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.  


  • 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.

Tostadas – A Satisfying Meal in 5 Minutes

Pop quiz, hotshot.  You are starving.  Your interest in cooking is nil, but you want something tasty, now.  You, or someone who is depending on you to cook for them, are well on their way to a hunger-induced meltdown.  What do you do? What do you do?  In my imagination, when you are in culinary school there is a day that the teacher singles out a student and poses this question in a maniacal tone reminiscent of the lunatic bus-bomber in the movie Speed.  Like Keanu Reeves in the third-best film in his acting career,* I have a cool head under pressure, and the perfect response that you aren’t expecting:  Tostadas!**

I think every home cook needs to have a few quick, tasty ideas up her sleeve for hunger that’s gone too far.  There are many correct answers, but the key is to have the idea and the ingredients at the ready when there is either a hostage situation and your response will save the city, or for when you and yours just need to eat now. 

There are a few fairly obvious guidelines to succeeding at the preparation of a good meal in 5 minutes.  The first key is simplicity.  Tostadas are extremely simple.

My favorite Tostadas in the world come from Red Pepper in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and they are nothing more than a tostada with melted cheese and hot sauce.  In fact, Tostadas began appearing at our house as an homage to Red Pepper Tostadas, and are frequently eaten on evenings when we’re tuned in to University of North Dakota Hockey on T.V.

We have Tostadas with just cheese and hot sauce as a snack or side dish, but when Tostadas are the meal, I rifle through the pantry and the fridge for a few extra ingredients to round them out.  This is the second key to 5 minute dinner prep:  it must be flexible.

I’ve made tostadas with sliced black olives, canned black beans that have been rinsed, jalapenos or with vegetarian refried beans, which is one of my favorites.  You could use chopped tomatoes, frozen corn, onions, or leftover taco-seasoned beef or chicken.  The assembly simply involves topping a Tostada shell with your Mexican-inspired ingredient of choice, and melting the cheese.  Often, I just zap the tostada in the microwave until the cheese melts.  Occasionally I have used the grill, or placed the tostadas in the oven at 350 degrees.  It only takes a few minutes for the cheese to melt, and the beans to be warmed through. 

An added bonus of using the grill or the oven is it lets the cheese get a bit brown, and the Tostada shell toasty.  If you are truly can’t wait for the oven to heat, by all means, microwave the Tostada.  It will be great.

The third key to 5 minute dinner prep is that it must be something you can make easily for one person, or for a crowd.  If you heat your Tostadas in the oven or on the grill, you can make anywhere from 1 to 10 at a time.  The microwave cooking method would get a little bit tedious if you were making more than 4 Tostadas at a time.  We’ve made cheese Tostadas as a side dish for the meal we prepare and deliver every other week to an Emergency Safe House for homeless youth in our neighborhood.  We wrapped the Tostadas individually on a paper plate, which is the same way they are served at the Red Pepper.

While the Tostadas are heating in the oven or in the microwave, there is just enough time to throw together a quick salad to make Tostadas into a proper meal.  Shredded or torn leaves of lettuce, slices of tomato or olive, jalapenos, onions, and slices of avocado with a squeeze of lime juice, a little sour cream, and of course hot sauce are all perfect for a salad, and are tasty when piled on top of the Tostada.

Now, all that is left is to dig in.  Give me 5 minutes and a few pantry staples and I can take you from a little too hungry to human again.

*In my opinion, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey are the best flicks starring Keanu Reeves in a leading role.  In order to make a fair comparison, I should probably have seen that movie that forever changed effects in movie fight scenes to include slow motion flight through the air with flailing legs…what was it called?  The Matrix?  But, I give myself enough credit to review the key performances in  the height of Keanu Reeves’ acting career because I saw him live as Hamlet in grade 8.  I have now said everything I will ever say about Keanu Reeves on this blog.  I am somewhat in disbelief that I managed to say even this much about him.

**I know you were expecting a slick, action-movie –like response to the question “What do you do? What do you DO?” line of questioning, but I can’t think of any way to make a parallel between Keanu’s response that he’d “shoot the hostage” and solving a garden variety household hunger emergency.  Ok, now I’m really done discussing Keanu Reeves, forvermore.

Hot and Cold Mac and Cheese Salad

A cacophony in the kitchen that sung in harmony on the plate.

Sometimes I come up with odd combinations of foods for us to eat for supper.  Tonight was one of those nights.  I came home with the idea of making macaroni and cheese. I didn’t want to eat a huge portion, but I didn’t want to go hungry with a tiny plate of pasta.  We happen to have a fridge full of veggies and I wanted a salad that was satisfying enough to be a meal.  I also wanted roasted veggies.  These ideas danced in my head for awhile, and an idea emerged — I will make a salad, Mac & Cheese and roasted veggies and put them into the salad rather than serving the three separate things side-by-side.  Obviously, pasta tossed into a salad is nothing new, I make this constantly in the summer for our back yard BBQ’s.  I recently read a blog post about a tasty salad combination of Penne, Chickpeas, Sun-dried Tomatoes and baby Arugula on Skinnytaste which looks pretty good.  I know I’ve heard mention of hot and cold salads.  When Bjorn gave me a thumbs up to having a sort-of salad for supper, away I went.

I started by breaking off florets of broccoli and cauliflower to roast for the “hot” part of the salad.  I tried to picture the amount I would want for 4 servings of salad so that I didn’t make too much.  My goal is to prepare enough to feed us twice.  Two plates at supper and then leftovers for lunch.

I dumped the broccoli and cauliflower, along with some sliced button mushrooms on a sheet pan coated with cooking spray, and threw it in the oven, which was heated to 425 degree Fahrenheit.  I didn’t add any oil to the veggies.  A drizzle of olive oil tastes great on roasted veggies, but I was planning to dress the salad before serving, so I didn’t use any.  It really isn’t necessary.
When you roast veggies without oil, they tend to char a little more than when they are tossed lightly in oil.  That char is tasty.
While the veggies roasted, I put a small saucepan of water on the stove to heat, and salted it lightly.  While that heated, I chopped a half of a red pepper into chickpea-sized chunks, and rinsed and drained a can of chickpeas.

I assembled an assortment of greens.  We had a great variety in the fridge.  Our salad tonight had baby spinach, Butter and Romaine Lettuce and Pea Shoots.  When the Broccoli, Cauliflower and Mushrooms had roasted for about 8 minutes I used tongs to toss it around so that all sides would get exposed to heat.  I also added a few handfuls of whole grain pasta shells to the saucepan of salted water to cook until al dente, according to the package directions.

While the pasta cooked and the vegetables roasted, I began assembling the cold portions of the salad:  two on plates for dinner tonight, and two in portable containers for our lunches tomorrow at work.  I whisked a little balsamic vinegar with olive oil, and added a healthy pinch of red pepper flakes and a good shake of Trader Joe’s 21 Seasoning Salut to dress the salad.

When the pasta was done cooking, I stirred in a spoonful of light cream cheese, a small handful of grated sharp cheddar, and a shake of nutmeg.  I didn’t go to the effort of making a cheesy roux for the Mac & Cheese.  I just tossed the cooked pasta with the cheese.  The cheese melted and coated the noodles nicely.  It was easier to make this way, and actually better to have the pasta coated in cheese, rather than a creamy sauce, since I was planning to toss it into the salad.

I divided the roasted vegetables between our plates and two small containers for our lunch.  I dressed the two plates of salad for our supper lightly and tossed them before adding the mac and cheese, since I didn’t want too much dressing on the pasta part of the salad.  If I hadn’t been saving half of the salad for our lunch, I would have tossed the hot and cold vegetables with dressing in a bowl before placing in it on our plates.

I happened to use all of my homemade dressing up on our dinner portion, so I packed a small container of Trader Joe’s Light Champagne Vinaigrette* to take to work.  I added a pinch of red pepper flakes and some grated Asiago so that the salads would still have a good flavor even without the balsamic vinaigrette that we had at supper.

Once our plates were assembled, we charged to the dinner table and dug in.  I put out a nice chunk of Asiago cheese and a grater, salt and pepper for us to adjust the flavor at the table.  A Hot and Cold Mac and Cheese Salad might sound a bit of an off the wall, but it was great.  The balsamic vinegar and spicy red pepper flakes were a punchy contrast to the warm, cheesy pasta.  The variety of colours was visually appealing.  The crunchy lettuce and red pepper contrasted with the soft noodles and chickpeas.  The roasted vegetables added warmth and charred flavor, and were roasted perfectly to retain their bite.  Chopping, assembling, roasting, boiling, dressing and stirring together three different dishes raised a mild cacophony in the kitchen, that sung in harmony on the plate.  I started with three ideas, and ended up with a meal that satisfied a hunger for Mac & Cheese, but kept the portion size reasonable, it was a plate packed with antioxidants and vitamins as well as great flavor and texture contrasts.  We’ll make it again!

*Trader Joe’s Light Champagne Vinaigrette is my current grocery store salad dressing favorite.  It contains champagne vinegar, white wine, Worcestershire sauce, and Dijon mustard, and clocks in at 50 calories for two tablespoons.  It is light and zingy, and it is a legit way to have some bubbly at noon.

A Vibrant Quinoa Salad for a Dark Winter’s Day

Some days there is nothing more refreshing and satisfying than having a hearty salad as a meal.  A salad can be extremely handy too, when it is built to last so that it can reappear the next day as our lunch.  That is the sort of meal I had in mind today.  The salad I made was loosely based on a recipe for a Wheatberry Salad that I read about on Macheesmo, a blog I like to visit.  I’ve been trying to follow more recipes because I want well-developed flavors and predictable results when I cook.  Even though I’m trying to follow recipes, I still have to strike a balance.  I am not one to plan meals in advance, and I don’t like to run to the store when I decide to make something.  I began by gathering ingredients.

In my salad, I subbed Quinoa for Wheatberry.  I’ve glanced at a bag of Wheatberry in the grocery store, but haven’t purchased that grain so far.  I am still working on integrating Quinoa into my regular cooking routine.  I also subbed fresh spinach for kale, and half a block of drained and crumbled tofu for feta cheese.  We’ve been working our way through a bag of organic parsnips from the Farmer’s Market that we bought at Thanksgiving, so I decided to add a few.  I started cooking 1 1/2 cup of quinoa in an equal amount of water, and while the quinoa cooked, I chopped the vegetables into small, uniform chunks.  They say you eat with your eyes first; the vibrant rainbow of crunchy vegetables chopped for this salad was a visual feast.

The salad is dressed with the juice of a lemon, the lemon’s zest, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper.  It gives the salad a lot of kick with zero added fat.  Healthy!!  The lemon juice has the added benefit of keeping the avocado from turning brown.  If I make this again, I will cut back on the lemon zest a little bit.  The zest of a lemon is pretty punchy, especially when you eliminate a creamy dairy component which was included in the original recipe.

Did we notice the substitutions I made to the original recipe?  A little.  Crumbled tofu has a similar texture to feta cheese, but it lacks the tang.  There is also a certain creaminess that feta would add, which would also probably help balance the pungent citrus in the salad.  Neither of us are huge fans of feta, and so it was a fair swap to make, and healthy too.   I am all for subbing spinach for the kale called for in the original recipe.  I have yet to delve into kale, and I love how easy it is to add a big bunch of fresh spinach to almost anything you are cooking and allow it to steam in just a few minutes.  We both enjoyed the salad with a dash of Habenero Chili hot sauce that we brought back from Mexico.

This salad was a success for several reasons.  It contained an antioxidant rainbow of healthy vegetables.  It also contained the healthy fat found in avocado.  The texture was the best part of the salad; it had crunchy carrots, celery, onions, parsnips, peppers which balanced well with the creamy avocado, supple quinoa, tofu and tender steamed spinach.  There was plenty of kicky flavour without any regret with the spicy-citrus dressing.  It was also a win from a vegetarian-protein perspective since it contained both tofu and chickpeas. All in all, it was a light, uplifting, healthy and hearty entrée salad that hit all of the important notes that it needed to pick us up on a grey day in January.  Yes!!

Bjorn said the salad was tastier than he expected, and we both ate it again the next day.  For me, it was both breakfast and lunch.  I need to make a crunchy, kicky, creamy, low-fat, high flavor, protein-rich salad more often.