In a small town in a country that's about as meat-centric as they come, tofu gets no respect. (Try ordering it in a restaurant and see what kinds of stares your friends give.)
But the time may come, or may be now, when you're feeling a little more adventurous. Maybe your vegan brother/cousin/colleague is coming over for dinner and you want to feed him more than salad. Maybe you've been keeping up with the pink slime question in the news and are looking for something a little more natural: tofu is just soybeans and water, plus a mineral that makes it firm up, and you can make it yourself. Or maybe you're just looking to save a little money: meat, especially clean meat, is expensive, and tofu is quite cheap.
The key to cooking tofu is to remember that tofu (like chicken, actually) doesn't taste like much. So if you have a preference for plain dishes, tofu might not be the way to go. But if you're game for bold, spicy flavors, I dare you not to like these:
- Soup: If you've ever eaten at a Japanese restaurant, chances are you've tried tofu in miso soup. It couldn't be easier to make at home, and it's a wonderful first course or side dish for any number of dinners. Miso paste can be found at most supermarkets, as well as Asian grocery stores; simply add a few spoonfuls to water or stock, heat, and adjust the ratio to your taste. Cube extra-firm tofu (traditionally small dice, about 1/4-inch) and slice scallions thinly; these two garnishes are all you need, though the addition of thinly-sliced radishes or mushrooms can be nice, and some even add white rice just before serving.
- Sandwich: almost as simple is fake "egg" salad, which sounds bizarre but actually comes close to the real thing. Simply mash up firm tofu with a fork, stir in a little mayonnaise (Vegenaise if you're cooking for vegans) and add a generous sprinkle of curry powder. Taste and adjust; it may need salt, depending on the blend. This is best on a sandwich with lettuce and tomato, and some fresh avocado really makes it gourmet!
- Snack: baked tofu is really good enough to eat on its own. Start by pressing the tofu: cut a block in half to make two thinner blocks and place on a cutting board. Prop one end of the board up slightly, and place the other end next to the sink, so the liquid will drain into it. Cover tofu with a flat surface, such as a plate, and add weight, such as a couple of soup cans or more plates. (Start small, as too much weight will cause the block to split instead of extracting the liquid.) After several hours, pat tofu dry, cube, toss with a little oil and soy sauce, and bake at 350 for about an hour, stirring occasionally to flip the cubes. The end result is magically crispy-chewy squares that will disappear as fast as you can scoop them into a bowl.
- Salad: if by some miracle you have any baked tofu left, combine it with blanched snow peas, toasted chopped almonds, sliced scallions, and this dressing: equal parts sesame oil, soy sauce, rice vinegar, and grated fresh ginger, with a dash of ground coriander. (Taste and adjust before dressing the salad.) It's delicious warm or cold, and has enough protein to constitute a light lunch.
- Stir-fry: For the sauce, combine 1 can coconut milk, 1/2 cup peanut butter and 2 tablespoons each lime juice, soy sauce, garlic and grated ginger. Add cayenne and brown sugar to taste. This sauce is excellent with chicken or beef kebabs, but also great with baked or fried tofu. Deep-frying is messy, so I purchase fried tofu at Asian markets: it comes in 1/2-inch slices, stacked in a clear plastic package. Simply cut it into squares or triangles and stir-fry with vegetables (almost anything goes: broccoli florets, wedges of onion, carrot slices, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts and blanched long beans are all good options.) Serve with the peanut sauce, over rice or rice noodles.
- Dessert: This one doesn't start with an S (believe me, I tried!) but it's pretty great, and all the ingredients are nonperishable, so you can whip it up anytime. Prepare a crust from either graham crackers or chocolate wafer cookies, pulsing in a food processor with melted butter until small crumbs form. Press into a pie plate and bake 15-20 minutes at 350. For the filling, melt a bag of chocolate chips; meanwhile, puree a block of firm tofu with a teaspoon of vanilla and a pinch of salt. Combine the two while chocolate chips are still warm to avoid a grainy texture; if possible, use a mixer to whip in as much air as possible. Transfer to cooled crust; refrigerate until firm, a few hours or overnight. Be amazed.
What's your take on tofu? Let us know in the comments section.