01/30/2012 08:51 am ET Updated Mar 31, 2012

Meatless Monday: Bryant Terry -- An Inspired Vegan Brings It Back To The Table

Bryant Terry, food justice activist, eco-chef and host of the web show Urban Organic, wants you to come to the table. With his new book The Inspired Vegan, he lures you there with tortillas with Swiss chard, currants and spicy guacamole, savory grits with sauteed broad beans, roasted fennel and thyme, tofu with peanuts roasted in chili oil, and other recipes that deliver big pleasure in plant-based ways.

But Terry is more than a cookbook writer and The Inspired Vegan is more than a cookbook. The Oakland-based author arranges the book seasonally, creating a dozen menus from the cuisines of the world. They're seasoned with playlists, reading lists and backstories, and dedicated to the people who inspire him, from others fighting for a healthy, just and sustainable food system to his own family.

The book's first menu, Grits, Greens, Molasses, he dedicates to his paternal grandparents Andrew and Rosalie, with whom he spent much time as a boy. "My grandparents inspired me to grow food, cook food, eat good food," he says. "We talk about urban agriculture, my paternal grandfather had more than a garden -- it was an urban farm. My memories of it are so vivid. So much joy came from working the rows of leafy greens, helping him shell peas and shuck corn before meals."

Terry, who grew up in Memphis, couldn't give every child that kind of happy, hands-on experience. So he's tried to give them something else. After moving to New York to study at Natural Gourmet Institute, he launched b-healthy!, a nonprofit uniting at-risk youth with chefs and food justice activists. The kids came away understanding healthful, sustainable food was their right. They learned to source it, cook it and be "peer educators and organizers in their communities, in the vanguard of the food justice movement."

Terry's seen definite gains since he began advocating for food justice. "Michelle Obama has been taking the lead. The White House has an organic garden and hired chefs who care about these issues. This is the first administration in forty or fifty years ensuring this generation of young people have healthy, sustainable lives," says the smitten daddy of nine month-old Funmilayo.

Mila, for short, inspired her own menu in The Inspired Vegan and continues to inspire her father. "In my nine months as a father, I've learned modelling is the most powerful teaching tool," says Terry. "We can say what we want our children to do, but from the time they're born, they're watching, they're mimicking." It's made him and his wife strive "to be better people every day. The values and everything we want to impart to our daughter, we need to be that."

It's not always easy. Terry admits his own vegan path hasn't been linear, derailed occasionally by situations like his recent trip to China. What do you do when you're invited into someone's home and served yak? Rather than being the finger-wagging scold he was in his teens -- "My parents could tell you stories," he says -- he was a gracious guest. Being a scold is no fun and rates among "the least effective ways of getting people into the club."

The most effective is by offering people great food that happens to be fresh, plant-based, healthy, sustainable and responsibly grown. Change and inspiration, believes Terry, "starts at the table."

Tofu with Peanuts Roasted in Chili Oil

from Bryant Terry's The Inspired Vegan

Roasting is one of Terry's favorite ways to prepare tofu -- mine, too. This recipe delivers intense flavor with just a few ingredients. Serve with vegetables, whole grains or do as Terry recommends in his book's Asian-inspired menu -- serves it atop congee, Chinese rice porridge that's traditional, simple and a terrific winter warm-up. A little extra chili oil warms you up, too.

2 pounds extra-firm tofu (two large tofu cakes), pressed
3 tablespoons Chili Oil *
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
3/4 cup raw peanuts

Preheat the oven to 450°F.

Place each tofu cake on its side and cut in half. Lay the cake down flat, keeping the layers together, and cut it, widthwise, into three even slabs. Cut each of those slabs in half widthwise, leaving you with twelve cubes per cake (two dozen total).

In a medium-size mixing bowl, combine the Chili Oil and salt, and mix well with a fork. Add the tofu cubes and gently toss to coat with the mixture.

Gently transfer the tofu cubes to a parchment-lined baking sheet in a single layer. Transfer to the oven, and roast for 15 minutes. Reserve the bowl with the remnants of salted chili oil.

Immediately after transferring the tofu to the oven, add the peanuts to the bowl of reserved salted chili oil, toss well, and set aside.

After the tofu has roasted for 15 minutes, gently turn each square with a fork. Add the reserved peanuts to the baking sheet with the tofu, and roast for another 15 minutes.

Pressing Tofu

Recipes that use firm tofu -- as opposed to silken tofu, which is good for nondairy dressings and desserts -- often call for it to be pressed. This procedure extracts excess water from tofu and allows it to absorb marinades more easily. It also makes the tofu block more uniformly firm. To press a block of extra-firm tofu, wrap it in several paper towels or a clean kitchen towel, place it in a large bowl or a clean kitchen sink, and place a heavy weight on top for 1 hour, turning after 30 minutes, until most of the liquid is pressed out and absorbed by the towel.

* Available in Asian and specialty markets, or make Terry's own recipe:

Chili Oil

4 teaspoons red pepper flakes
1/4 cup peanut oil
2 tablespoons roasted sesame oil

Place the red pepper flakes ina heatproof medium-sized bowl. Set aside.

In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine the oils until hot but not smoking, about 2 minutes. Pour over the red pepper flakes and let cool, stirring a few times, for about 20 minutes.

4 to 6 servings

"Learn Chinese" by Jin and Wyclef Jean from The Rest Is History

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by S. C. Moey