Sometimes you just want a vegetable
I made a cake last week. A carrot cake for Mother’s Day, my mom’s favorite. I don’t do a ton of baking. For starters, I try to avoid sugar and other carbs. Also, my style of cooking is to sort of throw stuff in a bowl or pan and hope for the best. Baking is way too science-y. The ratios matter, the temperature matters, everything needs to be precise. Except with carrot cake, a very throw it in the bowl kind of cake. I made mine with pineapple & dates and cut out half the sugar. There was plenty of sugar in my frosting. The whole thing was annoyingly good.
But this post isn’t about carrot cake. It’s about making amends for the approximately 9 pieces of carrot cake I ate over the next 3 days (yikes). By Wednesday I was feeling like garbage. You know when your insides feel puffy? Gross. I had a zit on my face, nearly never happens if I’m living clean. So I decided I needed to revamp with a perfect day of food.
I love that feeling of natural energy I get when I’ve eaten really healthy food. And alternatively I like to avoid the feeling of sluggishness when you eat too much heavy, starchy food. This is easier in theory than in reality because if someone offers me a big plate of mac & cheese or some fish with steamed vegetables, I’m not necessarily making my decision based on how I’ll feel an hour after I eat. I’m thinking about how good that mac & cheese will taste in my mouth versus how much I do not enjoy plain steamed vegetables. Impulse control & immediate gratification are real issues. But when I overindulge for too long, like around holidays, it catches up to me fast and I miss my veggies (still not steamed, though, please).
In the last few months I’ve noticed the more I avoid indulgence foods like cake and mac & cheese, and the more I make sure to include vegetables in every meal, the faster I hit that point where I don’t want more cake, I want more salad. It’s hard to imagine a time when I will skip a homemade carrot cake all together, but if I can want *less* of it, that’s a good start. And even better if I don’t want to have cake instead of salad, but as a small bonus, which I suppose is how dessert was meant to be eaten in the first place, by normal people.
So anyway, after the zit arrived I decided that was enough of the cake, and I needed some extra fresh meals to balance the system.
The day started with eggs & berries. Then a cruciferous veggie salad with salmon and seeds, and then this vegan vegetable & tofu dish that I’m about to talk about. All three were slightly less delicious than homemade carrot cake but still very tasty, and ultimately much more satisfying than all the sugar and flour.
Already by Thursday I was feeling much less contaminated. We reluctantly threw out the rest of the carrot cake but never even missed it. I was so happy to feel fresh it didn’t matter to me anymore.
What is a stir-fry, Actually?
I literally just googled the definition of stir-fry, and I’m still not sure if this recipe counts as one or not. It’s not a stew though, or a curry, so I’m sticking with stir-fry just because I need something to call this.
Here’s what it is: fried tofu, eggplant, and a bunch of other vegetables sautéed and simmered in a bold garlic tomato sauce.
I made this for the first time a few weeks ago after I got the idea from Ali Wong’s book Dear Girls. She talks a lot about Vietnam, Vietnamese food, and Asian food more broadly. At one point she says her favorite cooking base is garlic, tomatoes, and fish sauce. I thought that seemed interesting so I decided to work with it.
The problem was, I didn’t know where to go from there. I tried to search around for recipes that used this exact base and never found anything that was an exact match, but I got some ideas. I thought about what goes with tomatoes and garlic and decided to try eggplant. Eggplant obviously goes with tomato sauce and garlic, because I think the king of eggplant dishes is probably Eggplant Parmesan (it’s also one of my favorite things). I figured eggplant would work well for this dish because it’s found in Italian things like eggplant parm, but also in plenty of Asian stir-fry dishes, so it could work with the fish sauce as well. I’ve been on a big eggplant kick lately so this seemed like a win all around.
Next, I pulled out other vegetables that would go with these flavors and were already in my fridge. (I don’t keep shiitake mushrooms lying around but they weren’t in the first version of this.) Finally, I decided to use tofu as my protein because I knew it would pair well, also it’s easy and healthy.
A few notes upfront. I follow a high fat, low carb diet. This recipe calls for a lot of oil, but it won’t hurt you, I promise. You need these calories when you’re eating a dish made of entirely of plants.
Second, like I said at the top, I follow a throw it in the pan method of cooking. If you don’t like spicy or you don’t like broccoli, leave it out. I recommend keeping the tomatoes, garlic or ginger because those are sort of the point, but pretty much everything else could go if it had to.
How it works
Before I start, I want to emphasize that this recipe is easy. I’m still trying to learn how to make a recipe seem easy, but still make it thorough enough that you can make it even if you don’t cook much. I like to include a lot of details but I don’t mean to make it look scary. It really isn’t!
First thing to do is chop your eggplant. I slice it into 1 inch slices, then quarter each slice. Then you sweat it. Lay it out on paper towel and sprinkle salt over the pieces. This draws out moisture to let it fry better. Let the moisture sweat for 15 minutes, then get fresh towels, flip the pieces onto the new paper, salt again, and sweat for another 15 minutes. (If you do a web search, there is a big debate over whether or not this is necessary. I’ve never *not* done it, so I have no idea how pan fried eggplant would be without sweating.)
While that’s happening, get out your block of tofu. For this recipe I use half a block, but I think you could use the whole thing if you wanted to. The sauce just wouldn’t spread as far. Either way, drain and rinse. Slice it into rectangular blocks, maybe like 2 inches x ½ inch. Then sandwich between paper towels to dry. (10 minutes is enough but I usually just leave it until all the other prep is done.)
Do all your mincing and chopping while you’re waiting on the big boys to get ready. Once you get cooking it can go fairly fast so I like to have everything laid out next to the stove. That way when I inevitably forget something (not pictured here: broth) I can grab it without causing too much chaos. Is this obvious to other people? I’m causing chaos all the time so I do not know.
The cooking happens in 3 stages, but all in the same pot. Start with the eggplant. Fry in 2 tablespoons of oil on medium high for 8 minutes, stirring it around occasionally. (If it seems too dry and/or is sticking to the pan, add a little more oil.) It should be soft and slightly browned on both sides. Set it aside on a plate and move on to tofu.
In the same pan, heat another 2-3 tablespoons of oil (depending on how much your eggplant soaked up and how much is left). I recommend removing the pan from heat when you add your tofu because it will jump and splash immediately. Arrange the tofu so that the pieces have enough space in the pan, then move to the burner, and heat on medium-high.
How I like to fry my tofu is to do one side, then flip it 90 degrees and do the next side, until 4 sides are done (no need to get the small ends). Start the first side at 2 minutes, then do diminishing increments for each side after. So 2 minutes, turn pieces, 90 seconds, turn pieces, 60 seconds, turn pieces, 30 seconds. I start the timer after I’ve flipped every piece, and I try to begin the flipping at different spots in the pan each round. At the end of the process, scoop tofu onto a paper towel with a slotted spatula, and let the towel soak some of the oil.
Now it’s time for the sauce. Make sure your can of crushed tomatoes is opened and ready. Add the garlic to the oil left over from the tofu, sauté on medium for 30 seconds only! The oil is already very hot so anymore than that and your garlic will burn. (The garlic is burnt in all of the photos you see in this post tbh.)
Now add the tomatoes, stirring to blend the garlic. They should be cooking at a fast simmer or a low boil. Continue simmering on Medium while you add the rest of the sauce ingredients: fresh ginger, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, maple syrup, apple cider vinegar, and red pepper flakes. Stir in each ingredient, then add the next. When you have added all sauce components (other than broth) let the whole thing simmer together for 3-5 minutes to let the flavors blend.
When the mix is fragrant and the thickness of a jar of pasta sauce, add ½ cup of vegetable broth to thin it out. Turn the burner to high, stirring continuously, until sauce comes to boil. Turn back down to medium immediately, stir more to prevent from sticking to pan.
Next, add onions, red peppers, mushrooms, and broccoli. Let simmer until the broccoli is starting to look soft (maybe 5 minutes) then add in the eggplant and tofu. Continue stirring occasionally for another couple of minutes until the eggplant and tofu look like they have soaked up some of the sauce. Finally, add in the spinach and chia seeds, stirring well until the spinach is wilted and everything is blended together.
Add some sesame seeds to the top and enjoy! Serve with rice or another grain if you want, but I eat it plain. Sometimes I add in some cashew pieces for extra crunch.
EGGPLANT TOMATO STIR-FRY WITH TOFU
A hearty and healthy vegan single pan dinner
- 4-5 TBL Avocado Oil (Olive is fine)
- 400g Eggplant (1 small)
- 220g Tofu (½ block) -¼ tsp Black Pepper
- ¼ tsp salt
- 14g Garlic (2-3 cloves), minced
- 15oz can Crushed Tomatoes
- 14g Ginger (large chunk), minced
- 2 TBL low-sodium Soy Sauce (Tamari for gluten free)
- 2 TBL Worcestershire Sauce
- 1 TBL Rice Vinegar (or Apple Cider Vinegar)
- 1 TBL Maple Syrup
- up to ½ tsp Red Pepper Flakes (for desired spiciness)
- ½ Cup low-sodium Vegetable Broth
- 70g Onion (½ medium), chopped
- 90g Red Bell Pepper (1 cup), chopped
- 40g Shiitake Mushrooms (1 cup)
- 100g Broccoli florets (1 cup)
- 56g Spinach (2 cups), stems removed
- 1 TBL Chia Seeds
- Sweat eggplant: spread pieces onto paper towel, add salt and let moisture draw out. After 15 minutes, switch sides and repeat.
- Set tofu slices on paper towel to dry.
- Prep everything else.
- Heat 2 TBL oil on medium-high heat.
- Pat the excess moisture off of eggplant, then add to oil. Sauté 7-8 minutes until soft and browning. Set aside.
- Add more oil, then pull pan off burner and add tofu. Season with salt and pepper.
- Cook on all four long sides. Start with 2 minutes, flip 90 degrees, cook 90 seconds, flip, cook 60 seconds, flip, cook 4th side for 30 seconds (if it doesn’t seem crispy or look tan enough give it another 15 seconds.)
- With a slotted spatula, set tofu onto paper towel to drain oil. NOTE: if there is more oil than needed to sautee garlic, you can pour out the excess.
- Add the garlic to oil, cook 30 seconds.
- Add tomatoes, stirring until garlic is blended. Let simmer 1 minute.
- Add ginger, simmer another minute.
- Add soy sauce or tamari, Worcestershire, vinegar, maple syrup, and red pepper flakes. Stir in each ingredient before adding the next. When all added, let simmer 3 minutes.
- Add broth, stir until combined. Turn burner to high and let sauce come to a boil, then turn back down to medium again.
- Add onions, red bell pepper, mushrooms, and broccoli. Simmer until broccoli is soft, about 5 minutes, stirring frequently.
- Add eggplant and tofu, folding into the the rest of the stir-fry. Let simmer 3-5 minutes.
- Add in chia seeds and spinach. Stir until everything is well-mixed and spinach is wilted.
- Serve as desired. Enjoy!