By Jamie Drummond
Salvatore Principato has quite the resume, in fact some would say that he’s something of a phenomenon. Most will know him as being an integral component (vocals/percussion) of the seminal post-punk/post-disco outfit Liquid Liquid, responsible for such cracking records as Cavern, Optimo and Bellhead… but Sal has many other talents… cooking being a particularly strong suit of his, something that I interviewed him about some time ago.
A number of years ago, over lunch at Mario Batali’s Casa Mono, that Sal first told me of his wish to create a dining experience unlike any other I had previously heard of. The concept revolved around the idea of a structured “return to the table”, with an emphasis upon diners gaining a greater understanding of their relationship with food, something that Sal felt was seriously lacking in most New Yorker’s lives.
At this point in the project’s development Sal was attempting to work out how to integrate a shopping/gathering component, something that really drew me in. I distinctly remember thinking that the idea of a “restaurant” where one would (as a group) assemble ingredients, prepare a meal and then eat together, to be utterly fascinating… although I could not for the life of me fathom out how to make it work…
Fast forward to 2008: I receive an email from Sal indicating that he has shaped his original ideas somewhat and made them reality. Entitled Go Gather, guests make reservations to visit Sal’s downtown Manhattan apartment where they then communally prepare a full dinner from scratch. Under the watchful eye of his gorgeous wee dog Carrots, Sal leads the group through the steps of creating a thoroughly wholesome meal.
This was my second Go-Gather-Go experience, and this time I made sure that I had the wherewithal to properly document the proceedings (i.e. cutting back upon my vinous consumption)
After our arrival and the eventual unwrapping of all of our Winter clothing Sal announced that we would be making a mould of tofu, stuffing it, and then roasting the dish. This would be served with a mushroom and miso gravy, a Winter root vegetable mash, and steamed Chinese pumpkin. Not being the world’s biggest tofu enthusiast, it was with some trepidation that I launched myself into an evening of cooking vegan in Sal’s kitchen.
1. First up Sal presented us with three blocks of firm tofu. He had one of our party empty all three blocks into a large bowl and break them down with their hands. To this we were then instructed to add a couple of teaspoons of chopped garlic, a good splash of soy sauce and then a good splash of sesame oil. The bowl of crushed tofu and seasonings was then stirred well as we prepared the mould.
2. Sal took a large metal sieve and proceeded to line it with cheesecloth. This lined sieve was then suspended over a large plastic container so as to catch any moisture we could extract.
3. We were then directed to scoop all of the tofu from the bowl into the sieve. A plate was then pressed onto the tofu and a heavy bottle of water was placed on top of the plate in order to force as much liquid out of the tofu as we could and to shape it into the sieve (see below)
4. While the tofu mould was forming Sal instructed us to cut some leeks, celery, hot peppers, and garlic, a small handful of each. These ingredients were then slowly softened in some olive oil in a wok over a medium heat. To this we then added a handful of breadcrumbs and half a handful of crumbled chestnuts. After cooking off this stuffing mixture few a few minutes, half a glass of white wine was introduced and allowed to cook down. During this period we added a selection of herbs: oregano, thyme… actually, a number of different herbs would work here.
5. After approximately 40 minutes we took the weight from the top of the tofu mould to discover a rather solid looking half sphere. Sal instructed us to hollow out the tofu while making sure to ensure the structural integrity of the tofu. The stuffing mixture was then carefully spooned into the hollow and finally the stuffing covered with the tofu that we had scooped out previously. The top of the mould was then smoothed over with the flat of a night.
6. Now came the difficult part… Sal carefully flipped the sieve over onto a roasting pan. He then removed the sieve and finally the cheesecloth, leaving a perfectly formed and moulded tofu demi-sphere. The structural integrity had been maintained. Success!
7. The perfectly formed tofu was then brushed with a mixture of sesame oil and soy sauce…
8. …Before being placed in a medium hot oven “until it’s done” (approximately 30 minutes)
9. The gravy was made by taking some finely chopped mushrooms and onions (a handful of each) and slowly sautéeing them in some olive oil. After both were softened some miso paste (two teaspoons) and white wine (a glass) were added. This was then allowed to reduce over a low-medium heat for around 20 minutes. If some thickening of the gravy is required, Sal likes to use Tapioca flour, made from the cassava root. It is gluten free and a great alternative to flour or cornstarch when one requires a thickening agent.
10. Sal prepared a simple but effective root vegetable mash with boiled carrots, turnips, and potatoes, adding a little vegan cream cheese and vegetable oil spread to add a little creaminess to the mixture.
11. Remove the roasted tofu from the oven and allow to sit for five minutes before serving alongside the mashed root vegetables, covered in the mushroom/miso gray. Open another bottle of wine and enjoy!
I usually takes a lot to get me fired-up about vegan cuisine, but Sal proved to us that truly delicious vegan food is easily achievable… with a little direction from Mr. Principato of course!
For more information about how you and up to three friends can join Sal at his NYC apartment for a fantastic night of vegan cooking please see his website.
Edinburgh-born/Toronto-based Sommelier, consultant, writer, judge and educator Jamie Drummond is the Director of Programs/Editor of Good Food Revolution… and he is so glad he didn’t break any of Sal’s glassware this time around.