February 27, 2009

Seasoned Baked Tofu

For years there has been considerable debate about the health benefits versus the health concerns of soy products. When there is hype on both sides of the fence, it's best to just sit on top of the fence and enjoy soy in moderation. Most meat and milk consumers have no nutritional need for soy. But for vegetarians the protein, calcium, omega-3's, and other nutrients in soy make it a very desirable part of the diet.

The most convenient soy product is tofu, also known as bean curd. It's relatively inexpensive and easy to work with. Tofu is essentially a "cheese" by-product from making soy milk, and it comes in varying degrees of firmness. But many folks simply don't like tofu; it has a somewhat mild but odd taste and a gelatinous consistency. These people have never had Evolution Kitchen's "Seasoned Baked Tofu"!

You shouldn't eat tofu unadulterated. Just like unseasoned, boiled chicken, un-enhanced tofu is completely boring. The secret is to marinate before cooking. Marinating replaces the yucky packaging water with tastier broth, and cooking firms up the consistency.

This tofu recipe creates an Oriental-influenced tofu dish that can be used in other dishes. You can make sandwiches out of it, cut it up in a stir fry, fill dumplings with it, or just eat it by itself, hot or cold. The tofu is simmered in a wonderful broth, then it is baked to firm it up to a usable consistency.
Here you see what it looks like simmering. It may appear we emptied the vacuum cleaner bag into the skillet, but those little floating bits are the garlic, ginger, and star anise petals. These are the magic ingredients. If you are going to do any Oriental cooking, you have to get some star anise. You probably won't find it in your local Safeway, but I admit I never looked there. We get ours at Chinese markets. I suppose you could substitute some anise seed, or Chinese Five-Spice Powder (star anise is one of the five spices).

Seasoned Baked Tofu


1 lb extra firm tofu, drained and pressed
1 ¼ c water
¼ c soy sauce
1 T fresh ginger root, grated
5 cloves garlic, chopped
4 star anise, broken into petals
½ t crushed red pepper flakes
1 ½ t sesame oil
2 t sesame seeds


1. Cut the tofu lengthwise in ½ inch slabs.

2. In a 10-inch skillet, combine the water, soy sauce, ginger, garlic, star anise, and red pepper flakes. Arrange the tofu slabs in the marinade in one layer. Over high heat, bring to a boil. Lower heat to medium-low, and simmer for 30 minutes.

3. Preheat oven to 450º. Brush the sesame oil on the bottom of a large, shallow baking dish. When the tofu slabs are ready, carefully remove them from the marinade, brush off any bits of garlic, ginger and star anise, and set in the baking dish. Flip over so both sides have oil on them. Sprinkle with 1 t sesame seeds. Bake uncovered 15-20 minutes, until the tops are caramel brown. Flip over and sprinkle remaining seeds. Bake for another 15 minutes.

4. Remove from the baking dish and set on a rack. The tofu will firm up as it cools.

The final product is much more attractive than while in the simmering stage:

February 24, 2009

The Death of the Chinese Restaurant

Believe it or not, I don't really like Chinese food. My wife doesn't either. "Wait a minute! Ain't she Chinese?" you might ask. Technically, she is Taiwanese, but we won't pick nits.

Let me clarify my initial statement: We don't like what Americans pass off as Chinese food. According to my wife, who should know, that food is not what is eaten by over 1 billion people on the other side of the globe.

Be aware that I am generalizing here, as I am sure there are decent Chinese restaurants around. But most of the restaurants follow this same pattern:

  1. You all sit down with clear plastic-coated tables, where your bare arms will stick if left motionless for too long.
  2. Everybody reads the menu and chuckles at the comical dish names, like "Happy Smile Yum Yum Platter", "Fragrant Fungus Sinew Pot", and "General Tso's Left Ventricle".
  3. While waiting for the food, everyone discusses the Chinese zodiac chart on their paper place mats (I'm a "snake", if you're interested). You all realize that you are zodiacally incompatible with your spouses.
  4. A tray the size of a satellite dish comes out with a dozen or so bowls, plates, and tea pots. The table is woefully undersized for it all to fit, so everyone helps to rearrange everything. (Tip: You won't need the little wire holder with the soy sauce, salt, pepper, and sugar. Set that on the table next to you. Ignore the annoyed stares from the people eating at said table.)
  5. You dish out a portion of food, and then fumble awkwardly with the chopsticks. Food goes everywhere except in your mouth. You all have a good laugh, deride the silly things, and replace with forks.
  6. After the meal, your bill comes with individually-wrapped, tasteless cookies with little strips of paper containing words of wisdom, lottery numbers, or Mandarin lessons. These are good for about 2 minutes of entertainment.
  7. Ten minutes after leaving the restaurant, you're already searching for something else to eat, like a 20-oz steak or an all-you-can eat pasta bar.

This is the quintessential Chinese restaurant experience that you can "enjoy" just about anywhere. Except in China.

"But wait a minute! Aren't those restaurants run by *Chinese* people? They sure look Chinese." Yes, they are Chinese. You can tell when they talk to other Chinese-looking customers, and you don't know that they are saying. Translated loosely, they are usually saying: "Yuck, look at what these Americans will eat! Come sit over here and I'll serve you some real food."

You see, the Chinese are cunning business people. In order for them to succeed in the U.S. they need to serve what Americans want to eat. They know that if they deviate from the expected pattern, we will complain: "Hey! Where are my chopsticks that I will eventually throw down in futility?" and "Waiter, we need some fortune cookies so we can add the phrase 'in bed' to each and have a good, juvenile laugh. Go get some, chop chop!" (Tip: Although you may think you are clever by saying "chop chop", that is actually unknown gibberish to the Chinese. Please don't embarrass yourself.)

So what's wrong with the food? For one thing, every dish is the same thing: some kind of stew-like concoction poured over rice. The rice keeps the sauce from running off the plate and onto your arm, which is stuck to the table. It doesn't matter if the meal contains beef, pickled herring, pine needles, or gummy bears; it will all taste like the sauce. Every dish is served with copious amounts of sauce. Enough sauce to bathe in. These sauces are delivered daily to the restaurants in 50 gallon drums labeled "Yum Sauce #1" and "Yum Sauce #2". The swankier places also order "Yum Sauce #3 Deluxe".

And I'm sorry to say that the Chinese fortune cookie is as Chinese as french fries are French. These little morsels of philosophy were invented in California based on a traditional Japanese cracker. Chinese fortune cookies could be the only product in the world that is not made in China!

So what do we do about this? We must demand that Chinese restaurants actually serve Chinese food, not platters of stereotypes. Until they do, they should turn in their fish tanks and close down. We gave the world our great cuisines of pizza and hamburgers and Kentucky fried chicken, so now it's China's turn to share their food heritage.

Let your voice be heard! Sign my petition (the comments section)!

Until that happens, as a service to our dear readers out there who deserve good, authentic Chinese food, we will post articles of real dishes from the Orient. Not often, though. Frankly I can't stand the stuff (just kidding).

Stay tuned, and practice those chopstick skills. 1,330,044,544 people can't be using the wrong utensils.

February 20, 2009

Potato Paprikash

This week our theme appears to be "Food that is orangish in color". We didn't plan it that way, but sometimes it just happens. Once we accidentally planned a whole week of food where each dish had olives in it. I don't even like olives!

So with just a little more ado.... here we have another "orangish" dish. But this one is wickedly good. The helping in the front of this picture is the topic of this article; the buckwheat salad in the back was a bit of a flop.

Chicken Paprikash is the Hungarian National dish, and for good reason. Paprikash is one of my favorite tastes: onion cooked with a good dose of sweet Hungarian paprikash, and then smoothed out with a dollop of sour cream. However, in our ever-evolving diet, we have replaced the chicken with potatoes. The result is incredibly simple yet bursting with flavor. It is even bordering on "comfort food".

This recipe assumes you are using a pressure cooker. If you don't have one, a large pot will do, but it will take longer. While cooking with pressure, this dish can be cooked under 5 minutes. With a pot, oh, I don't know, a couple days or so? If you make it in a pot, let me know so I can update the instructions!

Potato Paprikash


1 T canola oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1/2 c water
1 T sweet paprika
1 13-oz can of diced tomatoes, puréed in a blender
2 lbs red potatoes, scrubbed and cut into 1/4-inch slices
3/4 t salt
ground pepper
4 T sour cream


1. Heat oil in the pressure cooker. Cook the onion over medium-high heat for 1 minute, stirring frequently. Add the water. Stir in the paprika and tomato puree, then bring to a boil. Add the potatoes, salt, and pepper. Stir it all up well.

2. Lock the lid in place and bring to high pressure. Lower heat and maintain high pressure for 3 minutes (or 5 minutes at 7,000 feet). Reduce pressure with the quick release. If the potatoes are not quite tender, simply put the lid back on (don't lock), and let the pot sit on the burner for a few more minutes.

3. Stir in the sour cream before serving.

The sour cream is really what makes this dish what it is; even though it's a piddly 4 tablespoons, don't try to skip it! We use soy-based sour cream which is an excellent dairy free substitute. You might want to use it even if you're not lactose intolerant because it keeps in the refrigerator for months.

February 17, 2009

Prepare Your Ingredients!

Ok, show of hands: How many of you start following a recipe at the "instructions", skipping over the "ingredients"?

I admit it: I used to cook this way. Most casserole dishes can be built by the gradual addition of ingredients as your prepare them. 20 minutes later, stir it all up, cover with foil, and throw it in the oven. Voila!

But many of the dishes we make are cooked in multiple, brief stages on the stove top, like stir fries or curries. It is fairly common to see instructions like this:

"Saute onion for 43 seconds, stirring constantly. Next add the garlic and saute for an additional 6.5 seconds, then gradually, but don't stop stirring, add the puréed tomato sauce..."

With instructions like that, your ingredients must be ready to dash in at a moments notice. Sure you might try mincing garlic with one hand while stirring onion with the other hand, but you'll soon realize you have to get your act together *before* you start the actual cooking.

So now we prep, and then we cook. Ingredient prep usually takes longer than the cooking. If you ever prepped 2 pounds of fresh green beans, you know what I'm talking about.

Here is what we do: each ingredient tells the amount and a brief description of what to do with it; mince it, peel it, quarter it, stomp on it, etc. Some ingredients even require some kind of cooking, like toasting almonds; it's like a recipe within a recipe. Each ingredient, after it's prepped, is put into a bowl, plate, mug, or whatever is fitting. I also take a little shortcut and premix ingredients. For example, if the recipe says add the tomatoes and then add the garlic, I will toss the minced garlic into the bowl with the tomatoes.

What we end up with is a line of raw ingredients awaiting their turn in the skillet. Here's a simple example of a recent dish:

Each of these containers go into the pot at different times. The downside, as you can guess, is a lot of dirty dishes.

A side benefit of this technique is that you quickly discover the ingredients you forgot to buy or what you have in the back of the fridge is now green and fuzzy. This prep time gives you a chance to improvise or even rush out to the store. You can't do that very well when you're in the middle of cooking!

There are many ways to optimize this process. If you're pressed for time, some ingredients can be prepped hours or even days in advance. If you can work in the kitchen with your spouse without killing each other, you can share the prep duty, or one can prep while the other starts cooking.

Certainly ingredient prep is boring --chop, slice, peel, scrape off mold-- but those 30 minutes of prep time are really necessary for that 30 seconds of intense cooking.

February 15, 2009

Sweet Potatoes That Aren't

Most people eat sweet potatoes about once a year, usually at Thanksgiving. And it probably has marshmallows melted all over it, or glazed with maple syrup. In other words, the "sweet" in the sweet potato is what is emphasized.

But in other cultures, the sweet potato serves as more than just a dessert. They are a staple of the Maori in New Zealand, and sweet potatoes are enjoyed throughout the Caribbean, Asia, and parts of Africa. It's a shame these root vegetables are not more popular in the U.S. because they are delicious and more nutritious than white potatoes.

For us, the subtle sweetness of the sweet potato couples well with coconut, curry, and hot spices. You'll see lots of sweet potato recipes on this blog, but for now we'll start with a sumptuous soup.

This recipe assumes you're using a pressure cooker, which will cook up this dish under 15 minutes, but you can use a conventional pot; it will just take longer to get the potatoes tender.

Curried Coconut Sweet Potato Soup


4 c chicken or vegetable broth
1 13-oz can coconut milk
2 T curry powder (adjust for your desired amount of "heat")
1 1/2 lbs sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
2 scallions, thinly sliced (keeping white and green parts separate)
1/2 c frozen peas


1. In a pressure cooker, blend the coconut milk, broth, and curry. Add the sweet potatoes and white parts of the scallions.

2. Lock the lid and bring pressure to high. Lower temperature and maintain high pressure for 8 minutes. Remove the cooker from the heat and let the pressure reduce naturally for 5 minutes. Release the rest of the pressure using quick release.

3. Remove the lid and crush the potatoes slightly and stir into the broth. Add the peas and green parts of the scallions and place back on the heat. Cook for another minute until peas are tender.

4. Salt to taste.

February 14, 2009

Coriander White Bean Dip

Beans are a good source of protein, something vegetarians should always be concerned with. Beans are also very versatile and there is a wide variety to choose from.

This is a white bean dip with a creamy texture and a hint of spices. Of course, any bean will do, but I prefer white beans here because of the lovely color it takes on from the spices. This dip is excellent with crackers, bread, or even vegetables.

Although the recipe calls for canned beans, this is merely for convenience. We prefer to cook dried beans in our pressure cooker. The consistency is so much better. Also, I love the taste of garlic, but don't like to burp it afterward, so we almost always cook our garlic first. You may omit the first step and toss the raw garlic right into the food processor.

Coriander White Bean Dip


1 15 oz can white beans, drained and rinsed
1 T cider vinegar
2 T olive oil
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 t ground coriander
1/2 t paprika
1/8 t cayenne pepper
1/4 t salt


1. In a small pan, saute garlic slightly in a little olive oil.

2. In a food processor, combine everything plus 2 tablespoons of water.

3. Process until mixture is very smooth, about 1 minute.

4. Transfer to a serving bowl, drizzle on some additional olive oil, and garnish with more paprika and black pepper.

What is an evolving palate?

As we get older, our eating habits tend to change. My first change was "swallowing my sweet tooth" years ago, and I have no taste for super sweet treats anymore. After I met my wife, my diet took another dramatic turn. You see, I grew up on a typical Mid-western meat-and-potatoes diet. No meal was complete without meat and some kind of starch. However, my wife grew up in Taiwan and is essentially a vegetarian.

Other changes have been forced on us as she slowly developed various food allergies over the years: she can't eat gluten or any wheat products, no dairy, no bananas, and nothing with sulfites. For a vegetarian, this list poses unique challenges for her to get enough nutrition and still enjoy eating.

Now I am a bona fide label reader, and while searching for allergens, I found chemicals -- lots of chemicals -- in our food. As I turned a more critical eye to the typical American diet, I became more and more enlightened with how unhealthy it really is. Call me paranoid, but it's hard not to think that American food has slowly poisoned my wife, and her body is rejecting all those chemicals that are neither natural nor necessary.

To cope, we focus on home-cooked meals, using fresh and dried organics whenever possible. We have also discovered that other cultures have cuisines better suited to our needs, and we have really developed a taste for the exotic. How I used to eat boring old meatloaf is really quite a mystery.

After all the years of exploring new foods and retrofiting old recipes, we have developed a large amount of knowledge and tasty, healthy dishes. In this blog, we would like to share what we have learned and what we continue to learn. For those who are looking for alternative diets, perhaps we can provide some new ideas.

So tune in and tune in often. Please post your comments and questions. We never stop changing; we welcome new ideas and new viewpoints. That is why this blog is called the Evolving Palate.

Thanks for visiting and we hope to hear from all of you who come and stay!