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.
The Thanksgiving Table
Today is a different kind of day. Usually posts on this blog come about with the narrative and I manage to squeeze in a recipe. But sometimes when you really stumble upon a winning recipe, it speaks for itself. We'll likely make these beans for Thanksgiving this year. They're one of those simple stunners that you initially think couldn't be much of a thing. And then they come out of the oven all sweet and withered and flecked with herbs. You try one and you realize they are, in fact, a pretty big thing.
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.
It has begun. Talk of who is bringing what, where we'll buy the turkey, what kind of pies I'll make, early morning texts concerning brussels sprouts. There's no getting around it: Thanksgiving is on its way. And with it comes the inevitable reflecting back and thinking about what we're thankful for. And about traditions. The funny thing about traditions is that they exist because they've been around for a long time. Year after year after year. But then, one Thanksgiving maybe there's something new at the table.
I didn't expect green beans to bring up such a great discussion on traditions, sharing of poems and how a piece of writing can linger with you. So thank you for that. Your comments pointed out how important people and place are and how food takes the back seat when it comes right down to it. Even if you feel quite warm towards Thanksgiving and are looking forward to next week, reading about recipe suggestions and meal planning online and in magazines can start to feel tiresome right about now. Why? Because I suppose when it all comes down to it, in the big picture it doesn't matter what we all serve anyway. Next year, you likely won't remember one year's vegetable side dish from another. What you'll remember are the markers that dotted the year for you: whom you sat next to at the table, a toast or grace, and the sense of gratitude you felt for something -- large or small.
I got a text from my mom the other day that read: demerara sugar? I responded back with a question mark, not sure what she was referencing. It turns out she was experimenting with a new pie recipe that called for the natural sugar and wasn't sure why she couldn't just use white sugar as that's what she's always done in the past. A few days later we talked on the phone and she mentioned she'd let me take charge of the salad for Thanksgiving this year as long as there was no kale. No kale! And I wanted to do the mashed potatoes? Would they still be made with butter and milk? In short, we're always willing to mix things up in the Gordon household. Whether it's inspiration from a food magazine, friend or coworker, either my mom or one of my sisters will often have an idea for something new to try at the holiday table. But what I've slowly learned is that it can't really be that different: there must be pumpkin pie, the can of cranberry sauce is necessary even though not many people actually eat it, the onion casserole is non-negotiable, the salad can't be too out there, and the potatoes must be made with ample butter and milk. And while I was really scheming up an epic kale salad to make this year, there's a big part of me that gets it, too: if we change things too much we won't recognize the part of the day that comes to mean so much: the pure recognition. We take comfort in traditions because we recognize them -- because they're always there, year after year. And so today I present to you (mom, are you reading?): this year's Gordon family Thanksgiving salad.