I cannot stop eating this salad. If it’s in the fridge and there’s a pair of chopsticks in the drawer, I just can’t help myself. Fortunately it’s made with whole-grain pasta (or gluten-free, if that’s how you roll) and packed with fresh, raw vegetables. Some crispy, surprisingly substantial pan-fried tofu spears elevates it from a side to a light meal. It has so much flavor and crunch going on, you might not even realize it’s vegan. So I guess there’s not too much I should feel guilty about, wolfing it down while standing in front of the fridge . . . .
This salad starts with wholesome al dente Hodgson Mill Whole Wheat Spaghetti or Hodgson Mill Gluten-Free Spaghetti combined with crunchy slivers of chopped cabbage and carrots, crisp chunks of snow pea pods, green onions, fresh cilantro, and sesame seeds. Toss it all up with a fresh, clean dressing made with toasty sesame oil, soy sauce, and tangy vinegar. Yum.
If you’ve never had properly pressed and pan-fried tofu, I think you’re in for a treat. I know I’m hooked. Real tofu diehards probably use “tofu presses” – I think they look complicated. And my kitchen is already jam-packed with gadgets. I found it easy enough to just soak up any liquid with two wrappings of paper towels and then to stack some of my hefty cookbooks on top of the wrapped tofu for 20 to 30 minutes or so.
I couldn’t believe how compressed it got by the end. And the texture is so nice when it’s pressed – not crumbly or squishy, but nice and firm. It’s easy to cut, and once it’s cooked, pressed tofu is really satisfying to bite into. (An entirely different animal, if you will. Ba-dum-ching.) A quick sizzle on both sides in a hot pan with a little nonstick spray, and they are ready to throw on top of the salad. (You can also mix them in, but you might want to chop them smaller than I did.)
If you are a carnivore who just doesn’t do tofu, I think a grilled or baked chicken breast, first marinated in soy sauce, red chili, and ginger, then sliced small, would be a great substitute.
I use Ume plum vinegar (sometimes called umeboshi plum vinegar) in this recipe, which adds a tart-sour-salty tang. Plain rice vinegar, which is widely available, works just fine, too, and tastes a little lighter. Either will give the dressing the nice fresh ZING that counters the warm, toasty sesame oil. You can find these vinegars in the Asian foods section of bigger supermarkets, or in an Asian market.
Feel free to play around with the ratio of veggies to noodles, as well as the balance of the dressing mix. Don’t be afraid to take a taste and add just a little more of one ingredient if you think it needs it. If it needs salt, add a little soy sauce. If it seems thin, maybe it needs a drop more oil. If it’s heavy, then it might need a little vinegar to lighten it up. Go slowly and add very small amounts until it’s perfect. If you overdo it, add more pasta or chop a few more veggies to soak it up. Just have fun figuring out the perfect taste for you! It’s one of my favorite parts of cooking, and practicing the process will make you a better cook.
Quick Sesame Veggie Noodles with Pan-Fried Tofu
Adapted from Tasty Kitchen’s Last-Minute Sesame Noodles
1 16-ounce package Hodgson Mill Whole Wheat Spaghetti or Gluten-Free Spaghetti
2 cups red cabbage, sliced thin (about ½ head, tightly packed)
1 ½ cup shredded or sliced carrots (about 3 whole carrots)
½ cup roughly chopped snow peas
Pan-fried tofu (see recipe below)
3 Tablespoons reduced sodium soy sauce (or tamari, for gluten free)
2 Tablespoons toasted sesame oil
1 Tablespoon canola oil (or any flavorless vegetable oil)
2 Tablespoons Ume plum vinegar (or rice vinegar)
½-1 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional, add to taste)
1 bunch green onions, sliced, divided
¼ cups fresh cilantro, chopped
¼ – ½ cup toasted sesame seeds (white, black, or both)
Green onions, sliced
Prepare tofu (see recipe below) by setting aside to press and drain. Wash and prepare all vegetables according to directions. Set aside. Whisk together the dressing ingredients in a large bowl. Set aside.
Cook pasta according to package instructions. Drain, but do not rinse. Return to pot and keep covered until needed.
Mix vegetables into dressing bowl, then add pasta, and gently stir to coat. Top with more green onions, cilantro, and sesame seeds to taste. Serve with pan-fried tofu—tofu can also be mixed in, especially if chopped small.
1 package tofu, drained and pressed
Nonstick cooking spray
Drain tofu of excess liquid. Wrap tofu in clean towel or paper towel and press gently to absorb surface liquid. If first towel is soaked, wrap with another dry towel and set on plate or cutting board with a lip (more liquid will be squeezed out from the block, so be aware).
Place waterproof plate or another cutting board on top, and then place a weight of a few pounds on top of this (cookbooks, books, canned food, a heavy bowl). Let sit 20 to 30 minutes until tofu is pressed thin and compact and doesn’t crumble easily when cut with a sharp knife. Cut into spears or bite-sized pieces. Sprinkle with a little sea salt if desired.
Heat a griddle over medium heat, and when hot, spay lightly with nonstick spray. Fry tofu in pan on one side until you see gold starting to creep up the edges from the nicely browned bottoms, about 3 minutes, then flip. Fry 2-3 more minutes on second side, then remove from pan. Serve hot, or let cool.
Notes: Makes 4-6 servings. Serve warm, or chill and serve cold. Will keep 1-2 days covered in fridge. Will start crispy, and become less crispy but more flavorful over time.