Sunday, May 4, 2008

Five or More Easy Things to do with Tofu

This post was inspired by my friend Ralph who said I ought to write about five easy things to do with tofu. But after I got to writing about the subject, I realized that I had more than five things to say about it. So the title of this would probably be better as, "Lots of Easy Things to do with Tofu!"

Before I became vegetarian, I don't think I had ever tried tofu. I didn't really understand much about it and my first experience cooking it resulted in a goopy, unappetizing mess. Primarily, this was because I didn't understand how to work with it. But after years of trial and error I think I've got a better handle on it.

The kind of tofu that you choose will make a difference. There are plenty of variations--smoked, pressed, sheets--but this entry will mainly focus on silken and firm tofu. Silken tofu is best for fillings, dips, sauces and desserts. If you try to marinate and fry it, it will usually fall apart--resulting in a goopy, unappetizing mess. Firm tofu is best for stir-frys, scrambles, and grilling.

Silken Tofu:

This kind of tofu is usually sold in vacuum packed boxes. Sometimes you can find it packed in water. The best way to work with it is to use it as a substitute for soft dairy products--like sour cream, cream cheese, or mayonnaise (which, I'm not sure if that's technically considered a dairy product. I think the real stuff is made out of eggs? I don't know. I never really cared for it much anyway.)

So here's two of my favorite recipes that use silken tofu:

Cilantro Sour Cream

This is an old stand-by. I make this every time I make chili or enchiladas. It's easy and quick. And since I usually like things on the spicy side, this is a good cooling condiment.

1 12oz package silken tofu
1/2 cup packed fresh cilantro
1 tbls olive oil
1 tsp fresh minced garlic
1 tbls fresh lime juice
pinch of salt or splash of soy sauce

1) blend tofu in a food processor until it has the consistency of sour cream
2) Add other ingredients to food processor. Blend until everything is homogenized.
For best results, let it chill for at least half an hour before serving.

Spinach Artichoke Dip:

I brought this to my friend John G's art opening last Christmas. People seemed to like it. It got eaten. But nobody asked me if it was vegan. So maybe that's a good sign in the grand scheme of tricking people into eating vegan food. It was a fun opening.

1 12oz package silken tofu
1 can artichoke hearts
12 0z fresh or frozen spinach
1/2 cup nutritional yeast
1 tbls olive oil
1 tbls lemon juice or apple cider vinegar
2 tsp salt or 1tbls soy sauce or equivalent, to taste
garlic, paprika, cayenne and dry mustard to taste
fresh cracked pepper

1. In a food processor, blend tofu, nutritional yeast, and lemon juice until everything is homogenized. If mixture is too thick, add a little water or soy milk to thin it out.
2. Heat a sauce pan over medium-high heat. Add olive oil and lightly sautee garlic. Then add the artichokes, spinach, tofu mixture and spices. Gently bring to a boil--stirring constantly. Lower heat.
3. Let simmer for twenty minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent it from sticking. If you want to thicken it, add more nutritional yeast. If you want it greasier, add more olive oil.
Serve warm with tortilla chips, bread, or fresh veggies.

Firm Tofu:

Firm tofu usually comes packed in water in the refrigerated section of the grocery store. This kind of tofu has a more solid consistency than the silken stuff and holds its shape when cooking. If you want the tofu to be firmer, it's a good idea to drain the water and then freeze it before using. When you defrost it, the tofu will release more water, resulting in a thicker and chewier product that will absorb sauces and marinades better.

Another way to remove excess water is to weigh it down. One method of doing this is to slice the tofu into thick pieces and lay it on a paper towel covered plate. Then place another plate on top of the tofu and use a big book as a weight, like a dictionary or a collected works of Shakespeare.

Typically, firm tofu is best used as a protein source in dishes that would otherwise call for meat or dairy. This is where seasoning and marinades become important. Left to its own devices, tofu tends to be pretty bland. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. A good way to think about tofu is that it's a blank canvas. I mean, honestly, I don't know much about cooking meat since I've been a vegetarian from about the time I was allowed to use a stove by myself. However, I watch enough reality food shows to know that seasoning meat is an important step in the cooking process. So don't skip this step with tofu. One of the most common complaints I hear from vegetarians and carnivores alike is that they don't like making tofu is because it always ends up tasteless and mushy. The easiest way to get around this is by removing excess water (as discussed above) and proper seasoning.

Obviously, you need to match the marinade with the dish. Tofu will absorb anything you feed it. The next step in preparing tasty tofu is to cook it properly. If you want to create crispy tofu, then the best methods are frying, searing, baking and grilling. However, crispy tofu is not the only tasty mode of preparation. Sometimes long marinading or slow simmering will create a texture that is not firm, but equally flavorful. The following are a few of my favorite firm tofu recipes that each involve a different method of preparation.

Tofu Feta

This is something my carnivore dad always gets excited about. He has this funny thing where he turns his nose towards tofu--or anything vegetarian, for that matter. However, whenever I'm making this at their house, he always plunges his fingers into the bowl to grab a taste and asks suspiciously, "This isn't your weird to-fu stuff, is it?"

"No, no, of course not, dad."

"Oh, good, good..."

"Um, dad, I'm making this for dinner...stop eating it all..."


1 16oz block extra firm tofu
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
2 tbls olive oil
1 handful fresh parsley
1 tbls fresh minced garlic
1 tsp coarse sea salt (or more to taste)
fresh cracked pepper

1) Blend lemon juice, olive oil, parsley, garlic, and salt.
2) Mash tofu in a bowl with a fork. Do not pulverize it. It should be chunky.
3) Pour lemon mixture over the tofu and stir. Garnish with fresh cracked pepper.
For best results, chill for at least an hour. Then serve over salad, with pita, or use as a filling for spinach pies.

Spicy Tofu Spinach Enchiladas

I made this for the Red Krayola when they played Parish Hall. They loved it. I tried to get Mayo Thompson to write me a grad school letter based upon my enchiladas. He agreed.

1 16oz package firm tofu
8 oz fresh or frozen spinach
1 tbls olive oil
1 tbls fresh lime juice
1 tbls fresh minced garlic
1 tsp salt, more to taste
fresh cracked pepper, to taste

16oz tomato sauce
1 tbls olive oil
1 tsp fresh minced garlic
1 tbls cayenne pepper (yes, 1tbls, or less to taste)

6 flour or corn tortillas (more or less depending on how much you fill 'em)

1) To make filling, whisk olive oil, lemon juice and spices. In another bowl, mash tofu, but don't pulverize it. If using fresh spinach, chop it finely and lightly steam or microwave it. If using frozen spinach, defrost it and then add it to the tofu. Then pour liquid lemon juice mixture over it and toss. Let it sit for at least thirty minutes.
2) Oh, and you might as well preheat the oven to 375 at this point. To prepare sauce: Heat olive oil in a sauce pan over medium heat. Add garlic and cayenne pepper. Toast the spices for about twenty or thirty seconds--careful not to let them burn. Then add the tomato sauce--stirring the whole time. Careful not to let the sauce bubble up and splash you, especially if you're prone to wearing white sweaters like I am. Bring to a simmer. Let cook for about five minutes.
3) Bust out a casserole dish or a baking pan. Spoon about a cup worth of sauce onto the bottom of the dish and spread around. Then assemble the enchiladas. Spoon a good amount of the tofu spinach mixture into a tortilla, fold, and roll. Place in dish on top of sauce. Repeat until you have no more tortillas or no more tofu mixture. Then pour the remaining sauce over the enchiladas. Bake at 375 for twenty to thirty minutes, until the top get browned and crispy.
Serve with Cilantro Sour Cream for an extra yummy tofu treat!

Sesame-Ginger Tofu Rice Bowl

I made this for Ian MacKaye, Amy Farina, and Doug Gillard when they played Parish Hall. They were so excited because they were served food that wasn't just vegan chili. Apparently, fresh vegetables are hard to come across when you're on tour. When they were were playing on stage, they actually stopped to give me a shout out for this dish.

Marinade and sauce:

3 tbls sesame oil
3 tbls lime juice or vinegar of choice
2 tbls agave nectar or sugar of choice
3 tbls soy sauce or bragg's liquid amino acids
2 tsp fresh minced garlic (or equivalent powder)
2 tsp fresh minced ginger (or equivalent powder)
dash of cayenne
sesame seeds
fresh chopped cilantro

1 160z package of firm tofu, cut into 1inch cubes

3 large stalks bok choi
1 large carrot, sliced
1/2 red bell pepper, chopped
1 cup fresh pea pods
1 cup fresh broccoli or frozen

1 cup brown rice
2 1/4 cups water

1) To make sauce, homogenize everything (except sesame seeds and cilantro) in a food processor or whisk with a fork.
2) Pour half over the tofu and let marinade for at least twenty to thirty minutes.
3) Concurrently, cook rice. If you don't already know how to do this, it involves putting rice in pot. Adding water. Bringing to a boil. Then letting simmer for about 45 minutes.
4) As for the veggies, I find it's best to steam the broccoli and carrots at the same time. Once they're getting close to being tender, add the red pepper and steam for just a couple more minutes. Turn off heat and add bok choi. (I like my bok choi to be crunchy, not tender. If you like your veggies cooked more, then steam appropriately.)
5) Meanwhile, heat a wok or frying pan over medium heat. You might want to add a couple drops of sesame oil to lubricate the pan before adding the marinated tofu. The point here is to sear the tofu. If you want it really crispy, add more oil. Or if you want to make this a little more low fat, you can take the oil out of the marinade and bake the tofu on parchment paper or a non-stick pan at 400 for about twenty, thirty minutes.


So that's my post on five easy things to do with tofu. I don't think that tofu is that complicated to work with, it's just that there's a few simple tricks you need to learn before going into it. Recap: Don't over think it. Let it drain. Let it marinade. Cook it in an appropriate manner.

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