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.
It turns out that returning from a sunny honeymoon to a rather rainy, dark stretch of Seattle fall hasn't been the easiest transition. Sam and I have been struggling a little to find our groove with work projects and even simple routines like cooking meals for one another and getting out of the easy daily ruts that can happen to us all. When we were traveling, we made some new vows to each other -- ways we can keep the fall and winter from feeling a bit gloomy, as tends to happen at a certain point living in the Pacific Northwest (for me, at least): from weekly wine tastings at our neighborhood wine shop to going on more lake walks. And I suppose that's one of the most energizing and invigorating parts about travel, isn't it? The opposite of the daily rut: the constant newness and discovery around every corner. One of my favorite small moments in Italy took place at a cafe in Naples when I accidentally ordered the wrong pastry and, instead, was brought this funny looking cousin of a croissant. We had a wonderfully sunny little table with strong cappuccino, and, disappointed by my lack of ordering prowess, I tried the ugly pastry only to discover my new favorite treat of all time (and the only one I can't pronounce): the sfogliatelle. I couldn't stop talking about this pastry, its thick flaky layers wrapped around a light, citrus-flecked sweet ricotta filling. It was like nothing I'd ever tried -- the perfect marriage of interesting textures and flavors. I became a woman obsessed. I began to see them displayed on every street corner; I researched their origin back at the hotel room, and started to look up recipes for how to recreate them at home. And the reason for the fascination was obviously that they were delicious. But even more: I'm so immersed in the food writing world that I rarely get a chance to discover a dish or a restaurant on my own without hearing tell of it first. And while a long way away from that Italian cafe, I had a similar feeling this week as I scanned the pages of Alice Medrich's new book, Flavor Flours, and baked up a loaf of her beautiful fall pumpkin loaf: Discovery, newness, delight!
I always force myself to wait until after Halloween to start thinking much about holiday pies or, really, future holidays in general. But this year I cheated a bit, tempted heavily by the lure of a warmly-spiced sweet potato pie that I used to make back when I baked pies for a living in the Bay Area (way back when). We seem to always have sweet potatoes around as they're one of Oliver's favorite foods, and when I roast them for his lunch I've been wishing I could turn them into a silky pie instead. So the other day I reserved part of the sweet potatoes for me. For a pie that I've made hundreds of times in the past, this time reimagined with fragrant brown butter, sweetened solely with maple syrup, and baked into a flaky kamut crust. We haven't started talking about the Thanksgiving menu yet this year, but I know one thing for sure: this sweet potato pie will make an appearance.
This time last week I was up in the Skagit River Valley sitting in the early fall sun eating wood-fired bagels and chatting with farmers, millers and bakers at the Kneading Conference West. I made homemade soba noodles, learned the ins and outs of sourdough starters, and sat in on a session where we tasted crackers baked with single varietal wheats. It was like wine tasting, but with wheat and the whole time I kept pinching myself, thinking: THESE ARE MY PEOPLE! I don't get the opportunity to be a student much these days -- usually on the other side of things teaching cooking classes or educating people at the farmers markets about whole grains and natural sugars. So to just sit and listen with a fresh (red!) notebook and a new pen was surprisingly refreshing. I miss it already. Thankfully, this cookie recipe has come back as a memorable souvenir, and one that is sure to be in high rotation in our house in the coming months.
Strolling New York City streets during the height of fall when all the leaves are changing and golden light glints off the brownstone windows. This is what I envisioned when I bought tickets to attend my cousin's September wedding earlier this month: Sam and I would extend the trip for a good day or two so we could experience a little bit of fall in the city. We'd finally eat at Prune and have scones and coffee at Buvette, as we always do. Sam wanted to take me to Russ and Daughters, and we'd try to sneak in a new bakery or ice cream shop for good measure. Well, as some of you likely know, my thinking on the weather was premature. New York City fall had yet to descend and, instead, we ambled around the city in a mix of humidity and rain. When we returned home I found myself excited about the crisp evening air, and the fact that the tree across the street had turned a rusty shade of amber. It was time to do a little baking.
I am writing this on Saturday afternoon on a day when we had big plans to conquer pre-baby chore lists, but Sam's not feeling great and my energy's a little low so it hasn't been quite what we'd envisioned. My goals for the morning were to repot a house plant and make some soup and I've done neither. I will say that the sweet potato and fennel are still sitting on the counter eagerly awaiting their Big Moment -- it just hasn't come about quite yet. Sam and I were both going to attempt to install the carseat, but it started to look really daunting so we abandoned ship; it's now sitting proudly in the basement, also eagerly awaiting its Big Moment. So it's been one of those weekends -- the kind you look back on and wonder what it is you actually accomplished. At the very least, I get the chance to tell you about this hearty cranberry cornbread. I know maybe it feels premature in the season for cranberry recipes, but hang with me here: slathered with a little soft butter and runny honey, there's nothing I'd rather eat right now on the cool, crisp Seattle mornings we've been having lately.