Last month when I was in Los Angeles, I ate at a few vegetarian and vegan cafes with really interesting, inspired dishes (cauliflower grits! adzuki bean bacon!). I thought to myself, Man LA is creative. I never see this level of innovation in Seattle these days — but then I had to remind myself that since having Oliver we rarely go out to eat (or at least, out of our neighborhood), so it’s likely happening. We’re just not witness to it (at the moment, anyway). I keep a little journal while traveling, jotting down ideas for recipes and the like, and while I thought I’d work on that adzuki bean bacon for you, I also wanted to write about something you could make in your kitchen tonight (or, at the very least, this weekend) that wouldn’t be a big to-do. Something that would tease us all with hints of warmer weather and that wouldn’t need much explanation or preface: a classic BLT sandwich with a vegetarian twist.
Innovation, explanation and preface is always exciting when traveling: being in new neighborhoods, restaurants and kitchens and learning how other people interpret and use ingredients and spices is one of the things I love about getting out of town. But at home, after a normal day of work and puzzling over what to feed Oliver, innovation is rarely what I’m looking for. So I thought I’d honor that today and leave the kitchen wizardry for later, instead focusing on a versatile avocado spread you can use on everything (trust me), and a sweet and smoky baked tofu that’s happily tucked into wraps and sandwiches or scattered atop salads or grain bowls.
People can be very particular about their BLT’s, and I realize swapping in tofu here isn’t for everyone. I do happen to eat and love bacon, but a healthier option with a big hit of plant-based protein is a nice way to usher in some easy spring cooking. And while many insist on calling this “tofu bacon” to really grab at that “B” in the “BLT,” I’m going to resist for today and just call it what it is: really good baked tofu.
To make these sandwiches feasible on a weeknight, plan to do a few of the elements in advance. I make (and always double) the avocado spread and it lasts in the fridge a good four days, and I always bake the tofu the day before so I don’t have to bother with measuring out the marinade ingredients — plus the tofu takes at least two hours to marinate, so if you do it the night before you’re golden.
I think these sandwiches are best served room temperature, but Sam happens to like them cold straight out of the refrigerator (so if we have leftovers, he loves to take one for lunch). We did a lot of on-the-go lunches and easy (and often kind of haphazard) spring cooking the past few weeks as we spent time in Hawaii for our first family vacation. I’m really looking forward to telling you more about that trip and was up late last night organizing our photos, but until then, I hope these sandwiches tide you over and inspire some spring cooking in your own kitchen.
The key to a great vegetarian BLT sandwich is using sandwich bread you’re excited about, and being extremely generous with the avocado spread. As for baking up great tofu, be sure to look for extra-firm tofu and, while many people will have you marinating the tofu in a freezer bag, I find that even the firm tofu is quite delicate and for that reason I like to marinate it in a single-layer in a baking dish. Feel free to double the tofu recipe to have extra on hand for salads, grain bowls, wraps or sandwiches throughout the week. Oh, and the avocado spread, too. You can’t have too much of the stuff.
Note: The baked tofu does take a minimum of two hours to marinate, so just be sure to plan accordingly.
For Baked Tofu:
For Creamy Avocado Basil Spread
Wrap the tofu in a few layers of paper towels, and lay on a plate. Place another plate on top of the wrapped tofu and put something heavy (a can of tomatoes works great) on top to weigh it down. Let stand for 20-30 minutes to help drain the tofu of excess liquid.
In a small mixing bowl, whisk together the nutritional yeast, soy sauce, Sriacha, maple syrup, rice vinegar, water, smoked paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, and pepper.
Unwrap the tofu and, using a dry paper towel, wipe it dry. Slice the tofu into relatively thin 1/4-inch slices (depending on how your tofu is packaged, you should yield about 10-12 slices) and lay flat in a single layer in a baking dish. Pour the marinade over the tofu and gently spread so each slice is covered. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or up to 8 hours.
Preheat the oven to 375 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat. Leaving behind any excess marinade/liquid, place tofu slices on the prepared baking sheet in a single layer and bake for 15 minutes. Flip tofu slices and bake an additional 15 minutes; the tofu will firm up a bit as it cools.
While the tofu is baking, make the avocado sauce: scoop the avocado, garlic, mayonnaise, lemon juice, salt, black pepper and cayenne pepper into the bowl of a food processor or blender. Process until smooth. Add the basil leaves and pulse until well combined (it’s ok if there are little bits of basil visible in the spread).
To assemble the sandwiches: toast the bread. Spread a thick layer of avocado spread on the top of each slice. Lay a few slices of tofu on one slice of the bread, spread avocado spread on top of that tofu layer, and lay another layer of tofu slices on top of that. Top with a few slices of tomato and two slices of Bibb lettuce and place one of the remaining slices of bread on top, avocado side down. Repeat with the second sandwich. If you like, carefully slice the sandwich in half with a good serrated knife.
Glimpses of Spring
We returned home from San Francisco on New Years Eve just in time for dinner, and craving greens -- or anything other than baked goods and pizza (ohhhh San Francisco, how I love your bakeries. And citrus. And winter sunshine). Instead of driving straight home, we stopped at our co-op where I ran in for some arugula, an avocado, a bottle of Prosecco, and for the checkout guys to not-so-subtly mock the outlook of our New Years Eve: rousing party, eh? They looked to be in their mid-twenties and I figured I probably looked ancient to them, sad even. But really, there wasn't much sad (or rousing, to be fair) about our evening: putting Oliver to bed, opening up holiday cards and hanging them in the kitchen, and toasting the New Year with arugula, half a quesadilla and sparkling wine. It wasn't lavish. But it's what we both needed. (Or at least what we had to work with.) Since then, I've been more inspired to cook lots of "real" food versus all of the treats and appetizers and snacks the holidays always bring on. I made Julia Turshen's curried red lentils for the millionth time, a wintry whole grain salad with tuna and fennel, roasted potatoes, and this simple green minestrone that I've taken for lunch this week. Determined to fit as many seasonal vegetables into a bowl as humanly possible, I spooned a colorful pesto on top, as much for the reminder of warmer days to come as for the accent in the soup (and for the enjoyment later of slathering the leftover pesto on crusty bread).
It turns out shopping for wedding dresses is nothing like they make it appear in the movies. Or at least it hasn't been for me. Angels don't sing. Stars don't explode. Relatives don't cry. There isn't a sudden heart-stopping moment that this is, in fact, "the one." To be honest, I always knew that I wasn't the kind of gal for whom angels would sing or stars would explode but I did think I'd have some kind of moment where I could tell I'd found the best dress. Instead, my mom flew into town and we spent three (yes, three!!) days shopping for dresses, and since then I've been back to the stores we visited -- and I'm more undecided than ever. Tomorrow morning I'll return with my friend Keena to try and tie this business up once and for all. Cross your fingers.
When I was single and living alone in the Bay Area, I made virtually the same thing for dinner each night. I ate meals quickly while in front of the computer. Or even worse: the television. This most often included what I call "Mexican Pizzas" which were basically glorified quesadillas baked in the oven until crispy. Sometimes, if I was really feeling like cooking, I'd whip up a quick stir-fry with frozen vegetables from Trader Joe's or a mushroom frittata using pre-sliced mushrooms. Mostly, though, it was Mexican Pizzas -- a good four or five nights a week. Today, thankfully, dinner looks a lot different. Meals in general look a lot different. How would I explain that difference? I think that ultimately how we feel about our life colors how we choose to feed ourselves and the importance that we place on preparing our own meals.
Today was 75 degrees in Seattle and it seemed the whole city was out and about drinking iced coffee in tank tops and perhaps not working all that hard. When we have a hit of sunshine like this in April (or, really, any time of the year), we're all really good at making excuses to leave the office early -- or, simply, to "work from home." I just got back from LA last night, unpacked in a whirlwind this morning, and took Oliver to meet up with three friends from our parents group at the zoo. The only other time I'd been to the Seattle zoo was once with Sam a few years ago when we arrived thirty minutes before closing and ended up doing a whirlwind tour -- sprinting from the giraffes to the massive brown bear to the meerkat. The visit today was much different: we strolled slowly trying to avoid the spring break crowds and beating sun. I managed to only get one of Oliver's cheeks sunburned, and he even got in a decent nap. A success of an afternoon, I'd say. Coming home I realized we didn't have much in the fridge for lunch -- but thankfully there was a respectable stash of Le Croix (Le Croix season is back!) and a small bowl of this whole grain salad I made right before I left town. It's the kind of salad that's meant for this time of year: it pulls off colorful and fresh despite the fact that much of the true spring and summer produce isn't yet available. And for that reason, I make a few versions of it in early spring, often doubling the recipe so there's always the possibility of having a small bowl at 1 p.m. while the baby naps in the car seat, one cheek sunburned, windows and back door open -- a warm breeze creeping into the kitchen.
On Monday our little family of three is headed to the airport at 6 am to board our first with-baby cross-country trip. We'll be visiting Sam's family in New Jersey for a few days, then renting a car and driving over to meet up with my family at my mom's lake house in the Adirondacks. Sam's younger sister and her kids have yet to meet Oliver; my grandpa has yet to meet him, and Oliver has yet to take a dunk in a lake, see a firefly, or spend quality time with energetic dogs -- of which there will be three. A lot of firsts. This week my family has been madly texting, volunteering to make certain meals or sweets on assigned days while we're at the cabin and it got me thinking about really simple, effortless summer desserts -- in particular, ones that you can make while staying in a house with an unfamiliar kitchen and unfamiliar equipment and still do a pretty bang-up job. I think fruit crisp is just that thing.