I'm in love with meat eaters. My boyfriend, my parents, my friends- all of carnivorous persuasion. And me? A meat eater too, but without that same level of attachment to the animal at each meal. Though I adore the succulence of a perfectly seared steak, the sweet smokiness of pulled pork, and the way lamb seems to melt on my tongue after a day of slow cooking, I could go days, weeks, even months without those tastes.
I know that there are volumes to be written about the merits of going without meat even once a week. The impact on health, wealth, and the environment. But I'll let others write those pages. Sometimes I wonder if we haven't missed at least one aspect of the point behind letting go of meat-centricity. What if instead of praising our smaller carbon footprint and going easy on our arteries, we simply said, "Hey, did anyone realize that plant-based dishes can be different and absolutely delicious?" The point being that we don't need to find the reason why we're stepping out of the box, but instead the reason why we've limited our culinary creativity in the name of tradition. Not the why, but the why not?
I suppose my foray into cooking in the last five years is what has allowed me to see more shapes inside the traditional square meal. More configurations of the divided plate. A vegetable can be my centerpiece. It's the artist in me that likes the challenge of taking plants from side dish to supper. The tremendous opportunity to create and to fancify. Because I get that kobe beef will always taste as luscious as butter and that turkey, carved on Thanksgiving, will be nostalgically and physically satisfying. But the frontier for vegetable exploration is still fairly unsettled in my book. Who says lentils aren't as lovable? Grilled portobello mushrooms as "mmm" inducing? Well, no one.
I've experimented up a storm. A few failures of note. A few, "Let's never try this again." The hard part isn't pleasing my palate, but the one belonging to my boyfriend. Convincing him that tofu isn't only a funny word to say aloud has been grueling. Perhaps trickery was involved. A wink as I placed the top bun on our "burgers." Fingers crossed behind my back while presenting a bowl of chili missing the carne. Whatever white lies I may or may not have told have been worthwhile. Our kitchen now is a much more adventurous place. And not just because I have a penchant for throwing pots and pans.
Here is the dish that changed his mind about tofu. Crisp-crusted with pillowy centers, this tofu is surrounded by bok choy, carrots, and a savory-sweet Thai-inspired sauce. Full of so much flavor that no one will miss the chicken, the pork, or the beef.
Thai Tofu with Bok Choy (serves 4)
- 1, 12 oz block extra firm tofu, drained and pressed to remove water
- 1 large head bok choy, chopped
- 2 carrots, sliced thinly
- 3 tsp sesame oil, divided
- 1 tsp corn starch dissolved in 1 TBSP cold water
For the Sauce:
- 2 TBSP soy sauce
- 3 TBSP oyster sauce
- 2 TBSP fish sauce
- 2 tsp brown sugar
- 1- 2 tsp hot chili paste (depending on how spicy you prefer your dish- start with 1 tsp and taste test it)
Cut the tofu into 1" cubes. Whisk together sauce ingredients. Set aside.
Heat 2 tsp sesame oil over medium-high heat in a large wok or pan. When the pan is hot, add the tofu and let cook for 2 minutes on one side, undisturbed, until they develop a crisp crust. Flip and cook 2 minutes more.
Remove the tofu to a plate. Return pan to the heat.
Add remaining 1 tsp sesame oil to the pan along with the carrots. Saute for 3 minutes, until the carrots begin to soften.
Add the bok choy and saute for 2 minutes, until it begins to soften and wilt.
Stir in the sauce.
Return the tofu to the pan and stir in the corn starch mixture. Allow the sauce to come to a boil for it to thicken. Stir.
Note: I also tossed in some leftover steamed broccoli at the end. Serve with brown rice.
-Andrea Mitchell, Foodista staff and blogger at CanYouStayForDinner.com