May and June are graduation season and with two East Coast graduations in rapid succession (my brother’s in Ithaca, NY followed by mine in Cambridge, MA), Dylan decided to spend the 10 day interim in New York, catching up with parents and friends. I, on the other hand, had to haul myself back to Los Angeles for work, so as not to fritter away too many precious vacation days.
Finding myself on my own for the next 10 days, my thoughts immediately turned to how I would entertain myself during Dylan’s absence, which inevitably led to the question of what would I cook for myself. Cooking for one, as many of you know, is an entirely different ballgame. Do you cook just one portion? And if not, will your leftovers be salvageable as lunch the next day? No wonder I ate so much pasta when I was single!
Half of the fun of cooking is having someone to share it with, be it a partner, a friend, or a roommate, and I’ve rarely been motivated to make much on my own. So when I got back to LA and started to think about stocking the refrigerator for the upcoming week, my mind immediately leaped to those things I no longer have now that I have a constant dinner companion. I dismissed my first thought (the guilty pleasure of Stouffer’s frozen mac and cheese) as just too pathetic and quickly turned to the big culinary vacancy in my life: peanuts.
Dylan has a mild peanut allergy. Not one that’s so bad that he is in any peril, but the rash and itchy throat are enough to dissuade him from eating peanuts in all but the most extreme circumstances (such as being faced with peanut-laden dishes at his favorite Thai restaurant!) His peanut allergy does have its advantages, mainly that I can squirrel away things like Reese’s Peanut Butter cups with no fear that I’ll come home one day to find my supply ravaged. (He’s a binger, I’m a hoarder…what can you do?) But at the same time, I’ve been entirely cut off from cooking with peanuts in the past couple of years and it seemed the perfect time to let my inner peanut-lover out.
I decided to start simple with a tofu and spinach stir-fry atop rice noodles and bathed in peanut sauce, leaving the more complicated dishes for later in the week. This recipe, adapted from one in Didi Emmon’s Entertaining for a Veggie Planet: 250 Down-to-Earth Recipes, one of my favorite cookbooks, was a good, if ho-hum, start to peanut week. The beauty of it lies in its short and simple ingredient list, all of which we had sitting in the fridge and pantry. But I wouldn’t say that this recipe would wow anyone. The peanut sauce, which looks oddly like Velveeta in the photo, was good, but by no means the best I’ve ever had. All in all, if you are in need of a quick and easy weeknight dish, great, but if you’re looking for something unforgettable, that you’ll want to make again and again, I’d keep looking. As for me, my next stop on the peanut express is pad thai, a dish I’ve always convinced myself is not worth the effort and will inevitable taste better in restaurants…I’ll be back with the verdict soon.
Tofu and spinach in peanut sauce (serves 4)
1 10-oz package frozen chopped spinach, thawed
2 tsp canola oil
8 oz firm tofu
kosher salt to taste
1/2 cup coarsely chopped water chestnuts
jasmine rice or cooked Asian noodles
chopped scallions, white and green parts, or fresh cilantro for garnish(optional)
all-purpose peanut sauce:
1/2 cup smooth or crunchy peanut butter
3 tbsp chopped fresh cilantro roots and stems (optional)
2 tbsp peeled and minced fresh ginger
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup unsweeted coconut milk (I used light)
2 tbsp fresh lime juice (1 juicy lime)
2 tsp Asian chili sauce
soy sauce or Asian fish sauce to taste
1. Place the spinach in a colander set in the sink and press out most of the liquid with a rubber spatula.
2. Place the peanut butter in a microwave safe bowl and microwave for 1 minute or hear in a saucepan over low heat until it is very soft. In a medium bowl, combine the peanut butter with the remaining ingredients and mix well with a whisk. Serve at room temperature.
3. Wrap the tofu in a clean dishtowel and press it until you feel the towel become damp. Unwrap the tofu and cut it into 1/2 inch cubes. In a large skillet, heat one 1 tbsp of oil over medium-high heat. Add the tofu and salt liberally. Fry the tofu undisturbed until a dark golden crust forms on the bottom, then use a spatula to turn it and brown it on at least one more side, 4-5 minutes per side.
4. Stir in the spinach and water chestnuts and heat through. Serve over rice or noodles and spoon the peanut sauce on top. Sprinkle with scallions or cilantro if desired.
(The sauce will keep in an airtight container in the fridge for 2 weeks. Let it stand at room temperature for an hour or so before serving or warm slightly in the microwave.)