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.
Winter Comfort Food
I intended on baking holiday cookies to share with you today, but when I sat down to brainstorm all I could think about, truly, was the morning porridge I've been making and how that's really what I wanted to send you away with. The holiday season always seems to zoom on by at its own clip with little regard for how most of us wish it would just slow down, and this year feels like no exception. We got our tree last week and I've been making a point to sit in the living room and admire the twinkle as much as possible. I have lofty goals of snowflakes and gingerbread men and stringing cranberries and popcorn, but I'm also trying to get comfortable with the fact that everything may not get done, and that sitting amongst the twinkle is really the most important. That and a warm breakfast before the day spins into gear. This multi-grain porridge has proved to be a saving grace on busy weekday mornings, and it reheats beautifully so I've been making a big pot and bringing it to work with some extra chopped almonds and fresh pomegranate seeds. While cookies are certainly on the horizon, I think I'll have this recipe to thank for getting us through the busy days ahead.
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).
If I asked you about what you like to cook at home when the week gets busy, I'm willing to bet it might be something simple. While there are countless websites and blogs and innumerable resources to find any kind of recipe we may crave, it's often the simple, repetitive dishes that we've either grown up with or come to love that call to us when cooking (or life in general) seems overwhelming or when we're feeling depleted. While my go-to is typically breakfast burritos or whole grain bowls, this Curried Cauliflower Couscous with Chickpeas and Chard would make one very fine, very doable house meal on rotation. The adaptations are endless, and its made from largely pantry ingredients. I never thought I'd hop on the cauliflower "rice" bandwagon, but I have to say after making it a few times, I get the hype.
People describe raising young kids as a particular season in life. I hadn't heard this until we had a baby, but it brought me a lot of comfort when I'd start to let my mind wander, late at night between feedings, to fears that we'd never travel internationally again or have a sit-down meal in our dining room. Would I ever eat a cardamom bun in Sweden? Soak in Iceland? I loved the heck out of our tiny Oliver, but man what had we done?! Friends would swoop in and reassure us that this was just a season, a blip in the big picture of it all. They promised we'd likely not even remember walking around the house in circles singing made-up songs while eating freezer burritos at odd hours of the day (or night). And it's true.
Oliver is turning two next month, and those all-encompassing baby days feel like a different time, a different Us. In many ways, dare I say it, Toddlerhood actually feels a bit harder. Lately Oliver has become extremely opinionated about what he will and will not wear -- and he enforces these opinions with fervor. Don't get near the kid with a button-down shirt. This week at least. He's obsessed with his rain boots and if it were up to him, he'd keep them on at all times, especially during meals. He insists on ketchup with everything (I created a damn monster), has learned the word "trash" and insists on throwing found items away on his own that really, truly are not trash. I came to pick him up from daycare the other day and he was randomly wearing a bike helmet -- his teacher mentioned he'd had it on most of the day and really, really didn't want to take it off. The kid has FEELINGS. I love that about him, and wouldn't want it any other way. But, man it's also exhausting.
We recently had our favorite day of married life yet. When I tell you what it consisted of, you may worry or chuckle. Sundays used to be sacred in our house in the sense that it was our one day off together. We'd often read the paper, get a slice of quiche at Cafe Besalu, or take walks around Greenlake or Discovery Park. But now Sundays are generally when I work the farmers market for Marge Granola, and Sam helps me set up and take down each week, so they've taken on a very different feel, one more of work than leisure. So a few months ago, after mildly panicking that we no longer had any routines or days off, we reclaimed Saturdays as 'the new Sunday' and last weekend set the bar pretty high. The day began really cold: in the high 20's and graduated, eventually, to the 30's. We decided it'd be nice to just stay inside; Sam had a little work to do and some letters to write. He had a few articles he'd been wanting to read. And I'd been thinking about this lasagna recipe, so I puttered around the kitchen roasting squash and slicing garlic. The afternoon ticked on slowly. Sam made us baked eggs for a late lunch and I tried unsuccessfully to nap. I think it was the calmest we'd both felt in a long time. I'm lucky to have found a man who loves spending time at home as much as I do. While we both love going out to see friends, traveling, and having people over to our place, we also gain the most, I'd say, by doing simple things around the house -- straightening up, making a meal. organizing records or books or photos. Especially in this season of cold temperatures and early-darkening skies, it's what I crave the most. And last Saturday closed in the best of ways: we opened a bottle of "wedding wine" (thanks to my neurosis and fear we'd run out, we over-ordered wine when planning for our wedding) and dug into generous slices of this very special vegetarian lasagna, a hearty layered affair with caramelized onions, a sage-flecked tofu ricotta and a simple, savory butternut squash purée.