My Mapo, aka Pandemic Pantry Tofu Pork

It's a pretty common trope that blogs, especially cooking blogs, are supposed to be cheery, encouraging, inspiring their readers with a can-do, positive attitude about taking ingredients and turning them into tasty, Instagrammable meals.

But I won't lie to you. As much as I love taking sustainably grown, bursting-with-life, seasonal ingredients and making delicious meals for my family, the daily chore can get to be a grind. Throw in a global pandemic that limits trips to the store to once a week rather than nipping to the store for that lime you forgot on an earlier trip, not to mention social distancing, masks and gloves, and pretty soon you're over your stress limit.

Personally, my cranky quotient has been off the charts lately. (Just ask Dave.)

This rant is all by way of saying, let yourself off the hook. Sam Sifton and Gwyneth Paltrow aren't peeking in your windows, so don't worry if you don't have all the ingredients called for in a recipe. Find something in your pantry or in the back of the condiment shelf in your fridge that might approximate it, or leave it out altogether. You're cooking in a pandemic, dammit!

This exact thing happened the other evening as I was trying to come up with something for dinner. I wanted to use some tofu that I'd bought the week before that had found a super cold spot in our fridge and was partially frozen but still usable. I was looking up recipes and came across one for mapo tofu that called for ground pork—I had some in the freezer and could easily thaw it in time—but also required a Chinese fermented bean paste called doubanjiang, and mirin, a Japanese rice wine. Neither of which I had.

I did find a half jar of gochujang, a Korean fermented red chili paste left from a batch of kimchi, some black miso a friend had made (thanks, Linda!), and there was a splash of sauvignon blanc left from the night before. "Good enough!" says I. And dang if it wasn't perfectly swell.

I am, after all, cooking in a pandemic.

My Mapo aka Pandemic Pantry Tofu Pork

1 lb. firm tofu
3 cloves garlic, minced
1" piece ginger, peeled and grated
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 lb. ground pork
1 c. spring onions, thinly sliced
3 Tbsp. gochujang or doubanjiang
2 Tbsp. mirin or dry white wine
2 Tbsp. miso
1 Tbsp. fish sauce
1 tsp. toasted sesame oil
Slivered green onions or save a few slices of green tops from the spring onions

Take 1 pound block of firm tofu and slice into 1/2" slabs. Place in single layer in 8" by 10" dish. Set slightly smaller dish on top and weight with large cans or bowl of water to press water out of slabs. Allow to press for 30 minutes. Drain and slice slabs into 1/2" cubes.

Heat oil in deep skillet over medium-high heat. When it shimmers, add garlic and grated ginger and warm about 30 seconds. Add ground pork and brown. Add sliced spring onions and sauté until tender. Add remaining ingredients and stir for 3-5 minutes. Add cubed tofu on top and very gently combine with the meat and onion mixture; reduce heat and simmer 5 minutes. Serve with rice. Garnish with slivered green onions.

Winter Warmer: Lentils with Ground Pork and Radicchio

"I’m duty-bound to eat lentils on San Silvestro (New Year’s Eve). Why? Because each tiny legume represents another coin added to my treasure chest in the year ahead and if I don’t consume lentils, well, poverty inevitably will loom."

Writer and author Nancy Harmon Jenkins, who lives part-time in her hometown of Camden on Maine's charming coast and a portion of every year among her beloved olive trees in a tiny Tuscan village, lives my dream life. She is completely at home in both places, speaking both Downeast-ese and Italian, and is fluent in the cuisines of both, as well.

Her recent ode to the tradition of eating legumes at the turn of the year to assure prosperity in the year ahead captured me, so much so that when I saw lentils in the bulk bin at the store, I had to buy a pound to try them out.

For me, lentils always meant the brown lentils ubiquitous in every natural foods cookbook and on every hippie café menu during my young adulthood. Hearty, for sure, and marvelous when paired with a beefy stock and roasted tomatoes, I loved the flavor but wished they had a sturdier texture since, when cooked, they tended to moosh up into a dal-like consistency (not that there's anything wrong with that, as the saying goes…).

So when Nancy wrote that these lentils "are incomparably sweet and hold up well, not disintegrating when they’re simmered for 30 to 40 minutes," I was all in. I had a vision of a meaty, slightly brothy stew with tomatoes (see above), but also featuring some hefty, simmered greens for color and texture. Having just processed a half pig, I used a pork stock to simmer the lentils and ground pork for the meat, but having no kale or chard in the fridge (!) I decided to use a small head of treviso in a nod to Nancy's Tuscan side.

The resulting hearty winter stew was a rich counterpoint to the blustery cold winter weather outside, and I'd recommend it for your table any time you have a need to feel prosperous, indeed.

Lentilles de Puy with Ground Pork and Radicchio

1 lb. Lentilles de Puy
1 qt. stock (chicken, pork, vegetable, whey or simply water)
2 bay leaves
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 lb. ground pork
1 onion, chopped in 1/2" dice
1 tsp. fennel pollen
1 Tbsp. dried oregano
4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
2 c. (16 oz.) whole roasted tomatoes
1 head treviso radicchio, sliced crosswise into 1"strips
2 Tbsp. fermented cayenne peppers or other chopped, roasted red peppers
1/8 tsp. ground cayenne (optional)
1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
2 tsp. salt or to taste

Bring the stock to a boil and add the lentils and bay leaves. When the stock returns to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until lentils are tender, about 30-40 min. When lentils are done, strain and cool, reserving stock in a separate bowl.

While lentils cook, heat olive oil in Dutch oven over medium-high heat. When the oil shimmers, add ground pork and brown. Add onion to the pork and sauté until tender, then add garlic, fennel pollen and oregano and heat briefly. Add tomatoes, radicchio, peppers and vinegar and sauté briefly. Simmer over low heat, adding enough of the reserved stock to keep the stew from drying out  too much (I used it all), at least a half hour and preferably an hour in order for the flavors to meld. Also terrific reheated the next day. Serve with a loaf of artisan bread and good red wine—preferably Italian, right, Nancy?

Rollin' Rollin' Rollin': Meatloaf with Greens & Cheese

Do you ever get an idea in your head and it just sits there, occasionally tweaking your brain with that "now what was that" niggling feeling? That was the case when I was thawing out some pasture-raised hamburger from Carman Ranch the other night, wondering whether to make burgers—we had leftover homemade buns in the freezer—or a marinara with pasta, or tacos or…meatloaf?

That's when it hit me. That idea I'd toyed with at some point in the misty past to make a meatloaf with the usual sofrito of onions and garlic, binding it with eggs and oats, but then flattening it out, filling it with with greens and rolling it up like a jelly roll.

How would I roll it up? Would it stay together or crumble into a mashy mess? There was only one way to find out.

Fortunately, my neighbor Bill had gifted me some radishes from his garden with their gorgeous greens still attached, and we had some leftover grated Parmesan from a risotto I'd made the night before. The rest, as they say, was history.

Rolled Meatloaf with Greens and Cheese

3 Tbsp. olive oil
1 onion, chopped fine
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 lbs. hamburger
1 1/2 lbs. ground pork
2 eggs
1/2 c. rolled oats
1 Tbsp. dried herbs (I used a combination of basil, oregano and thyme)
2-3 c. greens, sliced into chiffonade (I used radish greens, but kale, spinach, chard or any other greens would do.)
1 c. finely grated Parmesan

Preheat oven to 375°.

Heat olive oil in medium-sized skillet over medium-high heat. When it shimmers, add chopped onion and sauté until tender. Add garlic and sauté briefly until aromatic. Take off heat and allow to cool.

Combine hamburger, pork*, eggs, oats and onion mixture in a large bowl. (I mix it using just my fingers so the meat stays crumbly and doesn't get clumped together.) Form the meat into a loose ball in the bowl.

Lay out a sheet of parchment paper or plastic wrap about 15" long on a cutting board. Put the meat in the center of the sheet and start pressing it out until it's about 3/8" thick. Sprinkle it with the cheese and the greens in an even layer. Take the long edge of the sheet and start rolling it, repairing any cracks with your fingers, peeling away the sheet as you roll. Close up each end by patting the meat over the exposed edges.

When it's rolled up completely, transfer seam-side down to a sheet pan that's lined with parchment. Bake in a 375° oven for 40-50 minutes until instant-read thermometer inserted in thickest part reads between 140-150° (cookbooks all say 160°, but I find that results in drier meatloaf, so you decide for yourself). Remove from oven, tent with foil and allow to rest for 15 min. Slice and serve.

* I like a combination of beef and pork, since it seems to me to make a moister loaf, but all-beef is perfectly fine, too.