Over two decades of cooking experience, almost half of which have been entirely vegan, have taught me that while recipes can be great for inspiration, the magic of cooking really happens when I rely on my intuition and my senses of taste and smell. Sometimes, I have to lean more heavily on them than others, especially when I have a limited budget and the ingredients in my spice cabinet vastly outnumber the ingredients in my fridge and pantry.
A few years ago, I found myself faced with the task of making dinner for myself and 5 housemates. Living in a neighborhood with no decent grocery stores, it was the responsibility of the housemates who had cars to do the grocery shopping, and at the time, I was not among the driving social class. This inevitably meant that when my cooking night came around, I would have to make do with whatever I could find laying around the kitchen to cook.
It became a game; each week I would try to make something more and more outrageous, hoping that my housemates would get the message and take care of the grocery shopping before it was my turn to cook, so I could cook them some “real food”. But, week after week it backfired; no matter what I put together, they would tell me it was delicious and beg me to make it again. I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but it was as if I was hard-wired to be utterly unable to cook anything gross.
Well, after a few weeks of this, my cooking night rolled around again and, lo, the only ingredients at my disposal were: 1 block of tofu. 1 box of rotini noodles. 1 bottle of balsamic vinegar. 1 bottle of canola oil. We had plenty of spices, but as for actual ingredients, that was it.
I surveyed the spice rack. I poked the tofu and watched it wiggle sympathetically. (Tofu isn’t very bright.) Now what? I decided to just start…doing stuff, and see what happens.
I sliced most of the tofu into slabs. I sauteed them for a minute or two in the oil, then drowned the living hell out of them in balsamic vinegar. Okay, now what? A container of nutritional yeast caught my eye, and I used that to thicken the sauce. Hmmm. Spices! I added a big spoonful of curry powder, about half as much cinnamon, about half that amount of ginger, and a dash of cloves. I stood there for a few seconds shaking in the garlic powder, and then I finished it off with a dash of chili powder for a little extra kick. I then crumbled the rest of the tofu over it, with a flourish, and served it over the rotini.
“It’s tofu-cooked tofu-style with tofu on top!” I exclaimed triumphantly to my housemates, certain that this would be so completely disgusting that they would feel compelled to do the grocery shopping before my cooking night next time around.
No such luck! I watched them dig in and exclaim gleefully over how tasty it was, and once I took a few bites myself, I had to admit it was actually pretty freaking delicious.
I never did find a satisfactory way to resolve the shopping issue with those housemates, but I did learn that it is fun and rewarding to be able to cook food out of anything, and I got a hell of a lot more confident in my cooking skills from that experience. The story of this absurd concoction doesn’t end here, though, so stay tuned for tomorrow’s post about the evolution of the spicy balsamic monster meal!