Monday, August 29, 2011

Spicy Szechuan Tofu

For years, I was never a huge fan of Trader Joe's - when I lived in Los Angeles, it was the worst place to go on the weekend.  Every single one had the world's smallest parking lot, and it was a madhouse.

But these ladies are huge fans, and even wrote a book about it - Cooking with all Things Trader Joe's - and it has absolutely beautiful pictures to go with it, taken by the ladies themselves. Itcombines their love of Trader Joe's with simple, quick recipes that ANYONE can cook with just a little TJ's help.

I marked this recipe on my first glance through the book, and I kept going back to it because it reminded me so much of mapo tofu, which is a spicy Chinese tofu dish.  When my mom made it, she always used silken tofu, so it was more soupy, but this version uses firm tofu cubes, making it a bit easier to eat.

This recipe was extremely easy to make.  The prep is minimal, and the prepared General Tsao stir fry sauce really speeds things along in flavorville.

My main changes to the recipe - first, I used ground turkey, as I didn't feel like beef and I could not find ground pork (the traditional meat in mapo tofu) at the grocery store.  Second, I added mushrooms, because they were on sale, and I wanted to bulk up the dish a bit.  Both are delicious additions.

Oh, and one hint - I didn't buy the sesame oil at TJ's - I actually got it at a local Japanese market.  Be careful when purchasing - I somehow grabbed the sesame oil with cayenne extract.  Ouch.

If you're a Trader Joe's fan, this book is definitely worth a glance!

Spicy Szechuan Tofu from Cooking with all things Trader Joe's.  Serves 4

  • 1 package firm tofu (I recommend extra firm)
  • 1/2 lb ground turkey or beef 
  • 1 glove garlic, crushed, or 1 cube frozen crushed garlic
  • 1 tsp crushed ginger (I used powdered)
  • 1 cup frozen peas
  • 1/2 cup General Tsao Stir Fry Sauce
  • 1 tbsp soy sauce
  • 1 tsp toasted sesame oil
  • 2 green onions, chopped (I omitted this, since I don't like raw green onions.)
1.  Cut the tofu into 1/2 inch cubes.  Place cubes between paper towels and press to draw water out.  Set aside.

2.  Cook turkey/beef/pork in a skillet, breaking it up as it cooks.  Add garlic, ginger, and peas; cook 2 minutes longer.

3.  Add tofu, stir fry sauce, soy sauce, and sesame oil.  Cook for 3 minutes or until heated through.

4.  Add green onions and remove from heat.  Serve over steamed white rice.

This recipe makes you look like a Chinese cooking genius, when all the work is done by the delicious (and not that spicy) stir fry sauce.  Yummmm.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Lighter Corn Chowder

When corn is on sale for 6 ears for only $1, I did what any self respecting person would do - buy way more ears of corn than any normal human being could ever eat.

Which is why I was so thankful that in the August 2011 issue of Cook's Illustrated there was a recipe for Corn Chowder, and a lighter version at that.  My waistline and running legs thank you.  It still starts with absolutely delicious bacon though.  Mmmm bacon.

The recipe overall is very easy - the hardest part was scraping the pulp off of the ears of corn, as I kept smacking my knife into the side of the bowl.  The next hardest part was not slicing too deep into the corn kernels, so that some pulp would remain on the cob!  If you've never sliced corn directly off of the cob before, just beware - it's a very dirty job, as the corn kernels tend to fly ALL over the place.  The best trick I've learned - cut the corn in half, so there's a flat end.  Invert a smaller bowl inside a larger bowl.  Place the corn on top of the smaller bowl, and slice down - the corn will fly directly into the larger bowl, and it's the only way to keep your sanity.

Fresh corn is essential - do not use canned, although I'd wonder how it'd taste in the winter with canned corn and using the "corn water" as a pulp juice replacement.  It probably won't have that great corn flavor though.

I loved the corn flavor of this recipe, the tons of corn, the bacon, and the use of half and half.  It's a great chowder, but not too heavy for the summer.

Eat all that beautiful summer corn!  Cook this chowder!

Do not be alarmed if, before adding the half and half, your soup is very brownish.  That's normal.  I think.

Lighter Corn Chowder from Cooks Illustrated, August 2011
Serves 6 (I halved this recipe)

  • 8 ears corn, husks and silk removed
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 onion, chopped fine
  • 4 slices of bacon, halved lengthwise, then cut crosswise into 1/4 inch pieces
  • 2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme (I used dried.)
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/4 cup all purpose flour
  • 5 cups water
  • 3/4 pounds red potatoes, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
  • 1 cup half and half
  • Sugar (if your corn isn't very sweet)
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
1.  Cut kernels from corn and set aside (you should have five to sic cups of kernels.) 

2.  Holding cobs over second bowl, use back of a butter knife to firmly scrape any remaining pulp on cobs into bowls, resulting in about two to two and a half cups of pulp.  Transfer pulp to center of a kitchen towel and squeeze tightly until dry.  Discard pulp in towel and set corn juice aside (you should have about 2/3 cup of juice.)

3.  Melt butter in a Dutch oven (or nice sturdy pot, like I used) over medium heat.  Add onion, bacon, thyme, 2 teaspoons salt, and 1 teaspoon pepper.  Cook, stirring frequently, until onion is softened and edges are beginning to brown, for 8-10 minutes.  

4.  Stir in flour and cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes.

5.  Whisking constantly, gradually add water and bring to a boil.

6.  Add corn kernels and potatoes, return to a simmer.

7.  Reduce heat to medium low and cook until potatoes have softened, 15-18 minutes.

8.  Process 2 cups chowder in blender until smooth, 1-2 minutes.  Return puree to chowder.  Add half and half and return to simmer.

9.  Remove pot from heat and stir in reserved corn juice.

10.  Season to taste with salt, pepper, and up to 1 tablespoon sugar.  Serve, sprinkling with basil.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Spaghetti with Summer Vegetable Sauce

Borders is officially going out of business, which means one thing for me:

Run into the store and hope that they still have cooking magazines for 40% off.

I lucked out - I managed to grab Cooks Illustrated, Cooks Country and the Food Network mags.  SCORE!  I also managed to grab the Cooking with Trader Joe's Cookbook (in the bargain bin plus another 20% off) and the Williams-Sonoma Cooking at Home book (also in the bargain bin!!) so overall, a good haul.  The books are still only at 20% off, so for books not in the bargain bin, it might be cheaper on Amazon.

Browsing the August/September issue of Cooks Country, I am immediately struck by the Spaghetti with Summer Vegetable Sauce recipe.  Not only does it use fresh, seasonal vegetables, it is extremely simple, and is listed as one of their 30 minute meals - due to the use of store-bought pesto.

This dish is extremely simple - cut up veggies, cook until softened, boil pasta in the meantime, combine in one pot, add pesto, serve.  It really is that easy, and that delicious!

Just a quick note on the vegetables - I peeled the squash and zucchini.  It's probably preferable that you don't, because the vegetables won't get mushy as quick, but since I didn't buy organic vegetables, I usually take the skin off.

Why does pasta photograph so weird?

Spaghetti with Summer Vegetable Sauce from Cooks Country, August/September 2011


  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter (I used 2 and 1 tablespoon olive oil)
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 large summer squash, halved lengthwise and sliced thin
  • 1 large zucchini, halved lengthwise and sliced thin
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 12 ounces cherry tomatoes, halved (I used one bag of Nature Sweet tomatoes - exactly 12 ounces and I had a coupon!)
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine (I used chicken broth)
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 pound spaghetti (I used campagnelle)
  • 6 tablespoons basil pesto (about 3 ounces.  I bought a six ounce container, and used half of it.)
1.  Bring water to in a boil in a large pot.

2.  Melt butter in a 12 inch skillet (believe me, you need a large skillet) over medium high heat.  Add onion and cook until softened, about five minutes.  

3.  Stir in squash and zucchini and stir until softened, about 3-5 minutes.

4.  Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

5.  Stir in tomatoes, wine (or broth), 3/4 teaspoon of salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper.  Cook until liquid is reduced, about 2 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.

6.  Meanwhile, add pasta and 1 tablespoon salt to boiling water and cook, stirring often, until al dente.  Reserve 1/2 cup of cooking water, and drain pasta.  Return pasta to pot.

7.  Toss vegetable mixer and pesto with pasta, adding reserved pasta water to thin the sauce as needed (I only needed a little splash of water.)

Serve with Parmesan cheese if desired.