Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Lesson Learned

Friends, I’m afraid I have very, very bad news for you. I have learned the hard way that it is indeed possible to wear out a recipe. What was once giddy new love can become jaded disenchantment—affection gone sour, if you will. This turn of events is tragic and nausea-inducing. You think to yourself, “If I have to eat that damn Chana Masala one more time, I think I might throw up.” It’s not the recipe’s fault—it’s still a perfectly good dish. But even perfectly good dishes need to be part of a rotation. One needs time away from loved ones (recipes, that is) to appreciate how delicious they are. Today, I bring you the story of a recipe I once loved…and how we got back together in the kitchen.

I think any graduate student will agree that the first year of grad school is especially difficult. I know mine was. Just months after finishing an undergraduate degree in chemistry, I packed all my worldly possessions into a U-Haul and drove to Chicago to start my new life. I had no local friends, little money, and I was scared out of my mind half the time. That year, I cooked for sustenance and comfort—much the same as I do now, except now I have loads of friends and I’m only occasionally scared. I still don’t have much money, but I had even less back then! Anyway, so that year was my first year of living alone. I had a whole kitchen all to myself and big cooking plans. But once the school year was in full swing, I was swamped with reading and coursework. Eating well was a priority, but I had to streamline because most nights had to be spent with my textbooks, not my pots and pans.

Enter the tofu burrito. I’m going to go out on a limb here: I think burritos are among the world’s most perfect meals. They are a little bundle of all-in-one satisfaction, packing vegetables, grains, and your protein of choice into a conveniently portable wrap. You can turn up the volume on the seasonings, adding salsa, sour cream, cheese, and other goodies to your heart’s content. Or you can keep it simple by letting just a few top-quality ingredients tickle your tastebuds. Burritos exemplify the ideal of flexible, healthful, and delicious eating. It’s a good thing I’m eating lunch this very moment, or else I’d be out the door and on my way to Chipotle right now for a black bean burrito.

But one doesn’t actually need to leave the comfort of home in order to find a good burrito. The secret to an amazing homemade burrito is the protein, be it meat or beans. A richly seasoned filling anchors the rest of the burrito, providing the base on which all those other goodies can play. Although I am sure there are countless delicious ways to season your burrito filling, my favorite way was taught to me by my friends Nicole and Andy. When Nicole won Andy’s heart, she not only found a great guy but she gained access to an incredible cooking resource: Andy’s parents. And one of the gifts of Nicole and Andy’s friendship is cooking with them and stealing, er, reproducing their recipes in my own kitchen. The tofu burrito is one of these recipes.

Nicole and I discovered the tofu burrito in college. The recipe, which she has graciously allowed me to give you, started as a way to season ground beef, but it works beautifully with tofu. We loved it so much that it began making regular appearances during our shared dinners. Occasionally we offered it side-by-side with its beefy predecessor, which made any meat-eating diners happy. After Nicole and I graduated, we moved away, but I took the tofu burrito recipe with me. During that long, hard first year of grad school, it became my go-to dinner meal, the one I ate week after week after week. It was just so easy: I’d hit the grocery store on the weekend to pick up tofu and all the fixin’s for burritos. Back at home, I’d cook up a batch of tofu burrito filling, make myself a burrito for lunch, and then stash the cooked tofu in the fridge, where it would wait patiently until dinner the next night. Quick, easy, healthful, tasty: perfect grad student grub.

What I didn’t know then is this: sometimes love requires just a little bit of restraint. That anticipation heightens pleasure, and sometimes the wait is worth it. I ate one too many tofu burritos that year, and I killed our happy partnership. For years after that, I could not even think about eating another tofu burrito; I just had no appetite for it. Instead, I learned how to make other things: tasty soups, egg burritos, quickie pasta dishes, interesting salads. The tofu burrito became a fond memory of mine: Remember that first year of grad school and how I ate a tofu burrito almost every weeknight? And the fonder this memory became, the more I started thinking about actually eating another tofu burrito. Until finally, I dusted off my recipe card, cubed my tofu, and gave it a go.

And oh, my! It was quite the reunion. Elaborately spiced, warm, and soft, it was the perfect meal to cook and eat that rainy Thursday evening, the kind that is best spent in the kitchen or on the couch with cookies and a cup of tea. In the days following, I polished off the rest of that tofu filling, no problem. But I’ve learned my lesson: I’m taking things slowly, letting a few more weeks pass before making tofu burritos again. You, however, dear reader, have no reason to wait, so hop to it*!

Tofu Burrito Filling, Stewart Family Recipe
Makes enough filling for 3-5 burritos

I must extend a big hearty thank-you to the Stewart family, who has kindly allowed me to steal, er, borrow their recipe in order to share it with you. I know this is a strange thing to say, but I’m awfully grateful for Nicole’s in-laws. Not only did they invent this outstanding burrito filling, but they also discovered Eating Well’s Tabbouleh with Grilled Vegetables and introduced it to Nicole, who in turn introduced it to me AND wrote about it for Life, Love, and Food. Yay! Daphna and I made a roasted vegetable version of this tabbouleh, and when I came over the next night to watch a movie with her and Ian, Daphna was practically dancing a jig in the kitchen when she realized she could have leftover tabbouleh for dinner. Yes! That tabbouleh is jig-worthy!

But back to the recipe at hand. This spice mixture is incredibly flexible and forgiving. Feel free to tinker with the combinations, and don’t worry too much if you don’t have one of the spices—the filling will still be tasty, I promise. But try not to skip the cumin—that one is probably the most essential one on the list. In addition, you can try using other beans or meat if you like. I really want to try this recipe with black beans, and as I said earlier, the whole thing started as a way to season beef. Nicole told me that she and Andy have also had good results with ground chicken, so play around with the protein and see what you like.

Note that all the herbs here are dried herbs.

1 tbsp. olive or vegetable oil
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 lb (16-oz.) of firm or extra-firm water-packed tofu, cubed into ~1/2-inch pieces
1/2 tsp. thyme
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
2 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. coriander
1 tbsp. oregano
1/2 tsp. paprika
1/4 cup water

1) In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and saute lightly for a minute or so. Add the tofu, stir it around in the oil to coat it, and then add all the herbs. Cook for a minute or two, enjoying the fragrant aromas that are now rising out of your skillet.
2) Add the water, adjust the heat so that the water is simmering, and cover the skillet. Let the mixture simmer for several minutes, then remove the lid, stir everything around, and let the water cook off over low heat. The mixture is ready to serve when it is still moist but most of the water has boiled off. Note that if you have substituted raw meat for the tofu, you’ll want to make sure the meat is cooked to your liking. Unlike meat, tofu doesn’t actually need to be cooked, but cooking it here helps to infuse all the flavors into it.
3) Serve alongside all your favorite burrito fixin’s!

*As Molly, beloved Orangette, likes to say. And my apologies about the Chana Masala; it really is a great recipe but I made it one too many times!


boston girlie (AKA Nicole) said...

Yay for burritos! I completely agree that this is a healthy, easy, and affordable meal all wrapped into one (no pun intended!). Andy and I make burritos once every 2-3 weeks, if not more. It's great because we get 6 burritos out of it- that's 3 shared meals! And during busy weeks, it's perfect.

Andy wanted me to pass on that he has recently been adding 1/2 tsp of smoked paprika (in addition to the regular paprika), which results in an overall smoky flavor. And we are both enjoying fresh corn as one of many toppings during the summer months.

Thanks for featuring one of our well-loved staples! I hope everyone enjoys it. :)

daphna said...

I'd love to try this! What other burrito sides do you recommend? I hear ya on wearing out a recipe. :) I'm very prone to this, so I have to watch out.

Rosiecat said...

Boston Girlie, thank YOU for such a great recipe! I like the smoked paprika suggestion; I'm going to try it the next time I make this filling. And ooh--fresh corn! I'd love to try that one out too. Tell Andy I said thank you for the paprika suggestion.

Daphna, I know we just talked about this over lunch, but I'll answer your question in case others are curious. When I eat this by myself, I like cheese, sometimes yogurt or sour cream, fresh lettuce, and fresh tomatoes and/or bell pepper if I have them on hand. If I eat this with friends, it's nice to make a pot of rice to eat inside the burrito or on the side.

I'm surprised that you too are prone to wearing out recipes! You always seem like you are trying something new :-) But I think it's those everyday dinners that wear out recipes. It's not easy to find recipes that are quick, delicious, and good for us. I'm constantly on the look-out for good weekday dinner options.

JD said...

The best burrito ingredient: fresh cilantro.

Anonymous said...

Dude! I remember those burritos! But didn't you grind or cut the tofu up into small bits? I am positive that those burritos offered my first exposure to tofu that wasn't in a big square blob. Goodness knows I haven't seen any tofu since moving out of the Mae. :)


Anonymous said...

Oh, I forgot to comment a few weeks ago on Spont Cake. Talk about another food I hadn't thought about since college! JD and I were hard-put not to rush out and buy all the ingredients on the spot. I can't remember the proportions, though. Was it one can cherries, one stick butter and one box cake mix??

boston girlie said...

AMPD, you're right. I think the first time we made tofu burritos in the may, it was crumbled. It looked something like scrambled eggs. Rose-Anne, did you change that approach in your own cooking? If so, how to the two styles compare? I tend to crumble tofu when I use it, so I'm curious to hear your opinion.

boston girlie said...

Yep, I meant to say "Mae" instead of "may." Can you tell it's been a long week??? :)

Rosiecat said...

Whew, things have been busy around here!

JD, I agree: fresh cilantro is wonderful. But you know, I'm curious to try fresh chives because they've been awfully tasty in some other entrees I've had recently. Fresh chives would probably be a lot like regular green onions, but they'd be fun to try--smaller and crunchier.

AMPD, my memory fails me here, but Boston Girlie has confirmed your memory of crumbled tofu. Nowadays, I chop it into 1/4- to 1/2-inch pieces, which get a little bit crumbled during the cooking with all that mixing in the skillet. Boston Girlie, I'm not sure how crumbling compares with chopping; I tend to chop because I think it's faster. But now I think I need to try crumbling to see if I like that better!

AMPD, about that Spont Cake, I think you've got the proportions right. I did a quick recipe search on and came up with a dead-ringer recipe that sounds exactly like our beloved Spont Cake. I'm pretty confident that it's the same thing:

But I love OUR name for it. Sometimes you just need a party, on the spot, and Spont Cake does the job beautifully. If you make Spont Cake, be sure to invite friends over to eat it with you! If I didn't live hundreds of miles away, I'd be there in a heartbeat.

Boston Girlie, TGIF! :-)

Rosiecat said...

One more thing about Spont Cake for anyone who followed the allrecipes link: we left out the walnuts. As much as I love nuts, I like the luscious, smooth texture of Spont Cake made with just butter, cherries, and cake mix. Nothing crunchy to get in the way of all that rich, sugary deliciousness!

In the Mae, we didn't have a slow-cooker, so I think we baked it in a 9x13-inch pan at 350 degrees F until it was golden-brown and solidified, but I don't remember how much time it spent in the oven...if anyone makes a batch of Spont Cake, report back about baking times!

boston girlie said...

For anyone interested (not to hijack Rose-Anne's recipe), Andy and I typically top our burritos with beans (refried or black), green onions, green pepper, black olives, lettuce, yogurt, and salsa. We add seasonal items, like corn and grilled vegetables, in the summer. Yes, TGIF!

Nick said...

Sounds great! Burritos rock and they always will. It's one of the few complete portable meals to go. Sandwiches don't compare because stuff can fall out the sides. Not the case with a professionally wrapped burrito!

Rosiecat said...

Help! A recipe hijacking! :-) Boston Girlie, you folks sure know how to build a great burrito. May we all be inspired by your example.

Nick, burritos DO rock! I couldn't have said it better myself.