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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Broccoli and Tofu Lo Mein

Now that our local Costco is carrying tofu at a very reasonable price, I have been experimenting with it in more dishes. One success has been using tofu as a substitute for eggs in things like breakfast burritos, but my early attempts at adding cubes of it to stir fries were not as good as I would have liked. Until recently, the best approach I had found was freezing the tofu, taking it from the freezer, defrosting and then squeezing it dry before adding it to whatever I was trying to make. The problem with this approach, however, requires more advance planning than I often allow for. So I kept hunting for ideas and finally found a few websites that suggested draining the tofu, then baking the cubes or strips, then letting them dry a bit more as they cool before adding to whatever sauce may be part of the final dish. While this still took more time than just putting drained tofu in with the rest of the ingredients, it has proven to be an excellent way to get the tofu to absorb more of the seasoning ingredients.

I am blessed with children and grandchildren who are very open to trying all kinds of food, and a family favorite dish at many of the East Asian restaurants in town is broccoli and tofu lo mein, so this seemed like a good place to experiment. The oven was on anyway (homemade cinnamon rolls!) so why not give the process a try?

The test turned out beautifully, and it was easy to bake up two pounds of tofu at once, with the excess put in a well-sealed container in the refrigerator for more meals later in the week. My guess is that it could also be frozen, but I haven't tested that yet.

After the tofu was baked, I was able to put this meal together in less than 20 minutes. How? First, by using Chinese mei (lo mein) noodles. These are an incredibly fast approach for pasta, as most Chinese noodles require little water to cook and usually are done in 5 to 7 minutes or less. If you don't have a good source for these, fettuccine could be substituted, but with a bit more cooking time.

I also took advantage of one of my favorite time-saving tricks this week, cooking a large batch of onions and mushrooms that could be refrigerated for a week of widely varying meals. The Variation following the main recipe provides information on how I used this "convenience food."

Finally, I used frozen broccoli pieces instead of fresh. I long ago learned that having a good supply of frozen vegetables (no sauces, not the "steam-able" packages, just 12 to 16 oz bags of peas, broccoli, California mix, whatever) provides a great resource at the end of a hectic day. 

And, now that I know this baked tofu takes up so well the flavors of whatever it will be added to, I'll be making some of that ahead for a busy night's meal too.

Broccoli and Tofu Lo Mein

olive oil
1/2 small onion, diced or cut in long strips
2 to 3 ounces sliced mushrooms
1 to 2 cloves garlic, minced

1/4 c soy sauce
1 T grated ginger root
1 T brown sugar, or to taste
1 T cornstarch

8 oz firm tofu, cubed and baked
water as needed
8 to 10 oz frozen chopped broccoli

4 oz lo mein noodles

1.  Bake tofu as noted below and set aside.

2.  Combine the soy sauce, ginger, brown sugar, and cornstarch and stir well with a whisk or fork until the cornstarch is smoothly blended. Pour over the tofu, making sure all the tofu is well covered.

3. Meanwhile, saute the onion, mushrooms, and garlic in a small amount of olive oil, cooking over medium high heat until the onion is translucent and beginning to soften.

4.  Stir in the tofu, making sure all the pieces are coated with the sauce. If necessary, add a small amount of water to be sure the sauce covers all the vegetables and tofu.

5.  Add the broccoli, stir to coat, and continue cooking on medium until the broccoli is fully cooked (5 to 12 minutes, depending on whether it was thawed or completely frozen).

6.  Meanwhile, prepare the lo mein noodles according to package directions. Stir into the broccoli and tofu and taste, adjusting seasoning as needed.  Continue to simmer a few minutes to blend the flavors.

If desired, this can be served with Sriracha or other hot sauce. For those preferring a sweeter dish, serve with Teriyaki sauce.

  • Other vegetables can be substituted for or combined with the broccoli--cauliflower, French cut green beans, carrot slices, bell pepper strips, zucchini, even asparagus are all possible choices.
  • If pre-sauteed onions and mushrooms are used, just measure a half cup and substitute this mixture for the ingredients in step 2.
  • Instead of the brown sugar and water, substitute about a quarter cup of pineapple juice, adding more as needed for proper consistency.

Baked Tofu

16 oz firm or extra firm tofu

1.  Remove the tofu from package and drain well.
2.  Place  the four blocks in a single layer in the bottom of a large colander and put a heavy pan or bowl on top of the tofu. Allow to drain for several minutes, pressing down occasionally to remove as much liquid as possible. (I have some plain white cotton towels that I like to wrap the tofu in while doing this. The towels absorb more liquid than when I just squeeze the tofu alone. While paper towels could be used, they can sometimes stick to the tofu.)
3. Cut the tofu in cubes or strips, depending on your preference, and spread on a nonstick or lightly oiled cookie sheet.
4.  Bake at 375 to 400 degrees for about 15 minutes. Remove from oven and turn each piece. Return to oven and bake another 20 minutes or so, until the tofu is beginning to turn golden brown around the edges.
5.  Remove from oven and allow to set (and dry a little more) for at least 15 minutes.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Rhubarb Banana Cake

So some of us can’t seem to leave a good thing alone. Or perhaps, in our quest to use “frugal” ingredients, we look to the tried and true for inspiration.

Whichever it is, I recently took a beloved family recipe and changed it in order to incorporate a freebie from my backyard—rhubarb.

reached a fifth generation of family cooks this week, when my granddaughter made it for her Dad for Fathers’ Day. Now, however, I had a lot of “free” rhubarb in the backyard. With some frozen bananas in the freezer, it was time for a rhubarb and banana combination. I’ve tried this unlikely combination before—check out
for a muffin recipe that I’ve been called on to make repeatedly in the past few years.

This week, however, I needed a cake for one of my baking commitments, so why not try a new take on Grandma’s recipe? And why not cook the rhubarb into an old-fashioned sauce?

It didn’t take long to come up with this new cake that is quite a bit lower in fat, has more fiber thanks to both the rhubarb and the oatmeal, and, by making the frosting a little thinner, is overall lower in calories and sugars.

No, this cannot be considered a “health food,” but it is a nice lightened dessert for those longing for a sweet end to their meal.

Frugal too—with far less butter, “free” rhubarb and inexpensive bananas, the cost of this cake is well below that of many other desserts.

Rhubarb Sauce

First, a note about “rhubarb sauce” listed in the ingredients for the second recipe. When I was growing up, this was one of the very first things my mother made when rhubarb was starting to flourish while the rest of the landscape had scarcely started to green up. Soon enough there would be pie and crisps and all the rest of those standard Midwestern rhubarb desserts, but it seems like the rhubarb sauce was the first thing to appear at the table.

As I began looking at recipes and making a game plan for a “new cake,” I wondered if rhubarb sauce could be substituted for applesauce in recipes. It didn’t take long to discover that the substitution was an easy one. Making a big batch of the rhubarb sauce was a great make ahead for several recipes, so the second version of the cake recipe below includes “pre-made” rhubarb sauce.

Now of course, you might not be interested in making rhubarb sauce on its own; truth be told, I really dislike the stuff served like this. (Even today, I could easily go without ever eating another rhubarb-containing dish, but rest assured that everything rhubarb included in this blog has been strenuously tested by many other tasters!) In that case, why go through the separate step of making the sauce and then bringing it to a boil again with the water? So I tested the recipe without the added step of pre-making the sauce. 

Both cakes turned out wonderfully well, so I have included both recipes. The first will be fine if you are not going to use rhubarb sauce for anything else, and the second version will work well if you do decide to make up a larger batch of rhubarb sauce.

Whichever way you choose to prepare the recipe, this is a relatively quick cake to make. Get the oatmeal mixture stirred up and resting while you measure out the remaining ingredients and get the oven preheated. Then just wait for the baking cake to spread that great homemade aroma throughout the house. .

Banana Rhubarb Cake 1

2 c chopped rhubarb
1 1/4 c water
1/4 c sugar
1 ¼ c quick or old-fashioned oats (NOT instant)
1 c mashed banana (about 2 medium)
2 T butter
1 egg
½ c sugar
½ c brown sugar
1 t vanilla                                                                                    
2 c flour
1 ¼ t soda
1 t cinnamon

1. Place the rhubarb, water, and 1/4 c sugar in a large bowl (the mixture will boil up) in the microwave and cook 4 to 5 minutes, until the rhubarb is very soft and the mixture is boiling.

2. Remove the rhubarb mixture from the microwave and stir in the oatmeal and banana. Set aside to cool about 20 to 25 minutes.

3.  Mix together the butter, egg, sugars, and vanilla. Stir into the slightly cooled rhubarb mixture.

4.  Sift together the flour, soda, and cinnamon and stir into the butter and rhubarb mixture. Beat with a whisk or wood spoon until completely blended and smooth.

5.  Pour into a well-oiled 9 X 13 pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 35 minutes. (If using a thin disposable aluminum pan as shown in the pictures, reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees.)

The cake is done when a toothpick inserted near the center comes out without any liquid batter clinging to it.

6. For best results, frost the cake with the Caramel Frosting while both the cake and the frosting are still warm.

Banana Rhubarb Cake 2

1 1/4 c Rhubarb Sauce (see below)
1 c water
1 ¼ c quick or old-fashioned oats (NOT instant)
1 c mashed banana (about 2 medium)
2 T butter
1 egg
½ c sugar
½ c brown sugar
1 t vanilla                                                                                    
2 c flour
1 ¼ t soda
1 t cinnamon

1.  Add the water to the prepared Rhubarb Sauce and heat to boiling in the microwave—about 2 to 3 minutes.

2. Follow the same procedure as above, beginning in step 2. 

Rhubarb Sauce
2 c chopped rhubarb
¼ c water
¼ c sugar

Combine the rhubarb, water, and sugar, and microwave on High for about 3 to 5 minutes, until the rhubarb is completely soft. Makes about 1 ¼ cup of sauce and is easily doubled or tripled.

This may be made ahead (even frozen if desired) in recipe sized portions. If the 2 cups of rhubarb results in slightly more or less than 1 ¼ cups of sauce, adjust the water in the cake recipe so that the total of sauce and water equals 2 ¼ cups.

This basic sauce often has some grated orange or lemon zest included, with a tablespoon or two of orange juice or lemon juice substituted for part of the water. I haven't tried the cake with these additions to the sauce but they might make for an interesting flavor there too.


The Caramel Frosting given here is a relatively small recipe for a cake of this size, but spreading it while both the cake and frosting are warm will allow you to put a nice looking finish on the cake, while reducing just a bit more the amount of sugar (and calories) in each serving. (If you want a thicker frosting, use the proportions listed at

Caramel Frosting

2 T butter
2 T milk
1/3 c packed brown sugar
1 t vanilla
Approximately 1 ½ c powdered sugar

1.  Combine the butter, milk, and sugar in a small saucepan. Cook, stirring continuously, for about 2 minutes, until the mixture is very bubbly and beginning to thicken slightly.

2.  Remove from heat and add vanilla. Then stir in the powdered sugar gradually, until of spreading consistency.

3.  While the frosting is still very warm, frost the cake. (If the frosting cools too much and begins to thicken, add a few more drops of milk at a time until of spreading consistency.)