Sunday, January 9, 2011

Vietnamese tofu with cucumber slaw

From this week: tofu, green bell pepper, cucumber

From weeks past: anchovy paste, brown rice, jalapeno

Staples: soy sauce, rice vinegar, garlic, hot sauce, honey, brown sugar, vegetable oil, Saigon cinnamon

Have you ever been haunted by a word or a phrase or a name? You hear it spoken or see it written for the first time, or for the first time in a long time, and then you can't get away from it. An hour later you hear someone on TV say it; the next day, you read it in the newspaper; a week goes by, and your friend drops it in casual conversation.

It happens to me all the time. And often it's creepy and unpleasant. Unless it's food-related, and then it feels like a gift from the gods.

Case in point: banh mi; a funny little name for a delicious concept. I think I heard about it for the first time on the food channel's "The Great Food Truck Race." Nom Nom Truck (another funny little name) served up the Vietnamese sandwiches, and I was fascinated - first, by the way the cute name rolled off the tongues of the even cuter gals who own the truck, and then, by how awesome the sandwiches looked. Baguette: good; mayonnaise: good; pickled veggies: good; Vietnamese food: good. Good + good + good + good = good, I say.

Those sweet words followed me everywhere. I saw recipes for the sandwich on blogs, I heard it mentioned on other tv shows, I stumbled across an NY Times feature on it. And then, I got really lucky. While trying out a nearby Richmond restaurant, I spied it on the menu. With cucumbers. And a spicy sauce. And a tofu option. It was meant to be.

And it was stupendous. We went back a second time, and I got it again (okay so that doesn't say SO much about how it tasted since I'm sort of a creature of habit, but I'll just tell you I was right about all the goodness). But it's pretty messy, and I don't make a lot of sandwiches at home. To tell you the truth, I'm not sure why. I was about to say something about avoiding big hunks of bread in attempt to eat healthy at home but then I remembered this and this and this.

Regardless, I got just as much satisfaction by replicating the spicy sauce and the pickled cucumbers and replacing the french baguette and mayo with brown rice and green peppers. The sauce is spicy and salty and sweet, the cucumbers are bright and tangy, and the tofu is tender and meaty.

Sidenote: I bought tofu labelled "local" at Whole Foods, and it's bangin'. Not sure its deliciousness has anything to do with its geography, but if you can find tofu that looks dryer and vacuum-sealed with plastic all around it (rather than sitting in a box of water), buy that. Also, freezing and thawing really does make a difference. If you have two or three hour's foresight, prep the tofu that way instead of by pressing.

Vietnamese tofu with cucumber slaw
Serves 3-4

1 block extra firm tofu
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup seasoned rice vinegar
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tbsp warm water
2 tbsp brown sugar
2 tsp hot/chili sauce
1 tsp anchovy paste
1 tsp honey
2 tbsp vegetable oil, divided
1/4 teaspoon Saigon cinnamon (optional)
1/2 green bell pepper, diced

Cucumber slaw
1/2 cucumber
1 tbsp seasoned rice vinegar
1/2 pickled or fresh jalapeno, finely minced

Prepare cucumber slaw: peel every other 1/2 inch of cucumber (see picture above), then grate using food processor or a box grater, and squeeze to remove excess liquid. Mix with rice vinegar and jalapeno and set aside or refrigerate until ready to assemble the dish.

Prepare tofu: pat tofu dry, then cut into about 2x2x1/4 inch pieces (see picture above). Lay flat on a cookie sheet and freeze for at least 1 hour, then remove and thaw (about 30 minutes).

Marinate: while tofu is thawing, whisk together soy sauce, rice vinegar, brown sugar, water, garlic, chili sauce, anchovy paste, honey, 1 tbsp vegetable oil, and cinnamon. Place thawed tofu and marinade in a ziploc bag and move around so all the tofu is covered. Let sit for at least 20 minutes.

Cook: while tofu is marinating, heat 1 tbsp vegetable oil over medium high heat in a large skillet. Add green pepper and cook until just beginning to soften. Remove from skillet. Using tongs, lay 1/2-1/3 of tofu pieces in one layer in the skillet, reserving marinade. Cook for about 5 minutes, until downside is brown and caramelized. Flip and cook until brown, about 3 more minutes. Remove and repeat until all the tofu is cooked. Turn heat down to low, then add cooked tofu and green peppers and reserved marinade. Cook over low heat until sauce is slightly thickened. Serve over brown rice and top with about 1-2 tbsp of cucumber slaw.

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