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February 27, 2004

Small-Time Cooks

The scene was all heat when I arrived. Two friends of mine were going up against a few guys with chins that could cut ice. I didn't want to see what their fists could do, so we got out of there faster than you could say brass knuckles on a cold afternoon.

Turns out they were in for it from this restaurateur, an old connected fella whose place had the best Italian dishes in town. My friends wanted to spill the beans on a couple of his recipes, but they didn't get very far.

Later that night, I wanted to try my hand at some recipes. I asked Maria what her favorite dish was, and I told her I'd try to make it like this Italian joint did. Turns out she liked chicken Parmesan before she turned vegetarian, so I made her some tofu Parmesan instead. The dish was dynamite, and the wise guy's place couldn't hold a candle to it.

These dishes serve 4-6.

*Tofu Parmesan*

1 block firm tofu

4 eggs

flour

Italian breadcrumbs

garlic salt

ground black pepper

grated Parmesan cheese

olive and vegetable oil for frying

1-2 pounds angel hair or spaghetti

For the sauce:

1 large (29-ounce) can crushed tomatoes

1 can tomato paste

2 Tbsp. chopped fresh basil

Italian herbs for seasoning

black pepper

salt

red or sherry cooking wine

Set the crushed tomatoes to simmer in a pot, and add in the basil and tomato paste after about 15 minutes. Stir occasionally, and add herbs to taste—as well as black pepper, salt, and red or sherry cooking wine. Leave simmering while you are making the rest of the meal. Put the pasta on to cook so it is ready in time. Carefully slice the tofu into cutlets about a 1/8-inch to 1/4-inch thick, being careful not to let the tofu fall apart. Lay out three bowls: one with the flour, followed by one with the egg, and then one with the Parmesan, breadcrumbs, and garlic salt. (Use mainly breadcrumbs in the mixture). Take each cutlet and cover well with flour, then transfer to the egg, shaking off any excess egg. Finally, put it into the breadcrumb mixture and make sure to cover the entire cutlet well. Heat about a 1/4 inch of oil in the pan, using mostly vegetable oil. When the oil is good and hot, fry each cutlet one at a time. Flip after about 10 to 15 seconds, being careful not to burn them. Remove to paper towels to let drain. Assemble the noodles and sauce on the plate, and lay on top one or two cutlets. Add some more sauce on top of the cutlets, and serve with grated Parmesan.

You can also sprinkle some Parmesan on the cutlet before you put it on the plate, and broil it in the oven for about 30 seconds to a minute to melt the cheese. If you want to use chicken, do the same thing as above (use thin cutlets, and pound them to the desired thickness), being sure to bread the chicken very well. Make sure you fry the chicken long enough so it cooks thoroughly.

*Stuffed Mushrooms*

16 button mushrooms, washed and stemmed

2 ounces grated mozzarella cheese

2 tablespoons breadcrumbs

1 teaspoon garlic salt

Toss together the cheese, breadcrumbs, and garlic salt. Stuff the mixture firmly into the mushroom caps, and lay the mushrooms on some aluminum foil on a baking sheet. Broil for about 2 minutes, or until the cheese melts. Serve.

For vegans:

For the tofu Parmesan, Egg Beaters are a fine substitute for real eggs, and you can skip the Parmesan cheese. For the stuffed mushrooms, save the stems and chop them very finely. Sauté, using very little oil. After about a minute, add the breadcrumbs and garlic salt. When the breadcrumbs begin to brown, remove from heat. Stuff into the mushroom caps, adding spinach if you like. Broil for 1 to 2 minutes, and serve.

In last week's column, we forgot to mention the Vegan Chef's (and new Iron Chef's) name: Josh Schwartz. Sorry, Josh!