Friday, October 30, 2009

In Praise of Tofu

After watching the oh so sad Top Chef vegetarian challenge to feed Natalie Portman--one day late due to the pathetic Yankees/Phillies opener (Man, Weds was lame!)--I feel compelled to share with you the techniques our dear professional chefs could have used to feed Ms Portman something other than amuse bouche sized side dishes of anemic vegetables.  Now to be perfectly honest with the supply of beans and whole grains in Craftsteak's kitchen, there really was no reason to serve only the sad little vegetables in the first place.It really isn't necessary to use tofu, tempeh or any other animal protein substitute to make a decently balanced vegan meal but, since tofu is routinely so poorly represented in mainstream cooking shows a little instruction on its use is in order:
A little tofu basics to get you started. There is an enormous variety in the types of tofu from silken of various firmnesses to soft-superfirm tubs in your grocery store. Fresh is available  from oriental markets and some people even make  homemade. So this blog post could go on for weeks on a whole host of ways to use this versatile product that when made correctly is happily eaten even by omnivorous children.  I am going to focus on Extra-Firm tofu today and maybe do some silken quiche and dessert love in the future.
Now believe me,  I understand the tofu fear.  You empty out this block of white stuff from a tub of murky liquid and it quite frankly looks pretty awful.  But let's think about it for a second.  Exactly how beautiful are raw chicken breast or fish filets? And no one died for your tofu..unless their is some soybean mafia conspiracy of which I am unaware and then I stand corrected.  The secret is that you need to add flavor and improve the texture the same as any other not intended to be eaten raw product.  This is where people either fail or simply don't know what to do.
The most important thing you must do to your tofu is remove the excess water and add flavor.  The easiest way to do this is to press the water out of the tofu and then marinade some flavor back in.  Pressing tofu is an easy technique but one I didn't learn until after 20 odd years of vegetarianism.  No matter what you read ..don't be fooled into not pressing tofu if you intend to grill, bake or fry it.  The easiest way is to remove the tofu from the tub, place between a clean dishtowel, and set under a heavy object for about 20 minutes.  Turn over and repeat for the same amount of time.  If you know you are preparing your tofu in slabs, cut it widthwise into the number of pieces you will need before pressing and it will press in much less time.  There are even tofu presses available now which will allow you to press and marinate all in one contraption.  I hear good things but I am too cheap, too diy and have too little storage space to purchase this particular item. And I must confess I like pressing my tofu under my old Abnormal Psychology textbook from College.
Once you have pressed your tofu, it is up to you how you want to flavor it.  Most of us marinate at least briefly even if going on to other techniques.  Your marinade can be as fancy or simple as you want.  A little lemon juice, soy sauce and fresh garlic will suffice.  Or you can look through any number of vegan cookbooks for elaborate spice blends to match the flavor profile you are cooking:  cajun, indian, italian etc.  Plan on marinating for at least an hour.  But quite frankly you can store pressed tofu in marinade in your refrigerator for quick weeknight meals. After marinating you can grill, broil or even bread and fry it  if that floats your boat!  Add gravy, sauce or serve plain and you are good to go!
If you like the chewy texture found at many Asian restaurants you use the same technique as above except you want to freeze your tofu overnight and then let it thaw the next day before pressing and marinating.  This is good if you are using the tofu in a recipe that routinely uses chicken like: General Tso's Tofu or Tofu Paprikash. 
Follow the above steps and you too will be loving tofu in no time.  And now a little visual tofu love:

In Chili over a scramble

And a bonus Jack O Lantern (he likes tofu too!)
Happy Halloween and Happy Veganmofo!

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