Ever since a certain someone got some not-so-great numbers back on his cholesterol count, we’ve been trying to make a conscious effort to “eat healthier”. I have to confess, this is not something that I was super excited about- cooking is often a treat for me, and I want to make whatever the mood strikes me to make rather than have to put a bunch of restrictions on it. But the truth is that I don’t cook a ton of meat as it is, let alone red meat, so my objection is more theoretical than factual. We may have to cut back on our bread-and-cheese-with-dinner habit, but I think that can be solved by looking to more non-European recipes for inspiration. That’s what we did the other night when I whipped up a salad that I first made a couple years ago, around the time we first started dating. It includes classic Thai ingredients such as ginger, soy and lime to create a punchy dressing that gets drizzled over lettuce, carrots, cucumber, scallions and more. It all gets topped off with triangles of seasoned and baked or grilled tofu. It’s almost carb-free, if you care about that sort of thing, and the tofu fills you up so you don’t feel like you “just ate salad” for dinner. If you want to get fancy, you can make it with grilled shrimp instead of tofu, or a combination of both. Either way, it’s a great way to get a Thai food fix without getting greasy calorie-laden carryout (not that I don’t love that too!).
Thai Salad with Baked Tofu & Peanut Dressing
I know the ingredient list looks long, but a lot of the ingredients for the tofu marinade and dressing are the same, and some of the salad ingredients are optional.
For the salad:
1 head romaine lettuce (2 if small), or a bagged salad mix
1 large carrot, peeled & grated
3-4 inches cucumber, seeds scooped out, sliced into thin half-moons
about 1/4 cup chopped unsalted roasted peanuts
2 lime wedges
large handful cilantro leaves
optional ingredients: strips of sweet bell pepper; some very thinly sliced jalapeño (remove seeds & pith for less heat); some thinly sliced red onion; 1/2 an avocado, cubed or sliced
For the tofu:
1 1-lb block extra-firm tofu
all-natural peanut butter (I prefer smooth, but crunchy is fine if that’s all you have)
1 tbs freshly grated ginger
1 large clove garlic, finely minced or put through a garlic press
rice wine (mirin)
Thai or Vietnamese chili sauce (I like the kind with seeds, but you could use Sriracha)
fish sauce (Nam Pla)- (optional for vegans/vegetarians, but it does give that definitive Thai flavor)
For the dressing:
all-natural peanut butter
fish sauce (optional)
neutral oil such as canola
juice of 1/2 a lime
about 1 tsp grated ginger
pinch of brown sugar
chili sauce (optional)
Preheat the oven to 350. Slice the tofu into slices that are about 1 cm thick. Lay them out on a cutting board or other work surface and blot them firmly with paper towel, getting them as dry as possible. In a bowl, combine about 1 1/2 tbs peanut butter, 2 tbs soy sauce, 1 tsp fish sauce, the grated ginger, the garlic, 2 tbs rice wine, 1 tsp chili sauce and 1 tbs vegetable oil. Mix until the peanut butter has dissolved into the other ingredients. Taste and adjust if you feel it needs more heat, salt, sweetness or whatever. (I never actually measure anything out when I make this, so I’m giving approximations. Please adjust to your taste. It’s hard to mess it up unless you make it WAY too salty or spicy, so just add in small increments.) If the marinade seems too thin, you can add a little more peanut butter- this will help it cling to the tofu. Paint this mixture on one side of the tofu and place it in a glass baking dish sauce side down; then paint the other side with the remaining marinade. (the more in advance you do this, the more the tofu will absorb the flavors.) Bake for 30 minutes, turn the pieces, and bake for another 20-30 minutes or until tofu starts to get a more “chewy” consistency. (If it’s summer and you have the grill going, please feel free to grill the tofu instead of baking it!) Let the tofu cool slightly and cut the pieces into triangles before putting it on the salad. You’ll have more tofu than you need for 2 dinner salads, but you can make another batch of salad the following night like we did, or just munch on the tofu pieces as a snack the next day.
While the tofu is baking, chop and wash the lettuce, discarding any tough outer leaves. Grate the carrot, slice the cucumber, thinly slice the scallions on the diagonal, and prep any of the other veggies you might be using. In a bowl large enough to hold the lettuce, make the dressing. Again, I never measure anything, so I’ll give approximations but PLEASE use your taste buds and taste as you go, adding things a little at a time. I start with a large-ish dollop of peanut butter and mix in 1-2 tbs oil. When that’s incorporated, add a tbs or so of soy sauce, a few dashes of fish sauce, the lime juice, about 1 tbs rice vinegar, a pinch of brown sugar, and a little chili sauce if using. Mix well and taste. It should be a good balance of tart, sweet, spicy and salty. When you’re done making the dressing, just put your lettuce in the bowl and toss to coat. Plate the dressed lettuce and then arrange the other ingredients on top to serve.