Meatless Monday: Collard greens and tofu in coconut sauce

Collard greens don't need to be strictly Southern. When paired with Indonesian ingredients, tofu, and coconut milk this bitter vegetable makes a sweet and savory dish.

Pickles and Tea
Baking the tofu beforehand isn't necessary for this dish, but will help safeguard against it falling apart.

I still crave many dishes from my childhood, like ayam goreng kunyit (turmeric fried chicken), pastel panggang (a shepherd’s pie of sorts), and roti bakso (sweet pork buns). Some, I’ve tried to recreate in my own kitchen and others, I patiently wait for. I do see my mom at least once or twice a year!

Then there are the dishes that a little girl – me! – once turned her nose up to. Many were pungent and spicy (hello shrimp paste!), and several centered on bitter vegetables. Surprisingly, (or not surprisingly as this article on how our tastebuds change as we get older attests), I happen to find them quite appealing as an adult.

I now savor the sharp saltiness and unmatched umami of shrimp paste in many dishes. And I’ve developed a fondness for bitter vegetables both from the Chinese camp – mustard greens, Chinese broccoli – and the Italian camp: arugula, radicchio, rapini, etc. (Although try as I might, I’m still not a fan of bitter melon.)

Perhaps there’s something about the dark, brooding qualities of bitter that my mature palate finds attractive. Or maybe I’m just tired of the same ole, same ole flavors and like to seek out more adventurous foods.

A few days ago, I spied fresh bundles of collard greens, water droplets clinging to the leaves, at the grocery store. I haven't eaten collard greens very often, let alone cooked them. I may have eaten them prepared American Southern-style – with lots of bacon – once.

Since we don’t have much choice when it comes to winter vegetables, I decided to pick some up and let them speak to me. And they did. The collard greens wanted to be bathed in coconut milk.

Finding a recipe was no trouble. My mom has lovingly written down all her recipes for me, ensuring I’ll always be able to replicate them as best as I can. And since she wrote them mostly in Indonesian, I’m encouraged (I won’t say forced) to practice my poor language skills.

The name of this dish “sambel goreng” is a bit of a misnomer to me. I’ve always associated the word “sambel” with a spicy chili condiment – sambel trassi, sambel oelek, etc. So literally, this dish means “fried chili paste” which I guess is somewhat accurate.

The dish uses quintessential Indonesian ingredients, including what I call the Indonesian bouquet garni: galangal (lengkuas)lemongrass (serai), and salam leaf (daun salam) (sometimes called Indian bay leaf and usually found dried in the US). My mom lists candlenut (kemiri) in the recipe too but I left it out. Candlenut is a thickener, and not easy to find in the US, but its exclusion doesn’t affect the flavor of the final dish.

Thankfully, unlike many Indonesian dishes, the method is simple.

As I tossed one ingredient after another into my wok, the sights, sounds, and aromas blossomed and grew, and finally melded into a dish that was both sweet and savory, and showcased the bitterness of collards beautifully.

Collard greens and tofu in coconut sauce (Sambel Goreng Collard dan Tahu)
Serves 6 as part of a multi-course meal

A versatile dish, you can swap out the collards for green beans, chayote, and add shrimp too. My mom advises not to combine collard greens with anything else because of the bitterness but I thought tofu made a fine partner. Baking the tofu isn’t necessary – you can buy it fried or use fresh – but I like to bake my own tofu because it isn’t as greasy as fried, and baking safeguards it from falling apart.

8 ounces extra-firm tofu, cut into 3/4-inch pieces
Vegetable oil, like canola
Fine sea salt
8 ounces collard greens, washed
1 clove garlic, minced
1 large shallot, sliced lengthwise (1/2 cup)
1 to 2 tablespoons (or as many as your tastebuds can tolerate) prepared chili paste, like sambal oelek
2 teaspoons ground coriander
2 pieces dried salam leaves (Indian bay leaf), soaked
1 stalk lemongrass, bruised and halved (go here to learn how to prep for cooking)
1/2-inch piece fresh galangal, sliced into 4 coins
1 cup coconut milk
1 cup water
1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar

1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F.

2. Toss the tofu with 2 teaspoons oil and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a medium bowl. Arrange on a baking sheet coated with cooking spray. Bake for 35 minutes or until light golden, turning halfway.

3. Prepare the collard greens. Rip the leaves from the tough stems. Stack 3 or 4 leaves on top of each other and roll into a cigar. Cut into 1/2-inch ribbons. Repeat with all the leaves. You’ll have 4 packed cups.

4. Place a large wok or Dutch oven over medium heat and swirl in 2 tablespoons oil. Add the garlic, shallots, chili paste, and coriander and stir and cook for 3 to 4 minutes until fragrant, and the paste has turned a deep red.

5. Raise the heat to medium-high and add a few large handfuls of greens at a time, stirring constantly to allow each batch to wilt before adding the next batch. Continue to stir and cook the greens for 3 to 5 minutes, until bright green and wilted.

6. Pour in the coconut milk and water. Add the daun salam, lemongrass and galangal, followed by the tofu. Add the sugar and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Bring to a gentle boil then cover and simmer for 40 to 45 minutes, until the collards are dark green and tender and the tofu has absorbed the flavor of the sauce. Taste and add more salt or sugar if needed.

7. Fish out the herbs and serve. This dish tastes better after sitting for a few hours. Note: Unlike southern braised green dishes, there will be a fair amount of liquid left.

Related post on Pickles and Tea: Chickpea and Potato Curry

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