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    Copyright 2008-2015Slow Food Fast. All writing and images on this blog unless otherwise attributed or set in quotes are the sole property of Slow Food Fast. Please contact DebbieN via the comments form for permissions before reprinting or reproducing any of the material on this blog.

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Microwave Tricks: Black Beans

microwaved black beans

Cooking seasonally is a tricky thing–especially if your season currently includes hurricanes or extreme heat. Pasadena has finally cooled down to 80s/90s with a bit of cloud cover, but last week’s 105-degree afternoons were a serious challenge. It was so bad the only time to go out for a walk was about 5:30 in the morning. Hard to think school has been in session for a month, it’s already September, and Rosh Hashanah is a week and a half away. Running the oven is, to put it bluntly, not an option, and the stove top isn’t much better in my small and easily overheated galley kitchen.

Microwaving is a powerful way to cut the time and pain (and airconditioning bills) for bulk cooking of things like vegetables, rice, pasta…and dried beans, which are much cheaper and more versatile (and much lower in sodium) than canned. Make a bean stew or chili and you can zap a portion of it at will later in the week. Plus bean salads can be served cold–a plus for weeks like the ones we’ve had recently.

But for microwaving, you usually have to adjust whatever method is spelled out in a recipe to your oven, your containers, your food quantities. Microwave times are sensitive to all of those factors, plus how much water you have (water’s the main molecule microwave radiation acts on) and whether or not you’ve got a lid.

Most people don’t try to make changes based on their first-run results and most cookbooks never really explain how to make useful adjustments. Predictably, most microwave cookbooks end up in the Last Chance bin at your local Friends of the Library booksale.

It’s a shame, because once you’ve got your timing and so on down, you can repeat it with reliable results.

Over the years I’ve posted basic heat-to-simmer-and-let-sit-to-absorb microwave methods for cooking split peas, chickpeas, lentils and other bulk dried beans. Lentils and split peas always did work out well without needing to soak them first–they tend to be easier to cook quickly by standard stovetop boiling too. Chickpeas work okay if you presoak them or hot-soak in the microwave (heat briefly in water just to cover, let stand 15 minutes or so and let them swell up) before the main cooking, and adding a dash of baking soda to the soak water really helps. Same with gigantes (giant favas)–which I’ve now decided cook better with the skins left on, same as if you were boiling them, and they’re certainly a lot quicker and easier to peel afterward–also more fun.

But some beans just seem to toughen if you don’t presoak overnight or if you microwave them too long. Black beans and kidney beans have given me more trouble than they seem to be worth–and I’m a bit reluctant to post this because it’s fussier than I like to admit even after adjusting the method successfully. Microwaving isn’t supposed to take more time and fuss than straight boiling on a stove, or working with a pressure cooker, if you have and trust yourself with one.

But this is a good illustration of how to use a microwave as a workaround when you don’t, and it shows you how you might think about making adjustments based on what the food is doing or not doing.

I microwave because I want something relatively safe, that doesn’t heat up the kitchen, and that turns itself off when done because, let’s face it, I’d rather be reading or writing than waiting for a pot of water to boil or jumping up at the whistle to avert an explosion. And I want the beans properly cooked and tender in less total microwave time at the least and without having to boil them afterward on the stove. I’ve done that before and I’ll probably do again if it ever cools down enough, but I’d rather not have to. The prior microwaving steps still shorten the stovetop time to maybe half an hour, but really, I’d rather it were all microwave, no fuss (I can dream, can’t I?)

So after a rethink of my previous methods, I’ve made some changes to the way I cook black beans from scratch by microwave. It also works for things like brown rice, steelcut oats, and other tough, uncut, unpeeled whole grains like farro or pearl barley when you’ve forgotten to put them up for soaking overnight, and at least for the rice it’s quicker than the 45 minutes or so of my previous brown rice method–maybe 20-30 minutes for a pound or two of brown rice. For the beans, maybe an hour of time total, with sitting and rechecking. Maybe less if your beans are fresh enough and/or you remembered to soak them overnight first.

Cracking the method

It starts with the water. I had been covering a pound of dried beans (or brown rice) with more than an inch of water and heating it all, or else heating that much water by itself (more than a quart) and then tipping in the rinsed beans to soak for a bit. But since the water molecules are what the microwave heats up first for preference, the more water you have, the longer it takes for the Continue reading

Microwave Tricks: Quick-Pickled Peppers

Microwave Hungarian pickled peppers

This is what happens when I get to the corner grocery or (more occasionally) the farmer’s market at the end of the day: I’ve already got a basket full of stuff, ripe, bursting with aromas it would take most supermarket produce days, weeks or forever to achieve. But there in the last-chance corner is a bag of very pale green, very contorted Hungarian peppers, about 10-15 of them for a last-chance dollar. They’re in good shape, maybe one or two has a couple of minor wrinkles, but that’s it. I can’t resist.

At first I thought I’d use them to stuff with corn kernels and feta and scallions, which I haven’t done for a while. But when I got them home, they were obviously too twisted to stuff, and very thin-walled at that. And unlike Anaheim or pasilla chiles, not really spicy enough to set off the corn. What then?

I’ve been feeling my nonexistent Italian and Greek roots lately, so I thought, pepperoncini? Well, why not? I did pickled green tomatoes last year, and it was incredibly easy (except for finding the green unripe tomatoes, which even my local Armenian corner store doesn’t provide often, and especially not at the height of the summer Fresno tomato frenzy).

But I didn’t want to wait two whole days for the peppers to ferment. And I didn’t want them quite as salty as actual pickles. So I decided to microwave-marinate them the way I make marinated artichoke hearts.

Yes, you can always just buy a jar of pepperoncini. My greengrocer definitely has them. But if you have the fresh peppers and they’re dirt cheap and you just want them right now, not necessarily every day for the next three months, microwaving them takes all of five minutes, and the result is surprisingly good.

It also brings out the full flavor of the peppers quickly–even a hint of spice, though they’re still not hot, and you can limit the salt to your own taste. Continue reading

Green Beans Get Serious

If you’ve gone to the supermarket the last couple of weeks, and seen huge haystacks of green beans on sale for under a dollar a pound, you might be wondering to yourself how much green bean casserole can any one family take? Pretty bad that Thanksgiving only has one sanctioned green bean recipe, and that no one can think of anything better to do with them over the holidays.

Not that I’m against plain and simple green beans, as long as they’re actually still green. Fresh, lightly steamed or microwaved or stir-fried, not boiled to death. Although frankly, I often prefer them raw and fresh as something to just wash and nosh, like carrot sticks or celery.

Even frozen green beans are fine if you treat them gently and cook them a bit less than you would fresh ones–the freezing and thawing break down all vegetables slightly, and you don’t want them to go to mush or turn brown.

Just not the dank, slimy brown horrors that emerged from a can every once in a while when I was a kid, and which my mother insisted, against all reason, had once been something living. Canned green beans are the zombies of the green bean world.

But with a bounty of cheap greens in winter, what to do with them is a pretty good question, and one that begs a three-minute solution, especially when most green vegetables are getting harder to come by. You want to stock up but you don’t want to be eating the same old, same old for a month.

My best solution for a quick green bean dish–other than the grab-and-go raw snack vegetable business above–is of course to wash and trim the tough ends from a bunch of green beans (I usually grab about a pound at a time). Stick them in a covered container or between two microwaveable stoneware or Corelle dinner plates with a drizzle of water (anything from a couple of tablespoons up to about a quarter-inch in depth) .

Three minutes on HIGH should cook a pound of rinsed and trimmed green beans to that crisp-tender ideal where they’re still green and just cooked but still have a bit of bite to them. Basically like blanched or steamed, but without the big stockpot of boiling water (which I hate to wait for and which seems a waste), the strainer, or the ice water bath (another wasted bowl).

And you can do it right before dinner as a last-minute thought, just enough for that meal so they stay green. Drain and serve them ASAP for best results. Don’t give ’em a chance to go brown.

If you want to keep them green for later, microwave them a little less, maybe 1.5-2.5 minutes per pound, just until they begin to turn jewel green, rinse them under a cold tap as soon as they’re done, drain and chill. Do not add anything acidic to them until just before you serve them so they don’t turn olive-brown.

Yes, it’s pretty plain–which is handy if you want it versatile. You can serve them hot with a mustard garlic vinaigrette or other salad-type dressing to dip into or drizzle over them. Or the richer (but not saturated-fat) sauces, tehina with lemon and garlic (and either water or plain yogurt), or Asian peanut sauce with chile, garlic and ginger are also good.

If you want something a little fancier-looking and vaguely French (we’re going for “day in Monet’s Garden,” not “tacky tourist café with haricots verts side dish that turns out to be nothing more than buttered overcooked green beans”) you can arrange the green beans in a covered stoneware platter or bowl, with thinly sliced onions and a bit of thyme and minced garlic strewn around to get a fairly nice-looking and savory microwave-to-table kind of dish that still only takes a few minutes to throw together and zap to perfection.

greenbeanswithstuffedcriminimushrooms

Slice some mushrooms over the green beans or nestle mushroom Continue reading

Microwave Tricks: Shakshouka

IMG_0458

Marinara plus a pepper makes a good start.

Sometimes during Passover you just can’t take any more matzahnola. Or matzah with jam, or matzah brei. Or cake. Or macaroons. Anything for breakfast that doesn’t involve at least one vegetable (other than yourself, before coffee). Your tolerance for sweet stuff has been exhausted, and as for the leftover gefilte fish and hrein…no. We are not going there. No matter how much my husband insists it’s “perfectly good” (and I notice he hasn’t schlepped the rest of the jar with him to the office!)

Forget all that. There’s a pretty good cure for the Pesach blahs–you need some chile peppers and you need them now. Not in 20 minutes, no major cooking involved. You have a microwave, some cheap microwaveable soup bowls or the like, and you’re not afraid to use ’em for an increasingly popular Israeli brunch dish–shakshouka. Which is basically the Jewish version of huevos rancheros, only without beans or potatoes. Or lard.

Yotam Ottolenghi has made shakshouka popular and photogenic in at least one of his famous cookbooks, probably prettier than what I’ve got here. But it takes longer too, and I’m impatient.

To make shakshouka, you usually need a frying pan, olive oil, some tomatoes, peppers and onions, plus garlic, cumin, chile peppers, maybe a couple of oregano-or-thyme-and/or-cilantro-type herbs–sounds like the makings of salsa, no?–and some fresh eggs to crack into the resulting sauce. The sauce takes some 20-30 minutes to cook down, the eggs another 5-7 to cook more or less sunny-side-up in the middle of the sauce. That’s a lot of time for breakfast. I wanted a shortcut this morning.

Most jarred salsas are not kosher for Passover–it’s the distilled vinegar thing. That’s okay, because yesterday in a fit of domestic planning (uncharacteristic, I swear) I decided to make a batch of microwave marinara from some unsalted canned tomatoes. I don’t have a kosher-for-Passover food processor this year, though, so I decided, after trying to chop up some pretty tough Roma tomatoes (even with the skins off!) that I should just do as the Sicilians do and break them up with my hands as Tony Danza advises. A little chunkier than usual, but just fine. And actually ideal as a base for shakshouka–both its readiness for a mid-morning fridge scrounge and its rusticity made for a good start. A good dollop in a microwaveable soup bowl.

What else do you need? Maybe a bell or Anaheim-type pepper that needs to get used up. Cut it up (I got whimsical, you don’t have to potschky around with flower shapes). Add more onion if you feel like it; I didn’t. Stick it in the microwave for a minute or two to wilt the pepper and possible onion pieces.

IMG_0461

Then crack an egg or two into it, sprinkle on a bit of feta or panela or queso fresco as desired, maybe a pinch or so of chile pepper flakes or z’khug (I’d run out) and/or chopped cilantro as desired.

IMG_0463

Put another soup bowl on top as a lid, and microwave another minute or two until the eggs are cooked to your liking–check and add 30 seconds if you think it’s still got a raw spot somewhere, and/or leave the lid on for a few minutes and let it finish cooking in the residual heat of the sauce.

Obviously if you’re having people over for brunch, the standard frying pan method is better and quicker–more eggs and salsa means more time in the microwave, and no one wants to sit around as you microwave individual portions. But if it’s just you, or you and your partner, the microwave method works pretty well. Just add a little time (maybe another minute or so in 30-second increments) for four eggs as opposed to two.

IMG_0464

Hafla! (celebratory remark when there’s something good on the table and you didn’t have to wait an hour for it) Grab some matzah and a cup of hot coffee and b’te’avon (mangia bene/bon appétit/eat nice)!

Maximum Flavor in a Minimal Broth

minimal carrot onion soup

My kid had the flu just in time for President’s Day (and both Friday and Monday off from school). How does this happen in a place where it actually hit 90 degrees one day??? How annoying! But her classmates had been catching it right and left all through January and coming back to school still iffy. She and I had both gotten the flu shot a couple of months before, achy arms and all. The prevention rate this year isn’t all that good; only about 23%. And people have naturally been grumbling if or when they catch the flu anyway.

But I’m still pro-vaccine, and here’s why: The minute she woke up with fever, I called and got an appointment with her pediatrician for that morning, no being palmed off on the advice nurse (or the muzak they put you on while waiting half an hour). When you’ve got a diabetic kid with flu, you take a deep breath, channel your Brooklyn-raised mother and elbow your way through to get seen before the kid has a chance to develop nausea and vomiting, which makes it trickier to manage food, insulin and so on safely. I mean, we’ve done it, it’s doable, and we’ll probably have to do it again at some point, but it’s a total pain.

Luckily for me, the pediatrician is also from Brooklyn and doesn’t take offense. She and the nurses had been run off their feet, and yet she was glad we got our act together early enough for Tamiflu to do some good, because the poor kid just ahead of us at the clinic was wobbling and actually fainted just as he got into the exam room. Five days his family waited and he had serious fluid in his lungs. So I stopped feeling selfish and stupid for bringing my kid in when she was mostly okay except for a fever. And I hope the other kid’s better by now.

So I wanted to pass this on: the doctor told us the best-bet recommendation is still to get a flu shot. Why? Because even though you might still catch flu, the severe hospital-level cases this year with pneumonia and worse, at least in Southern California, are turning out to be almost all unvaccinated patients. That’s a result you might not have expected. You need that insider perspective to see there’s a more serious benefit hidden behind the obvious numbers. And the serious cases are pretty bad. So if you haven’t gotten a flu shot yet, go get one now.

And my kid did indeed get better by the time school started up again, and my husband and I managed not to catch the flu from her, which was good, because with a snarky bored teen home on a 4-day weekend, the last thing either of us needed was to catch it from her just when she was finally back at school.

But we needed soup in a big way. And with a sick kid in the house I had less time to go shopping. I imagine (because we had the fluke 90-degree day, I have to imagine it or else talk to my poor mom in Boston) that people caught in the big snows back east also have these problems of limited shopping mobility, patience and scant last-ditch vegetabalia in the house. What did we have left that was soup-worthy?

Well…there’s always the can of tomato paste for nearly instant cream-of-tomato, which my daughter likes when she’s sick. The real cream-of-tomato, made with actual tomatoes, is more voluptuous but takes 45 minutes on the stove and involves baking soda to tame the acidity before you add cream, plus the use of a stick blender which I aspire to but don’t yet own. Tomato paste doesn’t have much acidity to start with, so you could just skip the baking soda and heat with milk instead of water if you wanted to. We generally leave milk and cream out and add a dash of vinegar to restore some semblance of tomato flavor.

–  –  –

Tomato Soup in the Microwave (AKA, “bonus” recipe for what it’s worth)

  • 1/2 can tomato paste (no recipe EVER specifies a whole can, as far as I can tell…must be some kind of culinary superstition, much like “the Scottish play”…so just scoop the rest into a ziplock baggie, squeeze the air out, and throw it in the freezer for next time…)
  • 1-2 c. water (enough to bring it up to the thickness you like best for soup)
  • small splash of vinegar, any kind
  • small clove of garlic, minced, mashed or grated
  • pinch of cumin or thyme, optional
  • salt to taste after cooking
  • splash of milk or half-and-half, if you like it

In a microwaveable bowl, use a whisk or fork to mix the water gradually into the tomato paste until it reaches the thick-but-not-too-thick consistency you prefer for cream-of-tomato soup. Add the garlic, vinegar, and cumin or thyme, cover the bowl lightly and microwave 2-3 minutes or until heated through. If you want to add a little milk or half-and-half afterward, you probably could, just don’t add it and then heat or it’ll curdle from the vinegar (or leave the vinegar out to start with if you want it bland).

–  –  –

But down to business with the “not-chicken” vegetable broth. I’ve already gone about as far as I can go with bok choy and shiitake broth, up to and including hot-and-sour soup. Plus we didn’t actually have any bok choy left. Feh.

So the usual carrot-onion-celery not-chicken broth should have been next…but no celery either. Double feh. And no fresh dill–dry we had, but you know fresh makes a world of improvement. So it wasn’t looking all that good in the clear soup department this week. And I needed some for me, even though I only had a head cold and a bad temper and a sassy, feverish bored teen at home watching cartoons.

(BTW: if you luck out with a fresh bunch of dill that’s too big to use up quickly, wash the rest well, twist off the stem ends, stuff the dill into a ziplock sandwich bag with the air squeezed out and freeze it–it’ll stay good for a couple of months minimum, and you can just quickly crumble a frozen bit into whatever dish you want, then toss the bag back in the freezer. Or in Boston, just leave it out on the porch and rediscover it sometime in April.)

Normally I’d say onion and carrots alone aren’t enough for a soup; you have to have something else in there or when you add garlic it’ll just be about the garlic. Which is fine for me, of course, because my motto still seems to be, “If there’s no garlic, is it really food?”

True, the Italians have acqua pazza (“crazy water”), which is basically garlic broth. I think both Spain and France have similar offerings. But normal people might want something a little more complex or at least balanced.

My usual MO for vegetable soup and bok choy broth is just to microwave the base vegetables to wilt them and then bring them up with a bit of water, add garlic, herbs, and any other appropriate flavorings, and heat again. Pretty basic, and very quick–5 minutes, maybe 10 for a couple of quarts that will last me a week. But with such a limited vegetable base as onion and carrot, I was going to need something more.

So I scrounged again in the fridge. Carrots and a red onion…and a clove of garlic. A sprig of thyme–well. A little leftover white wine. Yes. OK.

It would all be kind of blah and pale, though, if I just dumped it in a bowl with some water and hit the nuke button. When you have so few main ingredients and they’re both boring when simply boiled or nuked, you have to strategize a little to get the best out of them quickly. Continue reading

Post-Kiddush: our leftovers are better than yours

Round spare spanakopita just for us after the big kiddush

Round spare pinwheel-style spanakopita just for us at home. The big ones for the brunch had three pounds of spinach apiece (and were cut in small diamonds), but they still went together pretty fast–except for squeezing all that spinach dry…

This weekend I did it again–I made the kiddush, or in common speech a lunch buffet, for my congregation’s Saturday morning service. My husband kind of volunteered us for this week and because he doesn’t cook, most or all of the cooking, shopping, chopping and schlepping landed on my shoulders.

Last time he volunteered us, it was for our anniversary, and  I was ready to skip ahead to the divorce until I got over it, because it’s a lot of work to cook for 60 or so people who like to eat. And kibbitz. Especially when the 60 suddenly turns into 80-plus and having to use the synagogue kitchen with the more complicated and confusing rules on only a week’s notice. As they did this time…..

Soooo….a two-day hell of shopping and then marathon cooking-and-juggling in my little galley kitchen. The microwave got a serious workout. So did the food processor and the oven. Sometimes all at once. And it was raining hard for three days, so bringing things over to the synagogue kitchen as I went got a little tricky. I triple-wrapped the chocolate cake and stuck it in a USPS Priority Mail box so it wouldn’t get left out in the rain. Same idea for the spanakopita trays.

A few hints about cooking big and real for a synagogue brunch, learned the hard way by moi and passed on for your edification and safety (and sanity):

1. You can buy a 6-lb can  of chickpeas for massive half-gallon batches of hummus (Mid-East brand, maybe Goya as well). Cost? about $5. But–as I found out, and I’m glad no one was filming the process–industrial-sized can equals industrial-strength steel. A dinky hand-operated can opener is no match for such an item. I got just far enough to be able to pry open a kind of spout but there were tears and long-fluent-repetitive-all-throughout-the-house swearing sessions involved.

Still….

2. If you have a good corner greengrocer, you can buy quantities of eggplant for cheap–eleven or twelve eggplants made for a large tray of roast eggplant and onion slices (with garlic slivers and za’atar sprigs and olive oil) plus a large vat of baba ghanouj. Only the five eggplants I nuked for the baba ghanouj didn’t feel like cooperating fully when it was time to peel them. Might have been easier to peel first, then nuke, since it was all going into the food processor eventually. Next time…

3. Whole smoked whitefish for whitefish salad comes two ways–cold-smoked or hot-smoked. What’s the difference? I asked the counter guy at my favorite Armenian grocery. “Cold-smoked is a little less hard,” he said. So I bought it, thinking he meant the hot-smoked was tough as shoeleather and twice as chewy. I was wrong. Cold-smoked actually means the fish is smoked raw, like lox, only a little drier and tougher. But you don’t necessarily want to put it in whitefish salad that way. Man, it still had the scales on too. I couldn’t get it off the bones for love or money, and there were a lot of bones.

However, the microwave came to the rescue. I cut the fish in half and Continue reading

Hunan Tofu, spare the salt (spoil the child)

tofu with broccoli

Last year my daughter kept hocking me that I never made enough meat. This year she’s going on twelve and decided, about a month before Passover, that she needed to be vegetarian because she has ambitions of becoming a veterinarian. Hard enough for anyone to deal with, but for a diabetic, it’s an added challenge, especially at Passover, which we got through with a lot of vegetables and a dispensation for tofu (though without soy sauce, which contains wheat) so she wouldn’t be stuck with only eggs and cheese and yogurt and nuts for protein. Next year, rice and beans are going back on the menu–I’m not stuck in Ashkenazi-think, and a lot of synagogues in the US are starting to reconsider the role of legumes, pulses and non-wheatlike grains at Passover. I’m all for it.

Still, we’re well past Passover now, and the issue today is tofu; see under: how to feed a vegetarian preteen some protein without overdosing her on sodium. One of our favorite Chinese restaurant dishes is tofu in black bean sauce, but no doubt about it, it’s loaded.

[Update Note, cue theme “Do the Math Yourself”: Check out the recent LA Times’ version of Hunan Tofu with Black Bean Sauce–looks wonderful, right? but the sodium stats at the bottom of the recipe are WAY off, even if Andrea Nguyen, the food writer, had been using low-sodium soy sauce. Perhaps the editors forgot to count the salt in the fermented black beans–which on its own is something like 850 mg per tablespoon, as far as I could find (it’s not listed in the USDA nutrient database). You really can’t rinse that kind of salt out, especially not if you’re using the rinse as a broth and adding it back into the dish. That plus 1/4 t. salt “or more” at 560 or so mg. and a couple of tablespoons of soy sauce–you’re looking at 750-1000 mg for each of 4 servings, or 1500-2000 each as “dinner for two”, or about an entire day’s worth of salt in a single dish–definitely not the 350 or so as stated in the article!]

Cooking at home is a lot cheaper in a number of ways (a 14-oz pack of firm tofu runs about $1.50 where we live), and we can figure out what to do about the sauce if we really want it. Invariably, the restaurant container is always swimming in sauce with a layer of oil on top, so I think just not doing that would be enough to improve the nutrition stats considerably.

Frying tofu at home won’t usually get you that crispy outside texture that you get in the Hunan tofu dishes from the restaurant–mostly, they’re shallow- or deep-frying the cubes or triangles in a lot more fat than you’d want to use at home for an ordinary dinner. A little less than that level of crispy is still okay by me. Getting any kind of brown on the outside would be a step up from the pale, flabby results I was used to achieving in the trusty nonstick pan.

So I started actually paying attention to the cookbooks I have on the shelf and to the techniques I invented for pan-browning things like salmon without salting the dickens out of them. I needed a (small amount of) sauce that tasted okay but wasn’t swamped with sodium. That means a little low-sodium soy sauce and a lot of ginger, garlic, maybe a bit of vinegar and sesame oil–and a surprise ingredient for browning and flavor depth: molasses.

Most syrups (agave included) run about 16 g. carb per tablespoon, a whisker more than a tablespoon of ordinary granulated sugar. Blackstrap molasses runs a bit less, at 11 g. per tablespoon. And it’s really thick, really strong-flavored, and really brownish-black. Also relatively inexpensive. Half a teaspoon will darken and thicken an ounce of sauce for frying tofu. It helps “stretch” the soy sauce–for looks as much as flavor and volume–without adding much sodium or carb to the dish. Even stranger (and better), molasses is a powerhouse source of potassium at 600 mg and iron at 20% of the RDA per tablespoon (not that we’re adding that much here, more like 1/6th tablespoon). The vinegar and sesame oil lend rich pungent flavor that doesn’t depend solely on the saltiness of the soy sauce, and ginger and garlic round out the combination.

So that’s the sauce. To get the tofu to brown in the frying pan, you have to get some of the extra water out of it first. There’s always the press-it-with-a-weighted-plate-on-top-for-30-minutes scheme, which always seems more of a pain than it’s worth. But I’m impatient.

There are two decent ways to press tofu other than the weighted plate setup. One requires thinking ahead (not my forte): slice the tofu and freeze the slices, then thaw them. The other–are you surprised yet?–is to slice and microwave the tofu on an open plate for a couple of minutes, say 4 minutes for a whole 14-oz. pad of firm tofu, or 2 minutes for half a pad. Then drain off the watery stuff that’s come out of the tofu (let it sit another few minutes and redrain), and pat the tofu dry.

To fry, heat a bit of olive or other vegetable oil in a nonstick pan. Brown some onion or scallion a few minutes. Make a frying sauce: 1-3 teaspoons of low-sodium soy sauce, depending on how much tofu you’re making, a minced clove of garlic, a teaspoon of fresh grated ginger, a few drops of sesame oil, a dash of vinegar and a pinch of brown sugar or better, a half-teaspoon of molasses. Hot pepper flakes or z’khug optional.

Pour the sauce into the hot pan and let bubble up a second or two. Then add the tofu cubes or triangles and toss a couple of times in the sauce. The sauce will be just enough to color the surfaces a little and get them started.  It’ll take another 5-10 minutes of stir-frying to get the tofu surfaces to brown nicely, but it does work. Serve atop microwaved broccoli and/or bok choy. Garnish at will with some chopped scallion, toasted almonds, fried mushrooms or slices of red bell pepper (or hot peppers and roasted peanuts for kung pao, if that’s your thing).

Sodium counts for this version:

If you figure the dish serves 3 people a decent meal-sized portion of protein, and the sodium is coming exclusively from the low-sodium soy sauce, a full tablespoon of soy sauce would be about 450-600 mg, so each serving is about 200 mg at the higher end. I don’t think I usually use quite that much for us, but even so it’s pretty reasonable. If you don’t mind doubling the sodium to about 400 mg per serving, you could make another dose of the frying sauce to drizzle the dish with at the last minute.

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