In these times, where blogs come with bookdeals, it seems like de rigueur to act like you invented vegan mac and cheese. But let’s give credit where credit is due! I certainly learned from the cookbooks that came before mine. For the next few weeks I’ll be writing about the cookbooks that changed my life. This is part 1 of 5.
When my sis and I went vegetarian in 1989, I wasn’t a very adventurous eater. But weeks and weeks of cheeseless pizza and frozen veggie burgers began to take its toll. I was ready to branch out!
I suppose fearlessness is just a bi-product of youth; the same way I never thought twice about wandering around in an abandoned building or cliff diving, I never looked at how long a recipe took, how many ingredients were needed or how many dishes were required. That was the spirit in which I dove into Louise Hagler’s Tofu Cookery, with total abandonment. Which is kind of funny because even with all that chutzpah, tofu scared the hell out of me.
But what I love about that time, too, is that it wasn’t assumed that tofu was somehow reprehensible. American titles like “That was TOFU? You Bastard!” and “I Can’t Believe You Served Me Tofu” had not been invented yet. Instead, the recipes in Tofu Cookery were written as if tofu were something delicious and wondrous and, most importantly, loved. Which is what it became for me, and which it had been in China and Japan for hundreds and years.
So this is where my love of cooking began. In 1989, in a small kitchen in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, with linoleum floors and florescent lighting. Alongside my mom and my sis and even my brother who hated vegetarians but would soon have to admit that he loved our cooking. My best friend would come over and we’d get out all the pots and pans, blast the music (mostly Chumbawamba way before the Home Alone debacle), crank up the burners and have at it. For almost any occasion. I can recall a gigantic Thanksgiving spread with ten different kinds of tofu for every course and strawberries way out of season. A Chinese-inspired Christmas buffet with spring rolls that needed 10 layers of brown paper shopping bags to absorb the oil. Everything wasn’t always a success, but most of it was, and even if we failed we had fun.
This marks the time in my life where the kitchen went from smelling vaguely of microwaved frozen dinners, to the heart of our home. You’d open the front door downstairs, leave the cold air and the sound of the Q-train overhead, and enter a downright enchanting bouquet; garlic, olive oil, cinnamon, all mingling and cozy.
Over 20 years later and many of the recipes still have an influence on my cooking, and some recipes are still in my repertoire. Here are some of the specifics.
Barbeque Tofu: This recipe taught me a really important method that I still use today. When you bake the tofu with a little oil and tamari before applying the sauce, it creates the most amazing meaty texture. Covering the pan with tin foil insures that it doesn’t dry out.
Tofu Balls & Spaghetti: I remember seeing peanut butter, tofu and breadcrumbs in the recipe list and not even blinking. Of course that would all taste good together! This is still a family favorite. My sis makes it for her children and I make it for my boyfriend. I’ve made a few embellishments over the years but they still taste like home to me.
Brownies: These were the first baked goods that I ever baked from scratch. They are also the things that made my brother STFU about vegan treats. They’re everything a brownie should be: rich, chocolatey and dense. And they use an interesting method of cooking a bunch of ingredients together on the stovetop to thicken before baking the brownies.
Sweet and Sour Tofu Balls: Before this recipe, I was pretty sure that sauce came from a magical sweet and sour tree. This recipe blew my mind! I learned how to batter and fry. I learned how to make sweet and sour sauce. Really what this recipe did for me was demystify cooking; I could actually make a dish that I thought could only come from a restaurant.
So that was the beginning. Tofu Cookery was revamped a few years ago, but I still have my battered old copy, complete with chocolate thumbprints from a 16 year old me.