“Eww TOFU! ” was definitely my reaction the first time my mom served me the sponge-like substance as a substitute for chicken. The texture, taste, and look were all different. Pretending tofu is chicken is one of the reasons why extreme meat-lovers everywhere cannot understand vegetarians. (Side note, vegetarians do not and should not only live off of tofu, just as meatarians/carnivores should not live off of solely meat – variety brings vitamins and nutrients into one’s diet.) Tofu is not a substitute for chicken. Yes, it has protein and other nutrients; however, tofu is not chicken. It does not cook nor will ever have the texture of chicken.
Once one can get past tofu ≠ chicken, they can start to explore the strengths of tofu as a potential ingredient in recipes.
Tofu is a soy based substance, high in protein, iron, and calcium. Because of its sponge-like consistency, it is able to adapt to both spicy and sweet recipes, absorbing flavors through marinades and spices. Different types of tofu cook differently, just as different types of meat cuts cook differently. Silken tofu has a custard like substance, great for blended/pureed recipes. Soft tofu is also great for blending as well as for soups (like Miso soup!). Firm and extra firm tofu are fantastic stir-fried, but can also work in soups and other recipes. I like firm tofu because of its ability to maintain its shape.
My experience with tofu is as a novice. Ever since my mom served me tofu patties pretending to be chicken, with fake char-grilled lines included, I have been apprehensive in attempting tofu recipes. But then, one of the sublets at my apartment this past summer was a vegetarian and made a delicious tofu dish – a Asian marinated tofu and veggie stir-fry served over basmati brown rice. My thoughts on tofu radically changed! There was hope for the gushy-not-chicken-soy-sponge!
My first attempts were failures. I tried stir-frying soft tofu, which fell apart and tasted mushy. I did not properly drain/press firm tofu, resulting in another mushy substance. I remained resolute – the memory of the delicious tofu dish remained my motivation.
A month later, I came across an adaptation of the tofu recipe below, a cumin-rubbed tofu from Cookouts Veggie Style! by Julia Hackett. The tofu is lightly fried in olive oil, lending to a crispy exterior, and therefore a more acceptable texture for someone coming from a meat eating background. This recipe showed me the versatile nature of tofu. Often what I enjoy in meat dishes is the sauce/marinade. The texture can be an added bonus. Finding a way to prepare tofu to a suitable texture gives me hope as I explore the avenue of vegetarianism, something I have been pondering for a few years; my hope is not to lose some of the amazing flavors from a few meat dishes I grew up loving. Tofu may not be the answer for them all, just as white meat differs from dark meat and chicken differs from beef.
For stir-fries, the tofu needs to be pressed. Different sources say to press the tofu for a range of time from a minimum of 20-90 minutes.
My method is crude: After initially squeezing the liquid from the freshly opened package of tofu, I create a sandwiched tower of plates, a bowl, tofu, and weight to drain the tofu.
The sandwich tower: at the bottom is a plate to catch the drained liquid; I place a bowl upside down on top of the plate; the tofu goes on top of the upside bowl;
I place another plate on top of the tofu; I pile books on top of the plate for weight;
I leave the tofu for 30-60 minutes. Veggiebelly describes another way by wrapping the tofu in a towel, to absorb the moisture, before adding on the weight.
This recipe is as adaptable to the spices on your spice rack. Rub the tofu with the seasonings you love. I love garlic, onions, and spiciness – which this recipe reflects. Use this recipe as a guide for proportions.
Cumin-Rubbed TofuAdapted from Cookouts Veggie Style! by Jolinda Hackett
- 16 oz package of firm or extra-firmed tofu, well pressed, sliced.
- Olive oil for brushing
- 1 tsp cumin
- 1/2 tsp oregano
- 1/2 tsp garlic salt
- 1/2 tsp onion powder
- 1/4 tsp paprika or chili powder (depending on my mood)
- 1/4 tsp parsley
Brush the pressed tofu with olive oil on both sides.
In a small bowl, combine all of the spices, then gently rub over the tofu on all sides.
Heat up a little olive oil in a skillet, medium-high heat.
Place tofu in skillet for 5-10 minutes, turning once or as needed. I personally like all the sides a little crispy, and tend to rotate four times.
Serve with rice, green onions, fresh veggies, and salsa or an Asian sauce.
To accompany my tofu dish, I prepared an apple-onion stir-fry, brown rice, and veggies. I sprinkled on some green onions and a quick balsamic vinaigrette I made. The apple-onion stir-fry gave a sweetness to the savory/garlic flavor of the tofu. A well balanced, nutritious, and tasty meal!