, making them sparkle.  It can also mute the harshness in foods that are too acidic (some tomato sauces, for example).  And in baking it has a myriad of uses, including tenderizing (it often replaces fat in “low fat” foods for just this reason).

On the down side, sugar’s detriments are only too well understood.  It’s highly caloric and of minimal nutritional value.  Some think it’s addictive.  And — oh, heck, if you aren’t already mentally listing a dozen “problems” with sugar, you aren’t half trying.

So should we embrace sugar for its positives or banish it for its negatives?

Well, the Kitchen Riffs household believes in moderation.  We don’t always practice that philosophy, mind you, but we believe in it.  So we use sugar, at least sometimes.  When it comes to sweetening cold drinks — especially lemonade or the stray cocktail — we like to use Simple Syrup, which is basically just sugar and water.

Simply Syrup has great natural flavor and it dissolves instantly in a drink.  It’s also one of the easiest recipes around.  I’m sure there will be no divided opinions on that issue.