To sit still in springtime seems impossible. I say this as a veteran sitter, an old hand (and equally old tush) at parking myself on a chair or bench. Every responsibility or deadline that keeps me indoors for more than an hour makes me wish this entire month were a video stream I could watch later, at my leisure.
Still, it can be hard to know quite how to celebrate this season. Emily Dickinson wisely wrote, “A little Madness in the Spring/Is wholesome even for the King.” But how, exactly, are we supposed to go mad? The compulsion to fling oneself into a patch of daffodils or yodel from the top of a cherry-blossom tree might feel irresistible, but I suspect the actual experience would not live up to the impulse, and could damage the lovely blossoms to boot.
Thankfully, we can turn to the kitchen, which welcomes this season like an antsy, desk-bound teen. And as soon as the refrigerator fills with asparagus, ramps, peas, strawberries, rhubarb and fresh ricotta, I am filled with an urge to find fresh new ways to prepare them.
A year ago, after our two older sons were sent home from college, I was abruptly forced to rouse myself out of many familiar cooking routines. Henry, our middle son, had turned vegetarian the previous fall, and by spring, George, the oldest, had joined him. While my rational brain wholeheartedly supported their decision, my emotional brain responded by turning sulky and peevish. (Not fair! Now I can’t make all those beloved family suppers I’ve perfected over the years.)
But we all must grow up eventually, both inside and out. Realizing I was actually lucky to have to rethink the cooking ruts I’d fallen into over those selfsame years, I started exploring.
Not surprisingly, my meanderings often brought me face to face with tofu. I’ve never had an aversion to tofu, even plain and raw; I find its curious, slightly bitter flavor intriguing, and its texture kind of playful. I’ve also wondered why so many people find tofu weird but think mozzarella is perfectly normal when they’re basically the same thing, just made from different milks. Indeed, some food historians believe that tofu was invented when Mongolian yak herders encountered Chinese soybean farmers more than 2,000 years ago, and the former shared the secrets of turning milk into curds with the latter.
I first made the progenitor to this dish last spring, as part of my initial round of vegetarian experiments, and it was received just as enthusiastically by the meat-eaters. When I revisited it just a few weeks ago, Dosi (still an omnivore — for now) said: “You should write your next column about this.”
I replied that I didn’t think I’d developed it sufficiently yet. Sure, yes, parts of it were great (the dressing), but others (the marinade) still needed time to evolve.
Then I woke up last Monday and sat down and wrote this column. Suddenly it occurred to me that time was no longer in its winter holding pattern and that the evolution of this recipe had to be accelerated, pronto. So I got to work and fixed it, photographed it and sent it off. After all, I’ve got some yodeling to do.
Miso Tofu with Grilled Asparagus
- 1 15.5-ounce package extra firm tofu
- ¼ cup shiromiso (white miso paste)
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon mirin
- 1 tablespoon maple syrup or brown sugar
- 2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
- 1 tablespoon tamari or soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon vegetable oil, plus more for grilling
- ½ pound asparagus, woody ends snapped off
- Sesame seeds to garnish, optional
- Cooked white rice, for serving
Heat oven to 375 degrees. Cut the tofu into 1-inch slabs. Spread a clean kitchen towel on a rack, arrange the tofu on the towel, fold towel over tofu, and set a cast-iron skillet on top to press out excess water.
Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk together the miso, lemon, mirin, maple syrup, and sesame oil until smooth. Remove and set aside ¼ cup (about half the total) to use as dressing. To the remaining miso mixture, add the tamari and vegetable oil; whisk again. This portion will be the marinade.
Cut the tofu into roughly 1-inch cubes, and toss in the tamari-miso marinade. Set aside for at least 15 minutes, and up to 1 hour (the longer it sits, the more flavor the tofu will absorb).
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, and brush with vegetable oil. Remove tofu from marinade and arrange on baking sheet, leaving space between the pieces (this helps tofu dry out and crisp while baking). Transfer to oven and bake 15 to 18 minutes, until brown on bottom. Flip the pieces over, and return to the oven for 5 minutes more.
While the tofu is baking, heat a grill pan or skillet over medium-high. Toss the asparagus with the remaining vegetable oil and salt, and grill or fry until black in places, and beginning to soften, 2 to 4 minutes, depending on the thickness of the stalks. (Alternatively, you can steam or roast the asparagus).
Serve the asparagus and tofu over rice, with reserved dressing on top and a sprinkling of sesame seeds, if desired.