Esther Williams caught Hollywood’s attention with her great beauty and Olympic-level swimming. In 1944, young Esther found herself a star at the grandest of movie studios, MGM, with whole films—known as aqua musicals—based around her unique ability to “swim pretty.”
Esther's Other Talents
But Esther Williams was so much more than a beautiful movie star who created a new film genre and an Olympic sport—she is the godmother of artistic (synchronized) swimming, after all.
Two of my absolute favorite things about Esther are:
- She was an excellent cook
- She was sassy!
Truly a winning combination.
So I’m paying tribute to Esther with my tofu Milanese recipe, and sharing a sassy Esther anecdote that involves her veal Milanese recipe.
And bribing a cop.
Esther's Veal Milanese
During her third marriage to Fernando Lamas (m. 1969-1982), Esther found herself preparing dinner for two households: her current home with Fernando, and the home of her second husband, Ben Gage. As a result, Esther was routinely carting meals across Los Angeles. In her autobiography, Esther joked that hers was the only station wagon in town that smelled like gravy.
One evening, Esther, excellent cook that she was, prepared veal Milanese. When it came time to taxi the meal across town, Esther’s self-described ‘erratic driving’ as she adjusted the foil on a roasting pan, caught the attention of a policeman, and Esther was pulled over.
The officer asked to see Esther’s license, but was quickly distracted by the delicious smells of garlic and rosemary emanating from the car.
He asked Esther what it was:
“‘It’s veal Milanese. The foil was slipping and I didn’t want the gravy to spill.’”
Esther replied. The officer complimented Esther, and then asked if he could taste the veal Milanese.
“‘Sure, you can taste; you can even have one. But then you can’t give me a ticket. You can only give me a warning.’ I wondered whether this could be considered bribing a policeman.”
You’ve got to love Esther’s confidence, sass, and daring.
Thanks to Esther’s quick thinking, everyone, including this lucky policeman, enjoyed veal Milanese that night.
Vegan Tofu Inspired by Esther
My vegan tofu Milanese recipe combines Esther’s garlic and rosemary flavors with a traditional Milanese breadcrumb coating. But rather than make a gravy as Esther’s recipe entailed, I’ve created an olive oil sauce infused with rosemary and garlic that also doubles as a pasta sauce. My tofu Milanese is even more delicious when served over a bed of spaghetti that’s been tossed in this elegant sauce.
Veal Milanese is often traditionally served with arugula, so I’ve untraditionally incorporated arugula by adding it to the warm pasta and rosemary garlic sauce. The arugula wilts into the pasta, and its sharp flavor compliments the rosemary and garlic beautifully.
Every time I make my vegan tofu Milanese, and smell that delicious rosemary and garlic combination, I think of Esther and what one of her fabulous meals must have tasted like. I don’t know that anyone but Esther could get out of a traffic ticket with a Milanese cutlet, but I like to think that my tofu Milanese is an elegant vegan meal worthy of Esther herself.
A Few Things!
Cutting the Tofu
I prefer to slice each pound of tofu into 9 thin slabs/cutlets for this recipe. The photos below show my favorite cutting method:
Bragg Aminos: The Secret Flavor Ingredient for Vegan Tofu
Tofu, like meat, needs to be well-seasoned to have awesome flavor. A great way to add flavor to tofu is with Bragg Liquid Aminos. The smoky-saltiness of Bragg Liquid Aminos will take the flavor way up in just about any tofu marinade, and it’s a necessary component of my tofu Milanese recipe. Simply mix a few Tbsps of Bragg Liquid Aminos into the milk you dredge each tofu cutlet in, and you’ve increased the flavor of each cutlet ten fold.
If you can’t find Bragg Aminos at the grocery store, you can find it here on Amazon [aff. link].
My Favorite Fryer Skimmer
If you decide to deep fry the tofu, definitely use a fryer skimmer. A good fryer skimmer will help you to lower the tofu into the hot oil, and get the tofu out of the hot oil, safely and without any mess. Here is my favorite on Amazon [aff. link].
Visit Esther's Site!
And for the absolute cutest and most stylish retro swimwear, head on over to Esther’s website. With designs based on Esther’s years as the most stylish swimmer around, Esther’s swimsuits, sunglasses, and bags are an absolute must for any Classic Hollywood fan.
Esther Williams Tofu Milanese
For the breadcrumbs:
- 2 cups breadcrumbs
- 2 tsp sea salt
- ¼ tsp pepper
- 2 Tbsp garlic, minced (about 7-8 cloves)
- 2 Tbsp fresh rosemary, minced
Everything else for the tofu:
- 1 ½ cups flour
- 1 cup milk
- 2 Tbsp Bragg Liquid Aminos
- 3 pounds extra firm tofu, thinly sliced (I like to do 9 thin slices/cutlets per pound of tofu for this recipe. See photos above for my favorite cutting method.)
- Sea salt, for sprinkling
- Oil, for frying (48 oz canola oil if deep frying, or a few Tbsp of olive oil for pan frying)
For the sauce:
- 1 cup olive oil
- 2 Tbsp garlic, minced (about 7-8 cloves)
- 2 Tbsp fresh rosemary, minced
- 1 tsp sea salt
- ½ tsp lemon zest
For the pasta:
- 1 pound spaghetti
- ½ tsp sea salt
- Lemon juice, freshly squeezed
- 4-6 cups arugula
Prepare the breadcrumbs
- To a shallow dish, add the breadcrumbs, garlic, rosemary, sea salt, and pepper. Whisk together with a fork until everything is evenly distributed. (I like to use a 9x9 or 8x8 inch baking dish here.)
Prepare the flour
- To another shallow dish, add the flour.
Prepare the milk
- To yet another shallow dish, add the milk and Bragg Liquid Aminos. Whisk together with a fork until the aminos are evenly distributed.
Salt the tofu
- Very important step here! Lay the tofu cutlets out, and with your fingers, just sprinkle a little sea salt over the top of all the cutlets. A little goes a long way! I usually use between ¼-½ tsp. (This is not per cutlet, this is the total amount of salt I use to salt all the cutlets on one side.) Now flip each tofu cutlet over, and sprinkle the other side of each cutlet with salt, about another ¼-½ tsp sea salt total.
Dredge the tofu
- Since we’re not using eggs, the flour sticks best to the tofu cutlets if you dredge the cutlets in this order:
- Start by dredging a tofu cutlet in the flour.
- Now dip the floured tofu cutlet in the milk. (Trust me, the flour will stay on the tofu!)
- Now dredge the tofu cutlet in the breadcrumbs.
- Note: I recommend dredging no more that two tofu cutlets at a time. Then, while those two cutlets are frying, I dredge another two cutlets. I repeat this process until all the tofu is fried. I find this method ensures that more of the breadcrumb coating stays on each tofu cutlet—breadcrumbs are more likely to fall off the longer the tofu sits before frying.
Fry the tofu
- At this point, you can either deep fry, or pan fry, the tofu cutlets.
Pan fry the tofu
- If you prefer to pan fry the tofu, heat a few Tbsp of olive oil in a skillet, preferably nonstick, over medium heat.
- Now add two tofu cutlets to the pan. Let fry until the side of the tofu that’s face down in the pan turns golden brown, about 3-4 minutes.
- Flip the tofu cutlet, and fry until the other side turns golden brown, about another 3-4 minutes.
- Remove the tofu from the pan, and place on a plate lined with a paper towel to remove excess oil.
- Repeat the process with the rest of the breaded tofu cutlets.
Deep fry the tofu
- Alternately, you can deep fry the tofu. Unless I’m trying to be really healthy, this is my preferred method.
- In a large pot, heat 48 oz of canola oil over medium-high heat, until it looks like the oil is separating in the pot, about five minutes.
- Turn the heat down to medium, and using a fryer skimmer, gently lower a tofu cutlet into the oil. Now use your fryer skimmer to lower one more tofu cutlet into the oil. (I prefer to fry two pieces at a time.)
- Fry until the breadcrumbs turn golden brown, about 3-5 minutes. (If the oil gets too hot and the breadcrumbs are turning golden brown more quickly than this, turn the heat down a bit. If the oil is not hot enough and the breadcrumbs are taking too long to brown, then turn the heat back up. You’ll get the hang of it as you go!)
- Use your fryer skimmer to remove the tofu from the pot, and place on a plate lined with a paper towel to remove excess oil. Repeat this process with the rest of the tofu slices.
Make the spaghetti
- You can prepare the spaghetti and sauce while the tofu Milanese fries if you’re a good multitasker, but I like to focus completely on the frying, then move on to the spaghetti and sauce after I’ve finished frying the tofu.
- Cook the spaghetti according to package instructions.
Make the sauce
- While the spaghetti cooks, you can make the sauce.
- Add the olive oil, garlic, rosemary, sea salt, and lemon zest to a small sauce pan.
- Bring the mixture to a boil, and let boil for one minute. The olive oil will become infused with the flavors of the garlic, rosemary, and lemon zest.
- Sauce is done.
Finish the spaghetti
- Once the spaghetti is done cooking, drain it, and add the spaghetti back to the pot you cooked it in. Now add about ½ of the sauce, followed by ½ tsp sea salt, 1 tsp freshly squeezed lemon juice, and the arugula. Stir until everything is incorporated and the arugula starts to wilt.
- Taste, and add an additional 1 tsp lemon juice, a dash more salt, or a little more of the sauce if desired.
Serve and enjoy!
- To each plate, add the spaghetti, and place a few tofu Milanese cutlets on top. Drizzle a bit more sauce, if desired, and serve!