All of us are dealing with fears of the unknown, anxiety about the present, and worrying about what’s yet to come. Each of us are dealing with these emotions in individual ways, as best we can. In all honesty, my life hasn’t changed too dramatically during this lock down. After rescinding my foster care license, I spent the better part of the following year shuffling about defeated, directionless, and struggling with depression. My pup, Dixon, joined our family last August, and more days than not, he was the only reason I got out of bed. Dixon never left my side during the bleakest of moments, and if he could make me smile through the hurt, then I could get up and take him out to the trails for a hike. In the middle of fall, I slowly but surely started to rise up out of the depths of my despair, which my precious little hiking buddy helped me with. I began to write again, resurrected my volunteer work at the food bank, landed several job interviews with the local school district, and even hosted a few dinner parties. Hope was renewed in my life, my spirits were lifted, and I started making goals again.
Then, in January, I was blindsided by my grandmother’s passing, and my family did what they did to me. Instantly, I plummeted right back under the dark, cold grip of the depression I had only just started to own again. Completely regressing, I stopped writing, stopped volunteering, and stopped applying for jobs. It was a rough couple of months to say the least. To quote Ninny Threadgoode, “A heart can be broken, but it will keep beating just the same.” So, for the hundredth thousandth time, I slowly began to drift back up to the surface of myself towards healing and coping once more. I started my blog back up, started chatting again with friends, and traveled a couple of times with Amy back to Massachusetts. I got serious about applying to culinary school, and so we started questioning whether or not we wanted to move back to New England, as a new culinary program was just added to Holyoke Community College, which is near where we used to live in Mass and close to our old friends. Once again, hope was renewed in my life and I was setting goals.
Then, this pandemic hit.
Suddenly, everyone was stuck at home, unsure of the future, and juggling an array of emotions, uncertainty, and changes of routine. Everything is on hold and we are all stuck in limbo, as we wade through the murky waters of Covid-19. The best thing to come out of this crisis thus far, in my opinion, is the focus on mental health, being gentle with ourselves, and realizing we are far more connected as human beings on this planet than we aren’t. Hopefully, as this crisis ends, we will hold on to all the amazing things we’ve learned while surviving this virus, and let go of what was hurting us as individuals and as a community. Sadness, depression, a lack of direction, and so on are all just a part of being alive. There is no universal right way to live or cope or process difficult emotions and anxiety. There is only compassion and empathy and patience. There is only the certainty that things are always changing. Life is fluid, emotions are fluid, and control is perspective.
Irregardless of any insight, or the house cat type lifestyle I was already living, this lock down, and all its restrictions, hits me pretty hard some days, as I’m sure is true for everyone. It’s overwhelmingly sad to think of all the restaurants/local businesses struggling, all the essential workers at risk, the loss of life, these outrageously dangerous protests, and facing the inescapable fear of not knowing what is going to happen next. The only thing that really helps me cope with all of it is turning off the news, shutting down social media, and getting in the kitchen. I zone out in my mise en place, crank up mood music, and sneak Salem, Finley, and Dixon a treat or two as they follow me around the kitchen. Before the quarantine however, I ate every meal alone anywhere from three to four days a week, and that is a low number compared to a few years ago when I dined alone five to six days a week. When it’s just me, I tend to heat up frozen leftovers in the microwave or toast up a quick naan pizza and generally avoid the kitchen as much as possible. There’s no music bumping, no mise en place zen, and no kitties sitting at the island barstools waiting for a scrap or two of roast chicken or cheese. So, having my busy travel wife home every night now is something I have never experienced before, and it’s the biggest change this lock down has had on my routine. My kitchen is alive and pumping out from scratch meals five to six days a week now. Cooking isn’t a chore for me though. It’s my art, my happy place. Although I miss the joy and control of gathering my weekly menu items myself, having my vegetables delivered to me has inspired my creativity and really pushed me into cooking new dishes.
Our new quarentine routine is what led to the development of this Hot and Sour Tofu recipe. Initially, I researched sweet and sour recipes and ended up utilizing the Omnivore’s Cookbook blog site for inspiration. The sauce was a little on the sweet side for us, so I made a few adaptations and the dish morphed into more of a hot and sour sauce instead of sweet and sour. The beauty of researching recipes for me is in finding a solid foundation, like the Omnivore’s Cookbook Sweet and Sour Tofu recipe, to further my knowledge and understanding of flavors and techniques, and then expand on that to include my own personal tastes and the ingredients I have to work with. That’s my goal with these recipe posts, to provide a foundation or inspiration for you to build a dish specific to you and your family’s preferences. It’s just one more way for us to stay connected to each other while spending so much time apart. We all have to eat. So, we might as well have a little fun while we do it. Every time I’m in my kitchen, with the cats perched on the barstools, Dixon bouncing around underfoot, and Amy in the living room flipping another record, I feel a deep and joyful connection to the universe around me. Life is tough right now. We can all lose ourselves in the stress and anxiety from time to time. We all have individual challenges and differences to face down, but, at the end of the day, we all eat food. It’s the one thing that continues to connect us, even in times like these.
Hot and Sour Sauce:
1/4 cup vegetable stock
3 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp Shaoxing Wine
1 tbsp rice wine vinegar
4 tsp tomato paste
1 tbsp maple syrup
1 tbsp Hoisin sauce
1 Thai Bird chili, diced
2″ piece ginger root, skin removed, diced
1 green bell pepper, stem and seeds removed, diced
3 – 4 stalks celery, trimmed, diced
1/2 red onion, diced
2 cups tofu, cubed
1/4 cup cornstartch
1/4 cup fine cornmeal
1/4 cup wheat flour
1 tbsp 5 spice powder
1/2 tsp Roasted Szechuan Salt, or salt of choice
1/2 tsp fresh cracked black pepper
1/4 cup toasted sesame oil
2 servings cooked Jasmine rice
In a small mixing bowl, combine all the sauce ingredients. Taste and adjust as desired. Set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the cornstarch, cornmeal, wheat flour, 5 spice powder, salt, and pepper. Taste and adjust as needed. Carefully toss in the cubed tofu until the tofu is evenly coated on all sides. Set aside.
Heat a wok over med high flame. Once the wok is very hot, add in the sesame oil. Working in small batches, fry the tofu until crispy and golden brown on all sides. Set aside.
In the same wok, add to the hot oil the celery, bell pepper, and onion and saute about 3 to 5 minutes until the vegetables have just started to soften. Add in the sauce and reduce the flame to low. Simmer until it begins to reduce and thicken, about 5 – 10 minutes. To finish, stir in the fried tofu and toss until well coated and continue to reduce the sauce 1 – 2 minutes longer, if desired. Serve immediately with Jasmine rice.