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At least once a week, I arrive home from the office I share with a dozen other writers and, overwhelmed with hunger, immediately begin to cook. I pull out my scratched enamelware pot. I measure in rice, quinoa and water with a generous pinch of salt and set it on the stove to cook. I take a block of medium-firm tofu from its package, pat it dry, slice it into pieces and drizzle it with Bragg’s liquid aminos, soy sauce’s unfermented hippie cousin. Then I rummage through the crisper for leafy greens or broccoli — whatever I can find — and trim away the woody bits. I fry the tofu in coconut oil, boil the vegetables, cut some herbs from the garden box and serve myself dinner in my favourite shallow bowl with a healthy smear of chile paste.
The entire process takes about 40 minutes. The meal is just healthful enough to justify a little self-righteousness. And though the curious trio of tofu, Bragg’s and coconut oil eventually transform to bear savoury, custardy bites, this dish is about more than just tastes and textures. I grew up thinking of tofu as bland, rubbery filler food, but steeped in aminos, the semisoft tofu melts away with each bite, leaving behind a steamy, satisfying contrail of salt and umami. The coconut oil lends a trace of its sweet, tropical aroma as it yields a crisp, lacy crust. Mixed with quinoa, the rice becomes nutty and complex, a chewy counterpoint to the tender tofu. With only a few steps and five main ingredients, the dish barely requires a recipe, but the relish with which I eat it, the way I look forward to and relax into that steamy bowl, make me feel a way only a handful of dishes have over the course of my life. In the last few years, this funny, nourishing, simple meal has somehow become my preferred comfort food.
By definition, comfort foods are rich and creamy, or evocative of childhood pleasures. But this dish contains no butter, cheese or chicken stock, the pillars atop which classic comfort foods are built. Quinoa and tofu don’t stoke a nostalgic flame — or even an ancestral one — for me. But this meal reflects a pair of friendships so nourishing that they’ve enveloped me in the sisterhood I’ve always sought. While I grew up in suburban Southern California in the 1980s, my friends Mara and Twilight Greenaway were scampering up avocado trees and pulling weeds on a little farm atop a mound of cooled lava half an ocean away, in Hawaii. When we all ended up in the Bay Area 20-some years later, I was working in a restaurant with Mara’s best friend while Twilight wrote about food and farming. Our lives were bound to intersect, and they did, around the table.
At first, I was the one cooking for them. But several years ago, the restaurant I ran closed, and I shifted away from professional cooking. Just as I lost my steady source of income and health insurance, I injured my knee and fell into a devastating depression. I couldn’t cook for myself, let alone anyone else, so Twilight and Mara began to cook for me. Whenever I could muster the energy, I’d visit one or the other, sit at her table and let her sheathe me in friendship.
At first, apologies accompanied every meal. The sisters worried constantly that the simple dishes they served me — sautéed greens, roast chicken, pots of beans — weren’t impressive enough to serve a chef. But the value of eating at a friend’s table is found around it, not on it. I’ll eat anything, even foods I’ve always shunned, when a friend cooks it. And besides, they’re both great cooks. So when one afternoon Twilight asked if I wanted a snack and then made me a pot of mixed grains when I answered yes, I ate it with gusto — even though I’d always held an inexplicable grudge against quinoa. And one evening, sensing that I was slipping into a bleak abyss, Mara invited me to stay for dinner. She was “just making tofu,” but from a stool at the kitchen counter, I watched her let the soft pieces brown and release from the pan before she gingerly flipped each one. Little tricks like this make all the difference in flavour — rush the flip, and you’ll tear the soft tofu and miss out on that golden brown crust. Having long been a champion of practice in the kitchen, I was delighted by her obvious familiarity with that delicate ingredient. When I asked her for the complete recipe, she recited it in two sentences: “Marinate tofu in Bragg’s. Fry it in coconut oil.”
“Tofu was definitely a comfort food,” Mara told me with a smile and a shrug. “Our mother would get us baked teriyaki tofu from the health food store as a special treat. Now, whenever I go back to Hawaii, I have to eat several pieces.” After Mara moved to the mainland, she missed that snack and tried baking it for years, but it was always too dry. So the dish migrated out of the oven and onto the stove. “And Twilight taught me to fry in coconut oil. It gets hotter, so the tofu gets crispier.”
The constant exchange of care, memory, flavour and experience throughout my friendship with these sisters has been an unwavering source of comfort.
© 2018 The New York Times