Spinach and kale salad with sesame vinaigrette and marinated baked tofu

The Year of the Monkey is already peeking out from around the corner, and I hope it has a kindly mischievous grin, boundless energy, and sense of fun. Last year, wonderful in so many ways, packed in a couple of tough punches, too. Little Monkey, our lucky charm, kept liveliness and laughter going strong, so we can't complain. Maybe this next Monkey year will be a momentous one for him. He wasn't actually born in a Year of the Monkey (in fact, he's a snake), but I've just been informed that the year of one's birth sign is believed to be the most unlucky in the 12-year cycle...so phew! If we took Chinese astrology seriously, I'd be very relieved that our house is officially monkey-less. kale tofu 1b

Typically on Chinese New Year we bring to the table cheerful, bright citrus (representing prosperity and good fortune) and some kind of long noodle dish, honoring the Chinese tradition of "long-life noodles" symbolizing...well, it's obvious, isn't it. This year, I may continue the trend. Or, I might just make this salad.

What could be a better symbolic start to a new cycle...whether it's New Year or Chinese New Year...than power-packed plants like tender spinach and crisp kale, a blend of crunchy vegetables, and marinated baked tofu that has a robust, even meaty, somewhat smokey Asian barbeque taste to it? Even better, it's easy to prep in stages, vary to taste, and quickly assemble. Not only that, it's heartily toddler-approved. At least the tofu chunks, cucumbers, and snap peas are.

kale tofu 3b

No one would expect me to mark the Chinese New Year, not even my mom. The truth is, most years I feel a sort of romantic need to do something to celebrate. Romantic in the sense that the feeling is wistful, coupled with a little detachment and self-consciousness. Because depending on how you view it, you could very well say I'm not really Chinese. I have formative memories of being teased and tormented long ago as a young child for slanted "ching chong" eyes, browner or yellower skin...for being different.  Yet while living in Taiwan one year between college and graduate school, locals were generally shocked to learn I was half Asian, my mother having been born in Hong Kong. The realization that there too, people wondered "what are you" when they met me was in its way unsettling. It was interesting how relationships changed when the knowledge was shared. On the one hand, my Chinese women friends embraced me more closely, like an invisible wall had been removed. On the other, I lost a little bit of something that was not quite but kin to respect.

Today, a trip I am most thankful for is having gone to China as a 15-year old, tagging along on my parents' goodwill mission to China with the state of Connecticut. That was when my eyes opened to the many contrasts and contradictions, the richness and beauty that was a part of my distant inherited culture, and I realized how foolish it was to shun it. Those few weeks in China were the start too, of an ongoing  internal journey, one that acknowledged the box I stood still in, yet without stillness, as an onlooker.

kale tofu 2b

But all that, journeys and such--they are much more diary, chapters thereof, than simple blog post about a salad. That said, I think I will make this salad for February 8th...with a side of long, unbroken noodles. In honor of honoring traditions while embracing something different. Because just as I used to be brought to tears at the way some would ask "what are you" with narrowed eyes and narrower minds, we may not need a monkey (astrological one) to define what comes next. We do however thrive on the reminder to do our best to create the path, and be thankful for and open to all good things. It's way too early to wish, but gung hay fat choy.


Spinach and kale salad with ginger sesame vinaigrette with teriyaki baked tofu Prep time: 25 minutes (plus time to marinate tofu) Cook time: 40 minutes Yield: 4 dinner servings

For the salad:

  • 3 cups baby kale, washed and spun dry
  • 3 cups baby spinach, washed and spun dry
  • 2 -3 cups mixed vegetables or choice (sliced cucumber, sliced red pepper, snap peas)
  • 1 recipe teriyaki marinated baked tofu (see below)

For the dressing:

  • 1/3 cup rice  vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon  orange juice
  • 2 tablespoons chopped green onions
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1 tablespoon minced peeled fresh ginger
  • 1 finely minced garlic clove
  • 2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon dark sesame oil
  • 1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds

Place all ingredients through sesame oil in a blender and process until smooth. Transfer to a bowl or container and stir in sesame seeds.

Teriyaki marinated baked tofu

  • 1/4 cup reduced-sodium soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • ⅓ cup vegetable broth
  • 1 teaspoon dark sesame oil
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • ¼ cup  rice vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon grated ginger
  1. Cut tofu into 8 slabs crosswise and drain between clean kitchen towels or paper towels. Place between two cutting boards and let stand for 20 minutes .
  2. Combine all the marinade ingredients in a small container and whisk together. Arrange the tofu slices in a single layer in a shallow container and pour enough marinade over them to cover. Refrigerate at least one hour to overnight.
  3. Preheat the oven to 400º F. Transfer tofu slices to a parchment or foil-lined baking pan in a single layer.
  4. Bake for 20 minutes, gently flip with a spatula, and bake for 20 minutes longer. Tofu should be firm and beginning to  brown along the edges. Let sit in warm oven if desired for greater firmness.