In Instagram, Restaurant Inspiration: Uncle and Chilled Tofu

Last week I read a post on Brooklyn Supper that had me reminiscing about our final days in New York and our first days in Colorado (which, I can't believe, is now almost two years ago). 
When we moved out here, I left a large circle of friends and family back east. I knew a few people in Denver, but I didn't know anyone really well. I decided to do the only thing one can do in such a situation: I hit the ground running. I explored almost every neighborhood in the city and I talked to everyone in sight (I've been described as loquacious, which I think is a nice way of saying, she talks a lot). I figured it was a numbers game; if I chatted with at least 25 people per week, at some point, I would click with someone. So I went to children's reading classes at the public library and picnicked at every playground and park in the Denver. And now some of the people that I met in those early days are some of my closest friends in Colorado.
Hold-out, selfie, ladies night
Tina was one of the first people I met when we got to town. I can't remember how our first interaction actually materialized, but I feel like it had something to do with my now-defunct WNYC tote bag (yes, I was the sucker who donated during the pledge drive) and a food-related conversation I had with her husband. Within about 5 minutes we realized that we had lived only a few blocks away from each other in Brooklyn, and we had a lot in common. It was also pretty convenient that we had children the same age.
For more than a year we had weekly play dates, sometimes meeting up more than once for a museum outing or a hike. But now that we've both taken on a few work-related projects, there isn't as much free time. And since my eldest son is in part-time pre-school, and her daughter is in a full-time program, we don't see each other as much as we used to.
Sad, yes, but that's why there's ladies night! (Holla.) I used to feel guilty about going out, but now I realize that those adult-only interactions make me a better mother, a better me and a better friend. I can concentrate on the conversation we're having without looking over my shoulder to see where my kids are or what they are up to. And to be honest, sometimes I just need a break. 
So we went to Uncle, and ate, drank and caught up. It was great.

Uncle, which is in the Highlands section of Denver, takes inspiration from Momofuku and puts out one fabulous plate after the other. We started off with the chilled tofu (served with ginger, scallion, soy vinaigrette and wakame) and fried green tomato steamed buns. Then I got a giant bowl of udon with mushrooms, which hit the spot. I'm a huge fan of finishing off my meal with something sweet, so we ordered the Monkey Bread, served with gelato, pretzels and potato chips...can you say, heaven
Inspired by the very simple preparation of the chilled tofu, I decided to make this recipe (below) from Fifteen Spatulas (no relation). The dish wasn't exactly like the one I had at Uncle, but it made for a really nice meal, and it only took a few minutes to put together. I adapted the recipe by adding a little bit of grated ginger to the sauce, but that was pretty much it. 

Chilled Tofu with Scallions and Soy Sauce (Adapted ever-so-slightly from Fifteen Spatulas, printed with permission)
** Note: Uncle uses silken tofu in their dish. I think that's what I'm going to use when I make this again. For this recipe, I used soft block tofu. 
Yield: 2 servings
14 oz block of soft or medium tofu (don't use firm)-- or try silken.

2 scallions, sliced
3 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp sesame oil
1 tbsp sesame seeds
1/2 tbsp rice vinegar
1/2 tbsp sriracha

Optional: I added 1/2 teaspoon of freshly grated ginger
To make the sauce, whisk the scallions, soy sauce, sesame oil, sesame seeds, rice vinegar, sriracha, and ginger together in a small bowl. Then taste the dressing to see if you need to add or adjust any ingredients to suit your taste level.
Slice the tofu into squares or small rectangles, soak them in the dressing and then chill them in the fridge for an hour or so. This will allow all the flavors to meld together and get the tofu chilled. Enjoy!

H-Mart In Instagram and Dubu Jorim (Korean Braised Tofu)

The new year has brought new things. Otis, my spunky 3-year-old, is now in pre-school for the first time. We got a lucky break because the class had been full, but one little boy had to leave and we slid right into his spot. I was nervous about how Otis would react on his first day (and I was feeling pretty emotional about the change too). But when we walked into the classroom, Otis saw the appropriately-sized tables and chairs, the books and the trains. He turned to me and said, "This room looks great, mommy. It's going to be a wonderful day." He had a serious case of perma-smile when he found out that music, MLK-friendship-hand-painting and swimming was in store for him too. And that was that. No tears, no meltdowns, no drama. 
I chatted with his teachers for a few minutes and when I turned around, Otis was having a very intense discussion with another classmate about train track construction and switching points on the line (he knows a lot about trains). I waved goodbye, picked up Theodore (the 17-month-old), walked outside, and got into the car. Then I did what any mother would do on her son's first day of preschool. I went to H-Mart
The Korean super-store supermarket has everything you could possibly need if you were on the hunt for authentic Asian ingredients. It's also worth noting that they have the best prices on herbs, greens, pomegranates, bitter melon, bok choy and avocados. 
Our local H-Mart also has an amazing organic tofu stand, where tofu is made fresh daily (there's silky sliced, fried, and firm block). I picked up a 2-block tray and it was still warm. Like I said, it's the real deal and it's fresh.
I found a 1 pound bag of Korean red pepper. They didn't seem to stock anything in a smaller size, so I have a lot of it. But it won't go to waste because this is the same red pepper used in kimchi and bibimbap, and I'd like to make both. I picked up a bunch scallions and all the other ingredients I had at home.
It took me under 20 minutes to put the whole dish together, and then I marinated it overnight. The tofu absorbed so much flavor and it was really delicious. I ate it plain and then tried it with some sushi rice. Both were great.
Dubu Jorim is a very popular dish in Korea and often packed for school lunches with a few other side dishes and some rice. And that's kinda perfect since Otis started school this week. I think a Korean-style meal box (dosirak) is definitely in his future.

Dubu Jorim: Traditional Korean Braised Tofu
(Adapted ever-so-slightly from Blogging Over Thyme)
2 lbs. block of tofu will serve 4 (with rice) or 2 very hungry people.

Marinade: Yields roughly 2 cups
Serve chilled

The ingredients are simple and the preparation is straight-forward. This recipe marinates the tofu for 6-8 hours, which allows the flavors to meld together (in the most delicious way). But other methods serve the braised tofu immediately, with the sauce spooned right on top. Be sure to use authentic, finely ground Korean red pepper (which is widely available at Asian supermarkets).

1/2 cup soy sauce
3/4 cup water
1 tablespoon Korean red pepper powder (finely ground)
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
3/4 cup scallions, sliced
1 teaspoon lime juice
1/8 cup toasted sesame seeds

Combine all the ingredients in small bowl and let them sit for 10-15 minutes (while you prepare and braised the tofu).

Pan-Fried Tofu
2 blocks of firm tofu, sliced into thin rectangles (about 1/2- inch in thickness)
vegetable oil

Slice the tofu into thin rectangles and then pat them dry with a paper towel.
Heat a large non-stick skillet over medium heat with a few tablespoon of vegetable oil (until there is a layer of oil coating the pan). Once the pan is hot, add the tofu, spreading it out in the pan so that the pieces are not touching each other. (It will take more than one round to get all the tofu braised). The tofu should sizzle when it hits the pan.
Sear tofu on each side for roughly 3-4 minutes, until it's light brown on both sides. Remove the tofu and place it on a paper-towel lined plate to absorb any excess oil. Repeat until all the tofu is seared. Allow the tofu to cool to room temperature.
Place the tofu on a baking dish, or any other container with a large surface area (and relatively high sides)--you can do this in two layers, if necessary. Pour the marinade over the tofu, cover, and refrigerate for roughly 6-8 hours. Turn the tofu once or twice during this time, so that all of the piece get marinated properly.
Best served chilled by itself, or with some sushi rice.

Japanophilic: Kizuna and Black Sesame Otsu

Some people use the word obsessed pretty casually. Not me. I reserve the word for things that I am absolutely nuts about-- things that really preoccupy my mind. Examples of such things include the Momofuku/Milk Bar Birthday Cake Truffles, Pinterest and Japanese design. I'm also (mildly) obsessed with bamboo. A fast growing, incredibly strong grass, bamboo has become popular in green design and building. And bamboo forests are just the coolest. 
I was really excited when I heard that Kizuna (which means the "bond between people" in Japanese) was going to be on display at the Denver Botanic Gardens. I mean, c'mon. Japanese installation art with bamboo? It's just too good to be true!  
Kizuna: West Meets East is a series of pieces that were created by Tetsunori Kawana and Stephen Talasnik. The bamboo was plied and manipulated to form bold, striking pieces on land and more intricate, delicate water-based sculptures. The ephemeral forms play off the landscape's really something you should check out if you live in the city.   
In addition to the installation art, pretty much every inch of the botanic gardens is in bloom right now. There are peonies, irises, and poppies. We saw butterflies fluttering and colorful beds that were buzzing with bees. And the wildflower patches? They are pretty much what I hope my own garden will look day!
As if the spring  blooms and Kizuna were not enough, the annual plant sale is also taking place. Otis really wanted a 'blue plant' and I found one that was just the right size. He named the plant Walter, which I think is a pretty good name for a potted lobelia. When I found out that it was buy one-get one free, we went back to the tables and picked out another plant. Otis named the second plant Alice-- which I think is in honor of "Imo" Alice who gifted Otis and Theo their very first Radio Flyer wagon..and boy do they love it! 
After we returned from the gardens it was nap time. The boys shluffed and I read up on Bonsai trees and maintenance. I regret to inform you that I think I'm getting a little bit obsessed...

Inspired by Kizuna, I made this Japanese-style soba (buckwheat) dish for lunch. I used a whole bunch of scallions (light and dark parts) that were fresh from the farmers market. Though scallions are available year round, this is their season and their flavor is delicious.
The recipe comes from my un-official bible, Heidi Swanson's Super Natural Every Day
Black Sesame Otsu (Courtesy of Heidi Swanson, Super Natural Every Day)
Serves 4.
1 teaspoon pine nuts
1 teaspoon sunflower seeds
1/2 cup black sesame seeds
1 1/2 tablespoons natural cane sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons shoyu, tamari, or soy sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons mirin
Scant 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
2 tablespoons brown rice vinegar
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Fine-grain sea salt
12 ounces / 340 g soba noodles
12 ounces / 340 g extra-firm tofu
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 bunch green onions, white and light green parts, thinly sliced
  • Toast the pine nuts and sunflower seeds in a large skillet over medium heat until golden, shaking the pan regularly. Add the sesame seeds to the pan and toast for a minute or so. It's hard to tell when they are toasted; look closely and use your nose. Remove from the heat as soon as you smell a hint of toasted sesame; if you let them go much beyond that, you'll start smelling burned sesame - not good. Transfer to a mortar and pestle and crush the mixture; the texture should be like black sand. Alternatively, you can use a food processor. Stir in the sugar, shoyu, mirin, sesame oil, brown rice vinegar, and cayenne pepper. Taste and adjust if needed.
  • Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Salt generously, add the soba, and cook according to the package instructions until tender. Drain, reserving some of the noodle cooking water, and rinse under cold running water.
  • While the noodles are cooking, drain the tofu, pat it dry, and cut into matchstick shapes. Season the tofu with a pinch of salt, toss with a small amount of oil, and cook in a large skillet over medium-high heat for a few minutes, tossing every couple minutes, until the pieces are browned on all sides.
  • Reserve a heaping tablespoon of the sesame paste, then thin the rest with 1/3 cup / 80 ml of the hot noodle water. In a large mixing bowl, combine the soba, half of the green onions, and the black sesame paste. Toss until well combined. Add the tofu and toss again gently. Serve topped with a tiny dollop of the reserved sesame paste and the remaining green onions.

For another Heidi Swanson soba dish click Cold Soba Noodle Salad with Ginger-Sesame Dressing. It comes from Super Natural Cooking

Cold Soba Noodle Salad with Ginger-Sesame Dressing

There are certain cookbooks I just can't live without; they're the cookbooks that contain the recipes I make over and over and over again...never tiring of the flavors or the dishes, no matter how many times I make them. One such cookbook is Super Natural Every Day by Heidi Swanson of 101 Cookbooks. I've credited that book dozens of times since I started this blog. And then I realized that I've never made any of the dishes from her first cookbook, Super Natural Cooking. I didn't own it, so I decided to buy it-- despite my little moratorium on no new cookbook purchases. 
Now unlike some of my cookbooks, which call for obscure ingredients, contain difficult cooking techniques and have prep times that just don't gel with my current lifestyle, this book is right up my alley. It has inspired dishes that are super flavorful, easy to make, and don't require advanced culinary degrees for successful execution.
I decided to start with the 'Otsu' recipe because my friend Charlotta highly recommended it. I loved it- the otsu is a wonderful cold soba (soba is buckwheat in Japanese) noodle salad, with cucumbers, pan fried tofu and scallions. The salad is coated in an awesome ginger-sesame dressing-- one that is salty, sweet, spicy, tangy (all at the same time) and just plain delicious. I thought I'd pass on this dish to you...

The original inspiration for the dish comes from a little restaurant in San Francisco called Pomelo. And Heidi's adaptation is terrific. You can easily eat the 4-6 portions by one sitting. I promise, I won't tell.
As they say in Japan, どうぞめしあがれ (douzo meshiagare). Enjoy your meal! 

Ginger-Sesame Otsu (Adapted slightly from Heidi Swanson's Super Natural Cooking)
Ginger-Sesame Dressing:
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1-inch cube fresh ginger, peeled and grated
1 tablespoon honey
3/4 teaspoon cayenne
3/4 teaspoon fine-grain sea salt
1 1/4 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 cup unseasoned brown rice vinegar
1/3 cup tamari soy sauce (the original recipe calls for shoyu sauce)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
(Note: I didn't have any sesame oil on hand, so I just used 3 tablespoons of olive oil. It worked for me. I've seen other modifications to this recipe that use canola oil.)
For the Rest:
12 ounces dried soba noodles
12 ounces extra-firm nigari tofu (I used organic extra-firm tofu.  Nigari is even firmer than standard extra-firm, but my regular tofu held up well when it was pan fried and added to the noodles.) 
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro (I omitted the cilantro because I don't care for the taste of cilantro in this kind of dish. Adjust according to your preference.) 
3 green onions, thinly sliced
1/2 cucumber, peeled, cut in half lengthwise, seeded and thinly sliced
1/4 cup toasted sesame seeds for garnish (I toasted the seeds in a fry pan for a few minutes.  Be careful! Seeds can burn easily, so keep an eye on 'em.) 
To make the dressing, combine the zest, ginger, honey, cayenne, and salt in a food processor (or use a hand blender) and process until smooth. Add the lemon juice, rice vinegar, and shoyu (tamari) and pulse to combine. With the machine running, drizzle in the oils.
Cook the soba in plenty of rapidly boiling salted water just until tender (I cooked them for about 6 minutes) then drain and rinse under cold running water. 
While the pasta is cooking, drain the tofu, pat it dry, and cut into rectangles roughly the size of your thumb (1/2 inch thick and 1 inch long). Cook the tofu in a dry nonstick (or well seasoned) skillet over medium-high heat for a few minutes, until the pieces are browned on one side. Toss gently once or twice, then continue cooking for another minute or so, until the tofu is firm, golden, and bouncy.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the soba, the 1/4 cup cilantro (optional), green onions, cucumber and about 2/3 cup of the dressing and toss until well combined. Add the tofu and toss again gently. Add more dressing until the dish is to your liking. Serve on a platter, garnished with the cilantro sprigs and toasted sesame seeds. 

Summer Squash Soup with Thai Red Curry and Tofu Croutons

This is our second year in a CSA and I've learned that you sink or swim with the farmers. If there's a blight on a particular fruit or vegetable (like tomatoes, for example), then you're out of luck. But on the other hand, if there's an abundance of something, you get to reap the benefits. And that's what has been happening with yellow summer squash; we've got tons of it.
I turned to this recipe from Heidi Swanson's cookbook Super Natural Every Day which my friend Charlotta (of Swedish Chokladbollar fame) made for one of our play date lunches. I loved it. There's creaminess from the coconut milk, heat from the Thai curry paste (I used 2 tablespoons instead of one) and it made good use of some of our CSA bounty. 
Hope you like it as much as we did. Enjoy!
SUMMER SQUASH SOUP with Thai Red Curry and Tofu Croutons 
Serves 6
8 oz. Extra Firm Tofu cut into 1/2 inch cubes
Fine grain sea salt

2 tablespoons Thai Red Curry Paste (original recipe uses 1 tablespoon)

3 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for tofu croutons

3 large shallots, chopped

1.5 pounds yellow squash (about 3-4 depending on size) cut half then cut into 3/4" chunks (I wasn't too precise since I decided to make this soup smooth by pureeing it.)

12 oz potatoes, unpeeled and diced into cubes (3-4 medium size potatoes)

3 cloves garlic, chopped (original recipe had 4 cloves)

1 cups lightly flavored vegetable broth
1 cup of water

1 14 oz can coconut milk (I've used regular and light)

1. Season the tofu with a pinch of salt, toss with a small amount of oil, and cook in a large skillet over medium-high heat for about 5-8 minutes (tossing gently once or twice), until browned on both sides. Set aside.

2. Mash the curry paste into the oil until the paste is well incorporated. Heat the paste in a large heavy pot until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in the shallots and a dash of salt and sauté until the shallots are tender, another couple of minutes.

3. Stir in the squash and potatoes and cook until squash begins to get tender, a few minutes. Stir in the garlic, then add the broth & coconut milk. Bring just to a boil, then lower heat to a gentle simmer, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes.

4. Taste and adjust salt or curry paste if needed. Serve each bowl topped with tofu croutons and some loosely chopped fresh basil.