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.

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Otto-who? Otto-what?

Over a year ago, I had this crazy idea of going vegetarian. Okay, I’m not telling the truth here. I had the idea of going pescatarian, and only for a month – it was not to be a permanent change. It seemed doable, and this is coming from someone who tends to really like meat. I fought my way through it, even tossing away a lovely piece of pork that I mistakenly ordered, thinking it was a dish full of wheat berries and ramps (don’t ask how I screwed up there….). I didn’t order beef pho the first time I went to a place that served it, and at a tapas restaurant, I chewed on cheese and peppers, drank lots of wine, and tossed back mussels like it was my job.

All in all, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be. Would I ever give up meat completely? I seriously doubt it. For one, I couldn’t imagine a visit to the South without barbeque (not the fake stuff). And two, I love the smell of cheeseburgers on the grill. Also, bacon is pretty awesome.

But sometimes, I do manage to go a few days without eating meat, and I can honestly say that I usually don’t even notice it. I’d even go further to say that, sometimes, eating vegetarian is a lot healthier, as long as you watch the cheese and carbs.

It seems that every time I talk about vegetarian food, I feel the need to insure you people that I do not intend to eat this way full-time. I’m not sure why? Maybe because I know many of you enjoy the meaty posts, and I assure you they are here to stay.

But the other day, I discovered lentils. Don’t ask me why I’ve never cooked them before; I have no intelligent answer. A friend of mine let me borrow a cookbook of hers that is all-vegetarian, and while I didn’t expect this to be the case, I have a lot of the pages marked and as a result, wonder if I should just buy the dang thing myself.

Yottam Ottolenghi’s Plenty is that book. And of course, I’ve cooked a slew of things (no, I haven’t written about them all) from Heidi Swanson’s new book too, which also happens to be vegetarian. What I’ve realized is this: as long as flavor is brought to the dish, I don’t miss the meat. But the second you make something bland and boring, I may as well be eating tofu from the container. Or tempeh, which is still gross to me.

Ottolenghi seems to know what’s up on that front. His secret? He’s not vegetarian. Of course, some people seem to have a problem with that, but for me, it’s a match made in heaven. He knows that meat tastes good, and he knows that many vegetarian dishes lack flavor. The result? He makes his recipes scream with flavor, belting out ingredients like mustard seeds and curry powder, fenugreek and pomegranate molasses – and it works.

Also! he made me fall madly in love with lentils, an ingredient I’ve never really taken an interest in before. So yeah, maybe I just realized that I’m probably never giving this cookbook back to my friend (shhhhh!), and maybe as long as I locate vegetarian recipes that are actually locked and loaded with flavor I’ll be able to eat somewhat like a ‘flexitarian’, or whatever it’s called. But at the end of the day, I’m sticking to my beliefs – and that’s that meat is meant for me to eat, and I was meant to eat meat.

Spiced Red Lentils with Cucumber Yogurt
adapted from Plenty; serves 4 as a light dinner 

time commitment: 1 hour, about half of which is active

printable version

notice the piece of naan tucked alongside this dish. I didn’t make it this time, but you can. Or you can just buy some :). also, one of these spices is possibly tricky to find: fenugreek. It’s nice, if you have it, but don’t sweat it if you don’t.

ingredients
1 c split red lentils
1 1/2 c water
half a regular bunch of cilantro
1 small onion, peeled and quartered
1 1-2″ piece of fresh ginger, peeled
3 garlic cloves, peeled
1 green chile
1 1/2 t black mustard seeds
4 T sunflower oil
1 1/2 t g coriander
1 t g cumin
1/2 t g turmeric
1/4 t sweet paprika
3 Roma tomatoes, diced
2 t sugar
1/4 t fenugreek (if you can find it)
1 small container of Greek yogurt
1/2 of a cucumber, finely diced
1 1/2 T olive oil
3 T butter
1 1/2 T fresh lime juice
salt and pepper

instructions
wash the lentils under cold water and pour into a bowl with the water. let soak for 30 minutes. get the rest of your ingredients ready and chopped.

meanwhile, cut the cilantro bunch halfway between the top and bottom. give the leaf top a rough chop and set aside. add the bottom stalky part to a food processor along with the onion, ginger, garlic and chili. pulse a few times until ingredients are broken up, but not pasty.

grab a heavy pot (Dutch oven time!) and turn on medium heat. add the mustard seeds and when they start to pop, add the chopped mixture and the sunflower oil. cook on low heat for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. add the coriander through the paprika, and continue cooking/stirring for five minutes. the mixture may appear very dark, which is just fine.

add the lentils and their soaking water, tomatoes, sugar, and fenugreek, as well as a little salt. cover and simmer for 30 minutes, or until lentils are cooked. you’ll probably want to check on them occasionally, as mine were about 5 minutes overdone since I abandoned the kitchen for too long…

meanwhile, make the  yogurt by whisking the yogurt, cucumber, and olive oil together. add salt and pepper to taste.

once the lentils are cooked, stir in the butter, lime juice, and most of the cilantro leaves. season with salt/pepper if needed. divide into 4 dishes, topping each with a large dollop of yogurt and cilantro leaves to garnish.