Tonight is tofu night. This is not because I am a vegetarian, I am not. And this is not because I give any credence to diets that restrict entire food groups, I don’t. Still, we eat meat-free on a fairly regular occasion, partly because meat and fish are expensive and I am nothing if not frugal and partly because I have a strange affinity for the funky textures of meat substitutes.
Growing up I had some form of animal protein on my plate every night. Yes, there was a vegetable and a starch, too, but the meat or seafood was always the star of the show. That said, my dad did have a handful of vegetarian dishes in his repertoire including a spinach florentine that he first made for my mother when they were dating in college. The recipe is from a 1970 vegetarian cookbook that I have since inherited, in which nearly every recipe features MSG as the primary seasoning. The florentine is one of the exceptions, so I just keep cooking the humble baked eggs over and over again. It is delicious and soul satisfying every time.
My dad also made a delicious Ma Po Tofu and it was my job to grind the szechuan peppercorns in the mortar and pestle after toasting them in a dry pan. If you’ve never had szechuan pepper, you need to try it. The pepper is mildly spicy, deeply smoky, and has a strange numbing property that slowly takes over your tongue after the heat subsides.
Tonight’s recipe had no szechuan, but it did involve a mortar and pestle (or it would have if I hadn’t cheated and used a food processor instead). The result was a nutty, sweet, and salty bowl of soba and tofu with crunchy strips of fresh snow peas. Predictably, the recipe was not from my dad’s dog-eared hippie cookbook, but rather from a shiny new book I bought on a whim (mostly because it had a fancy book award medallion, I am a sucker for those). What I’ve cooked so far has been delicious, simple, and fresh, but the pages don’t have notes from my dad penciled in the margins or recipe clippings from the Globe tucked in the spine. So, I think it’s time to return to “Vegetarian Gourmet Cookery” minus the MSG.
Black Sesame Otsu from Super Natural Every Day by Heidi Swanson
1 teaspoon pine nuts
1 teaspoon sunflower seeds
1/2 cup / 2 oz / 60 g black sesame seeds
1 1/2 tablespoons natural cane sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons shoyu, tamari, or soy sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons mirin
Scant 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
2 tablespoons brown rice vinegar
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Fine-grain sea salt
12 ounces / 340 g soba noodles
12 ounces / 340 g extra-firm tofu
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 bunch green onions, white and light green parts, thinly sliced
Toast the pine nuts and sunflower seeds in a large skillet over medium heat until golden, shaking the pan regularly. Add the sesame seeds to the pan and toast for a minute or so. It’s hard to tell when they are toasted; look closely and use your nose. Remove from the heat as soon as you smell a hint of toasted sesame; if you let them go much beyond that, you’ll start smelling burned sesame – not good. Transfer to a mortar and pestle and crush the mixture; the texture should be like black sand. Alternatively, you can use a food processor. Stir in the sugar, shoyu, mirin, sesame oil, brown rice vinegar, and cayenne pepper. Taste and adjust if needed.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Salt generously, add the soba, and cook according to the package instructions until tender. Drain, reserving some of the noodle cooking water, and rinse under cold running water.
While the noodles are cooking, drain the tofu, pat it dry, and cut into matchstick shapes. Season the tofu with a pinch of salt, toss with a small amount of oil, and cook in a large skillet over medium-high heat for a few minutes, tossing every couple minutes, until the pieces are browned on all sides.
Reserve a heaping tablespoon of the sesame paste, then thin the rest with 1/3 cup / 80 ml of the hot noodle water. In a large mixing bowl, combine the soba, half of the green onions, and the black sesame paste. Toss until well combined. Add the tofu and toss again gently. Serve topped with a tiny dollop of the reserved sesame paste and the remaining green onions.