Monday, February 20, 2006

Cheesecake and Biscotti

Having spent many formative hours in New Jersey diners, gazing at the rotating cake displays, perusing the endless offerings of the laminated menus (despite the fact that anyone knows the only things to get at a diner are breakfast, burgers, and Greek salad) and drinking endless cups of washy coffee, I'll always have a fondness for cheesecake, especially the kind with enormous aspic-gelled strawberries or goopy cherries on top. Eating cheesecake at diners is what you do in Jersey in high school when your best friend has a car and you're too young to go to bars.

And hot coffee and last night's cheesecake eaten cold straight from the fridge is still the best breakfast ever.

All this to say that cheesecake is diner or suburban-bakery food to me--I don't know that I've ever baked one. But now that my phone number is just two reversed numbers away from Junior's, the mythical cheesecake place on Flatbush, I get a lot of calls from acolytes seeking cheesecake. Perhaps I could make my fortune keeping them on the line long enough to order a cheesecake from me instead of the production line in Fort Greene. It's a thought...would you buy a cheesecake from the Pie Queen?

Also in very local news, I'll be subletting my apartment this June, when I go off to Arkansas to cook and write. So if you know a swell, responsible, NONSMOKING person who will be kind to my stuff and my neighbors for a month, let me know.

What I have been making this week: not cheesecake, but chocolate biscotti. The first round was baked for last week's pre-snow dinner party, to accompany the ginger-poached pears made in lieu of Nora Ephron's elusive caramelized baked pears. These were quite tasty, peeled and poached in a syrup of sweet white wine, water, sugar, lemon, cloves, and candied ginger, with the syrup strained and cooked down and then ladled over the cooling pears so it formed a softish gingery jelly. For the biscotti, I used the delectable-sounding and rich recipe from the Missouri baker/sheepherder who posts over at Farmgirl Fare, adding toasted hazelnuts and a bit of espresso powder. They were nice, but not as chocolate-y as the recipe (which calls for 4 ounces of bittersweet chocolate plus 1/2 cup of cocoa powder) might lead you to believe. And they crumbled mightily during the cutting and rebaking process, although this may have been the fault of my blast-furnace oven.

Up next: the chocolate-pistachio version in December's Food & Wine. Ahhh--these are tasty, even though they were, if possible, even more insanely crumbly. But the crumbly bits, as everyone knows, contain no calories, and so may be eaten with abandon. Note that the method is really strange, but works. You may need to add a teaspoon or two of water to make the dough hold together enough to press into logs. The bright-green pistachios look really sci-fi and cool against the dark cookies.

Chocolate Pistachio Biscotti

Whisk together:
2 cups flour
3/4 cup dutched cocoa (such as Droste)
1/2 tsp baking soda
pinch of salt

Using a hand-held or stand up mixer, beat in 3 eggs to make a crumbly dough. In a separate bowl, cream:

1 1/4 cups brown sugar, packed
4 tablespoons soft butter
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 tsp almond extract
1 tablespoon strong coffee or espresso (fine to use espresso powder and water)

Now scrape butter mixture into flour-and-egg dough, and mix til you get a soft, crumbly dough. Stir in 1 cup chopped pistachios and 1 cup chocolate chips. Add a few drops of water if necessary. Form into logs about 2 inches wide and 3/4 inch high. Bake at 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes, until tops are set and springy when pressed. Let cool on racks for an hour or so. Slice each log into skinny slices and place on cut sides on baking sheets. Bake for another 30 minutes (or until firm and crunchy) at 200 degrees, flipping cookies over halfway through. Let cool and store in airtight container.

Today's obsession: knitting the "kitty-ears" hat from Debbie Stoller's book Stitch and Bitch. So far, I've done everything BUT the kitty ears, and have a very cute pink-and-white, vaguely Heidi-looking hat, with earflaps and long cords hanging down off the flaps, ending in puffy little pom poms. The question now: do I add the kitty ears to the top? 1. YES, so witty! so cute! 2. NO, you will look insane. your thoughts?

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Black Hearts

I have it all planned: first
violent love, then
-Louise Gluck, “Heart’s Desire” from Meadowlands

Hearts and flowers, fluff and frills--who needs 'em? One of the best Valentine's Day parties I know took the St. Valentine's Day Massacre as its theme, and Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" as its black-hearted anthem (hey, it was the late 80s. We were in college, a passle of black-sweatered, clove-smoking artistes finding refuge from our sweatshirted preppy brethren in the ratty mock-tudor environs of Terrace Club. Suicidal Brit pop was required). The dining room was decorated with dozens of shiny red cupids hanging from tiny nooses. Suggested dress was black and red, and all the food was, more or less, black and red. Tiny beet hearts decorated dark green salads; spicy shrimp fra diavolo nestled into licorice-shiny ink-black pasta. Dessert was dark chocolate cake that, when prodded with a fork, released a gush of garnet raspberries --bleeding heart cake! It was bitter, bitter fun.

In the same vein, as it were, is Susie Bright's Eternal Cherry Devotion Pie recipe. “Don’t make this pie if you’re just toying with someone—you’ll be sorry. Don’t make this pie for your lover if you don’t want him or her by your side forever, then moaning at your grave when you’re gone. This is serious stuff.” Involving cognac and fresh black Bing cherries, her recipe is a killer one, and well worth making, even if frozen cherries are all that's available at this time of the year. Since Susie's a pal, I'm going to hold out and not reprint her recipe; trust me, it's well worth the price of her book Mommy’s Little Girl: On Sex, Motherhood, Porn, and Cherry Pie. What I can give you is a different recipe, one you can call Black Heart Tart. It began with an elusive memory of an 17th-century combination dubbed "black tart stuff"* (finally tracked down to one of the last entries in Elizabeth David's collection of essays An Omelette and a Glass of Wine), and fleshed out with a couple of more modern recipes, including the harvest tart from the original Silver Palate cookbook and the winter fruit tart from the wonderful Bay Wolf Cookbook. But mostly I just made it up in the kitchen of someone who made my heart leap on a snowy afternoon years ago.

Thanks to the prunes, raisins, and red wine, the filling really is black, which is cool by itself. But even better is how making it perfumes the house with a deep medieval scent of winter at bay—a whiff of whisky, a breath of ginger and cinnamon, a sparkle of fresh tangerine. And since it's made with dried fruits and citrus, both of which are available in abundance in the wintertime, you don't have to run around buying dopey out-of-season fruit, like those oversized cotton-ball strawberries dipped in squiggles of chocolate wax.

There’s a certain kind of alchemy about steeping the dried fruits in the red wine and spices. As they’re slowly swelling up soft and plump, soaking up the warm wine, the object of your affections can wander in and out of the kitchen, peering over your shoulder as you raid the whisky stash and scent your hands with the peel of a fresh tangerine.

A sweet tart dough, richer and more tender than regular pie crust, works best here. To make it, mix together two and a half cups of flour, a quarter cup sugar, and a half-teaspoon salt. Cut in 12 tablespoons (one and a half sticks, or 6 ounces) of cold butter. Then, instead of the usual ice water, moisten the flour with two egg yolks, one teaspoon vanilla, and three to four teaspoons of water, as needed. Press into a round, wrap in plastic or slide into a zip-lock bag, and chill for several hours while the filling is cooking and cooling.

Black Heart Tart

1 large apple, peeled and diced
1 cup each dried apricots and prunes, chopped
1/2 cup raisins
2-3 TB candied orange peel
1 cup red wine
1/4 cup whisky
1/8 tsp each ground cinnamon and ginger
Big pinch of freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup each brown sugar and white sugar, or to taste
Zest and juice of 1 tangerine
1/2 cup toasted walnuts, chopped

Dough for two-crust tart (see above)

In a heavy-bottomed pot, mix all filling ingredients except for the walnuts. Warm over low heat for 15 minutes. Turn off heat and let fruit absorb the rest of the liquid for an hour or so. Add chopped walnuts. Divide the tart dough into two rounds and roll out. Line a tart pan with dough and spoon in filling. Cut remaining dough into strips. Lay strips in a criss-cross pattern to cover most of the filling. As Susie Bright writes, “Yes, you can be crafty and do it so that it is a perfect basket weave. But who cares. It looks totally adorable no matter how you lay the strips down and it’s actually more personal just to make it up yourself.” Chill in the fridge for an hour or so, then bake in a preheated oven at 375 degrees until crust in golden brown and filling is bubbling. Cool and serve with whipped cream.

Songs for Chocolate

1. Passionate Kisses, Lucinda Williams
2. My Doorbell, White Stripes
3. Just like Heaven, The Cure
4. You Ain't Goin' Nowhere, Bob Dylan
5. Brown-Eyed Girl, Van Morrison
6. Langue d'Amour, Laurie Anderson
7. Romeo and Juliet, Sergei Prokofiev

*David's recipe, she writes, "is adapted from a dish evidently popular three hundred years ago in the days of the Stuarts, when a puree of dried prunes, raisins and currants cooked in wine was used as a filling for tarts and pies...It is rich and dark without the cloying and heavy qualities of mincemeat. It has also a certain originality which provides a small surprise at the end of the meal." In her recipe, a half pound of prunes are baked in 1/4 pint of red wine or port and water to cover, in a covered earthenware dish at 300F for 2 to 3 hours, until the fruit is swollen and very soft. During the final hour of cooking, 4 ounces of raisins and 2 ounces of currants are covered with water in a separate dish, covered and baked the same way. Then the prunes are sieved, the raisins are drained and sieved, and the purees are mixed. She suggests serving it well chilled in glasses with a layer of thin pouring cream floated on top and shortbread or ladyfingers alongside.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Snow and Waffles

Wheee! Snow! Woke up Sunday morning to two good things--a call from K. and a marshmallow landscape pillowed high and satin-white. It being 6 AM, I wasn't quite completely awake, but as I lay in bed, I was sure I could hear...thunder?? And see flashes of lightning--in a snowstorm? Well, yes. It's a quirky phenomenon known as thundersnow (which sounds like a 7-year-old's idea of a heavy-metal band name). Unlikely, but it does happen, this time while I was congratulating K. on getting out the circus tents and into her very own plywood hut. Whatever you can build out of scrap lumber and fit into your hut, you can have--an aviary! Bookshelves! An opera house!

Well, back to the snow. After I'd made coffee and fallen back asleep for a while, Jane called from down the street with another good wake-up idea: waffles! This is one of the joys of city living--breakfast with your neighbors, with no need for driving. So I put on my boots and --wearing no less than three hand-knitted garments (a blue-and-white striped hat, a hot-pink scarf, and the years-in-the-making lumpy green sweater)--tromped through the knee-deep snow for Jane's swell homemade waffles scented with vanilla and cardamom. And Irish coffee, because when it's snowing like crazy outside and you only have heavy cream in the house, why not whip it up, get out the sugar and whiskey, and start the day right?

This was followed by hot mulled cider and a little dance down the snowy, windy streets, silent but for the gentle scrape of snow shovels on pavement. And the whine of a snow blower, and the truly annoying screech of a dude riding a red-white-and-blue ATV down Sackett Street... SUVs turned into cliffs; brownstone stairways turned into snowboard runs. And the rest of the afternoon was tea on B.'s couch, with the kitties curled up in front of the fireplace and the speed-skaters in their Power Ranger outfits on TV.

Then home to leftover beef stew (the great joy of a dinner party--a clean house, and leftovers!), and banana pancakes this sunny, snowy morning, adapting from Nigella's Feast cookbook. Much as I love Nigella's writing, I've found her recipes to be singularly untrustworthy. But these pancakes--fluffy, moist, and very light, with a gentle banana flavor--do live up to her promises. As she says, "Whenever I'm trying to be Nice Mummy, instead of normal Bad-Tempered Impatient Mummy, I make pancakes." A good way to use up that solitary blackening banana at the bottom of the fruit bowl, and tossing everything into the blender means almost no clean-up afterwards. Just be sure that the bottom of your blender is screwed on very tight, so you don't get batter leaking all over the place. And if you're at the farmer's market, and someone's selling grade-B maple syrup, buy a bottle and give them a kiss. Grade B is thicker and darker than the usual dark-amber Grade A, with a rich mapley flavor. Just a few swirls will make your pancakes taste like wintertime in Vermont.

Nice Mummy's Banana Pancakes

1 very ripe banana
1 cup buttermilk
1 egg
1 tablespoon vegetable oil or melted butter
1 cup flour--I like a half-and-half mix of whole wheat and buckwheat
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp sugar (optional)
sprinkle of cinnamon or 1/2 tsp vanilla
a small handful of chopped toasted pecans (optional)

Throw banana, buttermilk, egg, and oil in blender, and buzz until mixed. Add dry ingredients, and buzz until just blended. Cook on a lightly greased griddle, and serve with butter and maple syrup.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Narcisse and Nora

Go out right now and get the anniversary double issue of the New Yorker, the one with the classic Eustace Tilly cover. There are lots of goodies inside--Peter Hessler on the life of a Beijing alleyway, Adam Gopnik on the art of the Shakers, Susan Orlean on pigeon racing (possibly the world's most boring sport, though, and even Orlean can't pep it up much), Joan Acocella on the evolution of Mary Magdalene, even a long R. Crumb cartoon. (The fiction slot, alas, goes to yet another squashed-flat Murakami story, although this one does feature an eleventh-hour appearance by a talking monkey, always a plus.)

But the main reason to get this week's issue is Nora Ephron's extremely entertaining personal essay about her life in cookbooks, and the interior dialogues she's had over the years with their authors. Forget the syrupy screenplays; before Ephron started churning out tripe like You've Got Mail, she was a sharp, witty writer and gimlet-eyed observer of 1970s social mores. Any would-be Tom Wolfes should read Crazy Salad, her pungent, snappy book of essays, circa 1976, on everything from Watergate and the Pillsbury Bake-Off to feminine hygiene sprays and Linda Lovelace, which shows up something like David Foster Wallace's Consider the Lobster for the big ball of tangled knitting it is. (But make sure to track down the original 1976 edition, not the recently reissued version, which omits several of the best essays.)

Her piece has way too many good lines to quote, but I can't resist this: "This was right around the time arugula was discovered, which was followed by endive, which was followed by radicchio, which was followed by frisee, which was followed by the three Ms--mesclun, mache, and microgreens--and that, in a nutshell, is the history of the past 40 years from the point of view of lettuce."

I'm a sucker for snappy prose, as you may have noticed, and I'm also easily swayed when people with whom I have a mental (or actual) friendship tell me--and anyone else reading them--that this book, this recipe, is the best ever. The other night, I was reading Julie Powell's book Julie and Julia and she described making Paul Prudhomme's Spiced Pecan Cake for a famous actor on whom she had a huge, if completely abstract, crush.

Well, the way she wrote about that cake, I wanted to get up and make it right at that very moment, no matter that it was 1 AM and I had neither butter nor pecans, nor any need for a three-layer pecan cake with a frosting that required three sticks of margarine and 8 egg yolks. Ephron does the same thing with a casual mention of a dessert of caramelized baked pears with cream, taken from a little 1960s book called The Flavour of France by Narcisse Chamberlain. She doesn't say much about them, only that they were great and she made them for years. And yet--damn. I want me some of them pears! Since google has been no help in tracking down the recipe, I forsee a trip up to Kitchen Arts and Letters--the best time-waster I know, always in the guise of getting useful information. But two pals are coming over for dinner on Saturday, and I've already thought out a menu of beef bourguignon, green salad, and something with pears for dessert. What could be better than caramelized pears a la Narcisse et Nora?

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Indian Pizza, with grits!

In recounting my recent San Fran romp, I forgot to mention the truly fabulous, sui generis dinner I had at Jen's house. Yes, you Bernal/Mission dwellers know what I'm talking about: Indian pizza from Zante's, delivered. Although Zante's usually has two speeds--slow and stop--we got our veggie pizza in a trice, the scent of cumin and garlic and cilantro wafting down the hallway like an invitation to the best party ever, about to happen right there in our mouths.

But it did raise a years-long puzzlement: why doesn't anyone else make Indian pizza? There are a few copycat places in SF, but in New York, the birthplace of the next new thing, zip. Much as I love regular pizza, putting Indian food on it--spinach, eggplant, spicy cauliflower, lots of cilantro, cumin, garlic and ginger, plus cheese--makes it about million times better. It's even awesome cold the next day, eaten out of hand straight from the fridge. And I'd love, love some right now. I could call and get takeout from a dozen place right this minute, but the one thing I'm craving is, alas, 3000 miles away. Which is, nevertheless, much closer than K., who is on the other side of the planet, sleeping on a cot but getting good cheese grits every morning, at least.

And speaking of cheese grits, the Park Avenue cooking class at Diane's convened again last night, with a menu of pan-roasted wild quail (shot and field-dressed in Georgia), baked cheese grits, and butter beans with Asian pears, with almond trifle (Bread Alone's splendid almond pound cake, sprinkled with dark rum, dabbed with raspberry jam, and layered with creme anglaise and toasted almond slices) for dessert. All delicious, but the grits were the star, made with lovely coarse stone-ground grits from South Carolina, baked with Cabot cheddar, eggs, garlic, butter, paprika and Tabasco. If you've made this right, the fat from the cheese and butter will ooze out around the edges so that the grits fry themselves into golden crispness on the outside and creamy goodness inside. Mmmm. This is the dish served at every bride's pre-wedding brunch in South Carolina, according to Diane, alongside shrimp cocktail, crab cakes, country ham, and biscuits. I told Diane about K's discovery of the affinity of smoked paprika and cheese grits, and she promised to try it next time.

Clearly, my affinity for grits--not very common in a Jew from Jersey, although my great-grandfather was born in Charleston--has been nurtured by my similar affinity for Southern girls, and butch ones to boot (or in boots, more like.) Jaime from Tulsa was the first to show me how to make her grandmother's cheese grits. Yankee that I am, I came armed with a block of good cheddar. She recoiled, just a little, then apologized. "It's just that you're really supposed to use Velveeta." She also swore that the longer they were in the oven, frying in their own fat, the better they'd be. And they were good. Really good. But K's grits, made on the stovetop with Irish cheddar and Spanish paprika, are even better, because when she's here she cooks them for me. This is the treat all cooks, even just amateur home ones, yearn for: to be cooked for, with concentration and some measure of joy.

Which leads me to Valentine's Day, just around the corner. I have to say, after years of writing where-to-take-your-sweetie roundups for various newspapers, I just haaate all that prix-fixe, two-top, mylar-confetti and passion-fruit-mousse crap. (The exception would be Prune in the East Village, where brazen chef-owner Gabrielle Hamilton led her menu one year with a dish called Tongue and Pussy, made from lamb's tongue and octopus. Now that's a girl with the right attitude.)

Valentine's Day, like New Year's Eve, is a sucker punch. Who wants to be surrounded by the inane chatter of other couples, served by waiters who'd rather be with their own squeezes, and overcharged for cheap champagne and too many fiddly amuse-bouches? A meal made (or assembled or ordered in) by the one who doesn't usually do the cooking is the perfect mood-setter for the private delights to come. And what matters is not fanciness but enough of the one thing your sweetheart loves. Those dim-sum shrimp dumplings. Raspberries. Steak. Simple, luscious things. And then, the next day, cheese grits.

Baked Garlic Cheese Grits

1 cup stone-ground coarse grits
5 cups water

Bring water to a boil. Stir in grits, lower the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring frequently, until thick and porridge-y, about 25 minutes. They will spit and spatter like molten lava, so be careful. Mix in:

8 oz. cheese, grated
2 eggs, beaten
4 cloves of garlic, minced and sauteed briefly in 2 TB butter
salt and pepper
Tabasco to taste
1/2 tsp paprika or smoked paprika (start with a 1/4 tsp of smoked, and add to taste)

Spread in a baking dish and bake at 400 F for an hour, or until a nice golden crust is formed.

And if you're lucky enough to live in SF, Zante's Indian Pizza--a neighborhood institution--now does citywide delivery. 3489 Mission St, SF, CA. (415) 821-3949.


Just as the numbers on Amazon are every author's secret obsession, so are site meters to bloggers. These little digital turnstiles tell you how many people are checking out your goofy grits obsession by the hour. Even better, they'll tell you how those dear readers got there--whether they googled gay penguins or dirt cake, and what server they used. So hello, happy readers from the Akron Public Library! And you with the address, glad to see my tax dollars at work! Surf away! And to everyone at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory in Maryland, howdy! I hope the Army's brushing up on its piemaking skills. Just keep inventing stuff to keep my girl safe, and I'll bring you all the cheese grits you want.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

One-Hit Wonders

Getting a reputation as a good cook is not that hard. You can take the hard-working, honorable route, and actually go to cooking school or work as a chef. Of course, cooking for a living tends to take the edge off chopping garlic on your days off. For real chefs, anything too complicated or dangerous for ordinary civilians--spit-roasting an entire suckling pig over an open fire, tending a cassoulet made with home-preserved duck confit, going deep-sea fishing and serving sushi on the deck— is cool. Boiling pasta for the kids, making a salad for the wife: just work.

Or you can go the obsessive-amateur route, taste-testing olive oils and actually, painstakingly cooking from The French Laundry Cookbook (a beautiful work of art that, in my mind, resembles a cookbook the way The Tres Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry resembles a Filofax).
And then there's the easy, lazy way: lying around reading cookbooks but actually honing your skills on just a few signature dishes.

This is the route urged by every earnest how-to book. Cook one recipe--roast chicken, short ribs, mashed potatoes--a dozen times, until you really feel the ingredients and understand the technique. Could any suggestion be more boring? Who buys a cookbook just to make the same thing over and over? I hate this advice, and of course it's exactly what I do.

I have a great kitchen-stained book called Polenta, written by Sonoma author Michele Anna Jordan. It's a lovely little book, full of everything you could ever want to know about or cook with polenta. In the 10 years that I've had it, I've gotten at least a dozen dinners out of it. And they've all been the same dish: a tomato-cheese tart with a polenta crust, served with a basil mayonnaise. Have I learned more about polenta from making that tart a dozen times? Probably not, but what's more important is knowing how to make it without even needing the recipe anymore. And who doesn't want to be the sort of person who can whip up a swell tomato-basil tart out of her head, aided only by a bag of polenta and some grated Cheddar cheese?

Having a few dishes down cold can fool anyone into thinking you can, therefore, cook anything. What goes by the name of Thai Peanut Noodles in my house has convinced several rounds of guests that I can cook Thai food. This is not true. As far as I can tell, there is nothing authentically Thai about this dish, besides a vague (but pleasing) resemblance to satay sauce. But I love it, and am ever grateful for the original formula, found in quirky book of essays, recipes, and extremely opininated advice called Cooking As Courtship, by Susan Wiegand. Wiegand, who insists that she is no cook, nevertheless presents numerous useful recipes, all of which are funny and chatty and very observant, because she assumes that you, like her, can't cook. For this dish, you make some noodles or rice, steam a few vegetables, stir up a sauce (mostly made of pantry staples like soy sauce and peanut butter), and top the whole thing with a crunchy fresh salad of cucumbers, carrots, and cilantro, or a mixture of mint and basil for those who feel that cilantro is soap masquerading as parsley.

I hold fast to unsalted natural (meaning made of nothing but peanuts) peanut butter in all things; make this with Skippy and you didn't get the recipe from me.

Thai Peanut Noodles

8 cloves garlic, chopped finely
a thumb-sized chunk of fresh ginger, peeled and grated or finely chopped
1/4 cup (scant) soy sauce
1/4 cup rice or balsamic vinegar
1 TB honey, or to taste
1 TB toasted sesame oil or tahini
1/2 tsp hot sauce, such as Siracha chili sauce, or to taste
3/4 cup natural unsalted peanut butter
1/4 cup water or cold black or green tea (or coconut milk--a recent brainstorm, which would make it more like legitimate satay sauce. Note that since I hate coconut, I haven't made it this way, but you coconut lovers out there, go crazy.)

1 block firm tofu, cubed
1 bunch broccoli, separated into bite-size flowerets and stalks peeled and chopped
1 large cucumber, peeled if waxed, halved, seeds scooped out
2 large carrots, peeled
5-6 scallions, roots and top half of green stem removed
about 1/2 a bunch of cilantro, stems removed
5 or 6 sprigs of mint or basil (optional)
Noodles or rice (I like brown basmati or jasmine rice)

Make the rice or bring water to a boil for noodles. Mix all sauce ingredients except the peanut butter and water. Add peanut butter a large spoonful at a time, beating well. At first, the peanut butter will resist you, but keep stirring. It will relax and form a thick cream all at once. Add water/tea/coconut milk, a little at a time, until sauce is thick but pourable. Taste for seasoning. Add honey, soy sauce, or vinegar to taste. Set aside. Slice cucumber and carrot into thin, matchstick-sized strips. Chop scallions, cilantro, and mint or basil leaves.

Cook noodles if using. Using a vegetable steamer, steam broccoli and tofu together, until broccoli is bright green and just tender. In a large bowl, top noodles or rice with cooked vegetables and tofu. Drizzle on sauce to taste, and toss until well mixed. Top with cucumber and carrot strips. Scatter scallions and chopped cilantro (and mint or basil) lavishly over the bowl.

Note: This recipe makes a lot of sauce, so don't dump it all on at once. The vegetables and noodles should be lightly coated but not drenched. Any extra sauce keeps well in the refrigerator.