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.
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.
In a few short weeks, we're headed to New York, Vermont and New Jersey to visit family and see my sister Zoe get married. In starting to think through the trip and do a little planning, I found Oliver the cutest tiny-person dress shoes I've ever seen (and he's quite smitten with them), sussed out childcare options for the night of the wedding, and found what feels like the most expensive (and last) rental car in the state of New Jersey. I try very hard not to be one of Those People that begins lamenting the loss of a season before it's remotely appropriate to do so, but this year, as we'll be gone much of September, I've felt a bit of a 'hurry, make all the summery things!' feeling set in. So we've been managing increasingly busy days punctuated with zucchini noodle salads, gazpacho, corn on the cob and homemade popsicles (preferably eaten shirtless outside followed by a good, solid sprinkler run for one small person in particular. Not naming any names).
Somehow, in what seems to have been a blink of an eye, we have a six month old baby. In some ways I can't remember a time we didn't have an Oliver, and in other ways it's all a blur broken up by a few holidays (a Thanksgiving thanks to grocery store takeout, and our very first Christmas in Seattle), a few family visits, a one-day road trip to Portland, a birthday dinner out, a birthday cake, weekend drives to nowhere in particular, swimming at the pool with Oliver, weekly get-togethers with our parent's group, doctor's visits, hundreds of walks around the neighborhood, hundreds of cups of coffee, dozens (or more?) of scoops of ice cream. Most of the worrying about keeping a baby alive has made way for other concerns, and Oliver's need for constant stimulation or soothing walks and car rides has been traded for stretches of time playing with a new toy or checking out his surroundings. In truth, it's thanks to that tiny bit of baby independence that this humble, summery cake came to be in the first place. So we've all got an Oliver to thank for that. Or, really, we have a Yossi Arefi to thank, as it's from her beautiful new cookbook that I've bookmarked heavily and am eager to continue exploring.
A triple berry summer crisp made with oats, quinoa flakes and hazelnuts. Summer in a skillet.
I had a weak moment on our honeymoon in Italy when I decided that I should be making gelato for a living. My enthusiasm for Italian gelato wasn't surprising to anyone. I'd done extensive research, made lists, had Sam map out cities in terms of where the best gelaterias were. I took notes and photos and hemmed and hawed over flavor choices: Sicilian Pistachio! Chestnut Honey! Sweet Cheese, Almond and Fig! In truth, on that particular trip, I cared far more about treats, sunshine, and cobblestone walks than I cared about famous landmarks or tourist attractions, often leaving the camera back at the hotel in favor of my small black notebook which housed detailed jottings on dessert discoveries in each city we visited. Our friends Matteo and Jessica happened to be in Naples on the one night we were there, and we all went out for pizza together followed by a long stroll around the city. At some point the conversation turned to gelato (as it's bound to) and Matteo brought up the famous school in Bologna where many renowned gelato artisans study. My wheels were spinning. Maybe we should visit Bologna. I should see this school! I should talk to these students! I could make Sicilian Pistachio; Chestnut Honey; and Sweet Cheese, Almond and Fig each and every day of our lives. Or at the very least, travel to Bologna to learn how and then come back to Seattle to take our Northwest city by storm. Well here we are six months later, back to reality, and the impetus to pack up my bags and head for Bologna has subsided for the time being ... but not the unwavering gusto to sample. That part will always be with me. It's been awhile since I mixed up a batch of ice cream at home, but the other day a beautiful new cookbook landed on my doorstep and I flipped right to a recipe for dark chocolate sorbet with toasty, salty almonds. I didn't need much convincing.