I’ve been reading a lot of Haruki Murakami, lately. I love world he creates – simultaneously realistic and fantastical. Reading one of his books is like living inside of an uncomfortably vivid dream. One of the things I have enjoyed greatly over the course of all of his works that I’ve read has been the attention paid to food. So often in literature, authors neglect to portray their characters eating, which strikes me as absurdly unrealistic. As an author, Murakami casually captures the idea that food nourishes and sustains, sometimes through an important, monumental meal, and sometimes just as something to eat, quickly made and quickly forgotten.
As his novels take place in Japan, I thought I would take a bit of inspiration out of his works and make a bento box inspired dinner. I have been researching bento boxes for awhile now, and finally pulled the trigger on buying one thanks to this meal, which consists of a variety of small Asian-inspired dishes. Bento boxes generally contain three parts carbohydrate (such as rice, pasta, or barley), two parts fruit and vegetables, and one part protein (such as meat, fish, or tofu). Bento boxes are particularly good for portion control, because if you follow the formula of 3-2-1, each milliliter of space, packed tightly, yields one calorie (for example, a 500 milliliter container is 500 calories).
This dish is made up of some brown rice tossed with wilted greens, pickled vegetables, roasted plum tomatoes, and horseradish dry-fried tofu. I stuck to the 3-2-1 serving suggestion and was super happy with it. I tried to choose components that balanced out texture (meaty tofu, crispy pickles, soft tomatoes, toothsome brown rice) and flavor (tangy tofu, slightly sweet and slightly vinegar-y vegetables, sweet roasted tomatoes, and savory brown rice), as well as employed a variety of cooking techniques (sautéed tofu, pickled vegetables, roasted tomatoes, simmer riced). The flavors were simple but fresh, and we both really enjoyed this healthy, delicious dish. For dinner, I served these separated on a large plate, with everything except the pickles warm. For lunch, I ate this room temperature (pictured). Both were equally yummy.
Horseradish Dry-Fried Tofu, Brown Rice with Wilted Greens, Quick Pickled Vegetables, and Roasted Tomatoes
Horseradish and Black Pepper Dry Fried Tofu:
1 14 oz. package extra-firm tofu, drained
1 tbs. freshly cracked black pepper
2 tbs. rice wine vinegar
1 tbs. canola oil
1 tbs. honey
1 tbs. horseradish mustard
Cut tofu block into slices 1/2″ thick. Place a few paper towels or a clean kitchen towel on a cutting board. Lay tofu on top on a single layer. Top with a few more paper towels or another clean kitchen top on top. Top with another cutting board and weigh down with a heavy cast iron skillet or canned goods. Press until as much moister as possible is drained, at least an hour.
Meanwhile, whisk together all remaining ingredients. Set aside.
Heat a cast iron pan, stainless steel pan, or other pan NOT coated with non-stick surface. Heat over medium heat. Add tofu, working in batches if necessary so the pieces are not overcrowded, and cook about 4-6 minutes per side until golden brown and leeched of moisture.
Transfer tofu and marinade into a zip lock bag or other marinating vessel. Place in refrigerator and marinate at least 3-4 hours but preferably over night, turning as necessary.
Heat a pan over medium heat. Add tofu and marinade and cook until tofu is heated through and marinade is reduced, about 4-6 minutes per side. Serve immediately.
Quick Pickled Parsnips, Zucchini, and Carrots:
1 parsnip, peeled and cut into 1/8″ rounds
1 zucchini, cut into 1/8″ rounds
1 carrot, peeled and cut into 1/8″ rounds
1 large pinch Korean dried chile flakes (or to taste)
1 cup rice wine vinegar
1 cup cold water
1/2 cup white sugar
2 tbs. soy sauce
Whisk together chile flakes, rice wine vinegar, water, sugar, and soy sauce. Add vegetables and place in a sealed container. Refrigerate at least one hour but up to overnight, depending on desired strength of pickle. Serve chilled.
Brown Rice with Wilted Greens:
1 cup brown rice, cooked according to package instructions
1 tbs. olive oil
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
2 1/2 cups mixed greens (such as spinach, arugula, frisee, red lettuce, etc.)
1 tbs. soy sauce
1/2 lemon, juiced
Heat olive oil over medium heat in a large sauté pan. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add greens and soy sauce, tossing frequently. Cook about 1 minute until wilted.
Add rice and toss to combine. Add lemon juice and toss to combine. Taste for seasonings and adjust as necessary.
Roasted Plum Tomatoes:
1 cup plum tomatoes
2 tbs. olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper
Preheat oven to 350º.
Cover a baking sheet with tinfoil. Toss tomatoes with olive oil and season liberally with kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper.
Place in oven. Roast about 25 minutes until wrinkled and dark brown in places, shaking 3-4 times during the roasting process.