Frito Pie, Y’all!

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Would you believe that Frito pie is actually good for you? Well, it ain’t.

Frito Pie has been on my mind of late. The warm weather has me conjuring up thoughts of State Fairs and picnics and baseball games and other specifically American outdoor events that suggest foods eaten out of hand and foods that defy all conventional “healthy-eating” sensibilities. Frito Pie is one food that fits both criteria — it’s portable and well, disposable, and it’s virtually devoid of any redeeming nutritional value. However, it is super-yummy in all its gleefully white-trashy, grease-bomby way. I like it! It reminds me of my youth and my Southern ties, of hot weather and festival foods.

Now there’s a school of Frito Pie theory that suggests a baked casserole sort of construction, like some kind of bastardized Tex-Mex lasagna or ghetto-style enchiladas. Sure, you bake a bunch of Fritos (and no other corn chip is acceptable) with chili or ground beef with cheese and salsa and you know that’s going to be tasty treat. But to me that’s not really Frito Pie even if it kind of resembles a pie; to me Frito Pie is the so-called “walking taco” whereby you cut open a snack-sized bag of Fritos (the one and only) and you dump into it some hot chili (preferably beanless), some grated cheese, some sour cream and then maybe some other garnishes like jalapenos, hot sauce, chopped scallions, guacamole, etc. You scarf that down with a plastic fork (or spork, if you should be so lucky) and wash that down with an ice-cold PBR or Dixie (or Shiner Bock, if you should be so lucky) and that’s good eatin’, y’all!

For an afternoon snack today I made a totally delish Frito Pie. Because I had only a large bag of Fritos, I put it into a plastic deli cup and I ate it with a plastic fork. This presentation approximated the portability of eating out of a greasy plastic bag but was way neater. It went a little something like this….

  • 1 cup of Fritos dumped into a 16-ounce plastic container
  • 3/4 cup of basic meaty beanless chili put on top of that
  • 1/2 cup of grated “Mexican-style” cheese (jack & cheddar) scattered over the hot chili
  • 1/4 cup sour cream dumped into the container slightly off to the side
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh avocado, dumped into the container slightly off to the side
  • 1 tablespoon chopped cilantro put on top
  • 1 tablespoon chopped green onion, on top
  • 1 teaspoon (or more!) hot sauce. I used Cholula, which is awesome.
  • stick a plastic fork in it
  • eat!

So, if you’re hankering for something that isn’t remotely healthy, try some Frito Pie. You can’t live on vegan kale salad alone, ya know!

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But it sho is yummy!

I’ve included a basic chili recipe. This is simple chili not meant to be eaten as a main course but to go on top of hot dogs, burgers, and things like Frito Pie.

Basic Chili:

  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 pound lean ground beef
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 1/2 cup chopped red or green bell pepper
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 tablespoon flour
  • 1 cup beer
  • 1 can (14.5 ounces) diced tomatoes
  • 1 cup beef broth
  • 1 tablespoon chili powder
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano or marjoram
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne

To make the chili melt the butter with the oil in a 4-quart heavy-bottomed pot set over medium heat. Turn heat up to high and add the ground beef. Season beef with salt and pepper to taste and brown well. Add the onions and garlic and cook for a couple of minutes until softened. Add tomato paste and cook that, stirring around, until fragrant, about 15 seconds. Sprinkle the flour over the beef and onion mixture and stir well. Add beer and cook until the alcohol smell has dissipated. Add all remaining ingredients. Stir well to combine. Bring to a low boil and then reduce heat to low. Simmer for a minimum of 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. I like to cook it gently for at least an hour until everything breaks down nicely and the excess water has evaporated. Keep in mind that this chili is better the next day, so plan ahead if you can.

Crispy Wok-Fried Chicken Wings

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Man, I love chicken wings!

I’m a sucker for chicken wings, as you could probably guess if you’ve followed my blog at all. I love the chewy, crispy skin and the inelegant but highly satisfying act of gnawing hot meat off of bones. Yesterday I cranked out this simple Asian-persuasion wing dish for an early dinner for just the wife and me.

As usual I par-cooked the wings prior to frying. I preheated the oven to 300°F and then I tossed the wings with a little vegetable oil, salt, pepper, and a little garlic powder. I put the wings on a sheet pan lined with a rack to allow some of the fats to drip off. It took about 35 minutes to cook the wings totally through. I removed the wings and let them cool to room temperature before finishing them.

I heated a wok over high and added about an inch of rice bran oil (the preferred oil for frying tempura) although peanut oil would be an excellent substitute. When the oil was smoking-hot I gently lowered about twelve wings into the wok and fried them until browned and crispy, turning them frequently with a tongs. It took about eight minutes to get the wings totally, evenly browned.

I removed and drained the wings and placed them still piping hot into a large mixing bowl. I scattered over the wings about a half-teaspoon of kosher salt, a generous amount of cracked black pepper (think teaspoon), a pinch of white pepper, a pinch of Chinese five-spice powder, a pinch of garlic powder, about a tablespoon of dark soy sauce, about a teaspoon of light brown sugar, about a teaspoon of togarashi shichimi (a Japanese seasoned chili pepper powder), about a tablespoon of minced fresh cilantro, and a big knob of room-temperature butter, which melted immediately as it hit the hot wings. I tossed it all together to coat the wings and then dumped them unceremoniously on a plate.

Regina and I scarfed the yummy wings in no time. Little baby Vivian had a couple of chicken scraps as well and made little positive murmurs as she chewed (her version of “compliments to the chef”). The wings were delicious!

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I crisped the wings in about an inch of rice bran oil.

Check out my other wing-related posts!

http://spencerhgray.wordpress.com/2011/02/03/its-game-time/

http://spencerhgray.wordpress.com/2011/07/23/chicken-wings-the-primal-gnaw/

http://spencerhgray.wordpress.com/2011/08/25/late-night-guilty-pleasure-chicken-wings/

http://spencerhgray.wordpress.com/2011/10/27/honey-ginger-chicken-wings-again/

Dried Hibiscus Flowers Make a Tasty Snack! No, really.

What the hell are we looking at?

At first glance you might not know what the hell you’re looking at. Some kind of barbecued baby cuttlefish, perhaps? Some weird Taiwanese gummy candy that was dropped on a dusty floor? Maybe some kind of alien spore that is only the first wave of an silent invasion that occupies our bodies and replaces our souls with some sort of implacable hive-mind drone entities? Or perhaps it’s jellyfish jerky with a lovely char sui glaze?

Well, if you guessed any of those you’re totally wrong, and you already know this if you actually read the headline of this post. Flowers, yes! Candied and dried hibiscus flowers, indeed!

At the Culver City Farmer’s Market on Tuesday afternoon I picked up (in addition to tomatoes and enough peaches to make me stagger a bit under the weight) a few bags of snacks — little rice crackers, lightly salted roasted cashews, and these really fantastic dried, candied hibiscus flowers. If you’ve ever had jamaica (pronounced ha-my-ka) agua fresco, that fantastic hibiscus cooler common to Mexico, you’ll know right off the bat what this will taste like. The drink tastes a bit like very sweet but still quite tart cranberry juice, with an un-surprisingly floral note. I absolutely love the stuff poured over lots of ice, as a fresh summer drink that drive away the heat. A shot or two of good vodka in the drink makes for a fantastic variant on a Cape Cod cocktail, btw.

The dried flowers have a chewy and slightly crumbly texture, much like dried mango, but the flavor is all hibiscus. That is, it tastes very similar to dried sweetened cranberries. A very interesting and delightful snack, for sure. My eight-year-old son popped them in his mouth without hesitation and polished off the bag, greedy little bugger.

Delightfully sweet and slightly tart candied hibiscus. No, it’s not squid.

I was so intrigued by these that I’ve given some thought to drying some myself. I’m sure I can do it without suflur dioxide, although I’m frankly not really concerned about using it in tiny quantities. Stay tuned, lovely people, perhaps I’ll have another post about homemade candied hibiscus soon.

If you see these, give ‘em a try.

Vietnamese Steamed Quiche with Pork & Glass Noodles

Seductive omelety-quichey sorta thing, of the Vietnamese ilk.

For those of the Asian persuasion this kind of steamed egg dish is probably a familiar, homey, comfort-foody sort of sight. Cha Trung Hap is a pleasant peasant dish from Vietnam that uses everyday ingredients to excellent effect — eggs, ground pork, glass noodles, and dried mushrooms are mixed and cooked to create a hearty, filling, and utterly delicious dish that’s cheap and easy to make. The Chinese have versions of this dish, the Japanese have a steamed egg thing called chawan mushi, and the Koreans have gyeran jjim. But this dish is certainly related to Italian frittata and Spanish tortilla and French quiche and all manner of Western-style baked eggs. So if you’re not of the Asian ilk and this dish looks strange or foreign to you, keep in mind that nearly every culture worldwide has something similar. For me, Cha Trung Hap is most recognizable to Western palates as a sort of crustless quiche, with the springy, tender, cooked eggs suspending a bounty of savory ingredients. With the mushrooms and the pork and the eggs, it’s also comparable to a meatloaf of sorts, although it’s nowhere near as dense or meaty as the American classic.

And for me this dish reminds me of my childhood; I recall my mother making it with some regularity, probably on days when she wanted something quick and easy (and cheap and filling) to make. I absolutely loved this as a kid and I love it now. It’s Vietnamese comfort food at it’s best — earthy and robust, flavorful and savory, filling and yet almost light. It might be served with steamed rice and a little stir-fried veggies. A small chunk might be on the same plate as crispy fried pork chops and rice. Personally I like it as an afternoon snack — just a thin slice with a drop or two of soy sauce makes a pretty healthy mini-meal.

The last time my mother was in town (to herald the arrival of baby Vivian) I asked her to demonstrate for me this classic dish. This recipe is hers, although I added a teaspoon of fish sauce when I replicated it, which I don’t recall her adding but I thought was necessary.

My mom recommends trying this with shrimp in place of or in addition to the pork. I haven’t yet tried this, but I’m sure it’s totally fantastic. You might also try it fully vegetarian, with water chestnuts and some greens.

Admittedly it doesn’t look like much now.

You will need:

  • one 4-ounce package mien (glass noodles)
  • 1/2 cup woodear mushrooms, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup shiitakes, stemmed & chopped
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1/2 pound of ground pork
  • 2/3 cup of diced white onion
  • 5 cloves garlic, minced
  • 12 eggs, divided
  • 1 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon Vietnamese fish sauce (nuoc mam)
  • 1/2 teaspoon finely ground black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon MSG* (optional)
  • cooking spray
Equipment needed:
  • A stainless steel bowl with a capacity of 8 cups or more.
  • A steamer set-up that can accommodate the bowl.
  • Aluminum foil.

Adhoc steamer, start your steaming!

Now do this:

First, prep the glass noodles by soaking them, fully immersed, in very hot water for about twenty minutes. Drain them and cut them into two-inch long pieces. Don’t be two concerned about length, though. This ain’t rocket science.

Regarding the mushrooms, you can use fresh or dried woodear and shiitakes. If you can’t find woodear mushrooms you can use just shiitakes, although woodears are very authentically Vietnamese. If you use dried mushrooms, rehydrate them much the same way you would soften the noodles — pour boiling water over them and let them soak until soft. Dried woodears will be soft within ten minutes, but dried shiitakes might take twenty minutes or more. Drain them well and then chop them when dry.

In a sauté pan heat the veggie oil over medium-high and add the pork. Season with a little salt and pepper and cook the pork, breaking it up into bits and stirring occasionally, until it is cooked through but not well-browned. In fact, the pork can be a bit pink in some areas; remember, you’ll be steaming the whole thing so you can keep the meat a trifle undercooked, which will actually help keep it moist. Add the onions and stir into the meat. Turn off the heat and allow the meat and onions to cool down five or ten minutes in the pan, off the stove.

In the meantime line a stainless steel mixing bowl with aluminum foil and coat the foil with a generous amount of cooking oil spray. Now you can set up your steamer, putting a couple inches of water in the pot. Put the lid on the steamer and bring the water to a boil. When it begins steaming reduce the heat to low and finish putting together the dish.

Now, into a big bowl put the mushrooms, cut noodles, pork & onions, and garlic. Crack six whole eggs and add it to the bowl. Crack remaining eggs but separate the whites and the yolks. Reserve the yolks for later and add the whites the bowl. Add salt, sugar, fish sauce, peppers, and MSG (if using). Mix everything very well with a wooden spoon or your hands. Pour mixture into the foil-lined bowl and set it gently into your steamer. Cover the steamer again with the lid.

Turn the heat up to high again until the water boils rapidly. When it returns to a vigorous boil reduce heat to medium high and steam eggs for 30 minutes. Open the steamer and pour the reserved egg yolks evenly all over the top surface of your Cha Trung Hap. Cover and steam another ten minutes.

Pouring a final layer of bright yellow yolks.

Remove the lid and check the steamed eggs for doneness by inserting a paring knife into it and removing. If it comes out clean, it’s finished. If not, steam another ten minutes on medium. Remove the bowl from the steamer and allow it to come to room temperature for five or ten minutes. Invert bowl egg-yolk side down and remove bowl. Carefully peel off the foil and voila! You got your Cha Trung Hap, ready to serve. Cut it into wedges or blocks and enjoy!

Vietnamese quiche — unmolded and unrivaled.

A cross-section of the Cha Trung Hap reveals a lovely strata of mushrooms, noodles, and pork!

Check out these other posts featuring (mostly) authentic Vietnamese grub:

Rau Muong: http://spencerhgray.wordpress.com/2012/05/10/garlicky-rau-muong-water-spinach-in-the-vietnamese-style/

Mien Ga Tom: http://spencerhgray.wordpress.com/2012/05/09/mien-ga-tom-vietnamese-chicken-glass-noodle-soup-add-shrimp/

Fried Tofu: http://spencerhgray.wordpress.com/2012/04/13/crispy-fried-tofu/

Bun Thit Nuong: http://spencerhgray.wordpress.com/2011/10/17/bun-thit-nuong-vietnamese-noodle-bowl-with-grilled-beef/

Crab Fried Rice: http://spencerhgray.wordpress.com/2011/09/19/crab-fried-rice/

Goi Cuon: http://spencerhgray.wordpress.com/2011/08/26/goi-cuon-summer-rolls-spring-rolls-salad-rolls-oh-my/

Cha Gio: http://spencerhgray.wordpress.com/2011/08/07/cha-gio-crispy-vietnamese-spring-rolls/

Garlicky Crab Noodles: http://spencerhgray.wordpress.com/2011/08/04/garlicky-crab-noodles/

Cari Ga: http://spencerhgray.wordpress.com/2011/05/27/cari-ga-vietnamese-chicken-curry/

Crispy Cashew-Miso Kale Chips

Crisp and addictive kale chips are pretty damn easy to make!

I know people who are vegan, vegetarian, pescaterian, flexitarian, or raw-foodist, and I know people who might eschew only beef or keep kosher or (yikes!) eat nearly only protein. Lots of different motivations lead people to follow specific dietary rules, and although I doubt I could ever embrace full vegetarianism personally, it’s hardly the radical concept it was even twenty years ago. It’s getting downright commonplace. Now you know that I’m a devout omnivore and I’ll eat pretty much anything (except raw cashews, but more on that later), but unlike some other “meat-friendly” eaters I’m not judgmental of “alternative” diets. Rather, I’m fascinated by some innovative approaches to cooking that vegans and raw food-eaters in particular have adopted to keep their diets interesting and varied.

My friends Bill and Lani are vegetarians. I recently saw them at a friend’s (hi, Jen!) house for an informal outdoor barbecue and they brought some amazing kale chips that Bill had made. Apparently he makes a big batch at least once a week. Even though I tried to restrain myself I probably ate half the big container they brought with them. They were super-crisp and a bit salty and slightly spicy. They tasted almost cheesy, a bit like healthy Doritos, with a faint but pleasant bitterness of leafy greens. They were totally addictive and I knew I needed to make a batch of my own ASAP. Bill was happy to share both his recipe and his method.

Of course it’s all about the dehydrator, which is one of those tools that (mostly) raw foodists use in lieu of an oven. They’ve taken a device used primarily for home fruit-drying and come up with all sorts of bread and dessert and snack recipes. I really love that kind of creativity and basic innovation that is born of dietary necessity. I’m currently fascinated by home-drying and I’ve already posted three other tales in The Dehydrator Chronicles. This kale chip is the fourth.

This recipe differs from Bill’s a bit. He adds a bell pepper. I put in a little miso paste. I’ve seen very similar recipes online that call for the addition of nutritional yeast. You want to do that, go for it. Bill used curly-leaf kale for his recipe, but I thought I’d try it first with the flatter-leaved Tuscan (also called dinosaur or lacinato) kale. Also Bill’s recipe calls for raw cashews, in keeping with the dictates of a raw recipe, but I am allergic to the highly caustic natural oils in raw cashews (they are distantly related to poison ivy) and can only eat them after they’ve been roasted and the raw oils have cooked out. So I’ve used roasted and salted cashews instead.

Otherwise our recipes are very similar. If you try this recipe, I encourage you to make some changes, play around with your ingredients. Try other nuts. Although choose nuts with a decent fat content — peanuts or macadamias are probably decent substitutes. I tried it with almonds and the result was bland and sandy, so I’d skip it if I were you.

Coated kale prepped and ready to dry.

You will need, besides a dehydrator:

  • I bunch kale
  • 1 cup roasted and salted cashews
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 a large carrot, peeled and cut into half-inch pieces
  • 1/3 cup scallions greens, coarsely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons shiro (white and mild) miso paste
  • 1/2 a large jalapeño, coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
  • the juice of one lime
  • a pinch of salt
  • a pinch of sugar

Now do this:

Prep the kale by removing the leaves from the woody spine. Tear kales leaves into pieces approximately three-inch square. Rinse leaves in cold water and dry them very well; I put them in a lettuce spinner and then gently pat them dry with a paper towel.

Put all remaining ingredients into a blender and puree on high until very smooth. Into a large bowl put the kale leaves and pour the puree over the leaves. With your hands rub the puree evenly all over the leaves.

Put the coated kale on your dehydrator racks in an even layer, taking care to leave a little space in between leaves. Set dehydrator for 125ºF and dry kale until crisp, perhaps four hours.

You could try making these in a conventional oven set to 200ºF. You’d need to spread the kale out on wire racks set over baking sheets. I’m sure it’ll work just fine, but you’ll need to flip the kale once and to watch them to make sure they don’t over-crisp and brown. It would probably take about an hour. That’s just a guess; I haven’t yet tried it in the oven.

Store in an airtight container for about a week. Hope you enjoy!

 

Other tales in the Dehydrator Chronicles:

Dried Cherries: http://spencerhgray.wordpress.com/2012/07/07/dried-rainier-cherries/

Beef Jerky:  http://spencerhgray.wordpress.com/2012/06/30/beef-jerky-bonanza/

Almond bread:  http://spencerhgray.wordpress.com/2012/06/15/vegan-tomato-avocado-sandwich-on-raw-almond-bread/

Dried Rainier Cherries

I love making my own healthy snacks at home!

This post is part of an ongoing series very informally called the “Dehydrator Chronicles”. Yes, I got a dehydrator about a month ago and I’ve been playing around with a few different things. I made some raw almond bread, dried apricots, beef jerky, and right now the house is filled with the pungent aroma of cashew-miso kale chips (another three hours to go!). I strongly urge you to get one. At about $60 for a basic dehydrator, you can have a great tool for making all kinds of healthy stuff. If you’re a raw foodist or a vegan or vegetarian or if you just want to broaden your skill-set in the kitchen, making dried fruit and other snacks is very easy, kinda fun (especially if you’re project-oriented like myself), and it helps foster in yourself or your family a deeper understanding of what and how we eat and the connections food has to our physical and psychic health. I make a lot of our food at home, and I absolutely love knowing our food was fresh when I cook it and highly nutritious when we eat it.

I love the idea of making snacks and I love dried fruit. Dried cherries are particularly nice — the natural sugars get concentrated and the resulting fruit is sweet, tart, and super-chewy. The apricots I made last week were so delicious that when I saw these beautiful Rainier cherries on sale I snapped up nine pounds. Fresh, the cherries were plump and moist and sweet and just lip-smakingly delicious!

It’s very hard to get a sense of how gorgeous these cherries are from this over-saturated pic. But trust me, they are beautiful!

I’ve never dried cherries before, but I anticipated that prepping the cherries would be a pain in the ass! And it was. First I rinsed the cherries and drained them well. And then I had to deal with pitting them; it took me about an hour to remove all the cherry stones, even though I enlisted the aid of my eight-year-old, who pitted several hundred cherries and ate a good 15% of his product. I paid for his labor in cherries, and both employer and employee were happy with the arrangement.

In addition to underage child labor, I highly recommend getting a cherry pitter. There are certainly very good hand-held pitters to be found (on the web or at places like Sur La Table, Williams-Sonoma, and Surfas), but for quantities like this you need what I’ve got pictured below. It’s got a suction base (which even worked on my wooden table) and you simply stem the cherries and put a few in the trough up top. A cherry rolls into place underneath the spring-loaded pit-plunger and you press down with your hand firmly. As the plunger returns to its original position the stone-free cherry rolls out into a waiting bowl. In all honesty I found this particular pitter only about 92% effective (a few cherries still had pits in them), but still very helpful. It was around $40 and very much worth the price. I’m already envisioning other cherry dishes I can make. Cherry pie, anyone?

Okay, you really need to get this cherry pitter if you plan to dry cherries. BTW, you can the dehydrator in the background.

Dehydrate cherries cut-side up!

After pitting all the cherries I cut them in half and placed them cut-side up on the dehydrator trays. I set the dehydrator to 135ºF and continued drying them until they were no longer moist or soft. They were chewy and sweet and yummy. These cherries took about eight hours to fully dry, although many factors can affect drying times (humidity in the air, the amount of sugar and moisture in the fruit, and the effectiveness of your brand of dehydrator) so don’t be surprised if yours take a shorter or longer time to dry. Just check them periodically.

Juicy and sweet Rainier cherries just prior to drying.

The only surprising thing about drying the cherries is how much they shrink! Nine pounds of fresh cherries (minus a half-pound or so lost in the pitting process) turned into four cups (packed) of dried cherries. We ate them in less than a week.

Was it worth the labor and time making homemade dried cherries? From my standpoint, absolutely! I encourage you to make the effort.

Chewy, sweet, a little tart. A very nice dried Rainier cherry!

Other tales in the Dehydrator Chronicles:

Beef Jerky:  http://spencerhgray.wordpress.com/2012/06/30/beef-jerky-bonanza/

Almond bread:  http://spencerhgray.wordpress.com/2012/06/15/vegan-tomato-avocado-sandwich-on-raw-almond-bread/

Crispy Fried Tofu

This fried tofu is the simplest thing in the world to make!

When I was growing up this was a very common dish in my house. My Mom would make this super-simple fried tofu at least twice a week as a snack, an appetizer, or a side dish in a larger Asian-style meal. When I visit my mother in Atlanta we eat it at every evening meal. We’ve been eating this same tofu dish for years and years because it is utterly delicious and surprisingly addictive. The mild curd develops unexpected flavors (sweet, a little sour, a little nutty) when fried, and the crisp edges give it textural interest and a nice chew. Dipped in something as simple as soy sauce, maybe with a little fiery chili paste in it, the little soy bean curd pillows are delightfully fun to eat as you pop them in your mouth. When I married Regina I discovered that she too loves this dish, which made me realize anew that fried tofu is ubiquitous in Asia. Fried tofu eclipses class and culture and politics — pretty much everyone who eats it loves it. Certainly my whole family loves it, including my tofu-obsessed father and my eight-year old son Bennet.

Not only is it tasty, but it’s cheap (a pound of tofu is about a buck) and it’s incredibly easy to make, as long as you’re not afraid of frying. And you shouldn’t be intimidated by frying, as long as you are a little careful.

This recipe is simple: cut some tofu and then fry the tofu. Eat the tofu.

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