Updated: Nov 10
I've been going through my mother's old recipes, which she clipped from newspapers and magazines and pasted into spiral bound notebooks. She was an excellent French cook. Putting vegetables front and center was not really thinkable for that generation, who grew up with meat-and-two-veg dinners, and then watched Julia Child. They went to special-occasion French restaurants, where it was all about the protein in some kind of sauce, decorated with four or five tiny string beans, and (maybe) a boiled potato, the size and shape of a quail egg (What was the problem with these fancy French restaurants and vegetables? It was so weird, because French home cooking has always involved lots of vegetables).
My mother migrated away from the traditional red-meat-in-brown-sauce French cooking as soon as there were other options. She discovered Perla Meyers and the Jean Talon farmers' market, and her cooking soon became seasonal, and heavily influenced by the nouvelle cuisine of the 1970s. But dinner always featured a protein as main event, plus a side or two of vegetables. There were stews, of course, and sometimes plates of pasta (but not often, since noodles were deemed "fattening") but when I compare our current dinners to what I grew up with, it is striking how much that main course of meat-with-side-dish has been deconstructed and recomposed into salads, pasta, risottos, fritters, stews, sheet pan dinners, plates of roasted vegetables, or curries over rice. I still do the occasional meat & two veg dinners, except then they are three vegs and a starch, and it is Thanksgiving.
Most of these recipes in her collection are for "light" dishes, as she and my father were always watching their weight. The proteins were heavy on chicken and fish. Paging through the main courses she collected, it is not surprising to see the overwhelming number of recipes for chicken breasts. Here is a list (by no means complete):
Chicken breasts with sherry and mushrooms
Chicken breasts with vermouth
Chicken breasts with tarragon
Poached chicken breasts in wine
Lemon-pepper seasoned chicken breasts
Curried chicken breast with rice
Grilled lemon and gin-marinated chicken breast with onions
Chicken breasts in shallot butter sauce
Chicken breasts with horseradish scallion crust
Chicken breasts with rosemary and lemon
Sauteed chicken breasts with red raspberry vinegar
Chicken stroganoff with boneless chicken breasts
Cajun chicken breasts
Parmesan chicken breasts
Suprême de volaille (for those who don't speak French, this is French for chicken breast) aux morilles
Chicken breasts with zucchini and tomatoes
Grilled chicken breasts with herbs
Baked chicken breasts with coarse grained mustard and tarragon sauce
Chicken breasts on eggplant (Suprême de volaille Imam Bayeldi)
Poulet d'amour (chicken breasts with asparagus)
Spinach stuffed chicken breasts
Breast of chicken with paprika sauce
Breasts of chicken Diane
Apricot-glazed chicken breasts
Chicken breasts with mushroom and sun dried tomatoes
Chicken breasts en papillote
Sesame crusted chicken breast
Those poor chickens. These represent only the first 16 of over 50 pages of chicken recipes. (If any intrigue you, I would be happy to share). Worse to think, for the French, chicken has its own taste and does not require a lot of sauce or gimcrackery. These dishes were made with bland Midwestern chain supermarket chicken of the 70s, 80s, and 90s (wow, that sounds like FM radio) which required a lot of added ingredients to make it taste like anything. In these recipes, the chicken became a mere conveyance for other flavors and textures. Paging through the notebooks, it occured to me that, for many of these dishes, the chicken could be replaced with tofu. Watch this space for my experiments using tofu in some of these recipes.
First, I decided to experiment with different types of tofu, beyond the typical block found in suIpermarkets. At our local Japanese shop, I found aburaage, which is the pre-seasoned (with a somewhat sweet sauce made with rice wine and shoyu) tofu pocket that is used for inari zushi, a favorite Japanese snack, and something I loved to eat for lunch in Japan. I also found bean curd skin, as well as yuba sheets, to see what the different textures of tofu could do. I tried more traditional recipes and flavors for tofu with them.
I should add that these dishes are just my riffs on Chinese tofu dishes, and that I am in no way trying to duplicate any authentic Chinese recipes, just playing with the same textures and flavors. There are some incredible tofu roll recipes on Chinese cooking websites like Woks of Life that I urge you to try.
Here are the most successful experiments this week, in order of increasing complexity:
Crispy tofu with fried scallion and ginger
(super easy- can be ready in minutes!)
1 box extra firm tofu
4 scallions, white part, thinly julienned
3 inch piece of ginger, peeled and very finely minced
1 tbsp sesame oil
salt to taste
Wrap tofu in a dish towel and press tofu under a heavy object, like a cast iron skillet, for about half an hour.
Slice tofu in half, then half again, and so on until you have 1 1/2 inch cubes. You can press them again to make sure all water is out.
Dust, or gently toss tofu with corn starch seasoned with paprika and onion power to taste.
Heat about 4 tablespoons of vegetable oil in a wok or Dutch oven until very hot.
Add ginger and cook for about 20 seconds, then add scallions and cook for another 30 seconds then transfer ginger and scallions to a bowl, add salt and a tablespoon of sesame oil.
Add tofu to the pan and fry until crisp and golden. Return ginger and scallions to pan and cook until scallions are crispy.
Stuffed tofu with vegetables
(very easy, a lot of veg prep but otherwise simple. Can be served cold or room temperature)
2 tablespoons sesame oil
1 large clove garlic, finely minced
2 inches of ginger, peeled and finely minced
1 small can bamboo shoots, sliced very thin
1 carrot, cut into 2 inch pieces and sliced very thin
3 scallions, white part cut into 2 inch pieces and sliced very thin
1 3 ounce box of shitake, baby bella or cremini mushrooms, sliced thin
2 tablespoons sesame oil
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon mirin
1 package of seasoned tofu (aburaage)
Heat sesame oil in a wok or Dutch oven.
Add ginger, then garlic and fry for about 30 seconds.
Add vegetables and cook until soft.
Sprinkle mirin and soy sauce and cook for a few more minutes.
Fill tofu pockets with vegetables.
Bean curd rolls with vegetables
(more involved as the bean curd requires multiple steps, but looks and tastes amazing)
same as above, except in place of pre-made tofu pockets, bean curd skin:
2 tablespoons oyster sauce, mixed with 2 tablespoons of water
1/4 cup vegetable stock
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon mirin
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
+ 2-3 scallions, finely minced
Same preparation as for the tofu pockets.
Brush bean curd with oyster sauce mixture.
Spoon filling into bean curd skins and wrap up into ~4" packages.
Place rolls in a steamer in a single layer and cover.
Steam for ~10 minutes.
Meanwhile mix stock, oyster sauce, sugar, mirin, soy sauce, and sesame oil in a bowl.
Heat some sesame oil in a skillet and add rolls.
Brown the rolls, and then add the sauce.
Plate and scatter some scallions on top.