It’s not likely that tofu will become anyone’s favorite food; this we know. Those who grew up in households where it was well prepared may relish it, but for the rest of us it’s a bit of a requisite, something we think we “should” eat in place of chicken or eggs whenever we can stomach it.
However. With meat substitutes and even alternative animal protein like bugs surging in popularity – or at least media attention – it’s time to re-evaluate and finally embrace the original plant-based mock meat. (There are others, of course: seitan, or wheat gluten, which in the current anti-gluten climate is difficult to talk about, and tempeh, a fermented soy and grain product that I don’t cook with much. That could change.)
I like tofu. I cook it a couple of times a week, which is more often than I cook chicken. It’s as natural a product as mozzarella, arguably simpler (you don’t need a cow, for one thing) and similarly produced: In both cases, you take milk and you add something that will clump it up. Period. In one case the milk is dairy, and in the other it’s soy.
The differences between the two are obvious, and we could argue about whether good fresh mozzarella offers a better eating experience than good fresh tofu (neither has much flavor without some condiments), but what’s inarguable is that tofu is our most versatile form of nonanimal concentrated protein, as well as the least processed and the most traditional. Andrea Nguyen, in her valuable “Asian Tofu,” says tofu has been made for about 2,000 years and has been popular since the 10th century.
There are, of course, hyperprocessed or preflavored forms of tofu, or both, that range from Tofu Pups to pressed tofu (usually flavored with five-spice powder or something like it, and incredibly easy to cook well), to fermented tofu, which is both ancient and delicious, if somewhat stinkily off-putting to some.
I’m not talking about any of that. And I’m not talking about making your own tofu, although that’s easy enough. I’m talking buying bricks of plain old tofu, the kind you cut into cubes or, if you’re fancy, diamonds; the kind that we dutifully stir-fried with broccoli and soy sauce back in the ’70s. I’m talking about using tofu in ways that really play up its strengths and make it if not the best choice for a dish then a substitute that doesn’t feel like a compromise but simply another way of doing things.
2 blocks firm or extra-firm tofu
½ cup olive oil
¼ cup red or white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 small shallot, minced
Ground black pepper
Heat oven to 300 degrees. Set each tofu block on one of its sides and cut it in half so you have 2 rectangles, each about 1 inch thick. Cut each rectangle diagonally into 4 triangles about 1 inch thick.
Spread tofu on a large baking sheet lined with parchment and transfer to oven. Cook undisturbed until triangles develop a browned crust and start to separate from the pan, 45 to 60 minutes, depending on how dry you want them. You can increase temperature to 400 degrees for the last 5 to 10 minutes of cooking to brown. Sprinkle with a little salt and transfer the tofu to a platter or gratin dish.
Whisk together oil, vinegar, mustard, shallot and a sprinkle of salt and pepper in a small bowl. Pour vinaigrette all over tofu and toss to make sure every piece is coated. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to a day. Serve cold or at room temperature.
Note: To make Provençal tofu escabeche, skip the vinaigrette and instead combine in a skillet over medium heat 1 ½ cups chopped tomatoes, 1/3 cup chopped pitted olives, 2 tablespoons capers, 1 tablespoon chopped garlic, 1 teaspoon fresh thyme, 1/3 cup olive oil, 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, ground black pepper and a small pinch of salt. Cook until the mixture is warm and proceed as directed with the rest of the recipe.
Makes 4 servings.
Scrambled Tofu with Tomatoes, Scallions and Soy Sauce
2 tablespoons neutral oil
1½ cups chopped tomatoes
Salt and ground black pepper
1 pound firm tofu, drained
∑ cup sliced scallions
Put oil in a deep skillet over medium heat. When hot, add tomatoes, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until juices release and they begin to dry out slightly, 5 to 10 minutes.
Crumble tofu with your fingers and add it to pan along with scallions. Cook, stirring occasionally, until tofu is heated through and dried out a bit, 5 to 10 minutes. Serve, drizzling with soy sauce at the table.
Note: To make scrambled tofu with corn, tomatoes and basil, use olive oil instead of neutral oil and reduce the amount of tomatoes to 1 cup. Substitute 3/4 cup corn kernels for the scallions and stir in some chopped fresh basil before serving. Skip the soy sauce and drizzle with a little more olive oil at the table if you like.
Makes 4 servings.
8 ounces silken tofu, about 1 cup
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
¼ teaspoon salt
Put all ingredients in a blender and purée, stopping once or twice to scrape down sides of container with a rubber spatula, until tofu is completely smooth and evenly colored. This could take several minutes; add 1 or 2 tablespoons of water if necessary to help the machine do its work.
Taste and adjust seasoning with more salt or vinegar if necessary. Use right away (or transfer to a jar and refrigerate for up to 1 week).
Note: To make creamy basil sauce, skip the mustard and add 1 cup fresh basil, packed, before puréeing.
Makes 8 servings.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
1 tablespoon garlic, chopped
Salt and ground black pepper
2 blocks firm tofu
1 tablespoon chile powder
1 teaspoon cumin
∂ teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon cider vinegar
Chopped fresh cilantro for garnish
Chopped scallions for garnish
Put oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic; sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables soften, 3 to 5 minutes.
With your hands, crumble tofu into pan. Cook, stirring and scraping the bottom of the skillet occasionally and adjusting heat as necessary, until tofu browns and crisps as much or as little as you like, 10 to 30 minutes.
Sprinkle with chile powder, cumin and cinnamon; stir and cook, continuing to scrape any browned bits from the bottom of the pan until the mixture is fragrant, a minute or two. Stir in vinegar and adjust the seasoning to taste. Garnish with cilantro and scallions and serve with warm corn tortillas or over rice.
Makes 4 servings.