I’m not a vegetarian but you knew that. I have never really been comfortable with any sort of constraint (especially culinarily). Still, we eat vegetarian 3 or 4 nights a week, not necessarily by design or any sort of mandate. It just works out that way.
Partly because I am in love with the beauty of vegetables. Fresh-fare, grown impeccably, and served at its peak of perfection is culinary magic to my way of thinking. The colors and the textures of so many vegetables are positively inspiring. Let’s face it. Dead animals can enliven any meal, but vegetables require an artistic eye and a more nuanced sensibility. So, when cooking on a nightly basis, the meals that come out of my kitchen are often vegetarian. Unless you count Asian Fish Sauce. I put Asian Fish Sauce in everything.
My point is– I may dabble unconsciously in vegetarian styles of cooking, but there are others who embrace it passionately and creatively. Michael Natkin is one such cook. His new book, named after his blog Herbivoracious, shows off his style of flavor-packed cooking; pulling together gutsy flavors and ingredients from around the world. Asian tastes make plenty of appearances as you might expect. After all, there are 15 recipes calling for tofu in this book. But I see Middle-Eastern influences in his eggplant sandwich, a lot of naturally meatless Indian preparations, as well as vegetarian takes on things like the internationally popular lasagna (his has portobellos and summer squash).
But these globally-inspired recipes are a far cry from the usual suspects. I’ll be honest, recipes that merely swap lentils for meat are never as good as the original (lentil loaf with ketchup? No thank you). These type of sad-faced recipes are the bane of many a vegetarian cookbook, and the reason I could never be a vegetarian.
Herbivoracious is decidedly not that kind of cookbook. The recipes come from the mind of a real cook who happens to be vegetarian. A culinarily well-traveled vegetarian!
I chose to make Michael’s Caramel-Cooked Tofu, not because I was looking for a replacement for meat. I chose it because I love tofu, and I can see that it’s exactly the right ingredient for this dish. And that’s the point I am trying to make. These recipes are naturally vegetarian and feel just right. These recipes are for food lovers, written by someone with a passion for food. Oh, and they just happen to be vegetarian.
And yes– I did add Asian Fish Sauce to mine for that undeniable umami. Don’t tell Michael. GREG
- 1/4 c rice wine or dry sherry
- 2 t rice vinegar
- 1/4 c soy sauce (use a wheat-free version for gluten-free)
- 1 t toasted sesame oil
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 t minced fresh ginger
- 1/2 c sugar
- 1 lb extra-firm tofu, patted thoroughly dry and cut into 2 x 2 x 1/3‑inch pieces
- 2 T vegetable oil
- 1/2 c thinly sliced white onion
- 4 or more dried small red chilies (optional)
- 5 scallions, white and light green parts only, thinly sliced
Whisk together the rice wine, rice vinegar, soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, ginger, and sugar until the sugar dissolves.
Heat the vegetable oil in a large, heavy skillet (preferably cast iron) over high heat. Lay the tofu squares in the skillet in a single layer (or as close to a single layer as possible). Fry until golden brown on one side, about 4 minutes.
Flip the tofu and immediately pour in the sauce; add the white onions and chilies, if using. The sauce will sputter and begin to caramelize. Keep a close eye on it, and move the tofu around a little bit to let the sauce get under it. Continue cooking until the sauce has thickened and become a fairly thick glaze coating the tofu, about 4 minutes more.
Serve immediately, topped with the scallions.
I was given a sample copy of Herbivoracious for the purposes of this review.