November and December were mild in upstate New York, with little snow. January has decidedly ushered in winter. We've had single-digit temperatures for several days in a row over the last few weeks. It started snowing on Friday morning--the kids were so excited walking to school, stopping frequently to pack snowballs to throw--and it snowed pretty steadily for two days. We have a nice few inches on the ground, and the trees have a more solid presence now that they are outlined in white.
Oh, but I am feeling the cold, with the temperatures dipping into the single digits overnight and the chill persisting well into the mornings.
I'm seeking comfort in food: soups and stews and noodles and anything warm and rib-sticking. I'm finding special comfort in preparing the Mexican dishes that my mother and aunts and grandmothers made when I was a kid. I still associate the smells of toasted cumin seeds and garlic, ground in a molcajete, and carmelizing onions and peppers with family and welcome: with the warm kitchens that my grandmothers cooked in and emerged from to greet us when we visited during the holidays.
The problem is that these dishes are traditionally made with meat, cheese, and lard, and my family switched to a primarily plant-based diet last year.
Thankfully, I'm finding that, with a few substitutions, the Tex-Mex dishes from my childhood adapt pretty well to a plant-based (and gluten-free, for me) diet.
When I was a kid, one of my favorite dishes to have for a special dinner was carne guisada, which I have seen translated as braised beef tips. It's essentially a dish that uses an inexpensive cut of meat, which becomes magically tender as it bubbles away in a cumin-spiced gravy. My mother would sometimes make this dish with venison, cutting the meat into small cubes and browning them in sizzling Crisco. I would eat my portion and then sop up the gravy with a tortilla "spoon."
Here's a gluten-free, vegan version of my childhood favorite, made with organic tofu from our local Ithaca Soy. The spices are the same familiar ones that remind me of home. (Edited to add: Please note that I don't use precise measurements when I cook, so the quantities are approximate. You can use more or less spice according to your taste and liquid to the desired thickness of the gravy.)
1/2 onion, diced very small
1 small bell pepper, diced very small
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 TBSP olive oil OR 1/2 cup vegetable stock
1 package firm tofu, drained and cubed
1 TBSP cumin powder
1 TBSP red chile powder
salt and pepper to taste
2 TBSP brown rice flour
2 TBSP Bragg Liquid Aminos*
1 TBSP toasted sesame oil
~1 cup vegetable broth
(Edited to add: *Bragg Liquid Aminos is a non-GMO, wheat-free, low-sodium alternative to soy sauce. It adds a nice "umami" flavor to a vegetarian dish.)
Saute the onions, bell pepper, and minced garlic in either the olive oil or the vegetable broth until carmelized, on medium-high heat. Add the cubed tofu to the vegetables and brown. Add the spices. And the brown rice flour and stir until browned. Add the Bragg liquid aminos and toasted sesame oil and mix well. Add the vegetable broth a little at a time. Cook on high heat until the gravy bubbles, and then turn to low, cooking about 5-10 minutes, until the tofu absorbs the flavors.
You can serve the tofu guisada on a bed of mixed greens, garnished with bean sprouts and grated carrot for extra crunch, and guacamole on the side. It's also good wrapped in homemade flour tortillas, which my kids call "Mommy-tillas," or corn tortillas.
It makes me happy that I can introduce my children to the flavors of my childhood. I hope that they'll be able to continue the tradition with their own families.