(Tofu) Mystery Solved

SpicyTofu_6I think every vegetarian remembers their last piece of meat. Mine was Thanksgiving Day 1993. Home from college for the holiday, that turkey was my personal last (carnivorous) supper.

However, my first taste of tofu? Not so celebratory. I honestly have no idea when it was, not if it was before I went cold turkey off meat (pun completely intended) or sometime after. I only know that over the nearly 18 years since I have sworn off anything with eyes, it has taken me nearly half that long to master cooking tofu.

This doesn’t surprise me in the least. After all, I was the first vegetarian I knew in a meat-and-potatoes family. Did I mention my dad hunted? Tofu was totally foreign to me, a product limited to the rare health food store or a Chinese restaurant menu where it was called “bean curd.” Ew.

But over the years, like many women who trade college cafeteria lines for kitchens of their own, I began to explore the art of cooking. My first vegetarian cookbook, gifted and inscribed by my favorite aunt, was Beyond the Moon. With it, Author Ginny Callan introduced me to cooking with that strange, custard-like block of white stuff.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve taken more than my fair share of tofu mockery over the years, even if in good fun, and ruined more than a few meals along the way. But the truth is, I think (ok, enter the rare optimist in me) that if people were more familiar with it, the mockery would disappear with the mystery. Or so I can hope.

Pass the Tofu, Please

Thanks to Wikipedia, About.com and my own personal experience for these basic facts:

  • Tofu is made with a process similar to cheese. A coagulant is added to soy milk and the resulting curds are pressed into soft white blocks.
  • It is thought to have originated in ancient China and then spread to other parts of Asia, including Japan, Korea, Indonesia, and Vietnam.
  • It has very little flavor, but perfectly absorbs the flavor of whatever it is cooked with. For this reason, it can be used in both savory and sweet dishes, and is perfect for marinating and seasoning.
  • It comes in a variety of textures, including silken (great for smoothies and sauces), and firm or extra-firm (ideal for soups, stir-frys, curries, and grilling).
  • Gently pressing the firmer varieties of tofu helps to expel the water, making it more suitable to absorb other flavors.
  • Non-silken tofu freezes well and, once thawed, takes on a spongy texture that makes it ideal for crumbling.
  • It is low in calories, fat and sodium, and high in protein, iron, calcium and B vitamins.

Now that you’re armed with all you probably ever wanted to know (hey, I’m being hopeful here), there’s only one thing left to do: get cooking! For starters, replace the beef or chicken in your next stir-fry or try this Quick and Easy Thai curry. For a more adventurous experience, tackle these Tofu Spring Rolls with Peanut Dipping Sauce.

By the time Thanksgiving day rolls around, you may just be willing to go cold turkey on meat. Or not. But at least you’ll remember your first taste of tofu, and with any luck, it won’t take you years to master cooking.

My Favorite Tofu Recipes

Quick and Easy Thai Curry

When the temperature drops, there’s nothing more warming than a hot, and if you like, spicy, curry. I love this particular one – adapted from Vegetarian Times – because it’s incredibly quick and versatile. Just keep a can of light coconut milk on-hand in your pantry and utilize whatever veggies you have at the moment, fresh or frozen.

If you opt for the yellow version using curry powder, consider adding some cayenne pepper to raise the spiciness quotient. If you choose to use red or green curry paste, the level of spiciness will be determined by the amount of paste you use.

Ingredients

  • 1 c. brown rice, preferably basmati for its beautiful fragrance
  • 2 tbls. coconut or olive oil
  • 16 oz. firm or extra-firm tofu, cut into 1/2″ cubes
  • 14 oz. can coconut milk
  • 1 red, yellow or orange bell pepper, sliced into strips
  • 1 c. peas (or green beans)
  • 1 c. carrots (or broccoli or cauliflower), chopped
  • 1 c. celery (or mushrooms), chopped
  • 2 tbls. curry powder (or 1-2 tbls. green or red curry paste, to taste)
  • 2 tbls. brown sugar
  • 2 tbls. soy sauce
  • 1 tsp. basil

Instructions

Bring 2 cups of water to a boil. Add rice, cover and reduce to a simmer until all water is absorbed (about 45 minutes). Cook tofu in oil on medium heat until water is evaporated and tofu is well-browned on all sides. Add vegetables and saute on medium high heat until nearly tender. In a small bowl, stir together coconut milk, curry powder or paste, brown sugar and soy sauce. Lower heat and add sauce to vegetable and tofu mixture, tossing well. Simmer on low, covered, for 15 minutes. Add basil just a few minutes before you remove from the heat. Serve over rice.

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I shared this recipe on Scrumptious Sunday.

Tofu Spring Rolls with Peanut Dipping Sauce

Pile 'em as high as you like, dip, and enjoy!

These little rolls of joy exemplify the labor of love, but are worth every step. Like anything else in life, practice makes perfect. Each time I make them, I get a little bit faster! And really, who doesn’t love a good peanut sauce?

Spring rolls are the perfect meal on a hot summer’s evening, on an Indian summer evening when you can’t quite bring yourself to bid summer farewell, or in the winter as a light appetizer to a warm and hearty curry. For variety, consider substituting bean sprouts for the lettuce.

These rolls are best eaten within a few hours of wrapping. You can store leftovers overnight in the fridge, but the wrappers tend to either sog up or dry out in spots; I prefer to make only what I know we’ll eat that meal.

Ingredients

  • 8 rice wrappers
  • 8 oz. thin rice noodles
  • 3 tbls. olive oil
  • 16 oz. extra firm organic tofu, cut into small chunks
  • 1 c. organic carrots, grated
  • 1 c. organic cucumber,  diced
  • 2 avocados, sliced & halved
  • 1.5 c. organic green-leaf lettuce, chopped

Peanut Sauce

  • 1/2 c. smooth, natural peanut butter
  • 8 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 1 inch fresh ginger, minced
  • 2 tsp. chili paste
  • 1/4 c. soy sauce
  • 1 tbls. sugar
  • 3 tbls. sesame oil
  • 9 tbls. water

Directions

Press tofu gently and cut into 1/4″ cubes. If you’ve never worked with tofu before, fear not! If you aren’t super gentle and your cubes aren’t perfect, it doesn’t matter; it’ll still taste good. Saute the tofu in olive oil, tossing frequently until evenly browned. I like to add a dash of salt as well. Set aside to cool.

Tofu has a high water content so it take about 20 minutes for the water to cook off and the tofu to brown. In the time the tofu is sauteing, prepare your carrots, cucumbers, avocado, and lettuce, and blend the dipping sauce.

Combine all ingredients for the peanut sauce in a small food processor or blender, and blend until smooth. Taste test. Set aside in a lidded container in the refrigerator until ready to use.

Soak thin rice noodles in a bowl of hot water as instructed on package. Drain in colander and rinse with cold water. Ready a second bowl of hot water for rice papers as instructed on package.

Construct an assembly line of all your ingredients, working left to right. This includes all your veggies and tofu (try lining them up on a large cutting board), the colander of rice noodles, your bowl for soaking the rice papers, and a few plates, one for rolling and one for stacking the final rolls.

Soak one rice paper at a time in hot water as instructed on package (usually about 5 seconds). After removing, drip-dry the paper and place it on a large plate. Assemble your rice noodles, vegetables and tofu inside.

To fold: fold in each side first. Then roll the bottom flap over and tuck it under the fillings. Roll tightly, continuously tucking as you go to obtain the tightest roll. The first one is usually the one that rips or falls apart on me, but they get better after that. No worries; the broken ones may require a fork but they still taste fabulous!

Provide each person his own little bowl of dipping sauce and a plate to pile high, and smile as he devours your labor of love.

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I shared this post on Scrumptious Sunday.