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In the Kitchen with…Eric O’Grey: Tofu paella blends Asian, Spanish flavors

Six years ago, Eric O’Grey never would’ve eaten tofu.

“I scoffed at the idea of vegetarianism,” he said. “I was ignorant.”

He was also obese. The Spokane Valley man weighed 320 pounds and wore a shirt size of XXXL to XXXXL. His waistline stretched 52 inches.

With the help of a shelter dog and naturopath, O’Grey lost 140 pounds in 10 months and has kept the weight off since summer 2011. Now, he weighs 180, runs marathons and maintains a plant-based, gluten-free, whole-foods diet.

“His whole transformation, in that time frame, was actually incredible,” said Dr. Preeti Kulkarni, the Cupertino, California-based naturopathic doctor who treated O’Grey until he moved to Washington state in 2014.

She remains impressed with his commitment and initiative. “I love his story,” Kulkarni said. “He’s a great example. I’ve had other patients who have been inspired by what he’s done.”

He embodies what she aims to teach her patients: “What you put in the body is what heals the body. Food,” she said, “is fuel.”

Today, O’Grey, 56, buys beans in bulk and aims to eat all organic. He spends about $300 per month on groceries – much less than what he used to spend when he was eating a diet of delivery and drive-thru foods.

The only processed foods he allows himself now are sugar-free pasta sauce, gluten-free vegan pasta and tofu.

“It’s complete protein without all of the baggage that comes with meat,” O’Grey said of tofu. “A lot of people say, ‘I hate tofu.’ But you can make tofu taste like anything you want.”

He particularly enjoys charred tofu with a hint of maple syrup for its tart, earthy, smoky flavor. For a “meatier” consistency, he presses then freezes the soybean curd – a trick he learned from self-taught vegan chef Philip Gelb – to make the texture seem more “like pork.”

O’Grey learned “everything I know about vegan cooking” from Gelb, who runs Sound & Savor, a catering and personal chef business in the San Francisco Bay Area, where O’Grey used to live. Gelb melds a variety of ethnic cuisines – Eastern European Jewish, Japanese, Sichuan, Spanish, Thai, Middle Eastern, Italian – in his cooking.

He remembers O’Grey as a “friendly and very enthusiastic” culinary student, who took about 10 classes from him.

“I may have helped him learn about some new ingredients and dishes, and hopefully gave him confidence in exploring more on his own,” said Gelb, 50. “He was very passionate about cooking and learning more about different ingredients and always talked about his experiences, using recipes from past classes with friends.”

Gelb’s influence is evident in one of O’Grey’s favorite plant-based recipes for dinner parties and special occasions: vegan paella.

It blends Asian flavors with more traditional Spanish ingredients: marinated tofu, saffron and Valenciano rice. To make his homemade vegetable broth more complex, he likes to add “ocean flavor” by soaking then simmering three pieces of kombu, or dried edible kelp, and four dried shitake mushrooms along with the vegetables.

“I like flavors from different countries,” he said. “I think it adds a huge amount of variety.”

Plant-based Paella

From Eric O’Grey and inspired by Philip Gelb.

1 package (15.5 ounces) firm tofu, pressed then frozen, thawed and sliced

4 tablespoons tamari

3 tablespoons brown rice vinegar

3 tablespoons mirin

3 tablespoons maple syrup

3 tablespoons olive oil, divided, for sauteeing

2 cups peas

2 cups green beans

1 cup asparagus tips

2 carrots, cut into rounds

1 tablespoon sesame oil

2 small to medium onions, finely diced

Sea salt to taste (O’Grey prefers pink Himalayan)

6 cloves garlic, finely minced

4 medium tomatoes, finely diced

2 1/2 cups Valenciano rice

1 gram saffron

4 1/2 cups vegetable stock, divided

3/4 cup marsala wine or 1/4 cup cabernet sauvignon

1 1/2 teaspoons smoked paprika

1 teaspoon crushed black pepper

Slice tofu into half-inch squares 1/4 inch thick. Combine tamari, brown rice vinegar, mirin and maple syrup in a small mixing bowl and marinate tofu squares.

In a frying pan, over medium-high heat, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil. Add peas, green beans, asparagus tips and carrots, and sauté for 5 minutes, until mostly cooked, then set aside.

In a nonstick frying pan, heat sesame oil over medium-high heat. Add marinated tofu squares and cook until they are just starting to char.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In a seasoned, 17-inch, carbon steel paella pan, add 2 tablespoons olive oil, onion and salt. Saute 10 minutes, stirring every minute to keep from burning.

Add garlic and tomatoes, and cook for 15 minutes, stirring every minute. Add the rice and sauté for 1 minute.

Add saffron to 1 cup vegetable stock, then add saffron-stock mixture to rice and stir well. Add the wine, letting it evaporate and blend into rice, then add remaining stock, smoked paprika, and crushed black pepper.

Stir once, and only once. (The goal is to let a crust build up on the bottom of the pan.) Lower heat to low, and cook slowly for about 15 minutes.

Place vegetables, then tofu, decoratively on the rice. Do not stir.

Place in 400-degree oven for 10 minutes or until all liquid is evaporated. Remove from oven and let sit 2 minutes before serving.

Yield: 10 to 12 servings

Roasted Cauliflower Watercress Miso Chowder

From “Notes from an Underground Restaurant: Improvisations through Food and Music” by Philip Gelb

1/2 pound small creamer potatoes, diced

1 head cauliflower, diced

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1 tablespoon safflower oil

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 onion, diced

1 leek, diced

5 cloves garlic, minced

1 carrot, minced

1 stalk celery, diced

3 cups vegetable stock, preferably homemade

1/3 cup raw cashews

1/4 cup white miso (saikyo preferable)

1 small bunch watercress

Freshly cracked black peppercorns

Very good quality olive oil, for garnish

In a roasting pan, add potatoes and cauliflower. Sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon sea salt and the safflower oil. Cover with foil and roast at 425 degrees for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a frying pan, heat olive oil and add onions and leeks. Over medium-low heat, cook about 10 minutes until slightly caramelized. Add garlic, carrot and celery and cook 5 minutes over medium heat, stirring occasionally.

Add half of the sauteed vegetables and half of the roasted vegetables to a blender. Add stock, cashews, miso and watercress to the blender, and puree till very smooth. Add the mixture to a pot with the rest of the sauteed and roasted vegetables. Bring to a simmer but do not boil. Season to taste with black pepper. Garnish with a small amount of very good olive oil.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Socca with Smoked Eggplant Dip and Julienned Vegetables

From “Notes from an Underground Restaurant: Improvisations through Food and Music” by Philip Gelb

2 cups chickpea flour

2 cups water

1/4 cup olive oil, plus more for coating the pan

2 teaspoons sea salt

1 tablespoon dried sage

1 tablespoon dried rosemary

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

In a bowl, whisk together all the ingredients. Cover and let rest for 2 hours.

Over medium heat, warm up the cast iron pan or crepe pan for 10 minutes. Coat the pan with olive oil. Whisk the chickpea flour mixture well and then ladle about 1/3 cup of the mixture in the center, making a circle, extending outward until the batter thinly coats the crepe pan.

Cook over medium heat until it starts to bubble. Turn only once and cook on the other side for about 1 minute.

Remove from pan, cut into 4 to 8 sections, like a pizza, and cover with toppings. Best served hot and crisp.

Yield: About 1 dozen crepes

Smoked Eggplant Dip

2 large eggplants olive oil

Sea salt

1/2 cup raw walnuts

2 cloves garlic

1/4 cup lemon juice

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoon paprika

1 tomato, chopped

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

Rub a little olive oil and salt on the 2 eggplants, keeping the eggplants whole, with the stems on the cap intact. Smoke the eggplants using apple wood or alder or a combination, until the eggplants totally collapse. Remove the charred skin.

Place walnuts in a hot cast iron frying pan. Over low heat, toast them lightly until they are aromatic, about 5 minutes. Place the flesh of the eggplants and toasted walnuts along with the rest of the ingredients in a food processor and puree till smooth.

Yield: about 8 servings

Julienned Vegetables (and toppings)

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/4 red onion, cut into half moons

1 carrot, julienned

10 snow peas, julienned

10 pieces asparagus, julienned

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

Dash black pepper

1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

2 tablespoons pine nuts

2 teaspoons lemon juice

Always use what is in season. For spring I like to julienne asparagus, snow peas, carrots and red onions, and do the following:

In a hot skillet, add olive oil. Add red onion, carrot, snow peas, and asparagus and saute for 3 minutes. Add sea salt, black pepper, red pepper flakes, and pine nuts and saute for 2 more minutes. Add lemon juice and mix well.

In summer, replace the asparagus with the kernels cut from 2 ears of corn, for great texture. In fall and winter, replace asparagus with thinly julienned kabocha or cubes of butternut squash.

Dot the socca with the prepared vegetables and serve hot or warm. This can also work at room temperature.

Note: In summer, I always put Smoked Eggplant Dip on socca and then add the vegetables on top of the dip. In winter, I add a bean dip and place the vegetables on top of the dip.


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