Tuesday, April 22, 2008

One of my favorite things

One Sunny Sunday morning two years and some change ago a few of my dearest South Park friends took me for breakfast at one of their favorite neighborhood morning eateries, The Big Kitchen. Once we were seated I perused the vast menu for something that looked not only extraordinarily delicious but something that was more than likely gluten free as well. Now those that know me know I have never been a huge meat eater, especially when it comes to breakfast and there is no food in this world that I despise more than eggs (bleh!!). Add gluten to that list of breakfast nono’s and my options become extremely narrow. Lucky for me I live in San Diego and a good portion of breakfast places offer a selection of Mexican dishes on their menu. After much deliberation I decided upon the tofu rancheros. As we sat sipping our coffee, chatting and waiting for our orders to arrive I glanced over the collage of clippings that pleasantly cluttered the walls. A flyer for an upcoming art show, a signed photo of Whoopi Goldberg (who used to work there), and an article about Rachel Ray’s visit there during a taping of $40 a day, a visit in which she dined on the tofu rancheros no less (yay for Rachel’s with great taste!). At long last my tofu arrived fresh out of the pan and still sizzling on my plate. The tofu and bell peppers were cut into large chunks and served atop a corn tortilla and the whole thing was smothered in a layer of oooey gooey melty cheese. As I dined on my delicious dish, the array of textures and flavors mingled in my mouth and the wheels in my brain began to turn. There was no doubt in my mind that this meal was scrumptious but I could not help but think as I ate of slight changes that could be made to the recipe that would make it even more delectable to my palate.

A couple days and a trip to the grocery store later I was ready to put my ideas to the test and after an hour of draining, chopping, mincing and stir frying my culinary creation was complete and I found that not only had I cooked up a tasty Wednesday night dinner but that I had found my new favorite meal. I could eat this for dinner every day and in fact at first I did! A few years later it’s still one of my favorite, a weekly fixture in my diet and something that I still enjoy preparing just as much as I did that first time. I hope that cooking and eating this dish brings you as much joy as it did for me. I find its best served with a crisp white wine and shared with friends.

Extraordinarily Delicious Tofu and Pepper Tacos

Serves 4


  • 3 medium to large sized bell peppers, chopped (you can use any combination you like of orange, red and yellow. Since these are going in a tortilla I like to chop the peppers pretty small, about ½ inch by ½ inch)
  • 1 zucchini sliced into ¼ inch thick slices
  • A little more than 1 cup grape or cherry tomatoes (cut in halves or thirds, guts removed and discarded)
  • 1 pack of extra firm tofu
  • Chopped fresh cilantro leaves (as much as you like, I like a generous handful)
  • 4 or 5 cloves of garlic (crushed or minced)
  • Olive oil
  • Tortillas (I like to serve mine with home made corn tortillas)
  • Pepper jack cheese (I found Veggie Slices brand, pepper jack flavor work well in this dish because they are delicious when melted and they don’t get greasy when melted like real cheese)
  • Season to taste with salt, pepper and Mexican Seasonings (I use a little under a tablespoon of a premade mix that is a combination of oregano, cumin, garlic, onion, chili, paprika and red pepper)

Optional ingredients (if you like it hot!)

  • 1 or 2 teaspoons jalapeño pepper, minced (seeds and all)
  • 2 or 3 shakes of chili pepper powder


First thing you want to do is drain the liquid from the tofu container. Then using a clean cutting board or plate cut the tofu into ½ inch thick steaks. Tofu is like a sponge and at this point even though the water has been drained the tofu is still fully absorbed with liquid. Now you can’t just squeeze the tofu like you would a sponge to release the liquid (unless you are making a tofu scramble!). In order to release some of that liquid you need to let the tofu sit and drain a bit on another absorbent material such as paper towels. Make a stack of paper towels 5 or 6 sheets thick and place your tofu steaks on top. Then place another 2 or 3 towels on top. You can gently press down on the paper towel covered tofu and then let this sit for about 5 minutes. If you notice the towels are becoming saturated you can move the tofu to a dry spot on the towel or add another towel. If you were ever to make a recipe that involved marinating tofu you would want to let your tofu drain like this for 10 or 15 minutes with at least one towel change in between. By doing this you ensure that your tofu is able to properly absorb a marinade. If you were to just throw tofu into a marinade straight out of the container it came in it would not soak up the marinade (because it’s already fully absorbed with the liquid it came in) and your tofu would be pretty bland. In this recipe we are not marinating the tofu before we cook it so a 5 minute drain will allow enough of the liquid to drain out so the tofu will be able to adequately soak up the yummy spices you will be coking it with.

While your tofu is draining on the towels you can prepare your veggies. Chop the tomatoes, making sure to remove the guts and discard and place all the meaty tomato bits in a bowl. Add the crushed garlic and chopped cilantro to this bowl, give it a good stir to coat all the tomatoes with the garlic and cilantro then set this aside. Now you can chop your bell peppers and zucchini. By the time all your veggies are prepped your tofu should be properly drained. On a clean cutting board cut your tofu steaks into bite sized pieces, approximately ½ inch by ½ inch. I like to use a wok to cook this but if you don’t have one handy you can use a large sauce or frying pan. Pour a bit of olive oil in the pan and use a paper towel to make sure the surface of the pan is fully coated with oil, you don’t need a lot just enough so the tofu won’t stick. If you happen to have garlic flavored olive oil I have found that to be quite yummy with this dish. Once the pan is hot, toss in your tofu and shake the pan every 10 seconds or so to make sure the tofu is not sticking. If it does sprinkle the tofu with a bit more oil and toss in the pan (this shaking/tossing action is particularly fun with a wok!). After about 2 minutes the tofu should be past the phase where it wants to stick to the pan and you can let it sit and cook on its own for a bit longer. I typically end up cooking the tofu on medium high heat for about 10 or 12 minutes, flipping the little tofu squares ever minute or so to make sure all sides are getting cooked. The tofu is done when you notice that it is a light golden brown color on most sides. It’s a slightly tedious process flipping all the little squares but I find it’s a good way to get a nice slightly crispy on the outside tofu without using a lot of fatty oil or frying it. Once your tofu is browned to your desired color you can add the zucchini. I like to pile the tofu in the center of my wok and then surround it with the zucchini. This way the zucchinis are not crowded in the pan and have a chance to brown a bit on one side before they get mixed in with their tofu buddies. Let that cook as is for a minute or two, until you can flip one of the zucchinis and notice it has a little bit of browning on the cooked side. Then place the chopped bell peppers atop of the tofu, take a moment or two to admire how pretty this looks in the pan…

Then mix it all up using a spoon and/or tossing in the pan iron chef style. If you are making this spicy you can add your chopped jalapeño pepper at this time. Let this cook for 3 or 4 minutes and then add your tomato mixture. Stir this about, fully combining the tomato mix with the tofu mix and then lower your heat to medium low. Now you can add the salt, pepper, Mexican seasonings and if you like the chili pepper, give this a good stir and let it cook for one more minute or two and then your tofu pepper taco filling is complete. Serve in warm (preferably homemade) tortillas sprinkled with pepper jack or your preferred cheese of choice.

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