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    Half-sour cucumbers, hold the salt

    Half-sour cucumbers, hold the salt

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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: 10-Minute Tofu

Microwaved platter of low-sodium tofu with snow peas

Microwaved tofu platter in minutes, minus the big oil and salt overload of takeout. I’ve used snow peas and shiitake mushrooms this time, but you could use any greens you like and mix them up–bok choy, broccoli, green beans. Frozen snow or sugar snap peas work too.

This is the recipe I meant to put in the last post about reducing sodium in Chinese food.

Tofu is, as everyone knows by now, extremely versatile. It’s vegetarian, it’s shapeable, it’s mild but satisfying in flavor, it comes in a variety of textures and thicknesses, and it’s quick to cook–fried, steamed, stuffed, crumbled–or to eat cold. It’s also low-fat, low-sodium, nearly carb-free, and relatively high in protein, with some iron and calcium too. And it’s very inexpensive–less than $2 for a 14-oz. pad of tofu at the supermarket, about three or four servings’ worth.

When it’s hideously hot out, as it was much of September here in Pasadena, you can marinate a sliced cold block of silken tofu by pouring a jao tze-style dipping sauce over it maybe half an hour, garnish with scallion shreds or crushed toasted nuts, and serve it as an appetizer. Or eat firm tofu plain and cold, if you like it. Or throw some tofu cubes into a salad with cabbage, lightly-steamed (or microwaved) fresh brussels sprouts, scallions and halved hard-boiled eggs, and drizzle peanut sauce over it.

Or you can decide there’s no way you’re going to stand over a stove with a frying pan, but you’d like a proper cooked dinner that resembles kung pao or ma po tofu with some greens, just not doused in heavy greasy oversalted sauce or requiring a run to your local takeout, and it would be nice if it were very quick. Very quick. Like five minutes tops. And that it didn’t involve the stove at all.

When my daughter decided she wanted to be vegetarian a couple of years ago, I discovered that you can “quick-press” tofu for Hunan tofu in about 4-5 minutes for a standard 14-19 oz. pad by cutting it up, standing the pieces on a microwaveable dinner plate, and microwaving, then draining off the liquid. Then it’s ready to stir-fry and it’ll brown decently. But I’ve done it so often in the past two years that my daughter’s kind of tired of it now (and has also gone back to eating fish and chicken once in a while). But we still like tofu. And with 100-degree days filling so much of September, there was just no way I was going to stand at the stove. So….

The entirely microwaveable tofu dish below is my daughter’s current preference, because the tofu cubes are softer, steamed in the microwave in a thin sauce rather than browned, and the scallions never scorch. And it’s not bad at all, and it takes, if not a literal 5 minutes, maybe about 10, start to finish.

This is more of a technique than a recipe, really, because you can use whatever cookable greens you have and like–fresh broccoli with the stalks, green beans, bok choy, etc. are pretty classic and generally not expensive per pound, but I’m not against using frozen unsalted (store brand; I’m cheap) sugar snap peas or green beans if the fresh ones are out of season. You’re microwaving; it’ll work out, and you won’t overcook the tofu. Continue reading

Stuffed cabbage in the microwave

stuffed Nappa cabbage rolls-unsauced

I was originally going to call this post “Nappa 9-1-1” because it’s about salvaging a cabbage quickly and semi-artfully from the back of my fridge, but realized how bad that would be once I read the recent earthquake damage assessments up in the real city of Napa from the 6.0 earthquake a couple of weeks ago. Things are still kind of rough up there. The Napa Valley Vintners association have donated an impressive amount–$10M–and have instructions on how to donate to the local community disaster relief fund. You can find a number of local funds to donate to online at norcalwine.com.

I love bringing home a bag (or more) of produce from my local greengrocer each week–especially in the summer, when Fresno tomatoes are in and brilliant red, green beans are green and snappy, apricots and plums and pluots are spilling ripely out of the bins at under a dollar a pound, and herbs like purple basil and tarragon and mint and za’atar are 75 cents a bunch. You can’t help but feel like you’re going to be a great cook that day, just by cutting up a few vegetables and sprinkling on some oil and vinegar and strewing herbs (and feta or Alfonso olives) on top.

I always mean to use up all my vegetables before they start showing their age, but occasionally I get caught with something unintended at the back of the fridge. This week it was a Nappa cabbage, which is longer and less sulfurous (when lightly cooked) than the more traditional green and Savoy cabbages. A little closer to bok choy. So I peeled back the rusted layers, hoping that some of the inner leaves could be salvaged, at least, and I got fairly lucky.

But what to do with them? Chop and eat raw as a salad? Always an option. But I’d bought the cabbage in the first place to try out a quick microwave version of stuffed cabbage that would fulfill a couple of challenges I’d posed myself:

1. Vegetarian (not a big beef fan, personally)–I’m using the lentil/rice stuffing I developed for stuffed eggplants and onions  three years ago (has it already been that long???), because I actually made stuffed onions again last week and had some leftover stuffing in the fridge.

2. Microwaveable in a few minutes (to combat cooked cabbage stench and do it as more fresh-tasting than long-cooked)

3. Non-stinky, and not drowning in cloying sweet-and-sour tomato sauce (my two overwhelming childhood objections to holishkes)

4. Bridges the cultural/culinary gap between European and Syrian Jewish versions of stuffed cabbage by spicing the filling AND adding garlic and onions. It can be done, and should. And yet, I’m not stewing it to death (actually, that means overturning both Euro and Syrian traditional cooking methods in equal measures).

5. Fulfills the Prunes and Lentils Challenge, or at least hints at what’s possible, since today I had (gasp) no prunes left and had to resort to leftover tamarind sauce from the aforementioned batch of stuffed onions… close enough for folk music.

Stuffed cabbage rolls, as I’ve noted before, are popular throughout at least eastern Europe and Syria. Most versions contain meat–beef for Jews, beef or lamb for Arabs, some mixture of pork and beef for European Christians. But I’ve also seen some really beautiful-looking vegetarian ones in Nur Ilkin’s The Turkish Cookbook, and those were stuffed–of all things–with whole cooked chestnuts.

Cabbage lends itself to enveloping stuffings almost as well as grape leaves, and it’s easier to work with, cheaper, and (big bonus) unbrined.

In addition to meat or lentil fillings, you could try something like curry-spiced or Mexican-style beans and/or vegetables, a mu shu or samosa filling, whole cooked grains like brown rice or bulgur with or without dried cranberries or raisins and sunflower seeds or chopped nuts, maybe even fish (though I’m shying away from Joan Nathan’s recommendation for wrapping up gefilte fish and giving them the stuffed cabbage treatment). Perhaps for fish I’d want smoked (fake or real) whitefish salad. Or sausage–real or vegetarian, smoky and spicy.

It seems to me for sauces you could go well beyond sweet-and-sour traditional: a garlicky tomato sauce, a mustard vinaigrette, a smoky salsa with or without tamarind sauce, a chili-paste or z’khug-laden soy/molasses/vinegar/sesame oil dipping sauce with ginger and scallions, a polished herb and wine-type tomato sauce with prunes or mushrooms and onions, even (maybe definitely?) Korean or Thai peanut dipping sauce, especially if you stuffed your Nappa cabbage leaves with a combination of pressed tofu and/or omelet strips, spinach leaves, maybe some sprouts and shiitake mushrooms.

Whatever version you do, this can either be a quick path to dinner (use the big leaves and more filling per leaf) or to a platter of appetizers (using the small inner leaves).

Microwaving doesn’t develop every possible flavor (in the case of cabbage, I’m childish enough to say that’s a good thing), but it’s a quick way to play around with a classic at least on a trial basis. You could always do the huge foil-covered pan in the oven thing if you decide to scale up and go old-school.

Stuffed Vegetarian Cabbage Rolls

  • 1 head Nappa cabbage, washed and with the core cut out
  • 1 lb (2 cups, more or less) of (in this case) allspice/cinnamon-spiced lentil hashu (made w/cooked rice or bulgur, not uncooked) OR peppery lentil mititei-style sausage filling (substituting 1/3 c. cooked rice for the wheat gluten), or your choice of savory/spicy filling, preferably one that includes some garlic….
  • 1/2 c. sauce–in this case, 1/4 c. tamarind sauce plus a tablespoon of chipotle salsa and a few tablespoons of water. OR–just tamarind sauce, or just smoky salsa, or tamarind with a bit of tomato paste and a spoonful of sugar, or peanut dipping sauce, or dim sum dipping sauce, or Asian-type prune sauce, or prune and wine sauce with some tomato paste mixed in. Or mustard/garlic vinaigrette (as a dipping sauce, not necessarily to cook with)…YEESH! too many choices…

 

Microwaved cabbage leaves, ready for rolling

Microwaved cabbage leaves, ready for rolling

1. Separate the cabbage leaves, put in a microwave container, drizzle on a quarter-inch of water and put on a lid. Microwave 2-3 minutes until the leaves are just tender enough to roll without snapping the center.

rolling stuffed cabbage

Start the cabbage roll with the filling at the stem end

2. Drain the leaves and lay them out on a plate for stuffing and rolling. Put a tablespoon of fairly stiff filling an inch or so from the stem end of the leaf and pack it into a little sausage shape. Roll the stem end over the filling gently but as tightly as you can manage, then tuck the side frills of the leaf over the ends and continue rolling toward the top of the leaf. Place seam-side down in a microwave container or casserole. Roll up all the leaves and pack them into the container fairly tightly.

stuffed cabbage rolls with tamarind sauce

3. If the filling is completely cooked already (the rice in the lentil stuffing is not raw or par-cooked), just drizzle a bit of your sauce of choice over the stuffed cabbage rolls, maybe with a tiny drizzle of water in the bottom of the container. Put a lid on and microwave another 2-3 minutes or until just cooked through and steaming hot. If the flavor is still too raw or radishy for you, obviously you can cook it further, going a minute or so at a time, until it smells and tastes right to you.

Drain and serve with a little more sauce on the side.

Instant Pickles, Hold the Salt

Fast-marinated cucumbers, half-sour kosher dill style

One of the things that kept me motivated for blogging SlowFoodFast after the first fine careless rapture was my indignation at how popular over-the-top salting was becoming in popular food magazines, cookbooks, blogs and TV shows as chefs became celebrities, and how dangerous I knew it was for most people to eat that way regularly. A large part of my career a couple of decades ago was exploring the history of dietary sodium in cardiovascular research and writing about the DASH Diet.

What I’ve missed the past few years is just how many people, particularly younger ones, are starting to take up the challenge of cooking low-sodium and blog about their trials and successes. There’s a whole community out there, and they’re cooking pretty well. It is definitely possible, and generally easy once you get past the “how do I read a label and cook from scratch” aspect.

I just ran into Sodium Girl (aka Jessica Goldman Foung)’s blog-based cookbook, “Sodium Girl’s Limitless Low-Sodium Cookbook”. Diagnosed with lupus and kidney failure in her early 20s, she turned around her diet by dropping her sodium intake drastically to give her kidneys a rest in the hope they’d regenerate, and it worked. She’s been innovating with low- and near-to-no-sodium versions of favorite foods ever since, working with the National Kidney Foundation and other organizations. Her book, like her blog, is attractively photographed, full of cheerful writing and surprise takes on favorite foods.

One of the substitutions she makes that I have to approve of is a molasses-and-vinegar-based “faux soy sauce”. So I wasn’t the only one!

Another of her successful experiments is pickles. She goes for sugar-and-vinegar-style pickles, which makes sense, since they have no added salt in them, but I can’t help it–I have always cringed at sweet pickled anything. If it’s supposed to be a pickle, for my money, it’s gotta be a half-sour kosher dill and nothing but (or else an Indian lime or mango achaar pickle, or Moroccan preserved lemons, but that’s another story and still pretty high-salt at this writing. I’m working on it, but not yet holding out a lot of hope…)

Anyway, looking through Foung’s book reminded me of a simple, hearty and low-to-very low sodium version of my favorite pickles in the world. Continue reading

Celebration Update: “Mashup” Does Not Mean “More Potatoes”

Two or three Thanksgivings ago I railed (as I often do) at the lack of imaginative and good-looking (both aesthetically and nutritionally)  vegetarian offerings for Thanksgiving main dishes. I wasn’t having a whole lot of luck being impressed by what I saw in the newsstand food glam magazines, vegetarian and vegan cookbooks, food blogs, my local newspaper food section, or even the freezer section of my local Whole Foods. So I came up with a list of suggestions for vegetarian centerpiece dishes.

This year, we had the double-double challenge: Thanksgiving fell on the first day (though only the second evening) of Chanukah for the first time in over 100 years (1860s was the last time?) and won’t again for another 77,000 or so (well, some sources say there’ll be another Thanksgivukkah moment in about another 100 years and then the big schlep out to 77K. Either way, for most of us, this is “that moment”).

For me, mashing up Thanksgiving and Chanukah just this once gives us some ideas for rethinking the kneejerk popular way of celebrating the big important holidays in general. Maybe even exploring what’s so vital about holidays and family and clearing away some of the thoughtless excesses.

Chanukah came so early this year that we had nearly no chance at buying or making tons of presents before having to schlep ourselves up the I5 to my in-laws’, so none of us was expecting anything but silly socks, a paperback or so, and maybe a stop in Solvang for Danish marzipan-based sweets on the way back home. That’s all to the good–Chanukah was never really meant to be a “more presents all the time” kind of holiday, it’s about freedom of religion, freedom from outside oppression, and gratitude for the miracle of having enough resources to go around. Thanksgiving is about those things too.

Unlike most years, I didn’t find a two-page checklist that Martin Luther would be jealous of, listing all the acceptable giftees our daughter wanted, posted on the fridge. Partly that’s because we wouldn’t be home to see it, and partly because she already had her bat mitzvah in June and she’s old enough now to feel like it’s more than plenty in the way of gifts. Plus by now she knows me–I have a strong tendency to roll my eyes and cross most of the stuff off the list with the familiar yearly litany of:

“Library…library…library…library…not wearable at school or synagogue, so what’s left, the mirror?…we have an unusually skilled cat and I don’t really want to think about hamsters in that context, do you?…library…library…not until you practice piano…I know I promised you could get your ears pierced eventually…maybe next month…”

It’s just a matter of practice. And a willingness to channel Sylvia (one of my favorite cartoon characters,  by the great Nicole Hollander).

Anyway, I have no idea if any of my ideas the last time I riffed on vegetarian centerpiece dishes gave someone else ideas–I hope so–but recently I ran across a vegan cookbook with dishes that look like they’d be just right for a celebration. It’s too late to recommend for Thanksgiving or Chanukah, but maybe for Christmas and onward? Continue reading

The “other” moussaka–eggplant and chickpea stew

It’s been a fuller month than I expected, with a lot of travel and the unlooked-for complications of Thanksgiving and Chanukah falling on the same week. Supposedly we don’t get to do that again for another 77,000 years or so.

Most of the food features about the “Thanksgivukkah” mashup this year have been bemused, amused, and imaginative only in the sense of suggesting (always) latkes and sufganiyot (doughnuts) for the Thanksgiving menu. Not in replacement of any other starches or desserts, you understand. They mean in addition to. Forgive me if I can’t dig it, but I don’t think either holiday really benefits from the “double your starches, double your fun” idea.

We had a great long weekend up with my in-laws and family in San Jose; and what was on the table? A pretty decent meal by any standards, traditional or California modern.

Thanksgiving 2013-Northern California style

At my in-laws’, 5 minutes before showtime. A lot more green on this table than I remember as a kid. It could only be an improvement, and believe it or not, most of the broccoli got snapped up with the fabulous mustard garlic dressing (not yet on the table)

Turkey (kosher, and cooked by accident upside down because my in-laws stuck it in three entire shopping bags and couldn’t tell which end was up–but it came out better than most of their other attempts, so they’re doing it again next year on purpose–I highly recommend it). A little stuffing and mashed potatoes and gravy for those who insisted, which wasn’t us; cranberry orange sauce, a stellar Georgia pecan pie among the desserts. But the rest of it was California-conscious; farro salad with chestnuts and mushrooms, a roasted red-squash-and-onion platter with whole cloves of roasted garlic strewn around, a big green spinach and fennel salad with endive and pomegranate seeds, and my contribution, an impressively large platter of very green, just-steamed broccoli with a spicy mustard garlic dressing that, and I may say so, rocked the Casbah and provided the necessary Jewish influence.

Not just because of the olive oil-at-Chanukah factor–which would have been enough for me and was plenty symbolic–but for the balance of a big blob of sharp spicy brown mustard with a big fat clove of garlic. Plus red wine vinegar, olive oil, and a little white wine. . . whisk and taste, whisk and taste. When it’s just sharp enough, still thick but can be drizzled, tastes good and has just the right degree of excessive garlic without going to Gilroy (which, btw, is only about half an hour outside of San Jose and holds a surprisingly popular garlic festival every summer), you know it’s done.

The broccoli itself was a little undercooked for me but others insisted it had to be still crunchy to avoid killing the little green vitamins–a new trend in Califoodian philosophy, at least northern Califoodia. It was in the San Jose Mercury News that week or something. But the garlic mustard dressing made up for all that nutritional selfrighteousness and helped the turkey no end as well. Cranberries are well and good and I love them, but they’re no substitute. I maintain [talmudically, in question form]: if there’s no garlic, is it really food?

But with a week of too much food and travel and lectures on nutritional trendiness aside, I find myself thinking, do I really need to be thinking so much about food? Southern California makes it easy to eat well with very little effort–even with very little money, as long as you shop at the local Armenian or Latino markets for vegetables and stick to the unbranded or store-brand and whole foods only.

However…although it was about 85 degrees out when we came home to Pasadena, the temps quickly dropped and have been in the 50s all week, with and without drizzle (yes, you can pity us sarcastically if you want to. They don’t sell coats of any worth better than a sweatshirt here, so to us it’s cold). I realized it was time for a stew. With, obviously, garlic.

Most people think of moussaka as the Greek eggplant-lamb casserole with béchamel topping. But a much simpler vegetarian eggplant stew with chickpeas, onion and tomatoes is also called moussaka (also found on the web as “musakk’ah”). It stems from Lebanon and is popular throughout the Middle East. 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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