For many New Yorkers, a home cooked meal is a rarity, a pearl in an ocean of eating out, deliveries–in and sustenance grabbed on the Go!–Go!–Go! For nearly all of food enthusiast Mercedes Batista’s almost eighty years, cooking is a ritual, a gift she gives herself everyday. I joined Mercedes at the West Village apartment where she has lived happily alone for the past forty of those years for dinner.
Mercedes is a Spaniard by birth, who grew up in Cuba and hightailed it to America as soon as she turned twenty-one. She worked in the fashion industry as a designer of childrens clothes. She taught draping at FIT and created the draping department at the French Fashion Academy. She was an IT maverick who taught desktop publishing on the original Mac computers back in the seventies. In 1989, she left New York for Spain to teach at the art department of a huge advertising agency to use a Mac design software, schlepping her then GIANT Macintosh computer with her. She came back with computer burn-out and got a job selling fish on and off at the Union Square Greenmarket for nearly sixteen years. It was hard work, but it suited her lifestyle at the time and was an enjoyable experience that she cherishes. Over this period, she also cooked and assisted at various cooking schools.
For our dinner she prepared a dish of spicy, seared tofu triangles on a bed of soba noodles with a seaweed infused salad on the side. It was simply delicious.
Spicy, Seared Tofu Triangles with Soba Noodles
- 1 pkg 14 oz firm or extra firm tofu
- 1large garlic clove, grated to taste
- grated ginger with the skin to taste (She used a 1” diameter knob)
- smoked sesame oil
- mirin (Japanese sweet rice wine)
- Bragg Liquid Aminos or any soy sauce
- balsamic vinegar
- hot red pepper flakes to taste
- 50:50 mixture of olive oil and canola oil
- 2 bundles of buckwheat soba noodles
NOTE: Mercedes uses the “a bit of this and a bit of that” method for cooking. She suggests that you follow your taste when it comes to making the marinade. You may email her at cheitamb[at] yahoo.com if you have any questions about the recipe.
Press the tofu block by putting a plate on top of it, with a weight (see images), for at least for 30 minutes to extract as much water as possible. Prepare the marinade by mixing garlic, ginger, sesame oil, mirin, Braggs Amino Liquid (or soy sauce) and balsamic vinegar to taste. Start a pot of salted boiling water for the noodles, following package instructions. Cut the tofu block in half horizontally. Cut in half again vertically. Cut diagonally twice to obtain eight triangles (see images).
Place the tofu triangles in a Ziploc bag with the marinade for thirty minutes. Shake the bag from time to time to coat the triangles thoroughly with the marinade.
Put the soba noodles in the boiling water and cook them according to the package instructions, rinse them in cold water to stop them from cooking and drain into a bowl and toss with a little oil to keep them from sticking (Mercedes cooked them simultaneously with the tofu and dropped them right into the frying pan after removing the tofu, but the timing is more challenging, so you may find precooking the noodles easier).
When the tofu is ready, remove the triangles from the bag and put them on a plate. Pour about 1/4” of oil into a large frying pan on a medium-high flame. Sprinkle red pepper flakes in the oil and lightly toast them (be careful not to burn them), then gently place the tofu triangles in the pan. Sear on one side until browned (about a minute) and then sear on the other side. Remove them back to the plate and keep warm. Add remaining marinade to the pan and then the soba noodles, toss to coat. Adjust seasoning if necessary.
Plate the dish with soba noodles first and top with the tofu.
Mercedes served this with a seaweed infused green salad. She got a Japanese seaweed salad mix from Chinatown that contains dried seaweed, snow fungus and agar agar. Rehydrate the by putting a handful the seaweed in a bowl with hot water to cover. It expands in a minute or two. Toss with mesclun mix, cucumbers and vinaigrette (Mercedes uses three parts olive oil to one part wine vinegar and a little mustard).
NYC Food Tips From Mercedes Batista: A New Yorker Who Really Cooks
WHEN I’M COOKING
- Three Favorite NY Stores/Shopping for Ingredients: Chinatown, Chelsea Market, a family run fruit/vegetable outdoor cart located at the corner of University Place and 14th Street
- Where I Shop For Cooking Equipment: Ikea (Elizabeth, N.J.) or any inexpensive place
- What I Cook When I’m Short On Time: Tuna/Egg/Potato/String Beans Salad. Everybody likes it.
- Favorite Cooking Holiday: Thanksgiving
- The Dish I’m Known For: I don’t have any.
WHEN I’M NOT COOKING
- Three NY Upmarket Restaurants I Love: Babbo, One Lucky Duck (raw food, incredible), SantAmbroeus, Morandi
- Three NY Casual Food Places I Love: North Square,10th West Street (veggies burger and Mexican dark beer), Motorino Pizza -Brooklyn (Incredible pizza)
- Favorite NY Noshing Neighborhood: Chinatown
- Two NYC Insider Cooking Tips: (1) When sauteing or frying anything, sprinkle red pepper flakes on the oil generously. (2) I use garlic nearly everyday. I save time by peeling a whole head at once and mincing it in the food processor, placing it in a glass jar, covering it with olive oil and keeping it refrigerated. This way when I need some it’s ready!.
- Need Dessert In A Hurry: Key lime tart or anything chocolate
- NYC Food Fantasy:A chinese food banquet event
Cooking and I by Mercedes Batista
I cooked my first meal at ten. It was instinctual. I did it to surprise my parents returning from work. My most cherished childhood memories were accompanying my mother on her Sunday weekly shopping trips to markets on the outskirts of the city. The sights, smells and sounds were extremely exciting. My expectant imagination could not wait to find out what exotic treats the vendors would entice me with.
My cooking has endured a natural evolution over the years. I have had to learn to recognize as well as manipulate the subtle and obvious components of flavor, smell, texture and color to create compositions of deliciousness.
I recreated and expanded my childhood experiences working at the Union Square Market upon my retirement. Assisting, cooking and attending classes helped me to organize my cooking into disciplined steps, but I still keep changing it to suit my taste.
Preparation, cooking and eating food are rituals I willingly engage in every day. It gives stability to my life and keeps me creative and inventive, as well as physically and emotionally healthy. I still love to shop at the markets and I do it almost every day. Each meal I cook is inspired by a combination of what I have in the house and what I find in the markets that day. In the end, I render a meal which is delicious and satisfying.
Can you believe it took me so long to check this out! Am glad I did. It was my kind of meal. Also wish I had Mercedes’ passion and energy to cook and shop the way she does. It is as if she were living in Europe. Thanks for it all! Bernice
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