Spiced Soy Dressing with Green Veg

Must. Stop. Cooking. Chinese. Food. This is what I’ve been telling myself lately. It is true, my cooking patterns follow my travel patterns, and I’ll often cook a few meals inspired by recent travels. But it has been four months since I visited China and still all I want to eat is Chinese food. Specifically, Sichuan-inspired Chinese food. Eric is sick of the mouth-numbing meals I present to him, often opting to forage for nuts in the freezer rather than having a second helping of whatever spicy, salty thing I put forth.

Green Veg (3)

So this will be my last one. It’s a somewhat healthy dish, too. I used broccoli, snow peas, and baby bok choy, but the real recipe here is for the dressing. It can go on veg – any veg – or even over noodles. It’d be great served over a soft tofu. I even braised a brisket in a similar liquid (with the addition of chicken broth, subtraction of chile oil) for our “Jewish Christmas” celebration. Not that I’m Jewish, and Eric is only sort of culturally Jewish, but we went with it.

By the way, how cute and funny are these chopsticks? I bought them in the airport in Nairobi because they were, well, too funny to pass up. They’re actually quite hard to eat with because one chopstick is bowed out in a weird shape, but I still use them to cook with and for funny photos.

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Everyone has been asking how we like New York, so I’ll address that here for everyone else…

We love it!

We sort of just picked up our Chicago life and transported it to New York. We have been doing run-to-brunch and exploring new neighborhoods, museums, shops. The Chinese grocer is a bit more convenient here than it was in Chicago, but I still end up buying way too many heavy items and then carry the burden home on the train. The six flights of stairs to our apartment actually aren’t so bad, though we definitely try not to forget things like wallets or umbrellas on our way out the door. We can’t wait to start biking more once we know our way around better and the weather gets warmer. And we even took a weekend trip to the Hudson Valley over Christmas to hike and relax outside the city.

One thing has been on my mind, though: where are all the breweries and tap rooms?? I would have thought that Brooklyn – so loaded with empty warehouses and whatnot – would be so into the brewing scene, but I must say, it is sorely lacking. I miss places like Revolution Tap Room or Half Acre – sunny, open spaces for all my suds-ing needs. I mean, can I fill my growler around here? What is up, hipsters?

**sidebar: yes, I am aware of the few breweries that do exist in Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and beyond. It’s just that between all the beer we drank in Chicago and all the various little cities we’ve visited over the past two years, I would have thought the beer scene here would have been more, um, blown up.**

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Spiced Soy Dressing with Green Veg

1 cup light soy sauce
1 cup water
1/4 cup xiaoshing wine
1/4 cup chinese black vinegar
1 tablespoon red sichuan peppercorns
1 tablespoon green sichuan peppercorns
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1/2 cinnamon stick
2 star anise
3 whole cloves
4 dried chiles (I used Tianjin chiles found at the Chinese grocer), ripped up

1/2 cup chile oil

4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons oil
black sesame seeds for garnish

To serve: blanched broccoli, snow peas, bok choy, noodles, etc.

Combine soy sauce, water, xiaoshing wine, vinegar, and all the spices, including the chiles, in a sauce pan. Simmer over low heat for 15 minutes. Strain out the spices and taste – depending on your soy sauce, it could be too salty. If it tastes good as is, combine 1 cup of the spiced soy sauce in a mason jar with the chile oil. Cover and shake to combine. If it is too salty, add a bit of water until you find the taste you desire. Then mix with chile oil.

Fry the garlic in the oil over medium-high heat until they are crispy. Watch closely as they will burn quickly. Remove from oil with a slotted spoon and dry them on a towel or paper towel.

Serve over veggies or noodles. Top with garlic chips and black sesame seeds.

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Sichuan Chile Peanuts + Green Bean Salad

Well, it’s official, Eric and I are now card-carrying New York City residents! Library-card carrying, that is. Last weekend we walked into a Brooklyn public library and walked out with actual evidence that we, in fact, live here, as well as a few shiny loaner books for good measure. To solidify things, we walked on to the Greenpoint Green Market, bought the biggest bunch of kale I have ever seen, and spent the rest of the weekend drinking beer. At the end of it, we concluded that we are living the exact same life we lived in Chicago, just in Brooklyn. I’m beginning to realize that no matter where in the world you place us, we’ll always be the long-run-on-the-weekend, drink-good-beer, buy-lots-of-kale kind of couple.

Sichuan Chile Peanuts

As for these peanuts, well, I’ve been meaning to experiment with them after eating boat loads of Huang Fei Hong in China. What an addicting little snack – I just had to recreate it at home. And, to boot, I happened to have a giant jar of Sichuan chili oil, making this project so not a pain in the ass. 

Oh, and see that new background in the photos…. yep, that’s my new kitchen counter! My kitchen is considerably smaller than our place in Chicago – my baking pans and pizza stone don’t even fit in the oven – but it is also nicer and better laid out. Get used to a new marble backdrop to my photos!

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And then, feeling frisky, I took it a step further and made this green bean and edamame salad with a Sichuan-inspired dressing and those tasty little peanuts for texture. So there, now you have three reasons to make some Sichuan chile oil! I promise, it’s worth it.

Sichuan Beans + Edamame

Sichuan Chile Peanuts + Green Bean Salad

Some of the Chinese ingredients here may seem obscure, but do try to seek them out. Green Sichuan peppercorns, in my opinion, are not replaceable with the red. They have a more citrusy and pleasant flavor than the red and make the peanuts particularly addictive. See my post linked below for the chile oil on sourcing them. The Shaoxing wine has become a staple in my kitchen. It has such a lovely, unctuous flavor that adds that hint of complexity to the dressing.

Frozen green peas would work well here instead of edamame, also.

Oh, and the peanuts are a delicious snack on their own and go surprisingly well with both beer and red wine.

for the peanuts:

1 cup raw peanuts
2 tablespoons green Sichuan peppercorns
1 teaspoon red Sichuan peppercorns
1/2 tablespoon Sichuan Chili Oil (see this recipe)
3-4 dried red chile peppers, such as ancho, finely chopped

for the green bean salad:

1/2 pound green beans, trimmed and chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
5 ounces shelled frozen edamame
2 tablespoons Sichuai chile peanuts

1 tablespoon Sichuan chili oil
1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons Chinese black vinegar or rice wine vinegar
1 clove garlic, smashed to a paste in a mortar and pestle
1/4 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder, optional

To make the peanuts, heat the oven to 250 and coat the peanuts in the Sichuan pepper oil. Spread them evenly in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake for ten minutes. After ten minutes, pull them out and stir them around, then add the peppercorns. Mix and bake for another five minutes. Check them at this point – they should be browning and well roasted. Be careful, as they begin to burn very quickly. For me, they were perfect, but yours may take a couple more (or less!) minutes. When done roasting, add the chopped dried chile and mix well. Set aside.

For the salad, bring a pot of salted water to a boil and blanch the green beans for 1 minute. Drain and shock them in cold water. Cook the edamame according to package directions. In a small jar or bowl, combine the rest of the ingredients and shake or stir vigorously. Toss the edamame and green beans with the dressing. Top with peanuts.

Green Curry Noodles

I have lived in Chicago for seven years now. That is an insane number to me, but I guess the old adage is true – time flies when you’re having fun. Still, I can’t believe I have lived here that long and only within the last couple years have I discovered how easy it is to get to the Korean grocery store and find all kinds of pan-Asian goodies. It has almost become part of my weekly shopping ritual.

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That said, if the Korean or other Asian grocery store is not part of your weekly shopping ritual, you can still make this dish. Admittedly, though, it just won’t be as good. It just can’t be! But if you want to go the extra mile, you can order a lot of ingredients online, and trust me when I say it is worth it. I tried making a version of this that included only easily obtained ingredients, and it just wasn’t the same. Still good, but when tasted side-by-side with the more authentic version, I had to admit that one definitely had more flavor and depth than the other.

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This noodle dish runs somewhere between a soup and noodle-with-sauce thing. You’ll have a bit of coconut-y juice at the bottom of your bowl, but there really isn’t enough broth to fill your bowl to the brim. The vegetables here are all optional and you can sub in whatever you think would taste good. I had spring onions from the farmer’s market, so those definitely made it in. I cooked all the vegetables separately, which may seem time consuming, but I like doing it that way so the flavors don’t get muddled. The end result tastes very fresh and healthful.

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Green Curry Noodles

*The curry paste recipe here is just enough for this dish, but feel free to double or triple the recipe to have a supply of curry paste. It freezes well.

*I included my notes for substitutions in parentheses, but do try to find the real stuff.

2-inch piece of galangal (or 1-inch piece of ginger)
6-inch piece of lemongrass

2 cloves garlic
kaffir lime leaves (or zest of one lime)
2 tsp fish sauce
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp coconut oil

1 13.5-oz coconut milk (try to find one without any preservatives or additives)
13.5 oz water

6 oz somen noodles (soba would be great here as well) 
6 oz extra firm tofu, cut into thin strips
1 small sweet potato, cut into wedges or 1/2-inch strips
1 chinese eggplant, sliced into 1/4 inch circles and halved
1 cup mushrooms of your choosing, sliced
3 stalks spring onions, halved
10 cherry tomatoes, cut in half

cilantro, for garnish
fresh red chile slices, for garnish

To make the curry paste, chop each of the ingredients into small pieces. In a mortar and pestle, grind the ingredients together – start with one, then once it’s mashed nicely, add another, and so on. Add a bit of kosher or other flaky salt with each ingredient to help macerate each one. At the end, you should have a nice paste, but if you’re having a hard time getting it to that consistency in the m&p, you can use a blender or food processor.

In a large pot, scoop a big heaping tablespoon of the coconut cream that gathers on one end of the can into a pan. Stir it around and let it sizzle. Add the curry paste and let cook for a couple minutes. Add the rest of the coconut milk and cream and water. Also add the tofu. Turn heat to medium low and let it slowly warm.

Meanwhile, cook your veggies and noodles (according to package directions). Here’s how I did my veg, but feel free to use your favorite method:
Sweet potatoes: steamed
Eggplant: grilled (on a grill pan)
Mushrooms: pan-fried
Spring onions: grilled (on a grill pan)

When everything is ready to go, add it all to the pot with the coconut curry. Toss the tomatoes in at this point as well. Taste for seasoning (add salt if it tastes bland or just off). Garnish with cilantro and red chiles.

Rice Bowl + Tofu + Saucy Sauce

It’s all about the saucy sauce.

Rice Bowl + Tofu + Saucy Sauce (8)

This is really a simple recipe. Barely a recipe, actually. Make some rice. Steam some veg. Buy some tofu. And mix it all together with a swanky, saucy sauce.

Rice Bowl + Tofu + Saucy Sauce (4)

I have a pretty well-stocked Asian pantry these days. Gochujang and miso are staples in my fridge, and I have both light and dark soy sauces in the cupboard. Usually, whipping up a little Asian-inspired sauce for things isn’t challenging. But if you don’t want to go through all the trouble of sourcing every single bottle available in the Korean, Vietnamese, and Chinese grocery stores, my staples are a nice soy sauce, fish sauce, and sesame oil. I use a lot of rice wine vinegar, but other acids work well (lime, for instance). Mirin is another nice thing to have but I can easily do without. Fish sauce on the other hand… it’s hard to replicate that flavor. Just don’t smell it and you’ll be fine.

Rice Bowl + Tofu + Saucy Sauce (1)

This recipe has some specialty items from the Asian grocery store, but feel free to swap in any other mushroom for the buna shimeji or tarragon for the perilla leaves. We make rice bowls a lot and they’re pretty versatile – truly a kitchen-sink kind of dish if there ever was one.

Rice Bowl + Tofu + Saucy Sauce

The last note here is about the tofu. Get the good stuff or make your own. Sometimes I’ll use a super firm tofu in rice bowls, but this one uses a creamy, silken tofu. The custard-y texture is a nice contrast against crunchy vegetables.

Rice Bowl + Tofu + Saucy Sauce (9)

Rice Bowls + Tofu + Saucy Sauce

1 cup brown basmati rice, cooked according to package directions
1 bunch asparagus, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 small bunch broccoli, cut into bite-sized florets
1 avocado, sliced
buna shimeji or other mushrooms, roughly chopped if needed

1 package silken tofu

1 clove garlic, smashed in a mortar & pestle with a bit of salt
1 teaspoon white or black sesame seeds, smashed in a mortar & pestle
1 fresh red chile, finely minced
1-inch nob of ginger, finely minced
1 green onion, finely sliced on the bias
2 tbsp sesame oil
2 tbsp dark soy sauce (or tamari or Liquid Aminos)
1 tsp fish sauce
2 tsp rice wine vinegar (or other acid like lime juice)
2 tsp water

1 green onion, finely sliced on the bias
2 perilla leaves, rolled and finely sliced
a few extra slices of red chiles

Making the bowls is easy enough: prepare the rice according to the package. Chop the vegetables into bite-sized pieces and steam or blanch them for 1-2 minutes. You want them still snappy. Combine the rice, veggies, and avocado in a big bowl. Dole out individual portions in smaller bowls or on plates.

For the mushrooms, I had a bit of this handy douban oil from this recipe on hand (except made with gochujang and coconut oil), so I quickly pan-fried them in that for about 2 minutes. If you don’t have chile oil on hand, just fry them in any other high-smoking-point oil. The key to mushrooms: fry them on high heat. Otherwise, they’ll release moisture and you’ll steam them. Top individual portions with mushrooms.

Slice the tofu into 1/2-inch long pieces – kind of like thin bricks. Place a slice on each individual portion.

For the sauce, toss everything into a jar or deep bowl and shake or whisk vigorously. Pour over individual servings to taste, and top each bowl with the green onions, perilla leaves, and red chiles.

Mushroom Miso Ramen

I love a good bowl of ramen. Lucky for me that ramen shops have been popping up like weeds in Chicago.

Mushroom Miso Ramen 3

This bowl might not be as satisfying as a fatty, porky tonkotsu, but it is certainly a lot healthier and quicker. Some of the ingredients are definitely specialty items that I picked up at the Japanese and Vietnamese grocery stores. You can easily make substitutions for the harder-to-find ingredients, as noted below. At the very least, the dried shiitake mushrooms are needed to make a tasty broth.

Mushroom Miso Ramen 2

Mushroom Miso Ramen

Notes:

-Mirin is a sweet rice wine that can pretty easily be found at any asian grocery store or even whole foods. The Seattle Times has suggestions for substitutions.
-There are a few varieties of miso paste. Aka miso is a red miso and shiro miso is a white miso. Awase miso is a mixture of aka and shiro miso, which is what I used here.
-If you can’t find ramen noodles sold individually, just buy the college-standard ramen packages that have the flavor pouches. Same stuff. Just be sure to discard the flavor pouches.
-Any variety of mushrooms will work here for the toppings.
-If pea shoots aren’t available, a more common topping would be sliced green onions.

Broth:

8-9 small dried shiitake mushrooms
1 cup dried bonito flakes (optional)
1-inch piece of ginger, sliced
4-5 cloves garlic, smashed and skins removed
1 stalk lemongrass, outer skins removed and sliced in half
9 cups water
2 tablespoons mirin
2 tablespoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons awase miso paste 

Combine the dried mushrooms, bonito flakes, ginger, garlic, lemongrass, and water in a large pot and heat until water comes just to a boil. Reduce heat to low and allow to simmer for 10 minutes.

Mushroom Miso Ramen 5

Mushroom Miso Ramen 6

Strain the broth through a fine-mesh strainer and discard the solids. You can keep the now-rehydrated shiitakes and incorporate those into the soup if you wish, or save them for later for another use. Add the mirin and soy sauce and stir to combine.

Remove a ladle of the broth into a small bowl. Whisk in the miso paste until it is smooth, and then combine it with the rest of the broth. Set the broth aside and keep it warm.

Toppings:

ramen noodles
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 package cremini mushrooms, thinly sliced
1 package maitake (hen of the woods) mushrooms
1 package bunashimeji (beech mushrooms)
baby bok choy
pea shoots or sliced green onions
fried, puffed tofu (optional)
1 package enoki mushrooms
sriracha

Bring a pot of water to a boil and then cook the ramen noodles for ~3 minutes. Remove, rinse with water, and set aside.

Pour the oil in a large wok or frying pan and stir fry the cremini, maitake, and bunashimeji mushrooms. Set aside.

Mushroom Miso Ramen 7

Blanch the baby bok choy in a pot of boiling water for 1 minute, then immediately cool in an ice bath.

Cut the puffed tofu into whichever shape you prefer.

Ramen Assembly:

Put the noodles in the bottom of a large bowl. Scoop a few ladles of broth on top, then add your preferred toppings. If you need an extra kick, squirt on some sriracha. Serve hot with chopsticks and a soup spoon.

Tofu and Cucumber Salad + Africa Pictures

So this recipe is not at all African. It just so happens that I’ve made it twice since I have been here. I have not (and will not) stock a full pantry here for a mere two months, so I am trying to create some recipes with just a few basics. I have soy sauce, and oil and vinegar, and I bought a nice spice mixture called Pilau Masala, which is used for making a rice dish called – you guessed it – Pilau. So with just a few items, I have been throwing together this nice little salad.

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I never really wrote much about our 2-week pre-internship trip through Tanzania and Rwanda. It was yet another wildlife-centric trip for us, with just a bit of beach and city time on each end. I only have photos from Zanzibar and Rwanda uploaded to flickr right now, so safari photos will have to wait until next time, but here is a little preview of my favorite photos from those two places.

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Sunset at Kendwa Beach, Zanzibar

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The evening sun illuminates a building in Stone Town, Zanzibar

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Eric eating chapati while watching a local soccer match

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The red colobus monkey of Zanzibar

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A mass grave at Kigali’s genocide memorial, Rwanda

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Eric paying his respects to the victims buried in the mass graves

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Locals participate in gorilla conservation by entertaining hikers each morning

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Manicured streets of Kigali, Rwanda

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Rwandan countryside

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Silverback gorilla posing for the camera

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Female gorilla, contemplating

In other news, I have settled into a work routine here in Nairobi. Many days I will wake up and head to Kibera to meet up with the KDI Kenya team. Others I will work from home if I have to use internet or the computer. We have not had many days off yet – public meetings need to happen on weekends when people are home from work, so that means Saturdays and Sundays have so far been off limits for traveling.

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Soccer field in Kibera

It is striking to me what a different world Kibera is – especially compared to the wealth you see in other parts of Nairobi. You enter Kibera on foot because there are not really roads – just dirt paths that are steep and uneven. When you walk in, you see row after row of small businesses – a clothing shop or a butcher, a vegetable stand or a hair braiding salon, a tailor or a knife sharpener – each set up in its own little tin-roofed shack. Further in, you can start to smell the fragrance of Kibera. If it’s a warm or sunny day, the smell can be especially strong. Sewage, sweat, and animals (including farm animals such as goats and pigs) are the main scents I can identify. Trash collects at dumping grounds along the river and is scattered along the paths. The rivers are essentially open sewers, and in many places in Kibera, the stream runs black.

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Trash builds up along the river; there is no formal garbage collection system in Kibera

The extravagant wealth that you can find in other parts of Nairobi may not exist in Kibera, but you will still find well-dressed men and women, children attending school, eager entrepreneurs, and happy, friendly people. As I walk through – with my pale skin and blonde hair – children break into a sort-of song and dance, chanting “how are you” as they stomp their feet and run to shake my hand. High fives and fist pumps are huge with the kids. And if you respond to their “how are you” – if you say “I am fine, how are you?” back to them – they will often giggle and turn their head shyly. The younger children know few English words beyond that.

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School children love posing for the camera

Tofu and Cucumber Salad

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1 english cucumber, halved and sliced
1/2 medium sized daikon radish, peeled and julienned
1 small red onion, finely sliced
1 package tofu, cubed
5 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon cold water
1 teaspoon honey
1 teaspoon vinegar (preferably rice vinegar, but I used red wine as I had none on hand)
1 teaspoon sesame seeds

Combined tofu, 1 tablespoon of soy sauce, and a sprinkling of vinegar in a container and marinate tofu for 1 hour.

Meanwhile, chop the vegetables and combined. In a separate bowl, combine the remaining soy sauce, water, vinegar, and honey. Pour the dressing over the vegetables and refrigerate.

When the tofu is done marinating, pour some oil in a pan over medium-high heat. Add the tofu, making sure it is in a single layer. Let sit for a couple minutes until 1 side of the tofu has a crispy, golden edge. Stir around or flip the pieces and continue until most or all sides of each piece are crispy. Combine the warm tofu with the cold salad and mix well. Sprinkle with sesame seeds.

Kale, Tofu, and Butternut Squash Salad with Miso-Soy Dressing

This post comes a little late. Or a lot late. I made this at least two months ago, and the early spring has us eating asparagus and ramps rather than squash now, but it’s still good so I figured I’d share.

KTB Salad 001

And speaking of sharing… did you know I am going to Africa this summer?! I accepted an internship position with an NGO that works in Kibera, an informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya. I am really, really excited to test out the waters of working for an NGO and be confronted with new and probably life-changing challenges. Hopefully I will post more about my job at a later date and throughout my time in Kenya, though I cannot promise anything until I get a real sense of how I will be living over there.

In other exciting news, Eric and I will be traveling through Tanzania for 2.5 weeks prior to my start date in Kenya! I am still in research mode, which involves lots of spreadsheets, books, and websites, but rest assured, we will be visiting the Serengeti at least and checking out some awesome African wildlife. Other parts of the trip are currently unplanned, and they may remain that way until we hit African soil.

Kale, Tofu, and Butternut Squash Salad with Miso-Soy Dressing
inspired by 101 Cookbooks

1 butternut squash, peeled and cubed
1 16-ounce package extra firm tofu, cubed
1 bunch kale, stems removed, chopped
1 tablespoon neutral-flavored oil, like grapeseed oil
2 tablespoons sesame oil
2 teaspoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 tablespoon white miso
juice of 1 lemon or 1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
1 teaspoon red chile flakes
5 tablespoons water

Steam the squash until just fork tender or even just a little underdone. Also make sure the tofu has no moisture by patting it dry in a towel.

In a small mixing bowl, mix together the sesame oil, soy sauce, maple syrup, miso, acid (lemon juice or rice wine vinegar), chile flakes, and water. Set aside.

In a pan, heat the neutral-flavored oil over medium-high heat. Place the tofu cubes in the pan in a single layer and let it sit for a few minutes, until the bottom becomes crispy brown. Toss the tofu around a bit to get the other sides browned (if you want to be meticulous here, you could brown each side of tofu, but after one side is browned, I usually just toss it around let it sit for a few more minutes – the lazy way). Add in the butternut squash (and a bit more oil, if needed), and stir it around with the tofu. Let this cook for a minute or two. Finally, add the kale and stir around until it gets soft – just a minute or two.

Remove the pan from heat and stir in the dressing. Serve warm.

Tofu Rice Paper Rolls

As usual, I have been making lots of Heidi Swanson recipes lately. I have had rice paper in my cupboard since the last time I made rice paper rolls from Into the Vietnamese Kitchen. Rice paper is a little tricky to work with at first, but once you get the hang of it, it becomes pretty fun. The first time I made rolls, the first few were just awful. But now I seem to have a bit of muscle memory, as even my first rolls in this batch came out nicely.

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Rather than re-typing the recipe, I’ll just send you to Heidi’s original post, where she has in-depth instructions and a nice tutorial. I used maple syrup in place of brown sugar on the tofu, and sliced cucumbers instead of lettuce. She’s right – no dipping sauce is needed. They’re excellent as they are.