A Nice Change of Pace

This past weekend was completely unlike the one that preceded it. For a ton of reasons. But let’s first state the obvious, most polarizing difference: this past weekend, Chris was on his way to China for a week (yes, without me – again!), and the weekend before it, we were both in the country.

Now that we’ve set the stage, let’s move on.

The other big difference is that two weekends ago, Chris and I took our first overnight backpacking trip into the Ventana Wilderness near Big Sur, going “balls to the wall” and hiking a round-trip 23 miles of bonkers up-and-down trail, where we saw mountains, redwoods, waterfalls, pretty greenery, the ocean, and at the final point for the night, a campsite right near natural hot springs. Which means we also saw hippie naked people, our own stinking dirty clothes, and freeze-dried food that didn’t taste half-bad.

It was pretty amazing, to say the least. Amazing and really, really hard. I’m pretty proud of us for roughin’ it out there, and can’t wait to do it again. (Here’s the pics, if you’re interested. There aren’t many since we were more focused on things like not toppling over from the weight of our packs!)

This weekend, I was left to my own devices, and I definitely didn’t go backpacking. Instead, I painted my toenails and fingernails (purple!), I got a massage, I went for a run and a couple of small bikes rides, and I survived my first hot yoga class. Just barely, though.

I also managed to sit out in the sunshine and soak in some Vitamin D. Ironically enough, I watched the “new” Twilight movie and read plenty of ‘Salem’s Lot, too. I did not sleep in a coffin, in case you were wondering, but I did wake up to my second memorable earthquake since living in San Francisco, which is noteworthy.

It wasn’t the same as my usual weekends around here lately – hiking and such – but it was certainly a nice change of pace. And it kept me from sitting in a quiet house with two lazy cats staring a me.

And while I could have easily procured a few microwave dinners to get me through the week food-wise, I had some produce leftovers from last week, and I decided that I couldn’t go one more day without making one of my very favorite dishes, bibimbap. I can’t put my finger on it, but the combination of flavors in bibimbap something that I seem to crave every now and then, and the taste isn’t comparable to anything else I know of. It’s the mixture of veggies with soy sauce and sesame oil, the Korean chili paste, the textures of all the different, individual cooking of ingredients, and the runny, fried egg on top that I absolutely can’t resist. I made enough for 2 servings this time (the recipe below is still scaled to 4, but it does half easily) and I ate leftovers so quickly that I almost poked myself in the face with my fork.

I took a picture with my phone and texted it to Chris, thinking he’d be totally envious and ready to come home right away. But then I remembered he was in, well, China. There’s good food in China.

And then I licked the rest of the chili paste right outta the bowl. I mean shoot, no one’s watching, anyway. But would I care if they were? Prolly not…

Bibimbap, previously: Beef & Asparagus Bibimbap
Korean, previously: Korean tofu tacos

Vegetarian (or not) Bibimbap
Adapted from Cooking Light, March 2012; serves 4 

time commitment: 1 hour

printable version

ingredients
1 c uncooked short-grain brown rice
8 oz extra-firm tofu, drained (or sirloin, chicken, or pork)
1/3 c water
1/4 c apple cider vinegar
2 t sugar, divided
2 t garlic, minced & divided
1 t fresh ginger, minced & divided
1/4 t crushed red pepper
1 c carrots, julienned
2 T lower-sodium soy sauce
3 T dark sesame oil, divided
1 c fresh bean sprouts
5 oz shitake mushrooms, sliced
9 oz fresh baby spinach (usually a large bag)
4 large eggs
4 T gochujang*
1/4 t kosher salt

*gochujang is Korean chili paste. You can usually find it at Whole Foods (the Annie Chun brand) or other brands in Asian markets

instructions
Cook rice. Bring 2 c water and rice to boil in medium saucepan. Reduce heat and simmer for about 45 minutes, or until water is absorbed. This can be done days in advance to cut down on cooking time.

Meanwhile, cut tofu into 3/4-inch-thick cubes. Place tofu in a single layer in between a kitchen towel. Let stand 30 minutes, pressing down occasionally.

Combine 1/3 c water, vinegar, 1 t sugar, 1/2 t garlic, 1/2 t ginger, and crushed red pepper in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil. Add carrot, and remove from heat; let stand 30 minutes. Drain.

Combine remaining 1 t sugar, 1/2 t garlic, remaining 1/2 t ginger, soy sauce, and 1 T oil, stirring with a whisk. Remove tofu from paper towels. Place tofu in a medium bowl. Add 1 T soy sauce mixture to tofu; toss gently. Let stand 15 minutes.

Heat a 10-inch cast-iron skillet over high heat for 4 minutes. Add 1/2 T sesame oil; swirl to coat. Add rice to pan in a single layer; cook 1 minute (do not stir). Remove from heat.

Turn on oven just enough to warm and then turn off. Keep the following components warm by putting them on a baking sheet and keeping them in the oven until all pieces are sautéed. Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add 1 t oil; swirl to coat. Add 1 1/2 t soy sauce mixture and bean sprouts to pan; sauté 1 minute. Remove sprouts from pan; keep warm. Add mushrooms to pan; sauté 2 minutes. Stir in 1 1/2 t soy sauce mixture; sauté 1 minute. Remove mushrooms from pan; keep warm. Add 1/2 T oil to pan; swirl to coat. Add tofu to pan; sauté 7 minutes or until golden brown. Remove tofu from pan; keep warm. Add 1 t oil to pan; swirl to coat. Add remaining 1 t garlic and remaining 1 T soy sauce mixture; sauté 30 seconds. Add spinach to pan; sauté 1 minute or until spinach wilts. Remove spinach from pan; keep warm.

Reduce heat to medium. Add remaining 1 t oil to pan, more if desired. Crack eggs into pan; cook 4 minutes or until whites are set. Remove from heat.

Place 1/2 c rice in each of 4 shallow bowls. Top each serving evenly with carrots, sprouts, mushrooms, tofu, and spinach. Top each serving with 1 egg and 1 T chili paste. Sprinkle evenly with salt.

Peppery Goodness

I’m a big fan of all things spicy. Luckily, Chris is too. Taken together, this means I don’t have to “wuss down” any of the food I’m making so long as it’s just for the two of us. And when ordering takeout, I know that I can tell the guy on the other end of the line to “make it as spicy as you can” when placing an order for chana masala or Kung Pao chicken, and I won’t hear any shrieks from anyone on my end.

Come to think of it, this should have been one of those “checklist” items I talked about the other day.

There was a bar near our alma mater, NC State (Go Wolfpack!), that we frequented quite a bit back in the day – Sammy’s. Sammy, the owner (duh), had a signature wing sauce called “Sammy Sauce”. While Sammy clearly wasn’t the most creative person around, that sauce he made was dynamite, in more ways than one. It was loaded with pepper, so much so that you saw more black than you did sauce and chicken wing.

Man, it was good, and hot too. But you had to get there before the crowd rushed in, because only Sammy made the sauce, and when the bucket was empty, that was that until another batch was made the following day. Apparently Sammy didn’t work at night.

I thought about Sammy and his sauce (and that just sounds really gross because, yes, I am immature) the second I saw this recipe in the cookbook that I still haven’t returned to my friend. The title stood out to me, and the picture confirmed my unnaturally high hope that this recipe was exactly what it purported to be: all about the pepper.

And since I love any excuse to eat crispy tofu, I figured this recipe would be pretty close to perfect. Toss in an episode of last season’s Castle, and you have yourself a trifecta.

For those of you who aren’t into tofu, don’t worry – I am certain a pound of cubed chicken breast would work perfectly here. It won’t have that satisfyingly spongy on the inside, crispy on the outside texture that crispy tofu has, but maybe that’s just my cup o’ tea, and not yours.

Either way, if you are into hot and spicy, this could be your go-to guy, no matter what protein you prefer. After all, it’s just the medium for the peppery goodness, anyway.

Black Pepper Tofu
Adapted from Plenty; serves 4

time commitment: 45 minutes

Two notes here:

1) sweet soy sauce: only the Asian grocers seem to carry this stuff, or you can buy it online. I forgot to pick it up and made my own, but if you can find it, definitely buy the real thing. To at least mimic the sweet/salty effect, bring 1/4 c brown sugar and 1/4 c regular soy sauce to a boil in a small saucepan, and reduce to 1/4 c.

2) grinding the peppercorns: I started with a mortar and pestle, but couldn’t get them to the size I wanted without breaking a sweat. so I’d suggest a spice grinder so the pieces aren’t too big. You want it coarse, but edible.

printable version

ingredients
2 packages extra-firm tofu, drained and cut into 1″x2″ chunks
canola oil, for frying
cornflour, for dusting tofu
4 T butter
12 small shallots, thinly sliced
1 serrano chile, minced
6 garlic cloves, minced
3 T fresh ginger, minced
1 c basmati rice, for serving
6 T soy sauce
4 T sweet soy sauce
2 T sugar
5 T coarsely crushed black peppercorns
16 scallions, cut into 3″ segments

instructions
pour about 1″ of oil into a wok or large skillet and warm up over med-hi heat. Meanwhile, toss the tofu in batches into the cornflour and shake off the excess. again, in batches, add tofu to wok and fry, turning over, until golden all over. once ready, transfer to paper towel-lined plate and fry the remainder of the tofu.

remove oil from pan, and wipe any crumbs away as well. melt butter in wok. add shallots, chile, garlic and ginger. saute over low to medium heat for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until ingredients are totally soft. (start cooking rice at this point, according to package directions.) then add soy sauces and sugar and stir, then add the crushed black pepper.

add tofu back to the wok to warm it in the sauce for about a minute. lastly, stir in scallions. serve over rice.