We’ve only had one night of frost so far but that was enough to kill all our outdoor tía tô (perilla) plants. Luckily, we’ve already started winterizing our herbs garden. This year, we’re experimenting with hydroponically growing our herbs indoor with the hope that more godlike control over our plants’ world will keep us well supplied with fresh herbs until next spring. Growing hydroponically is a technique for growing plants without soil, with well defined nutrients solutions delivered directly to plant roots. Another advantage for us is the ability to heat up the nutrient solution coursing through the system and keep the plants warm in spite of the cold air temperature in the apartment. Lay the nutrient tubing underneath the other pots and even the non-hydroponic plants will have warm happy feet!
Playing with gấc (spiny bitter/sweet/Cochinchin gourd) leads to vegan bò nướng lá lốt (grilled beef wrapped in lolot leaves)
Our experiments with colorful bánh tét and xôi (steamed sticky rice) started my fascination with gấc (spiny bitter gourd, sweet gourd, cochinchin gourd). Lamp and I both loved xôi gấc for its nuttiness and unique flavor. Gấc was also reported to be very well endowed with healthful phytochemicals. I was curious why such a colorful fruit with very distinctive taste is relegated to only one dish – sticky rice. I wanted to explore gấc’s potential when paired with other ingredients in different preparations. So far, we found we really liked pairing gấc & tofu wrapped in lá lốt (Piper lolot) and other herbs.
Tofu misozuke hits many of the same spot as soft cheeses and can be enjoyed in many of the same ways. We originally had it straight up and paired with sake. It’s also great spread on baguettes and bánh đa (tapioca cracklings). On the other hand, the salt content and assertive taste of many crackers make that pairing a hit or miss affair.
Here’s another way of enjoying tofu-misozuke, inspired by how the Vietnamese sometimes eat mắm (fermented fish): spread tofu-misozuke on a slice of cucumber, whose coolness and crispiness provide an excellent contrast to the soft, intense tofu.
That’s a great snack all by itself, but we also like to add herbs to all things:
Seen above are húng cây (spearmint) and tía tô (shiso). Kinh giới (Vietnamese balm) and lemon balm (kinh giới Mỹ) also work great, especially with the next addition:
Finally, a piece of sardine (cá mòi) cooked and canned in olive oil is placed on top of herbs, tofu misozuke, and cucumber. This combination makes a great hors-d’oeuvre that is filled with textural and flavor contrast. The tofu-misozuke, herbs and sardines are each strongly assertive in their own ways yet blend together into a suprisingly well rounded whole. Just remember to pick a can of sardines that’s low in sodium; they vary wildly.
An aside: Canned sardines, by the way, are totally a part of Vietnamese cuisine after being imported by/for Frenchmen serving in Indochina. The luxurious aura of foreign food during the colonial era and the lean, iron-curtained post-war years helped, but canned sardines are also just plain good (see also: those red cans of Bretel butter, still cherished by those Vietnamese living in the land of fresh butter and innumerable cheeses). I still relish my occasional sardines and baguette breakfast, and the same combination are still offered by many bánh mì stands in Vietnam.
Updates on tofu-misozuke from CA and MI:
– Soft tofu is gone – all eaten 😀
– Medium firm tofu was soft and creamy (and almost gone; half of it should be in Lyon, France by now; another quarter was consumed at a birthday party this past weekend). It was still on the salty side but paired really nicely with a slice of cucumber.
– Firm tofu was creamy on the outside (I didn’t check the middle; it was probably still crumbly inside). It was still on the salty side.
– Firm tofu with lemongrass was still crumbly, which was perplexing. I wonder if the presence of lemongrass inhibited protease activities. I’ll let this run for a few more months to see. The flavor was more complex than just miso, but it was difficult to identify the additional flavor as that of lemongrass.
– Tofu with kelp: the tofu block wrapped in the better grade kelp was starting to become soft and creamy. The taste was amazing: kelp flavor was there in the tofu and blended very well with miso flavor. It was very delicious and mildly pungent. I can’t wait until this one ripens. The excitement was dampened a bit when I had to throw out the block of tofu wrapped in lesser grade kelp. It had all sorts of growth on both sides of the kelp 🙁 Oh well, at least there’s still one good block of tofu to continue this experiment.
– The attempt to control salt content by cutting marinade amount was a success. All arms of the experiment were creamy and rich. The original recipe was creamier than the rest, but only noticeable in a direct comparison. The others will catch up, I’m sure. Most importantly, the tofu with the least marinade was well on its way to being a full-fledged tofu-misozuke, with a much diminished salt presence.