That’s something that can speed the path to dinner for any busy cook, but especially for someone like Rodgers as she works with tofu in much bigger quantities than I ever do. Her favorite method: Marinate, bake and let the tofu cool in the liquid. “Whoosh! It sucks up the marinade right from the pan,” she says as she shows me around the large kitchen, equipped with restaurant-quality equipment, in Twin Oaks’ main building. (If you pan-fry it, as I did to make her spring rolls, that marinade can be turned into the base of a dipping sauce.)
Her second-favorite technique is from Duggan: Toss cubes of the tofu in just enough oil to coat, then bake the cubes on a perforated pan in a hot convection oven until crisp. When she blends plain tofu to make those patties, the addition of mushrooms, cashews (or cashew butter), sunflower and flax seeds, tamari, cumin and chipotle (all bound with a little egg) gives them an umami-packed flavor and a moist-but-hearty texture that could almost be described as, well, beefy.
Rodgers, 23, went to culinary school in Oregon before moving to Twin Oaks two years ago, but she isn’t vegetarian. In fact, only 13 residents are. That’s partly because many of them who didn’t eat meat as a way of avoiding factory-farmed products changed their tune once they got to Twin Oaks, which raises cattle in addition to growing vegetables. Still, half of all meals are meatless, “because we need to stretch that beef,” Duggan says. (On any given night, 20 to 25 residents don’t take part in the communal dinner because they’re away or are making meals for themselves or other residents in one of the eight SLGs, or small living groups.)
Everything at Twin Oaks is carefully budgeted — and sometimes rationed if supplies outstrip the cash flow. In managing the kitchen, Rodgers steers cooks toward the cheaper canola oil in order to conserve more-expensive olive oil, for instance. She confers regularly with the garden managers about what’s being harvested and how to get the most out of it. The community grows all of its own vegetables but buys such items as flour and rice, things that could theoretically be produced or grown there but that would require more resources in machinery and manpower than makes sense. That goes for the soybeans, too; the community buys them from a farmer in Westmoreland County, and they’re certified organic and not genetically modified.
When she first started cooking at Twin Oaks, Rodgers often turned to the classic “Food for Fifty” by Grace Shugart and Mary Molt, but as a former caterer she is also an intuitive cook, willing to take in good ideas and follow her impulses, as is obvious when I help her make lunch. After baking that oil-coated tofu to crispiness, she has me slice onions and carrots while she soaks rice noodles in lukewarm water rather than boil them. “One of the cooks told me this is the best way to make sure they don’t get all sticky and clump together,” she says. “You soak them very slowly until they’re barely starting to get tender, and then you can finish them in the pan.”