As I write this post, I’m watching the coverage of the tornado outbreaks across the Midwest and South. It is hard to put into words what this is like after last April 27, how many memories and emotions flooded over me the split second I turned on the TV and heard the familiar quadruple beeps signifying new National Weather Service warnings threading across the bottom of the screen. It is the second day of this year’s tornado season, and both of my adopted Southern homes (Nashville and Tuscaloosa) are under attack.
Y’all know I am not from here. I grew up with earthquake drills at school. I can count on one hand the thunderstorms I remember from the entire 18 years I lived in California. To compare, yes, it is true that tornadoes come with warning, which is nice, but they feel so much more heartwrenching than earthquakes. They are so frequent. As soon as your heart goes out to the people of South Carolina, another storm hits Missouri. And no sooner have you started praying for them than you have to add Indiana to your mental list of outgoing thoughts. It is awful. Even locally, it seems like you are up throughout the night dozens of times from March through May, glued to the TV, wondering if you should drag the mattress to the bathtub and pull it over your head.
The other thing is that tornadoes are so random. You feel beyond guilty hoping they won’t hit your town or those of your loved ones, because they will touch down in someone’s town, hurting someone’s loved ones. Still today, there are literally just a few rows of houses between our main hospital and where the stark flatness of the major damage begins. Again and again last April, we saw a demolished house right next to one that appeared untouched. The element of chance makes your stomach drop. Not to mention, the destruction is unbelievable. Homes and trees are reduced to shreds, entire towns taken completely off the map.
One thing about the Deep South, though, is that the people are absolutely amazing. Last spring churches, individuals, and community organizations sprang into action immediately, helping in hundreds of hands-on ways across the state. I have never known more generous, selfless people anywhere. It was nearly dark when the tornado passed, but that first night Tuscaloosans drove to the most dangerous areas and started pulling people out of rubble, trying to get them to hospitals, cutting down trees or other obstacles, setting up volunteer bases, and donating food, clothing, and supplies of all kinds. The outpouring of volunteer efforts continues today in many forms. The heart and community-mindedness of this part of the country is second to none. We still have years of rebuilding to do and nothing will ever make up for the tragedy and lives lost, but in some ways I feel like our city is stronger and tighter for what we went through together.
Anyway, last April 27 when the power went out, I had a half-cooked pot of beans on the stove. We were among the very lucky ones whose electricity was restored in a few hours, so the beans finished cooking that evening and turned out edible. Tonight I felt like a homey, savory meal might be comforting given how many hours of news coverage we’ll watch, so I put this simple tofu puttanesca together. I have to admit that I felt a little better as soon as its scent started wafting throughout the apartment.
When we tried out the original recipe intended for pasta the other night, I threw in some tofu, just to see what would happen. It turned out that the tofu stole the show, and poor pasta lingered in the dish after we had picked out all of the golden squares. We love the salty, robust flavor of puttanesca; I don’t know why we don’t make it more often.
This recipe is easy, perfect for a weeknight when you want to put something in the oven, tend to it minimally while you do other things, and sit down to a hot, hearty, satisfying meal. This may be my new favorite flavor palate for tofu. (Not David’s though; he still likes it slathered in barbeque sauce before being baked on a cookie sheet.) If you’d like more of a flavor punch in the tofu itself, consider somehow basting or marinating it in these ingredients before roasting. I kept this version simple and weeknighty, so haven’t explored that strategy with this combination yet.
This simplified take on puttanesca is vegan, too. I personally didn’t miss the anchovies or cheese you might expect. Feel free to add some oregano or basil if you like, or top with pinenuts if you have them on hand. Serve over rice, pasta, or sauteed kale/spinach; atop thick crusty bread or toast; alongside a salad; or by itself.
Simple Oven-Roasted Puttanesca Tofu
(Adapted from Whole Living)
14 oz. firm tofu
6 vine-ripened or Roma tomatoes, cut into 1-inch wedges, with the little tough, round stem nub removed
4 medium-size cloves garlic, thinly sliced (a generous Tbsp.)
4 Tbsp. capers
3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
finely ground sea salt and black pepper
1/2 cup kalamata olives, pitted and halved
pasta, rice, spinach, kale, thick crusty bread, or other foundation for serving (optional)
1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
2. Cut your tofu into 3/4 or 1-inch thick slabs, as pictured above. Blot them several times with a paper towel, then flip them over and blot the other sides the same way. Repeat if desired. You don’t need to be too meticulous, you just want to absorb their extra liquid before you bake them. Cut the slabs into 3/4 to 1-inch cubes.
3. Combine the tomatoes, garlic, capers, and oil in a casserole dish or 9 x 13 baking dish. Season with salt and pepper to your liking (I shake them on fairly liberally), and toss it all together with your hands. Add the tofu and gently combine everything by hand another time or two.
4. Roast for 35 minutes.
5. Reduce heat to 375 degrees, and gently stir the olives into the baking dish. Roast 15 more minutes.
6. Serve hot, by itself or on top of a tasty foundation. You’ll find suggestions for accompaniments listed above.
Makes enough for 2 – 3 hearty appetites as a main course.
*If you’d like to make this nutritarian or Eat to Live-friendly, just omit the salt and olive oil. If you tomatoes are not super juicy, you may want to add a touch of wine or vegetable broth to the mixture, so that everything doesn’t dry out too much or stick to the bottom of the pan. And that’s it! We’ve discovered we really don’t miss the oil/salt at all when we make it that way!