The Best Old School Tacos with Tofu

This vegetarian recipe is based on the tacos I ate as a kid, the old-school tacos that came as a kit from the grocery store, with a seasoning packet and hard shells. Back then these were made with ground beef, but times have changed and I wanted to make something that captured the same fun (and messiness) with tofu for my vegetarian friends and loved ones. As always, the trick with tofu was figuring out how to get the flavor and texture to be satisfying in its own right. The flavor comes from a surprising ingredient, carrots, and a not-so-surprising ingredient, butter (more on this later), and the texture comes from a new speedy drying technique.

Here’s how you do it:

1) Prepare the tofu: Drain the water from a 1 lb. (500 gram) package of firm or extra-firm tofu. Now put a colander in the sink and line it with paper towels.

colendar

This is my colander, in the sink, lined with paper towels.

Crumble the tofu onto the paper towels…

crumbled_tofu

Now I’ve put the crumbled tofu into the colander.

…and then press it down with your fist to squeeze the water out.

pressed_tofu

Here I am, pressing the water out of the tofu.

Try to press out as much water as you can. There’s a lot, and you can’t get it all, but the more you can squeeze out, the shorter the cooking time will be.

2) Make the taco filling: While the tofu is draining, dice an onion and a carrot, and, if you like it hot, one or two diced chili peppers.

I have a fun trick for dicing onions that I learned from Julia Child. She used the layers of the onion to do a lot of the work for you. You first trim the top and peel the onion, leaving the root on, and then cut it in half, from top to bottom (through the root). With one half of the onion flat-side down on your cutting board, make length-wise slices, about 1/4-inch apart, that almost go to the root, but not quite. Then turn the onion 90 degrees and cut it width-wise, perpendicular to your first set of cuts. Voila! You’re done…  with the first half. Now do the same thing with the other half of the onion. Here’s a video showing all of this in action:

Now sauté the onion and a pinch of salt in about 2 Tbs. of olive oil over medium heat until it is just starting to turn soft, about 5 minutes.

a_pinch

This is my version of a “pinch of salt”

To dice the carrot, peel it, and then cut it in half length-wise. With one half of the carrot flat-side down, cut it into planks, then stack these planks and cut them into matchsticks, then cut the matchsticks into small pieces. Repeat with the other half of the carrot.

Once the onion is just turning soft, add the diced carrot (and chili peppers, if using), another pinch of salt and sauté for another 5 minutes.

onoins_carrots

I’ve already cooked the diced onion for about 5 minutes and now I’ve just added the diced carrot.

Once the carrot is just starting to turn soft, add 5 Tbs. of butter to the pan and let it melt, stirring to coat the onion and carrot mixture. This may seem like a lot of butter, but keep in mind that when you were a kid, you used a pound of ground beef with 20% fat. Even with a full 5 Tbs. of butter, this recipe is leaner than what you ate when you were young. Once the butter is melted, add the tofu, 2 tsp. chili powder, 1/2 tsp. ground cumin, 1/2 tsp ground coriander and 1/2 tsp. salt. Stir to combine.

saute_start

This is the filling mixture, before cooking it for about 20 minutes.

Cook, stirring occasionally until the tofu is brown and crispy, about 20 minutes.

saute_end

After 20 minutes, the filling gets crispy and ridiculously tasty.

3) Prepare all of the extras: While the filling is cooking, shred 1 cup of cheddar cheese, 1 cup of lettuce and dice 1 cup of tomatoes. For a tasty sauce, combine the following three ingredients in a small bowl: 1/2 cup sour cream, the juice from 1/2 lime and a dash of ground cumin. You didn’t eat it this sauce when you were a kid, but you will wish you did!

When the filling is done cooking, warm up the taco shells and serve! The easiest way for me to warm up the taco shells is to put them in the oven, turn the heat on and wait about 3 to 5 minutes. Turn the heat off and your done!

taco

The final taco, enjoy!

To summarize the ingredients (you can also download the recipe):

  • 1 lb. (500 grams) firm or extra firm tofu, crumbled and drained
  • 2 Tbs. olive oil
  • 1 large onion, finely diced
  • 1 large carrot, finely diced
  • (optional) 1-2 chili peppers, diced
  • 5 Tbs. butter
  • 2 tsp. chili powder
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1/2 tsp. ground coriander
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 10 hard taco shells
  • 1 cup cheddar cheese, shredded
  • 1 cup lettuce, shredded
  • 1 cup tomatoes, diced
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • The juice from 1/2 lime
  • a dash of ground cumin

 

August – That Dude (in the movies)

This is an embarrassing story, but I’m going to tell it anyway. All of my life I’ve been a skinny guy. This is fine. I don’t mind, but back in college I got this crazy idea that I would look better if I had big muscles. I smile about this because I would look idiotic if I bulked up, but at the time I daydreamed about taking my shirt off at the beach and everyone admiring my physique. I have no idea why.

charles_atlas_j

When I was a kid, I saw ads for the Charles Atlas workout routine.

One day I thought I’d try to live the dream and I signed up for a weight lifting class. I spent hours imagining how awesome I was going to look at the end of the semester. I’d come home for the summer and everyone would freak out. People might even call me up to move furniture. Stuff like that.

So I took the class and learned about all kinds of fancy fitness machines. After a few weeks, I felt like I was making progress. At the very least, my entire body was sore. To make room for all the extra muscle I was carrying around campus, I started walking with my arms puffed out . This was awesome, a dream come true! I knew I looked good. Then I  looked in a mirror.

uku_in_mirror_smile

The ukulele looks in the mirror and sees… a ukulele.

The guy looking back was just me. The same old skinny me. Completely deflated, I dropped my arms to my sides and walked back to my dorm room.

But, you know how these stories go, there’s always a silver lining. On my way back to my room I realized that the real hero of the beach wasn’t the guy who could crush a can against his head (although I still wish I could do that), it was the guy who knew CPR. This was liberating. I already knew CPR. I could stop wasting time on the fitness machines and spend more time playing my cello. Score.

cello_and_uke_smile

The ukulele admits that sometimes he wishes he was a cello.

Folks, this month’s song is all about those times when we wish we could be cooler than we think we are. Or when we wish we were better at karate. In the end, we are who we are and that’s the best. We just don’t always realize it at first.

I hope you have a great September, and, as always, if you want to play or sing along, here’s the song sheet!  (I’m now referring to the chart as the “song sheet” because there was some confusion about whether the chart also had the lyrics).

p.s. Check out the new “Recipe of the Month” feature that I’ve started up!

The Best (and easiest) Buttermilk Biscuit Recipe

I love biscuits. Passionately. I make them frequently and often you can find me reminiscing of these light and tender morsels. Here’s my recipe for buttermilk biscuits. While I would gladly toil away in a kitchen for hours to make these, I don’t have to. These biscuits are incredibly fast and easy (or, as the saying goes, they are “country good and city quick”). It takes less time to mix the ingredients than it does for the oven to warm up, and mixing is all you do; these biscuits do not require a rolling pin.

Here’s how you do it:

1) Preheat your oven to 500. F (or 260 C).

2) Combine 10 oz. (2 cups) of all purpose flour, 1 Tbs. sugar, 1 Tbs. baking powder, 1 tsp. salt and 1/2 tsp. of baking soda in a large bowl.

flour_butter

I’ve combined the flour mixture and am about to cut the butter in.

3) Cut 4 Tbs. (2 oz.) butter into the flour. There are a lot of ways to do this, but the easiest is to use the small holes on a box grater, or a cheese grater. I simply dip the butter into the flour mixture (this makes it easier to hold and keeps the butter from melting) and then, directly over the flour mixture, I grate about 1/2 of a Tbs. of the butter and then stir it with a fork to prevent clumping. I then alternate grating and stirring until all of the butter has been combined.

4) Depending on how you want to serve the biscuits, grease a 12 cup muffin tin, or two loaf pans. If you want to serve the biscuits on the side, use a muffin tin, and if you want to make egg and cheese biscuit sandwiches, use the loaf pans.

5) When the oven is pre-heated, stir 12 oz. (1.5 cups) of buttermilk into the flour mixture until you no longer see any dry flour. Then divide the batter between the 12 cups in the muffin tin or the two loaf pans.

Instead of rolling out the dough, just scoop it into a greased muffin tin for individual biscuits.

Instead of rolling out the dough, just scoop it into a greased muffin tin for individual biscuits.

Or scoop the dough into a greased loaf pan to make  large biscuits that can be cut to size and are perfect for egg and cheese sandwiches.

Or scoop the dough into a greased loaf pan to make large biscuits that can be cut to size and are perfect for egg and cheese sandwiches.

 

6) Bake the “muffin” style biscuits for 15 minutes, or bake the “loaf” style biscuits for 20.

Once baked, the large "loaf" biscuits can be cut into thirds or fourths for the perfect egg sandwich.

Once baked, the large “loaf” biscuits can be cut into thirds or fourths for the perfect egg sandwich.

7) After baking let the biscuits cool on a wire-rack for 5 minutes before serving.

final_biscuitsTo summarize the ingredients (you can also download the recipe):

  • 2 cups (10 oz) all purpose flour
  • 1 Tbs. sugar
  • 1 Tbs. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 4 Tbs. (2 oz) butter
  • 1 1/2 cup (12 oz) buttermilk

 

July – Cabin Pressure

A half of a mile north of where I live is a small airport. It’s been operated by the University of North Carolina since 1940, and when I was in third grade, I went on a field trip to visit it. However, even though it’s a relatively large feature in my small town, it’s never been something I’ve given much thought. It’s always just been there. Small planes fly in and small planes fly out.

The ukulele enjoys taking in the occasional sunset at the nearby Horace Williams Airport.

The ukulele enjoys taking in the occasional sunset at the nearby Horace Williams Airport.

A month ago I ran into one of my favorite musicians, an old drummer friend of mine. He moved here from Illinois a few years ago and I’ve always thought of him as the scholar of drums. When he plays, he cites a source for everything that he does. He’d say, “I’m working my snare like you hear it in the Beatles’ ‘Abby Road’, I’ve got my ride cymbal going like in Coltraine’s ‘Giant Steps’, and I’m tying both together with a Sly and Robbie groove.”  That sort of thing.

Watching the sunset at Horace Williams Airport, part 1.

Watching the sunset at Horace Williams Airport, part 1: “Going!”

Anyway, this friend told me that he’d been going to the airport in the evenings and watching the sunset. There was a bench, he said, and you could sit there and watch the sun drop behind the trees in the distance.

“What a fantastic idea!”, I thought, and a few weeks later I went up the hill and sat on that bench and did just what he said. The view is spectacular. I can’t think of anywhere else in town with such a large clearing that allows you to see so far off into the distance.

Watching the sunset at Horace Williams Airport, part 2.

Watching the sunset at Horace Williams Airport, part 2: “Going!”

The point of all this, is that for a long, long time, I’d taken this airport for granted. It was just there. Then someone who had not grown up with it opened my eyes and made it new.

This month’s song is just like that. It’s been floating around in my head for years and I never knew what to do with it. Like the airport, it was always just there. But then, at the start of the month, I was talking about music with another friend, and he offered some suggestions that suddenly made the song seem totally new to me. And just like the those sunsets inspired me to use my camera to capture the moment, this new twist on the old song inspired me to finally record it.

I hope you like this one. As always, if you enjoy it, please pass it on to your friends. They might like it too.  And, if you’d like to play it at home, here’s the chart.

Watching the sunset at Horace Williams Airport, part 3.

Watching the sunset at Horace Williams Airport, part 3: “Gone!”

A Delicious Vegetarian Pad Thai Fit For a Meat Eater

Vegetarian Pad Thai.  It's good, it's quick and it's easy.  And this is coming from a meat eater.

Vegetarian Pad Thai. It’s good, it’s quick and it’s easy. And this is coming from a meat eater.

If you know me, you know that I love to cook, and it was only a matter of time before I shared my recipes on this blog. Here’s my recipe for vegetarian Pad Thai that is fit for meat eaters. I am not a vegetarian. I love eating meat, fish and chicken, but I also love the challenge of cooking meatless dishes for my vegetarian friends and loved ones.

Here’s what you need to do:

1) Cut, season and bake the tofu: Preheat your oven to 400 degrees fahrenheit (about 200 degrees celsius).  While the oven warms up, cut 1 lb. (about 500 grams) of firm/extra firm tofu into 32 thin triangles. To do this, slice the whole block into 8 rectangular planks, and then and then cut each plank in half to make 2 squares per plank (for a total of 16 squares).  Finally, cut each square on the diagonal to make 2 triangular pieces.

To cut the tofu into 8 even slices, I first cut it in half, then I cut each half in two, and lastly, I divide each piece into two.

To cut the tofu into 8 even slices, I first cut it in half (two very thick pieces), then I cut each half in half (this gives me 4 slightly thick pieces), and lastly, I cut each of the 4 pieces in half (leaving me with 8 thin pieces).

Now, arrange the tofu triangles on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Drizzle with olive oil (or vegetable oil), and sprinkle 1/2 tsp. of salt and whatever spices (i.e my favorites include black pepper, curry powder, savory spice blends, paprika, chili powder, etc.) and herbs (oregano, etc.) you happen to have in your pantry on top. The idea is to compensate for tofu’s inherent lack of flavor. Once you’ve spiced up your tofu, put it in the oven for about 45 minutes. You want to dehydrate the tofu so that it becomes just a little firmer on the outside. You can check for doneness by poking it with your finger.  It should give, but just a little bit, and maybe be a bit tough in the corners.

This is approximately what you want your tofu to look like before you bake it.

This is approximately what your tofu should look like before you bake it.

This is approximately what you want your tofu to look like when it's done.

This is approximately your tofu should look like when it’s done baking.

2) Prepare the rice noodles for the stir fry:  While the tofu is baking, soak 8 oz (250 grams) of dry rice noodles. Just put them in a large bowl and cover with warm water.  Let them sit while you do everything else.

3) Make the sauce: This is an odd one. Traditional pad thai calls for fish sauce, and, as far as I can tell, there’s nothing else that tastes quite like it.  However, it isn’t used alone, but is combined with other flavors, and the real goal isn’t to replicate fish sauce, but to replicate the final mixture, and that can be done quite simply. The idea is to create something that is tangy (acidic), sweet, spicy, salty and rich, all at the same time. To do that, combine the following ingredients in a small bowl or measuring cup:

  • The juice of two limes (about 1/4 of a cup)
  • 2 Tbs. demerara sugar (or light brown sugar)
  • 1 Tbs. sriracha sauce
  • 1 Tbs. soy sauce

Shockingly, that does the trick. The limes are tangy, the sugar is sweet and rich, the sriracha is spicy and rich and the soy sauce is salty and rich. It’s that simple. No special trips to the asian market required. If I could patent this part of the recipe, I would.

4) Prep the vegetables: Divide one large onion in half and then cut each half into thin slices.  Shred one large carrot.  Mince two cloves of garlic.  Mince about 1/2 a cup of cilantro (coriander) and about 1/2 cup of dry roasted peanuts.

5) Cook the eggs: Crack three eggs into a small bowl, sprinkle with salt, pepper and any additional herbs (again, oregano goes well here) and spices (again, chili powder or curry powder go well here). These additional seasonings are non-traditional, but it’s one way to compensate for the lack of meat and dried shrimp.  Whisk everything together with a fork and cook the eggs in a large non-stick pan (I use a cast iron skillet, but use whatever you have) in a single layer over medium heat.  If you’re skilled in the art of the spatula, try to flip the eggs.  Otherwise, wait till they are just about set all the way through.  In either case, when the eggs are almost done cooking, roll them up into a cigar-like shape.  Remove the eggs from the pan and slice them in the same direction that you rolled them up, forming thin (1/4 to 1/2 inch) spirals.  Set aside.

6) Make the stir fry: Start this step when the tofu is done baking. If you used a cast iron skillet to make the eggs, you might want to swap it out for a stainless steel pan at this point. If you used a non-stick pan, just keep using it. In either case, turn the heat up to medium-high. Add 1 Tbs of olive oil (or vegetable oil) to the pan and toss in the onions with a large pinch of salt. Stir to distribute and let cook for a minute or two. We’re just trying to take the edge off of the onions. After a minute, add the carrots and the garlic and another large pinch of salt. Stir to combine. Now stir in the baked tofu.

Drain the water from the noodles and put them on top of the onions, carrots and garlic mixture. Pour the sauce on top of the noodles and then put a lid on the pan. Steam the noodles until they have achieved the desired tenderness. This is really up to you and may take a little experimenting to get right. I usually steam the noodles for about 3 minutes. Once the noodles are soft, remove the lid and stir everything in the pan to combine.  Now add the eggs and stir again to combine.

Here, I've cooked the onions and just added the carrots and garlic.

Here, I’ve cooked the onions and just added the carrots and garlic.

added_noodles

I’ve added the noodles and sauce on top of the onions, carrots, garlic and baked tofu.

7) Plate and present: Divide the stir fry into 3 or 4 portions and top with cilantro and chopped peanuts.  Enjoy!

Vegetarian Pad Thai.  It's good, it's quick and it's easy.  And this is coming from a meat eater.

Again, vegetarian Pad Thai. It’s good, it’s quick and it’s easy. And this is coming from a meat eater.

To summarize the ingredients (you can also download the recipe):

  • 1 lb. firm/extra firm tofu, cut into 32 thin triangles
  • 8 oz. (250 grams) rice noodles, soaked in warm water
  • 1/4 cup of lime juice (or the juice from two limes)
  • 2 Tbs. demerara sugar (or brown sugar)
  • 1 Tbs. sriracha sauce
  • 3 Tbs. soy sauce.
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 large carrot, shredded
  • 1 large onion, cut in half and sliced thin
  • 1/2 cup minced cilantro (coriander)
  • 1/2 cup minced dry roasted peanuts
  • 3 eggs, cooked in single sheet, rolled up and finally cut into thin spirals.

June – You

In early June I was on a plane headed to Denver to visit family. The pilot, trying his best to imitate Chuck Yeager’s relaxed and confident voice, said to expect significant turbulence. In the best of situations, my ability to read while moving is iffy, so I put away the crossword book and the neuroscience manuscript that a friend sent me. Skymall would have to wait.

co_pond

A pond in north western Colorado.

With four hours of flying time ahead and nothing to do, I closed my eyes and let my mind wander. I wasn’t trying to sleep, I was just letting my brain goof off – letting it go where it wanted and enjoying the ride. I thought about seeing the huge circular farms and fields from the plane as we approached Denver. I thought about the mountains and wondered if Mark Twain, on his way to San Francisco, went over them or around. And that’s when this month’s song appeared. The words, melody, and arrangement all came at once. As if it was a song I’d been singing since I was a kid.

The four hours went by quickly and when the plane landed, I remembered the song, but not the turbulence. I wrote the words on the back page of the neuroscience manuscript and left the airport for the hills. The tune was clearly going to be my “June song”, but, to be honest, this intimidated me. Until now, my songs have been dense arrangements with instrument after instrument stacked on one another. I love doing this. To me, it’s like painting a rich picture, one coat of paint at a time. This song, however, was different. I tried to imagine more textured arrangements, but the simple one that came to me at first was the only one that felt right.

When I returned home, I practiced singing the song a few times and then hit record and about an hour later, the whole thing was done.  I guess sometimes I get lucky.

When I retrurned home, I had the wonderful opportunity to play with Gaspard and Dancers at the American Dance Festival.

When I returned to North Carolina, I also had the wonderful opportunity to play with Gaspard and Dancers at the American Dance Festival.

Folks! It’s been a great month. For me, it was busy (I played shows with Gaspard and Dancers, Felix Obelix and Bombadil), but very rewarding. I hope yours was just as satisfying. If you liked the song, feel free to pass it on to your friend, or have them sign up for the mailing list. And if you’d like to learn the song, here’s the chart!

May – Right Here, Right Now

Ah, yes, it’s summer again. We had a long (crazy long), cold (super cold) winter that was determined to hang on for as long as it could, but now the windows are rolled down, the wind is messing up our hair and we’re loving it. Let’s all go to the beach!

lone_boat

Maybe we should all go to this isolated beach I found in Vietnam. That’s what I’m talking about!

Right now I’m imagining sitting in one of those beach chairs with the super short legs so that I’m just about an inch above the sand. I’ve got everything just right; a cold drink in one hand, a trashy book in the other, and the waves just making it up to my feet and keeping them cool. Maybe someone else is taking care of dinner. And maybe someone else is going to take care of the dishes. I haven’t turned a page in my book for two hours. I’m just looking out over the water as the shrimp boats pass by. I’ve got nothing to do and nowhere to go.  That’s what this month’s song is all about – enjoying the moment and making it last.

Even this guy, made entirely of bath towels, enjoys relaxing.

Even this guy, made entirely of bath towels, enjoys relaxing.

Last year, right around now, I released my first beach song, and this month’s is my second. I think we’ve established a tradition. I hope you have a great June. Enjoy the song! Learn how to play it or just sing along. And, as always, if you haven’t signed up for a monthly song update, get down to it!!

The Ukulele is on the way to the beach!

The Ukulele is on the way to the beach!  (Sporting a  classy speedo.)