Dulse, Sea Lettuce, Tofu...

January 2010 : I was out for drinks with friends the other night. Paolo, who is Venetian, was talking about the feast his grandmother had made for the Holidays... Radicchio lasagne for starters. Now mind you his grandmother is 89 years old, and she was up and off at to the marketplace daybreak, her husband, also 89, pulling their shopping trolley behind them up and over bridges and passerelles. Cooking is her passion, the sap of her existence.
Of course she made the lasagne pasta herself, with the help of a hand pasta machine and a beautiful large marble table onto which she hand poured mounds and flung dustings of flour and such. True to the "technique" of the practiced home cook, she uses nary a measuring cup or scale.... weighing out and gauging ingredients instead with her experience, her skill, her flair. Such artistry!

Just about then Robert piped in with his own story of kitchen aptitude. Somewhere in his extended family exists — or did exist — a recipe book that had been compiled by a veteran kitchen cook (mother, aunt, sister, cousin...) of her homespun recipes, in which all the measurements were calculated using a rose tea cup... which, disastrously, eventually broke. And it seems her recipes lost their will to survive as no one quite knew how to proceed without the precious porcelain tool.

As Judith Jones, in the introduction to her cookbook The Pleasures of Cooking for One, so beautifully puts it: "I feel that the language of recipes should reflect the visceral nature of cooking and invite you to participate more fully, rather than have you slavishly follow a formula. That's why I use expressions like "pinch of salt," "a splash of wine," "a sprinkling of parsley," and "a fat clove of garlic," "a handful of spinach leaves." You don't need to measure that wine precisely. Splash some into the hot pan, let it cook down, if indicated, then taste. It's a waste of time and too fussy to stuff that bit of chopped parsley into a tablespoon to make sure you have the "right" amount. There are times when exact measures are important, particularly in baking, but even then beware of trying to prepare a bread dough with such rigid precision, because the water content of flour can vary considerably. The only accurate guide is your hands: whether the dough feels too sticky or too wet."

"I hope that the flexibility I’m encouraging will help you enjoy a more relaxed ease in cooking. Get the feel of a teaspoon of salt by measuring it into your hand before throwing it into the soup pot. Next time, you won’t need the teaspoon measure: your hand will tell you the amount. And the more confident you get, the more you will be encouraged to experiment, to try out your own variations of some of these recipes and play with ideas of your own. Cooking for one can be particularly challenging, because often you’ll find yourself wanting to reduce recipes for a large number of people to a single portion. so you need to use your wits and imagination. And if it doesn’t work perfectly the first time, try again."

I've recently been playing around with tofu and sea vegetables. And as you'll see in the two recipes that follow there are a lot of pinches and handfuls... That's how the recipes came into being — a pinch of this, a splash of that — as well as thanks to an "accident" in which half a bag of sea lettuce became water logged "en transit" and instead of tossing it, I turned it into a pesto of sorts. My curiosity having been piqued, I took some left over broth I'd made from the left-over bits of this and that vegetable and a remaining handful of watercress and came up with this soup. Perhaps they are both still works in progress that you could improve upon by adding a pinch more of this or that... And please let me know the results.

Before the recipes, I wanted to give you this link to a TED video on How to Live to Be 100+ by Dan Beuttner. And another link to a Commonwealth Club audio podcast featuring Raj Patel on How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy. He speaks passionately about the state of food and hunger in our societies. He mentions a few of the many organizations doing heartfelt work around these issues: Food First, Roots of Change, and the upcoming US Social Forum, June 22 - 26 in Detroit.

Sea Lettuce-Tofu Spread – makes about 1 cup

10 gr dried sea lettuce flakes mixture
100 gr firm tofu
Pinch of chopped flat parsley and/or cilantro
1 garlic clove, peeled and sprout removed
15 gr walnuts, coarsely chopped
15 gr apple, peeled, cored and cut into small pieces (sweet and juicy, such as Golden Delicious)
Extra virgin olive oil
A couple squeezes of fresh lime juice and a pinch of the zest
Unrefined sea salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tBsp balsamic vinegar
Handful of arugula leaves torn into bite-size pieces
Candied kumquat (recipe from Chez Pim)

Blanch the tofu by dropping it in to a pan of boiling water and simmer for 5 minutes. Drain and press well to remove excess water. When cool, cut into cubes.

Soften the sea lettuce mixture in just enough water (30 - 60 ml) so that it is fully absorbed, 20 - 30 minutes, and the dulse is soft. (if there is left over water drain it). Place in a blender along with the tofu, parsley, cilantro (if using) and garlic. Blend until somewhat smooth.

Add the walnuts and 2 – 3 tBsp olive oil and blend. Add the apple and blend again. Finally add a splash of Tamari, a pinch of sea salt, a couple squeezes of lime, and a pinch of lime zest. Blend until smooth.

Reduce 2 tBsp good balsamic vinegar over medium heat until syrupy, 5 - 10 minutes. Transfer to a small bowl and let cool.

Toast 1/4 inch-thick, 2-inch square slices of rustic bread under a broiler until golden brown on both sides. Rub each piece with a garlic clove. Brush lightly with extra virgin olive oil and top with a tablespoon of the sea lettuce–tofu spread. Top with a piece of arugula and garnish with a dollop of reduced balsamic vinegar and a few thin slices of candied kumquat.

Note: You can also serve the spread on thin rice crackers. And if you want a bit more zing, you can add a tiny pinch of Cayenne pepper or Ancho chili powder and/or grated ginger. As I consider this recipe "a work in progress," go ahead and be creative.

Tofu-Dulse-Watercress Soup – serves 4

4 pieces firm tofu, approx 4 x 2 1/2 x 3/4 inch
4 small handfuls dried dulse flakes
4 small handfuls watercres
1 generous handful roasted hazelnuts
Zest of 1/2 lime (or orange, or lemon)
2 green onions, mainly tops
Couple pinches freshly grated ginger, peeled first (best to use a microplane zester)
Strong Tamari
Extra-virgin olive oil
Unrefined sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Tiny pinch of Ancho chili or Cayenne powder

3 - 4 large garlic cloves, crushed (no need to remove the skin)
1 small fresh bay leaf
1 small sprig fresh thyme
1 sprig parsley
Unrefined sea salt

Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a sauce pan. Add the garlic and cook over low heat, stirring often, until the garlic begins to turn translucent and becomes soft, approx 15 minutes. Add 350 ml water, the bay leaf, thyme, parsley, and a pinch of salt. Cover and bring to a boil. Remove the lid and cook at a low simmer for 30 minutes. Strain and return to the pan. Season with more salt if needed.

Preheat the oven to 150˚C (300 ˚F).
Spread the hazelnuts out in a single layer in a baking pan and roast for approx 15 min, until the skins crack and the scent or hazelnuts begins to seep from the oven. Wrap in a towel while hot and rub vigorously to remove the skins. When cooled down a bit, rub them in batches between your hands to remove any recalcitrant skins. Don't worry about those that resist.

Preheat the oven to 200 ˚C (400 ˚F).
Wash and dry the watercress and remove all but the smallest stems. Thinly slice the tops of the green onions along with a bit of the white.
Combine 2 tablespoons olive oil with 1 1/2 tablespoons strong Tamari and a pinch of sea salt. Place the tofu slabs in a Pyrex or enamel baking dish. Very generously brush both sides and the edges with the marinade. Bake in the oven on a high rack for approx 15 minutes, or until the tofu begins to swell slightly.

Bring the garlic broth back to a boil then remove from the heat.
Place a small handful each of sea lettuce and watercress in the bottom of 4 bowls. Add a pinch of grated ginger, a tiny pinch of Ancho chili powder, and a splash of Tamari.
Add a couple ladles of hot broth, just enough to slightly cover the vegetables.
Place a slab of tofu in the center of the bowl. Garnish with the green onion tops, a pinch of lime zest, a drizzle of olive oil, and a couple twists of the pepper mill.

Bon appetit...

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