Tuesday, November 1, 2011

partners in crime

Once upon a time, long ago and far away, I could burn water if I tried to cook.  My mother tried to explain to me that cooking is as easy as following a recipe, but I couldn't be bothered to read and prepare food simultaneously.  When I moved into my first apartment, I was somewhat skilled at Minute Rice, frozen chicken nuggets, and stovetop mac & cheese (involving packets of impossibly orange "cheese product").  I was also pretty skilled at ordering take-out and delivery.

Oh yeah, ramen noodles - I was a champ with those.

Anyway, when I met Mister, we usually went out for food, occasionally got a pizza after work, and once in a while, he'd cook something up.  Once I got this romantic notion that I would make him dinner.  I set the table with my parents' special china, crystal glasses, and lit some candles, then served the most impressive meal I could make at that time: chicken nuggets, Minute Rice, and Campbell's chunky soup in the Potato Cheese variety.

I look at that "menu" now and understand why Mister didn't let me cook again for at least two more years.  I usually credit two things with me learning how to become the gourmet chef I pretend to be today: losing my job and therefore having all day to prepare dinner, and several great cookbooks gifted to me by my husband's mother, specifically Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant.  Let's put a little timeline together, though:

Summer 2001 - Mister and I share our first kiss, become generally inseparable.
Winter 2002 - Mister becomes a vegetarian, forsaking meat and confusing the heck out of me
Summer 2002 - I join Mister in ceasing animal consumption
October 2002 - move out of my parents' house and into my ghetto apartment.  No takeout worth risking my life for, so I learn to cook...kind of.  General rotation at this point: pasta with red sauce, veggie lo mein, veggie burgers with fries, mixed veggies on rice.  Just mix and repeat.
June 2006 - get laid off, have tons of time to cook, suddenly grow my gourmet wings.

Do you see that huge gap?  Do you really think we lived on a diet of mixed veggies with rice, pasta and sauce, pizza and veggie burgers for four years?  No, we didn't.  Somewhere in there, Mister taught me some tricks and helped me figure out this crazy cooking thing.

See, I don't work all day and then come home and cook us dinner because Mister can't or is unwilling to.  I come home and cook dinner because I enjoy cooking and it helps me unwind.  Mister has offered many times to make dinner, but he knows I enjoy it.  He does offer his assistance from time to time - especially where mexican/southwestern cuisine is concerned.  I never would have known that you can't eat chili without tortilla chips and that using a fork is a sin but a spoon?  Well, that's straight-up sacrilegious.

Tonight, as I was dicing a pepper for Tofu Rancheros, Mister came sniffing his way into the kitchen to see what was going on (the tasty aroma of the pan-seared tofu drew him in...no, really, it did).  He asked what I was making, I told him.  He asked how exactly that was going to work, so I told him the recipe.  He stood, looking a little perplexed, then said,

"Shouldn't there be refried beans?"
"I thought that's what made them 'Rancheros,' right?"
Um.... I thought it was the tortilla.
"I don't know..."
Okay, well, do you want there to be refried beans?
thinkthinkthink "Yes."
short staring contest commences, and then,
"So I'll go get them.  Do we need anything else?"

So that's the story of how Mister made my old recipe for Tofu Rancheros a little bit better.

Although, I have to say, letting the congealed mass of mashed beans sluuuurrrp! into my food is never something that makes me drool with anticipation.  When I was younger, we had a poodle and when she got older we had to feed her a special diet which involved phenomenally stinky canned dog food.

I don't want to say that this reminds me of that... but why would I have told you that story if it didn't?

It always works out, though, once the heat has some time to work it into a malleable goop.

So, for your viewing and tasting pleasure, here is a recipe to celebrate World Vegan Day:

Tofu Rancheros
6 servings (or 8 skimpy ones)

6 small to medium tortillas (I used Whole Foods 365 brand Red Chili tortillas)
14 oz firm or extra firm tofu
cooking spray
3 Tbsp tamari/soy sauce
2 Tbsp oil
1 large red bell pepper, diced
3 cloves of garlic, minced or pressed
14 oz can of petite diced tomatoes, drained with liquid reserved
1 cup finely chopped kale (or green thing of your preference)
a generous tsp of chili powder
a generous tsp of dried cilantro
a scant tsp of kosher salt
1/2 tsp cumin

Coat a square skillet with cooking spray.
Slice tofu through the middle lengthwise, then into 8ths crosswise.  Heat the skillet while the tofu drains on a towel, then lay the tofu on the hot skillet and sprinkle with tamari.  Flip tofu immediately to allow tamari to penetrate both sides of the tofu, and cook on medium-high for about 10 minutes, flipping two or three times (about every 3 minutes), until browned and a little crisp on both sides.  Remove from heat and roughly chop with your spatula.

I'm actually not very good at "roughly."  I prefer perfect triangles, cutting each square piece of tofu from corner to corner and then the other way, too.  But it doesn't have to look this OCD precise.

While the tofu is cooking, heat the oil in a saute pan and saute the peppers and garlic in oil 3-5 minutes over a medium-low flame.  Add drained tomatoes, chili powder, cilantro, salt, and cumin and stir well to combine.  Cook for 5 more minutes, adding reserved tomato juice if the mixture seems to dry out, then add kale and stir to wilt.

Add refried bean and cut up the congealed, can-shaped mass until it can mix in with the other ingredients.  Stir everything together until it is smooth and looks more like food or vomit than a can-shaped, pink cylinder of dog food.

Add tofu and mix well - feel free to break up the tofu a little more with the spoon as you mix.

Cook for a minute or two more, then remove from heat.  Divide mixture among warmed tortillas, then tuck the bottom and roll like a burrito and enjoy!

It must have come out alright - Mister had four.  That might be a record number of servings involving tofu for him.  He was so busy enjoying his "fun dinner" that he didn't notice how much he'd eaten until I pointed it out, which then veered off into a conversation about Del Taco and him ordering the family value meals when he goes there because everything is so cheap and small.

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