Stir-Fried Vegetables with Tofu and Udon Noodles in a Spicy Peanut Sauce

I have been eating and making stir fries all of my life.  Stir-frying vegetables and a protein of choice served with rice or noodles is a weeknight staple in so many homes.  It is easy and flexible in that you can use whatever vegetables you have.  It is also satisfying and can be quite healthy if you aren’t heavy-handed with oil in the preparation.  I consider myself to be fairly adept at stir-frying vegetables to tender-crisp, but my challenge has been developing a tasty and full flavored sauce.  I don’t buy stir-fry sauces, and in experimenting with the ingredients and seasonings used to develop flavor, I have served some meals in which the flavor was weak.  After many trials and much error I took some guidance from others [here and here].   Now, I am finally cracking the code of making tasty stir-fry sauces from scratch that are simple and flavorful.  Tonight’s Stir-fried Vegetables and Tofu with Udon Noodles in a Spicy Peanut sauce was declared a winner.

Stir Fried Vegetables with Tofu -Yields about 4 Hearty Servings

  • 1 block of Extra Firm Tofu, with excess water removed then cut into cubes.  Meat eaters might enjoy chicken, beef or pork instead of tofu, either pre-cooked, or sautéed with onions and other seasonings before vegetables are stir-fried. 
  • 1/3 of a Package of Udon Noodles – cooked according to package directions
  • Olive Oil or Peanut Oil, for cooking
  • Approximately 4 Cups of Vegetables, I used: 
    • ½ of a medium red onion, diced
    • 1 broccoli crown, cut into florets
    • 1 cup of fresh spinach
    • ¾ cup of frozen soy beans (Edamame)
    • ¾ cup of sliced button mushrooms,
    • ¼ of a Red Bell Pepper, sliced into strips
    • ¼ of an Orange Bell Pepper, sliced into strips

There are no limits on the vegetables that would be great in this Stir Fry.  Other vegetables that come to mind include cauliflower, shitake or cremini mushrooms, green peas, green onions, water chestnuts, baby corn, bamboo shoots, carrots, celery, bok choy, cabbage, asparagus, snow peas, broccolini and green beans…  It will be great with just about any vegetable you like.  You simply assemble an assortment of vegetables, wash them, and then chop them into nice, bite-size pieces.

This is a meal that comes together quickly once you start cooking it, so I like to get all of the vegetables ready and make the sauce before I even start stir-frying the vegetables.  I whisked together the following ingredients into a spicy-peanutty sauce.  You can adjust the heat up or down according to your preference by adding additional Red Chili Flakes or Garlic-Chili paste.  My sauce was fairly spicy to begin with, so I decided simply to stick to my original recipe.  I placed a bottle of Rooster Sauce on the table in case either of us found the spice level to be lacking.

Spicy Peanut Sauce

  • 2 tablespoons natural chunky peanut butter
  • 1/3 cup veggie broth or water
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons crushed red chile flakes
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1 teaspoon ginger, minced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons Braggs Liquid Aminos or soy sauce
  • A squeeze of lime juice

Once the Spicy Peanut Sauce was ready and all of the veggies were chopped, I selected Japanese udon noodles from the pantry to serve with the stir-fried vegetables.  I like udon noodles quite a bit.  Even though udon have a light colour, they are a whole wheat noodle.  They have a smooth texture and a similar size to linguine.  Instead of udon noodles we often have nutty buckwheat soba noodles, rice noodles, regular whole grain spaghetti or occasionally rice.  I have noticed that udon noodles are salty enough without additional salt added to the water as you would add to most pastas.

I like the way udon noodles come wrapped in individual portions.  I typically make way too much pasta, and we have leftovers for days.  The guidance helps.

Let me let you in on a nifty trick for preparing tofu to be cooked.  When you purchase tofu packaged in water, you need to squeeze out some of the liquid so that the tofu can absorb the sauce and flavor of the vegetables.  Rather than pressing tofu between plates and setting it precariously under a heavy object, which always wants to tip off and fall on my foot, someone once told me to wrap the tofu in a paper towel or a clean kitchen towel and microwave it for 2 minutes.*  This process works wonderfully to remove the excess liquid from the tofu and makes it ready to absorb a flavorful sauce after being nuked on high for two minutes for 2 or three rounds.  This is far easier and less dangerous for my feet.  After microwaving the tofu and slicing it into bite sized cubes I started my veggies.

Other than a great sauce, the key to a good stir-fry is not to overcook the vegetables.  I always start with onion, giving it a 2-3 minute head start in the pan with a small glug of oil before adding anything else.  I use a large, deep nonstick pan, because I don’t have a wok.  A wok or a well-seasoned cast-iron pan are very helpful to making a healthy stir-fry because the vegetables don’t stick, even if you only use a little oil.  Next, I add the remaining vegetables in the order that allows everything to finish cooking at the same time without overcooking any single ingredient. If I was using carrots and celery, for example, I’d add them first, and cauliflower soon after, followed by frozen vegetables, and finishing with mushrooms, bell peppers and anything that takes only a few minutes to cook.  You can probably look up estimated cooking times for vegetables in a cookbook or on the internet.  I have learned through trial and error.  Tonight, I was able to add most of the vegetables at the same time, reserving the broccoli, tofu and spinach to add later, since they need a shorter cooking time.

When the veggies had cooked about 2 minutes and were looking bright and well on their way to tender-crisp, I added the peanut sauce, turned the heat to low and let the whole thing cook for 4 minutes.  A few minutes with heat allows the salty-spicy-sweet-citrusy-nutty elements of the sauce to meld.  When I figured the vegetables and sauce needed another 4 minutes more to cook, I added the broccoli and tofu.  Even though broccoli is a dense, cruciferous vegetable, it cooks quickly, and after no more than about 4 minutes, it is done.  When the vegetables are done they are bright and softened, and still retain a firm bite.  Tofu is great sautéed or broiled, but tonight  I wanted to eat it fresh, so I cooked it just enough time to absorb the sauce and to be heated through.

When the noodles were cooked, I drained them and served them on a small platter with a few sprigs of curly parsley.  Cilantro would be a suitable garnish for the pasta, if you like cilantro, but we aren’t big fans.  Before serving the stir-fry, I scattered the fresh spinach leaves in a pile on the platter.  I could have stirred the spinach into the veggies and sauce and allowed it to wilt, but I find that spinach is great, even if it only half-wilts under a mound of steamy vegetables.

We both enjoyed this stir-fry.  It was full of spicy, peanutty flavor and a bright variety of vegetables that retained their bite.  The tofu also soaked up plenty of flavor and was as easy as could be to prepare.  And the pasta?  Everything tastes good on a serving of steamy, al dente pasta.  When you are in the mood for an easy and delicious vegetable stir-fry, consider trying this tasty recipe.  The sauce and veggies are full of texture and flavor.  This dish is flexible, quick and easy enough to make any night of the week.

*Thank you to the person who told me the tofu-nuking tip, whoever you are.  I am so pleased that I don’t have to press tofu ever again.

Pioneer Woman’s Spicy Mac and Cheese–Lightened Up

We just returned home after being out of town for several days.  Even though we’re low on groceries, and a little tired out from a late-night flight, I still wanted to eat something home-made for supper.  If you ask me, a delicious bowl of creamy Macaroni and Cheese is the best way to welcome yourself home.  A while back, I read a recipe for Spicy Macaroni and Cheese on the Pioneer Woman, a popular blog by Ree Drummond, a real life Ranch-Mom and author of hearty homespun recipes from the Oklahoma frontier.  When I read the original recipe I thought it looked yummy, but I also thought the fat content was a little over the top for a person who hasn’t been out wrassling cattle all afternoon.  Last night, I made a skillet of Spicy Mac with a few modifications that lightened up an ingredient list that is a little too rich for my blood and within the constraints of a nearly-empty refrigerator

My recipe takes most cues from the Pioneer Woman version.  I started assembling my “cast of characters” to make sure I had enough of the main ingredients to make the recipe.  If you are up for using 2 Tablespoons of Butter and a Cup of Heavy Cream in your spicy Mac and Cheese, you can follow this link back to Pioneer Woman to follow the original recipe.  I’m sure it would be over-the-top delicious.  I reduced the butter, used fat-free half and half, had to substitute jalapenos from a jar for fresh, and sharp cheddar for pepper jack cheese because that was all there was in the fridge.  I added orange bell pepper to the ingredient list because I had one.  I love making my meals into a colorful, antioxidant-rich rainbow.  I am not going to pull any punches, my Spicy Mac wasn’t exactly “light,” but the slight adjustments brought the calorie-count down into a normal range for a serving of a satisfying size.  I didn’t leave anything out that added flavor.  

Ingredients:

  • 4 cups cooked elbow macaroni (about 2 cups dry) or another small pasta such as cavatappi
  • ½ tablespoon olive oil
  • ½ finely diced red onion
  • ½ red bell pepper – diced
  • ½ orange bell pepper – diced
  • 2 tablespoons jalapenos from a jar – finely diced
  • 1 – 4 ounce can chopped green chilies
  • 1 heaping cup of frozen corn
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
  • 1 cup fat free half and half – I use fat free half and half because it was the only dairy we had in the fridge. Milk with a fat content of your preference, half & half or the real deal heavy cream will all work wonderfully. 
  • 1 heaping cup of grated sharp cheddar, pepper jack or Monterrey Jack cheese
  • ¼ teaspoon to 2 Tablespoons butter - optional                                                          
  • Salt & Pepper to taste

The entire dish took about 30 minutes, start to finish.  I began by filling a sauce pan of water with a dash of salt to boil for the pasta, and heating a skillet with a small glug of olive oil over medium heat.  While those warmed up, I chopped the red onion, red and orange peppers into small chunks of a similar size.  I chopped a few forkfuls of jalapenos from the jar.  The next time I make this, I will of course try to have a fresh jalapeno, but if I don’t, I will probably use more of the jarred jalapenos.  The jalapeno adds most of the heat, and quantities can be adjusted up or down depending on your spice tolerance.  I sautéed the onion and garlic a few minutes before adding the bell pepper.  At the same time, I started boiling the noodles to a little less than “done” so they could cook a little more in the sauce to become al dente.  When the onions, bell peppers, garlic and jalapenos were bright and heading toward tender-crisp, I added a heaped cup of frozen corn.  When the veggies were cooking, but still had crunch, I added a can of diced green chilis.  Diced green chilies have become a pantry staple in our house.  They are mild and they add a smoky complexity to Southwest and Mexican soups and stews without too much heat.  When the veggies were nearly done, I turned off the heat in the skillet, and drained the pasta.  The sauce is extremely simple, which is a plus.  This is the perfect macaroni and cheese to make when you don’t have the time, or the desire to monkey around making a roux.  I simply added the fat free half and half and cheese to the skillet and stirred it gently into the vegetables. A skillet retains heat for a long time, so it was warm enough to warm the “cream” and melt the cheese.  Finally, I added the pasta to the skillet.  I stirred gently to combine the pasta, veggies and sauce in the skillet.  Per Ree’s advice, I added a little extra cheese to thicken the sauce a bit.  Instead of the two pats of butter from the original recipe, I stirred in just the tiniest bit of butter.  You could totally leave the butter out and you probably wouldn’t miss it, even though the silkiness it adds to the sauce is quite nice.

Channeling Pioneer Woman, I served the Spicy Mac right from the skillet, frontier style.    We enjoyed the rainbow of veggies, the warming spiciness and of course, the cheesy, comforting macaroni noodles.  Ah, we’re home. When I make this again, I would probably up the spice a notch or two… something red, a little Smoked Paprika, Cayenne Pepper, Chili Powder or Chili Flakes, perhaps?  

The Spicy Mac also passed the lunch test.  We both enjoyed a second serving with a small salad for lunch the next day.  Ree Drummond suggests this as a dish to be served alongside a juicy steak.  I might just do that the next time I need a meatless dish when my pardner is grilling steak.  We both thought this Mac & Cheese stood well all alone.  I recommend serving it alone with salt and pepper on the table and a cold beer, or a tall glass of milk.

*I like to welcome myself home with Mac & Cheese, I also like to eat Mac & Cheese when I’m dining alone, when we have something to celebrate, on a rainy day, and for no reason at all.  If you’ve been here before you will note that Mac & Cheese in all forms is my favorite.