Sunday, January 25, 2009

On Shortcuts

I think it's fair to say that anyone who has the patience to make her own sourdough starter isn't exactly a slave to shortcuts. Slave to feeding mischievous masses of flour and water twice a day, perhaps. But not to shortcuts.

It's not that I have anything against cooking shortcuts, really. I just like the food I make to reflect my own work, my own tastes, and my own style. And I like it to taste good and not have any ingredients that might sneak their way in under my radar. Pre-cut vegetables? I'll pay for the extra knife skills practice with five minutes of my time. Microwaved oatmeal? Only at work, when I haven't yet had breakfast - and I swear each bite makes me appreciate the beauty of on-the-stove oatmeal more than I did before. OK, so I maybe I do have something against shortcuts, because shortcuts to me usually indicate sacrificing a good deal of quality and precious learning experiences.

However, even I have a few tricks up my culinary sleeve that happen to help put dinner on the table in a timely manner. Especially now that dinner preparations for me happen in the extremely short (and getting shorter, it seems) window between getting home from work and plopping into bed, I've started embracing the shortcuts that add both quality and quickness to my everyday menus.

My shortcuts include using canned chickpeas and artichoke hearts to make lunch-worthy salads, investing in a few jars of high-quality pasta sauce, and keeping my freezer stocked with things like peas, spinach, and shelled edamame, which I throw into just about anything to give it a boost of vegetable-y green. The trick of the day, though, is a bit more obscure: jarred aromatics.

Now, let's be clear: I am not, under any circumstances, going to condone using minced garlic from a jar. Garlic is just too easy to find and to keep in the kitchen, and too quick to chop by hand for it to ever inhabit a flavor-sapping jar that sits in the refrigerator. What I'm talking about is something more exotic and much more difficult to find (in its fresh form, at least) in the grocery store: lemongrass.

The perfect addition to a simple and flavorful tofu stir-fry, lemongrass is exactly the kind of thing I like to have on hand, but not something I use often enough to merit buying it in bulk on the rare days when Whole Foods has it in stock. I use a brand that contains only lemongrass, water, and citric acid (Vitamin C), and though it's less potent than the fresh stuff, it's easy enough to add a little extra to my dish and call it even.

The dish I'm thinking of, of course, is this amazingly simple and fragrant lemongrass tofu, which is inspired by this recipe from Rasa Malaysia and an amazing lemongrass tofu dish I had at the Slanted Door a year or so ago. Although there aren't many ingredients in the dish, the ones that are included pack quite the wollop of flavor: spicy, sweet, sour, and just about everything in between.

I've made it with both fresh and jarred lemongrass, and both versions are delicious and perfect for a light and satisfying after-work meal. I serve it with red rice (pictured here), or with brown rice stick noodles and this incredibly delicious salad.

My tofu of choice is Mori Nu extra firm silken tofu, which is so superior to the Nasoya stuff you get in the refrigerator section that it almost seems unfair that it is shelf-stable and pleasantly inexpensive. Once you try it, you'll never go back. The curry powder I use is a slightly sweet, but quite traditional Indian-style spice blend. It works beautifully, but something a little spicier would also be great. And finally, if you'd like to make this dish a bit more interesting, thinly sliced shiitake mushrooms make a wonderful addition to the mix - just add them to the pan a few minutes before tossing in the tofu.

One of the best parts of this dish is that once you've invested in a little jar of lemongrass, you'll probably have all of the ingredients on hand and ready to go, even when it's one of those nights when it seems like only the worst kind of shortcut can save your dinner. So go ahead and embrace the jar. And enjoy your tofu, while you're at it.

Lemongrass Tofu (serves 2-4)

2 tbs. vegetable oil
2 (12oz.) packages Mori Nu extra firm tofu, cubed
1 large onion, cut in half and thinly sliced
1 heaping tsp. minced lemongrass
3 cloves of garlic, minced or pressed
1 1/2 tsp. sugar
2-3 tsp. curry powder
2-4 tbs. fish sauce
splash of soy sauce, plus more to taste
5-6 shiitake mushrooms, thinly sliced (optional)
Chili-garlic or other Asian chili sauce, to taste (optional)


In a medium bowl, mix cubed tofu with garlic, 1/2 tsp. sugar, curry powder, fish sauce, and splash of soy sauce. Set aside. Meanwhile, heat oil in a wok or large skillet. Add lemongrass and sliced onion, and stir fry for a few minutes. Sprinkle a tsp. of sugar over the onions, and continue to cook, allowing them to soften and caramelize, about 10min. more. If using mushrooms, add them to pan and continue cooking. If necessary, add some soy sauce or a bit of water to deglaze the pan and prevent mixture from burning. Once onions are sufficiently soft, add tofu mixture to pan and stir fry for 3-5min. more, until tofu is heated through. Add chili sauce, if desired, and adjust for salt by adding a bit more soy sauce, if necessary. Serve immediately with rice or noodles.


Amy said...

Sounds fabulous! Where do you get the jarred lemongrass at?

Mia said...

Amy: I got my lemongrass at Whole Foods, and any grocery store with a decent ethnic/international foods section should have it. Look in the Asian foods section near the condiments.

molly.stoddart said...

This looks amazing! I found your blog via foodgawker, and am loving it. I plan to be a regular reader! I am bummed though - I went to my Whole Foods this afternoon, and they didn't have the jar of lemongrass. I plan to check back next time I'm there, though. Go figure when I need help with something there aren't any employees around. I will make this recipe as soon as I get some though!

Mia said...

Molly: I'm surprised you couldn't find it at Whole Foods! You could try a regular grocery store, but make sure it has an ethnic foods section (not sure what part of the country you're in, but the Shaw's here in Boston has a pretty decent one). Good luck!

Emma said...

beautiful photos!