Tofu and Panko
As I sit here working at my desk I’m thankful that I’m not at a grocery store today. Nor will I be at one tomorrow or Thursday. Miraculously, I already have all the ingredients I need for Thanksgiving and can avoid the grocery store insanity that will start building today and climax around 2pm on Thursday.
I know this because I worked at Whole Foods for several years selling wine and I was always shocked and amazed by how many people left their food shopping until the very last minute. Buying ingredients at 2pm on Thursday is a little late, no?
I’d like to say I have all my shopping done already because I’m incredibly organized but really it’s because I got lucky this year. We’re spending the holiday with a group of close friends in the neighborhood. All of them are great cooks so we’re in good hands and our only assignment is to show up with dessert and wine. As an exhausted mother of a 2-year old, to that I say THANK YOU.
I’m also happy not to be at a grocery store because lately, I’ve been suffering from Trader Joe’s fatigue. I come down with it several times a year and each time I seek a different cure. This summer, I signed up for a CSA box. No more plastic-wrapped, tasteless produce for me! But after a month of uninspiring boxes filled with excessive amounts of onions, radishes and unripe plums, I gave up. My pledge to hit a farmer’s market every single week hasn’t worked out either. Whole Foods is too far away and too expensive. Fresh and Easy is just kind of weird. So this time, I wasn’t sure where to turn.
Until, that is, I had a revelation after dropping O off at preschool last week. This time, I felt sure I’d found a cure.
I’d forgotten there was a Super King just a few miles from O’s pre-school. Usually, I never grocery shop during the 3 hours, 3 days a week that she’s in school. As soon as I kiss her cheek and say, “Mama loves you, see you soon” an hourglass tips in my head and it’s like every second is a little piece of gold slipping away. I spend the time working or doing something that’s impossible to do while she’s with me. But on this day I was desperate; we really had nothing to eat at home and there would be no time to shop later that afternoon.
For the first twenty minutes, I was in love with Super King. It was like the start of a new relationship. I was giddy with hope and wonder and the thrill of something new. Why didn’t I shop here all the time? I threw produce into my cart with wild abandon. Baby bananas, dandelion greens, Chinese long beans, rutabagas! Trader Joe’s produce aisle is so small and predictable that I can shop it with my eyes shut. I could send O into the store alone and she could shop it with her eyes shut. But not at Super King. I had choices! And they were cheap! This wasn’t like Whole Foods where you had to carefully weigh every produce item to make sure you weren’t spending $7.00 on a head of plain white cauliflower (which I did once, years ago, and still can’t quite get over).
I loved that the average age of shoppers in Super King was 75 and the way the older women aggressively manhandled the eggplants and tomatoes to make sure they were ripe. I loved how they spent ten minutes picking through the giant pile of Persian cucumbers to find the very best ones. I loved the deli case filled with dozens of cured meats and cheeses being sold as everyday food items, not precious, gourmet treats. I bought canned dolmas and Bulgarian pickles and a loaf of soft, delicious bread as tall as my kid. I also bought dish soap and sandwich bags. At last, one stop shopping!
But like many new relationships, the excitement quickly began to fade.
It all started with tofu. I needed some for my new “I don’t know what to cook for dinner so we’re having this” recipe. This recipe is good and it’s easy, which is why lately I’ve been making sure I always have tofu in the fridge. Surely there had to be tofu at Super King, but where?
Suddenly the aisles of Super King felt like a labyrinth closing in on me. Every aisle was clogged with people choosing from twenty different brands of garbanzo beans and ten types of brown rice. The line of people waiting at the deli was so long and thick you couldn’t cross it. I had to backtrack through the olive aisle and then back through produce where I got caught in a swarm of women still hovering over those damn cucumbers. “Just pick one!” I wanted to yell. “They all taste the same!”
I felt anxious and cranky and dehydrated. I had lots of random things in my shopping cart, none of which were going to come together into a meal. I had no idea how long I’d been in the store. An hour? Two? I thought about O at preschool and all the time I was wasting. A weird voice in my head suddenly started saying, “like sands through the hour glass, so are the days of our lives…” with that creepy Days of Our Lives soundtrack playing in the back ground. I had to get out of Super King. Fast.
When I got home I had just enough time to unpack my 13 plastic bags (no one shops with reusable bags at Super King) before heading out again to pick up O. I had wasted an entire morning of preschool time, but I had also eased my Trader Joe’s fatigue. Sure, TJ’s bread is stale and the frozen meals all taste the same but I can shop on auto-pilot and buy a week’s worth of groceries in twenty minutes. I know exactly where the tofu is and never have to decide which can of garbanzo beans is the very best because there’s only one. So I buy it, thankful to have one less decision to make in a day.
Apparently, I’m at a moment in my life when I don’t need excitement and variety. Super King, I love you but I also hate you. And right now, I just don’t have time for a complicated relationship like that.
Tofu with Panko
This is a super-quick, relatively healthy meal. I usually serve it over noodles or rice.
Time in the Kitchen: 20 minutes
1 pound firm or extra firm tofu, cut into small squares (the smaller the better, I think)
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil (optional)
1 1/2 cups panko breadcrumbs (Trader Joe’s sells it. Yay!)
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 scallions, chopped
Warm both oils in a pan over medium-high heat. Wait until it’s sizzling a little then add tofu. Be careful – it will probably splatter a some hot oil out of the pan.
Sprinkle the panko and salt evenly over the tofu. Don’t stir! Just let it all fry for 3 minutes, then you can mix well.
Turn the heat down to medium and then let the mixture cook for another 3 minutes without stirring. The panko should be turning golden. If the pan seems dry, drizzle in a little more olive oil.
Add the scallions. At this point you can also add shredded cabbage or snap peas if you like. Cook three more minutes, stirring a few times.
Add more salt or a drizzle of soy sauce to taste.