Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Summer Salad for the Grill Weary

Summer cuisine in America seems to be synonymous with grilling. Bon apetit, Gourmet, the Food Network are all in the throes of American BBQ fever, and I am sick of it. Now, I do enjoy a good grilled burger or kabob as well as the next guy. But frankly, grilling out is a pain in the ass. Perhaps if I had a quick-light, shiny new, top-'o-the-line grill, I would feel differently. Perhaps when it really starts feeling like summer around here, and I don't want to add a single degree of heat to my house by turning on even a small electric burner, then I'll be ready.

For now, I want to talk about the real, unsung hero of cookout cuisine, the salad. Not a finicky, wilty green salad. Not the tired old stand-by of mayo drenched coleslaw. Not the potato salad with a dull yellow sheen of prepared mustard (although these kitschy dishes do have strong nostalgic power). I want to talk about the type of salad that can be made a day ahead, gets better in fact by mellowing overnight, and tastes great whether it came straight from the fridge or sat on a picnic table for a few hours. This is the type of salad that may take a little bit of prep time, but it's worth it in the end. Not only because it offers up great variety in the midst of requisite grilled meat, but because the leftovers are fabulous too.

This week, I created Pesto Pasta Salad with Tofu. I made it on my day off, and then I ate it all week for my frumpy teacher lunches. It kept wonderfully in my lunch box, and it made an entire balanced meal all on its own, and in the early morning rush to get out the door it was a cinch to toss in a Tupperware container. This will not be the last of my summer salad experiments.

Someone recently mentioned in passing that they hate tofu because of its flavorless, blah texture. I'd bet that person has had a really poorly prepared piece of tofu. Like so many foods people don't like, it's not the food itself, but the way it's cooked. The secret to good tofu is to parboil it if you want an extremely firm texture. Parboiling will make even extra firm tofu firmer, causing it to release its extra liquid, and it's a lot quicker than weighting and draining it. The second secret is to use aggressive seasons which tofu will suck up with the vigor of a bone dry sponge. Here I used roasted roasted garlic, pesto, kalamata olives, red wine vinegar, and fresh basil to create assertive, bold flavors, that mellowed nicely with the gentleness of the tofu and the sweetness of the asparagus and red bell pepper.

Pesto Pasta Salad with Tofu

14oz firm, water packed tofu, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1/2 lbs. pasta (small shapes, I used shells)
1 lbs. asparagus
12 cloves garlic, peeled, and slivered
2 t. olive oil
1 t. dried oregano
1/2 cup prepared pesto
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 large red bell pepper
1/4 cup kalamata olives, finely diced
1 cup grape tomatoes, halved
1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, finely torn
salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste
Asiago cheese, grated

Preheat oven to 400. Bring two pots of salted water to boil. Add tofu to one pot and boil for 10 minutes. Drain and set aside. Meanwhile, add pasta to other pot, and cook until al dente. Drain, rinse, and set aside. While the pasta cooks, trim asparagus of tough bottoms and cut into 1 inch pieces. Toss asparagus, olive oil, oregano, and garlic slivers together in baking dish. Roast for 10 minutes, or until tender, stirring once, halfway through cooking time. Garlic will become golden brown--don't be alarmed. Set asparagus and garlic aside.

In large serving bowl, wisk together pesto and vinegar. Toss pesto vinegar mixture together with remaining ingredients. Add salt and pepper to taste, and top with freshly grated Asiago cheese.


Anonymous said...

This sounds very good but I don't know if I can get good tofu around here in Loup City can I? I will have to try this sometime. You always do such amazing things with tofu! Mom

Sarah said...

Although some grocery stores won't carry water-packed tofu if there's not enough demand for it, you should still be able to make this will firm, shelf-stable tofu. The texture won't be quite as nice, but it will taste the same and have the same nutritional benefits.