Side Dish

I’m always disappointed when I try to stir fry tofu. I can never get it to absorb the flavors of a marinade and it’s never as crisp as I would like. Frustrated by this, I started asking my vegetarian friends for advice and got two useful tips: 1) buy a dense tofu (if you live in Davis, the Sacramento Tofu Company tofu that comes in a vacuum-sealed package works well) and 2) bake–rather than saute–it! This fall/winter Vicken and I took both pieces of advice to heart and found our new favorite way to prepare tofu.

You start by slicing the block of tofu in half and pressing it between paper towels to remove excess water. Then you slice it into bite sized pieces and place those in a baking dish. Next you make a marinade on the stove top and pour it over the tofu.

You can let the tofu hang out in the marinade for a few minutes, but i wouldn’t leave it too long. You want the tofu to take up the flavors of the marinade, but if it sits too long before baking the tofu will take up all the soy sauce and be too salty. Halfway through the baking time, I turn each piece of tofu over, rather than haphazardly stirring it. This is a little bit of a pain, but if you’re anal like me and want the tofu to be evenly browned, it’s worth it.

With this newfound cooking method, I began baking tofu for all kinds of things, including salads. I managed to not get totally sick of the quinoa salads I was making this summer and made a winter version to take on a climbing trip recently. I made it with tofu, broccoli and toasted almonds, but you could get creative and add whatever veggies you have on hand.

As the weather has gotten warmer recently, I have been dreaming about tomatoes and cucumbers and all the summer quinoa salads that are just around the corner! Before I can plant the summer garden I’ve still got quite a lot of beets, beet greens, chard, and carrots to eat. I just don’t know if I can take another week of cooked greens! On the off chance that you aren’t sick of them yet, you’ll be hearing about a good recipe involving greens, sweet potatoes, and black beans in an upcoming post! I’ll do my best not to put it off too long…

Baked tofu
recipe from Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home by The Moosewood Collective

1/3 cup soy sauce
1/3 cup dry sherry
1/6 cup rice vinegar
2 tablespoons brown sugar

1 pound tofu
2 tablespoons peanut oil or vegetable oil

1. In a small saucepan, bring the marinade ingredients to a boil. Simmer for 1 minute and remove from the heat.

2. Cut the blocks of tofu into 1/2 inch slices, then cut the slices into 1 inch squares. Place the squares in a single layer in a nonreactive heatproof pan. Pour the marinade over the tofu squares, sprinkle on 2 tablespoons of oil, and set aside for about 5 minutes.

3. Preheat the broiler. Broil the tofu for 7 to 8 minutes, until lightly browned; then turn it over with a spatula and brown the other side (another 4-5 minutes). Remove from pan and set aside until ready to add to salad.

Quinoa salad

1 cup quinoa
2 cups water

1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1 clove garlic, minced
pinch sugar
pinch salt

2-3 cups chopped broccoli
1/2 cup toasted slivered almonds
1 pound tofu, cubed and baked (see recipe above)

1. Combine water and quinoa in a saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for 15 minutes. Drain any excess liquid from quinoa and set aside to cool to room temperature. (You can make the quinoa ahead of time and refrigerate until you are ready to assemble the rest of the salad.)

2. Meanwhile, steam or blanch broccoli for 3-4 minutes, until it is tender, but retains its bright green color. Remove from heat immediately and put into a strainer. Run cold water over the broccoli for a few seconds to stop the cooking and then shake off excess water.

2. Combine olive oil, vinegar, garlic, sugar, salt and pepper in a jar and shake to combine. Pour the dressing over the quinoa and mix well. Add the broccoli and tofu and stir to combine. Top with the toasted almonds and serve immediately.


I know.  I’m really dragging out this one dinner I made almost a month ago.  It’s just that I got busy with field work, didn’t have the recipes with me at the field station to post, and then did all this other cooking that got me distracted.  Good thing I started readying The Help.  If you haven’t read this book, go get it at the bookstore or library!  Yes, like right NOW!  I’m only half-way done, but I can already tell it’s going to be one of my favorite books of all time!

So what does this book have to do with southern cooking?, you’re probably wondering.  Well, not much, other than the fact that it is set in Jackson Mississippi during the civil rights era and portrays the relationship between white families and their hired “help” (African American women) who do pretty much everything–including cooking–for them.  Aside from all the talk of cornbread, fried chicken, and caramel cakes, just reading the dialogue’s true-to-form southern accents makes me crave southern food.  So anyway, I have been inspired to tell you about the other side dish I made to accompany the blackened catfish and black-eyed peas in my southern feast: collard greens!

Ironically, I never knew I liked cooked greens until I moved to California.  In the south, people tend to boil them for a long time, so you end up with limp greens that have lost most of their “greenness.”  When I came to California I discovered swiss chard and how delicious it can be when sautéed simply with olive oil and garlic.  This opened my eyes to the wonderful world of greens and a new cookbook I recently bought, Greens Glorious Greens!,  has introduced me to a ton of new ideas for how to prepare them.  I came across several collard green recipes in this cookbook and decided to try the quick southern-style  collards with bacon.  You do boil these greens, but only for 6-10 minutes, so they retain their shape and a bright green color.  Then you sauté leeks and the quick-boiled greens in rendered bacon fat.  ooooooh yeah.

Another fun thing to try is the cookbook’s recommended technique for quickly chopping the greens into strips.  After you remove the midrib from the leaf, you roll a stack of leaves into the shape of a cigar and then slice it crosswise into 1/2 inch thick strips.  I don’t know if this saved me any time since I took so many pictures of the process, but it at least made the chopping more interesting!  So there you have it: a complete southern meal.  Wait, did I just say complete?  Surely, SURELY you know there’s a dessert post coming soon…


Quick Southern-Style Collards and Bacon
from Greens Glorious Greens!

Serves 2-3.

3 strips bacon
3/4 pound collard greens (6 or 7 cups, chopped)
2 cups water
1 cup thinly sliced leeks or onions
pinch of salt or to taste

1. Heat a 10-inch cast-iron skillet. Fry the bacon until golden and fat is rendered. Remove bacon from fat to paper towels to drain. Pout off rendered fat to a metal container to reserve. Wipe out pan.

2. Wash collards, remove stalks, and stack 4 to 5 leaves. Roll like cigar and slice into thin strips, approximately 1/4 inch wide (note: I did 1/2 inch strips). In a large skillet with a lid, bring water to a boil. Add the greens and cook on high heat, covered, for 8 to 10 minutes for tough, older greens, 4 to 6 minutes for tender baby greens. Cooked greens should be tender but still bright green. Remove greens from cooking liquid to a bowl, using a slotted spoon. Save “pot likker” to drink.

3. In a large skillet, heat 1 teaspoon of the bacon drippings over medium heat. Add leeks or onions and sauté for 5 to 8 minutes, until softened. Stir in collards to coat with leeks and drippings.

4. Season with salt, if desired. Crumble cooled bacon over the hot greens.

You can’t have a quintessential southern meal without black-eyed peas. This is just one of those times where I’m going to state an opinion like it’s a fact because I refuse to believe there is any other way things could be. My dad taught me to do this, so it’s not my fault. Black-eyed peas were one of my favorite foods growing up and continue to be one of my favorite comfort foods.  If you’ve only had canned b-e peas, let me tell you they are nothing compared to the ones made from scratch (but I guess that’s always true, now isn’t it…?).  

Another great thing about making these peas is that all the work comes up front. Most of the time the peas are cooking they are just simmering and you can tend to cooking other dishes. Add to this the fact that the peas can sit for a while before they are served and you have the recipe for a perfect side dish. The recipe I used comes from a cookbook I found on sale at a used bookstore that has been surprisingly handy.  Recipes are organized into menus for entertaining during different seasons or holidays.  This recipe comes from the “Sunday Soul” menu, which also has recipes for fried chicken, skillet cornbread, and mississippi mud pie.

The original recipe in the cookbook is for black-eyed peas and braised cabbage, but I left the cabbage steps out (steps 2 and 3 below). I included the whole recipe below just in case folks would like to try it out.  If you are a meat-eater, the bacon in the recipe is essential. If you are vegetarian I feel sorry for you right now, but you could make this without bacon and just add some oil to the skillet before cooking the onions. I’ve never made this without bacon, but the onions, cider vinegar, and red pepper flakes add enough flavor that I bet it would still be delicious!

Black-Eyed Peas and Braised Cabbage
adapted slightly from California Bistro: Menus for Entertaining

Serves 4.

1/4 pound sliced bacon, cut into 1/4-inch julienne
1 small onion, peeled and minced
1 stalk celery, minced, with some leaves
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 pinches hot red pepper flakes
1 cup (about 7 ounces) dried black-eyed peas, rinsed and picked over
2 tsp cider vinegar
3 cups chicken broth
1/2 tsp salt or to taste
Approximately 1 cup water
1 head green cabbage, cored and sliced into 1/4-inch shreds
1 tsp sugar

1. In a large saucepan, fry half the bacon over medium heat until it begins to brown; add onion and celery and continue to cook for a few more minutes, until wilted. Add half the garlic, then a pinch of hot red pepper, the black-eyed peas, and the vinegar. Saute for a moment longer, then add 2 cups of the chicken broth and the salt. Cover and simmer for 40 minutes. Add 1 cup water and simmer for another 40 minutes, or until peas are tender, adding more water as necessary, stirring occasionally. When done, season with salt to taste and set aside. There should be very little liquid in the pan, but the peas should not be dry.

2. Just before serving or after peas are cooked, prepare cabbage by rendering remaining bacon in a large pot. When brown and crispy, add a pinch of red pepper flakes and remaining garlic. Cook for a moment, then add cabbage, sugar, and remaining cup chicken browth. Cover and steam the cabbage until tender, stirring occasionally, about 8 minutes. Season with salt.

3. Add the peas to the cabbage and toss well. Arrange in a large bowl and serve hot.

I attended my 3rd and final Memorial Day weekend barbecue yesterday and was at a bit of a loss when trying to come up with a side dish to bring.  After digging around in the fridge for a few minutes, the only thing I came up with was half a head of red cabbage.  My obvious next thought was coleslaw, right?  Well, I should explain that coleslaw and I have a complicated past, mostly caused by miscommunication.  You see, I’m not a fan of mayonnaise, and all of the coleslaws I encountered growing up had LOTS of mayo in them.  I was either oblivious to the vinaigrette-based coleslaws at the time or people in the south don’t make those much.

Anyway, my first year in Davis someone brought a Thai coleslaw with red cabbage, cilantro, and peanuts to a potluck.  I was (thankfully) brave enough to try it and discover that it was delicious!  I had no idea cabbage actually tasted GOOD.  Since then I have thought about trying to replicate that recipe, but have never gotten around to it.  I decided that this Memorial Day would be a great time to try.  I went searching for recipes to use, but couldn’t find one that sounded just right, so I ended up mixing and matching ingredients from several sources!

First, I used the Joy of Cooking’s method to sweat the cabbage (remove excess water) before assembling the salad.  After you slice the cabbage, you put it in a colander, toss it with 1 tablespoon of salt, and weight it for 3 hours.  I put a bowl on top of the cabbage and then weighted it with bags of dried beans, but you could also use a plate and/or anything heavy to press the cabbage.

After a few hours I rinsed the cabbage and then added chopped green onions, sliced red pepper, chopped peanuts and a rice vinegar-based vinaigrette.  The vinaigrette was very similar to one that comes from a Thai chicken salad recipe in my friends’ mom’s cookbook for novice cooks, Life After Ramen.

This slaw was both pretty and tasty in the end.  It got lots of compliments at the bbq and I would definitely make it again.

Thai Peanut Coleslaw

Serves 6-8 as a side.

½ head of red cabbage, thinly sliced into short strips
5 green onions, thinly sliced
¼ red onion, thinly sliced
1 red pepper, cut into short strips
1/3 cup chopped cilantro
¼ cup chopped basil
¾ cup coarsely chopped peanuts

¼ cup olive oil
1/3 cup rice vinegar
2 Tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp minced fresh ginger
1 tsp red pepper flakes

1. Place shredded cabbage in a colander and toss with 1 tablespoon of salt.  Place a bowl or plate over cabbage and weigh it down with cans, dried beans, etc.  Allow to sit and drain for 3 hours.

2. Whisk together vinaigrette ingredients, set aside.

3. Rinse the cabbage and pat dry.  Add onions and red pepper and toss with the vinaigrette.  Stir in cilantro, basil, and peanuts before serving.