Let’s Talk About Tofu

June 19, 2008

When I mention to the people who I don’t know well that I am a vegetarian, I get a myriad of responses. First and foremost, almost everyone asks if I eat fish. Somewhere I heard that vegetarians don’t eat anything with a face – last time I checked, fish have faces. Other responses: often, people ask why I don’t eat meat. Sometimes I will hear that their sister/brother/sister-in-law/brother-in-law is a vegetarian – I almost expect them to ask me if I know this relative. Sometimes they say silly things like, “Oh, you must eat a lot of salad.” (I’m sorry, what year is it again? Have you never heard of things other than salad that don’t include meat?). And sometimes they ask me, with the most incredible disgusted expression on their face, if I like tofu.

Well, yes I do. I really really do. And you might too if you knew what kind to get and what to do with it.

I think meat-eating people sometimes think of tofu as a meat alternative. Like their plate would have a steak, baked potato, and asparagus on it while mine would have a slab of tofu, baked potato, and asparagus. As much as I love tofu, I wouldn’t like it like that. Who would? Tofu has basically no flavor of it’s own and a texture that some people find objectionable, so eating it essentially naked does no one any favors. In my opinion, tofu does best in Asian food preparations where standing in for meat is natural.

Tofu needs help in both the flavor and the texture department. So let’s start with what kind you should buy. I would heartily recommend you stick to extra-firm tofu. It is less sponge-y and just more solid all around. Be sure you are buying the kind that is either shrink wrapped or packed in water and is in the refrigerated section – not the kind that is sold vacuum packages on the shelf. That is silken tofu and while it has it’s place (like in miso soup), it is not what you want for the time being.

I really like the tofu that Trader Joe’s carries and I also love this brand. They have a great option that gives you two 8 oz. pieces that are sealed separately, so if you only need half a pound, you can have it without wasting the other half a pound. (My old favorite came in 12 oz portions which was really annoying.)

One big key to preparing tofu is to make sure you get as much water out of it as you reasonably can. I have seen all kinds of directions for pressing it with heavy cans on over-turned pie plates and all of that just makes me tired even thinking about it. Who has time for that? I just take about 4 paper towels, wrap the tofu block up in the towels, and press down. As I slice it, I press it with the towels again. Removing excess moisture from the tofu will allow it to absorb more of the flavor you are introducing it to, and will also help prevent a lot of splattering if you go to fry it.

One very simple preparation (and one that lends itself well to stir-fries of all kinds), is to cut your block of tofu in to 1/3 inch by 2 inch planks. Put it in a plastic bag and pour in a couple of tablespoons of soy sauce. I like Tamari best here – it has more depth of flavor than regular soy sauce and you should be able to find it on your international food aisle. Seal the bag, and let it marinate for half an hour or so. Then, heat up a non-stick pan over medium-high heat and add just enough tofu to cover the bottom. Don’t even bother to add oil. The heat will carmelize the natural sugars in the Tamari and the tofu will develop a nice little crust and a firmer texture. Be sure to turn it over half way through.

The above photo is a lovely little appetizer that I brought to my clients E and J today. It’s great because it requires no cooking and yet has lots of flavor. If summer ever does decide to visit us here in the great Northwest, this will be a nice recipe to have on hand.

Spicy Lime and Herbed Tofu in Lettuce Cups
Adapted from Bon Appetit Magazine
6 First-Course Servings

The original recipe calls for fish sauce in the dressing. I substituted soy sauce but if you are not opposed to a little fish sauce, by all means use that. There really is no substitute for that flavor – even I have to admit that. Lemongrass can be a little tricky to find but Whole Foods always has it. It is worth searching out – the flavor and aroma are incomparable.

1/4 cup thinly sliced peeled fresh ginger
1/4 cup thinly sliced fresh lemongrass, cut from the bottom 4 inches of 4 stalks with the tough leaves removed
1/4 cup fresh lime juice (about 4 medium limes)
2 tbsp. tamari soy sauce
2 tbsp. water
2 tbsp. sweet chili sauce

1/2 diced seeded cucumber
1/4 cup chopped green onions
1/4 cup diced seeded plum tomatoes
2 tbsp. chopped seeded jalapeno chile
1 tbsp. chopped cilantro
1 tbsp. chopped mint
1 tbsp. chopped basil (preferably Thai Basil)
1 16 oz package extra firm tofu, drained, cut in to 1 inch cubes
6 large or 12 medium butter lettuce leaves

For the dressing:
Puree first 5 ingredients in blender. Let mixture stand for at least 15 minutes and up to one hour. Strain mixture into small bowl, pressing on solids to release any liquid; discard solids. Stir in sweet chili sauce. (Can be made one day ahead. Cover and refrigerate.)

For the tofu:
Combine first 7 ingredients in large bowl. Add tofu and dressing to bowl, toss to coat. Arrange 1 or 2 lettuce leaves on each of 6 plates. Divide tofu mixture among lettuce leaves and serve. (You can advise people to roll it up and eat it with their hands or use knife and fork).

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