Sometimes, Ugly Food Can Still Taste Good

The Scarlet Plate … like the scarlet letter but for food that just didn’t do the right thing.

Since I had to run errands today, I thought I might take a day off from cooking. But when I was putting some fresh produce in the fridge, I was shocked to find more ingredients that need to be used. You’d think I’d have cleaned out everything by now but nooooooo. I ran across things that got pushed to the back of the crisper OR that migrated to parts unknown only to be discovered on the threshold of expiration. I SERIOUSLY over-bought for the Christmas and New Year’s and, yes, some of this stuff is really THAT old! Thankfully, between an extra “garage” refrigerator that doesn’t get opened and closed much, as well as an overabundance of Lock & Lock containers, I lose far less to the trash than I might otherwise. At least, that’s what I tell myself.

Today’s find … broccoli. Still looks good, still tastes good. It’s a miracle! I also found a block of tofu that’s ready to expire. Those things made me think of long ago and far away when a friend of mine introduced me to some amazing vegetarian recipes. Back in the late 80s and early 90s Broccoli Tofu Casserole was one of my favorites.

Unfortunately, no one remembers that recipe. I remember the flavors but have no idea about the quantities of ingredients or the cook times. I’ve searched the internet far and wide and can’t find any recipe that ticks all the boxes. It’s hard to think that a dish that was so memorable to me didn’t stand the test of time and turn up on someone’s website. So I have no choice but to throw caution to the wind, try to rely on my recollection and experience, and just take my chances that I can pull together something edible from these sad, forgotten foods.

One of the advantages of being just an OK home cook is that I’ve got nothing to lose by trying. I don’t have much of an ego in the kitchen so reputation and standing aren’t considerations. When I was younger, I admit that I was sometimes reluctant to cook anything that wasn’t a guarantee. Those days are long gone. What’s the worst that can happen, right?

So I’m flying by the seat of my pants today. Working without a net (i.e., a recipe). Armed with a general idea about ingredients and techniques, I’m going to face the uncertainty and just go for it. The only thing I know for sure is that one way or another, I’m bound to learn something.

Here goes nuthin’ …

Ingredients

Olive oil, milk (dairy or non), brown rice, tofu, broccoli, onion, garlic, Worchestershire sauce, cornstarch, salt, pepper, paprika, onion powder, & additional salt/pepper.

The casserole that I made with my friend was pretty straightforward. Basically just throw everything into a baking dish, add the liquid, cover and bake. Today, I’m going to add a couple of steps to that to give it a boost.

Drain the tofu and slice in half lengthwise.
Dice 1/2 at a time into cubes.
I like the bigger cubes but you can go smaller if you prefer.
Combine the cornstarch, paprika, onion powder, salt, and pepper.
Sprinkle over the tofu cubes, toss gently to coat.
Put the cubes onto a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes at 400.
After 15 minutes, remove from the oven, turn them over, and bake for another 15 minutes.

If you haven’t already done it, while the tofu is baking you can prep the rest of the ingredients.

Break the broccoli up into florets.
Rinse the rice.
Mince the garlic.
Dice the onions. This takes about 2 seconds in the Genius Dicer. I LOVE this thing!
By this time the tofu should be ready to come out of the oven.
Heat a pan, add 2 tbsp. olive oil and saute’ the onions and garlic til tender.
Add the broccoli florets, salt and pepper.
Cook about 3-4 minutes until the broccoli is bright green.
Add the rice to a 3 qt. baking dish.
Spoon the broccoli, onions, and garlic over the rice.

Up to this point, everything was going pretty well. But this is where I needed the recipe. Even though I know more about food science than I used to, I made a pretty catastrophic mistake which I forgot to photograph because I panicked. But I’ll add a section about “what went wrong” at the end, just in case anyone actually wants to try this at home.

Add the tofu and pour the milk (heated) over the top.
Drizzle with the Worchestershire sauce.
Cover and bake for 45 minutes at 350. Then remove the lid and top with shredded cheese or bread crumbs if desired. Then bake another 15-20 minutes.

So there you have it. There is no picture of the finished dish still in the baker because it turned out really super ugly (see photo at the top of the page). No curb appeal (or plate appeal) whatsoever.

Here’s what went right …

Right #1: The flavor was pretty close.

Right #2: Cutting the tofu into large cubes was definitely the thing to do because it held up to the size of the broccoli florets.

Right #3: Seasoning the tofu ahead of putting it into the baker was definitely a good idea, and baking it separately ahead of time helped the tofu add some texture to the dish. It’s not something we did back in the day, and the tofu was always pretty mushy. But doing it this way made for a better dish.

And here’s where the train went off the tracks …

What went wrong …

WRONG #1: I should have known that milk and Worchestershire sauce would NOT mix. The recipe back in the day called for a lot of Worchestershire. That was the main flavor bomb for the whole dish and it was delicious. HOWEVER, nut milks weren’t in the mainstream then and I THINK I remember that the recipe called for nonfat milk. I used 2% today because (big surprise) … it was due to expire shortly and I needed to use it up. And what do we get, boys and girls, when we add acid to hot milk? That’s right!

We get CURDS!

When I made this recipe years ago I remember that I used to combine the Worchestershire and the milk and the salt and pepper and cayenne (which I forgot about until right now). Just dump it all in one vessel, mix it all together, and pour it into the dish. That way, all of the flavors were distributed evenly throughout. And there were no curds.

Back then, I had no knowledge of kitchen science so I didn’t know that curds were even a consideration. It just so happened we always drank nonfat milk so the ingredient on hand was always the right one. But in my quest to bring my skills up from just “OK,” I have learned how to make ricotta and farmer’s cheese. Today, that knowledge just didn’t immediately come to me as I wasn’t in a cheese-making context. Actually, I WAS in a cheese-making context. I just didn’t know it! And I imagine that the original recipe maintained a lower ratio of acid to milk so even the small curds that can form in skim milk wouldn’t have shown up.

So I had to start over with the milk and at that point, I really should have moved over to nut milk (which was probably WRONG #2) but I thought I could get away with just pouring a fresh batch of heated milk over the dish and drizzling the Worchestershire. I kinda didn’t. Which is one reason that it’s a really ugly dish.

Wrong #3: I used too much rice. I did look up some tips on how to bake brown rice in the oven, because I remember the original recipe called for uncooked rice. But looking back, I’m pretty sure that the original recipe just called for plain old white rice so that would be …

Wrong #4: I second-guessed myself and used 2 cups of brown rice instead of 1 1/2 cups. I just used too much brown rice and …

Wrong #5: The rice needed to cook longer. Rather than bake it any longer (because the broccoli was looking pretty sad), I took it out of the oven and left it in the dish, covered, thinking that the residual heat would help the rice.

Wrong #6: I sprinkled some grated cheese over the top … to try to make it look better. It didn’t. And it didn’t add much to the flavor. If I was going to do it, I should have used better, sharper cheddar cheese (or a Gruyere) OR I should have used pulverized cashews with nutritional yeast because that would have given it a nice topping, a cheesy goodness AND a better texture without making it gummy.

The original recipe did call for cheese on top. Possibly to help hold everything together, but I’m not sure.

So there you have it. In case anyone wants to try this, here’s the recipe, revised to (hopefully) take care of today’s mistakes:

Broccoli Tofu Casserole

Part 1

  • 1 block extra-firm tofu, cubed
  • olive oil cooking spray (or olive oil in an EVO sprayer)
  • 2 Tbsp. cornstarch
  • 1/2 tsp. paprika
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. onion powder

Preheat oven to 400. Line a baking sheet with parchment.

Drain excess moisture from the tofu. Combine seasonings with cornstarch and toss tofu cubes in the mixture. Spread the cubes on the baking sheet, spray lightly with oil and bake for 15 minutes. Remove from oven, turn the cubes over, spray lightly with oil and bake another 15 minutes.

Part 2

Reduce oven temperature to 350.

  • 2 Tbsp. oil
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 4 c. broccoli florets
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. pepper
  • 1/4 tsp. cayenne
  • 1 1/2 c. brown rice
  • 1 3/4 c. almond milk, heated
  • 3 Tbsp. Worchestershire sauce

Add oil to hot pan on stove, and saute onion and garlic until tender. Add broccoli, salt and pepper, and saute for 3-4 minutes until broccoli is bright green.

Rinse rice and drain well. Put rice into a 3 qt. baking dish. Spoon broccoli mixture on top. Add tofu on top.

Combine milk with Worchestershire, salt, pepper, and cayenne and stir well. Pour over rice, broccoli, and tofu.

Cover and bake for 45-50 minutes. Then remove cover, add topping of choice (seasoned bread crumbs, grated cheese, nut/nutritional yeast “cheesy topping”) and bake another 15 minutes til rice is tender.

While my effort today didn’t turn out as planned, it still tastes pretty good. Very close to the original recipe but I think the omission of the cayenne made a big difference. I knew the dish was missing something but didn’t remember until I started writing this up. And I think that the Worchestershire sauce would work much better with an almond or cashew milk because you’d get the flavor and not have to worry about the curds. That would, however, mean that there was nothing (not even tiny curds from nonfat milk) to hold everything together so that’s something to think about. A binder of some kind might be needed … not sure flax would do it. If I think of something, and I have a chance to test it out, I’ll let you know!

As with some of my other recipes, this is vegetarian. Given the curd situation, it’s better to use nut milk of some kind but remember if you use soy milk, soy milk still makes curds. You’ve been warned!

Also, like some of my other recipes, converting this to a vegan recipe is super simple – nut milk instead of dairy, leave out the cheese and use the cashew/nutritional yeast suggestion if you want something to sprinkle on top.

Good luck! I’ll keep you posted if I discover how to make additional improvements over time.

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