Wednesday, January 14, 2009

I do believe that tofu yearns

I love tofu. Always have. And while I don't go quite as far as my boss does in my love of the stuff -- his license plate reads "TRY TOFU" -- I never can pass up a plate of bean curd, especially if it's extra-firm and has been sauteed until it's crisp on the edges. Yum.

You are thinking, seriously? Tofu has no flavor! Which is for the most part true, which is another reason why I love it so. It is a blank canvas. A protein-rich, healthy canvas, onto which I can project all my favorite flavors and textures and still feel good about the resulting dish. You know, because mashed potatoes are a also blank canvas, as are sugar cookies and fried chicken and a million other "unhealthy" foodstuffs. But dressing up a dish of mashed potatoes with goat cheese or topping a fried chicken breast with a waffle does feel a tad over-indulgent. Not so with tofu. It lends itself wonderfully to a range of nutritious accompaniments and is itself high in calcium, protein and omega-3 fatty acids. When I feel like eating healthfully without compromising mouth-watering tastiness, tofu is there for me.

Tonight we enjoyed planks tofu topped with a spicy lemongrass sauce -- another recipe from the archives that I don't make nearly often enough. The dish includes one of my very favorite pantry staples: fish sauce. I was very reluctant to try fish sauce at first, given its powerful fishy odor and unfortunate name. (Fish made into a sauce does not, for me at least, connote anything tasty or remotely culinarily serviceable.) But once I got past these things, I discovered that fish sauce is the je ne sais quoi in many Asian dishes -- especially Thai and Vietnamese ones -- that makes you think, mmm...this is really good. Omit it and you will be sad; only blandness results from the error of fish sauce omission. And so it serves its purpose in this tofu dish: salty but not just salty for salty's sake -- salty with complex undertones and depth of flavor. It plays so very well with the hot and sweet elements of this recipe to create a sauce that is much more than the sum of its parts. I'm consistently amazed at the complex taste that results when a few simple Asian-inspired ingredients are combined just so. A little fish sauce, a little sugar, some shallots, garlic, chile. It's alchemy, really.

I do believe that tofu yearns for a sauce this flavorful to infiltrate its every fissure, elevating it from a simple healthy bean curd to something truly divine. I like to imagine that when my boss was standing in line at the DMV, contemplating the content of his vanity plate, he was thinking of a tofu dish like this one (though he would be one to commit the error of fish sauce omission, as he is vegan). 

Try tofu, indeed.


Adapted from "Cooking Light"

We enjoyed our tofu this evening with some ginger-cilantro rice. Personally I find rice to be a pleasant accompaniment to tofu, but about 12 years ago some woman in a Hunan restaurant in Evanston, Illinois, told me that tofu fried rice "makes no sense" and wouldn't serve it to me. I've never been one to make sense, so....

2 15-oz. packages extra-firm tofu (Nasoya is my very very favorite)
Olive oil for pan-frying

1 1/2 T. sugar
2 T. fish sauce
1 T. olive oil
1/2 c. shallots, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
2 T. lemongrass, finely chopped
1 dried red Thai chile, reconstituted, seeded and minced

Line a baking sheet with 4 layers of paper towel. Cut each tofu brick crosswise into 8 slices. Arrange tofu in a single layer on the paper towel, then cover with another 4 layers of paper towel. Place another baking sheet on top, then weigh down with something heavy, such as a cast iron skillet or some large cans of tomatoes. Press the tofu for at least 15 minutes, while you prepare the rest of the recipe.

Reconstitute the chile in a mug of boiling water -- just until it's a little soft. Seed and mince the chile.

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat a large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. Coat the pan with olive oil and, working in batches, cook the tofu until brown on both sides, 3-4 minutes per side. Add a little more olive oil to the pan between batches. Place the cooked tofu on a baking sheet and keep warm in the 250-degree oven while you fry the remaining batches.

In a small bowl, combine the sugar and fish sauce and whisk until the sugar is dissolved. In a small saucepan, heat 1 T. olive oil over medium-high heat. Add shallots and garlic; sauté 3 minutes or until lightly browned. Add the lemongrass and chile; sauté for an additional 2 minutes. Stir in the sugar mixture and cook 1 minute. 

To serve, place 4 planks of tofu on a plate and top with about 2 T. of sauce. Then, marvel at what a fantastic meal you've cooked, what with all those serious flavors mingling up against the crispy texture of the tofu. Finally, feel good about all that calcium and protein.

Makes 4 servings. P.S. This dish goes great with beer!


robert said...

thank god you didn't invite me over for dinner last night. your beef loving ( and daughters loving ) father

Dianne said...

Oh you know you love tofu...ha! You would have been very angry indeed with this meal. :) Soon you'll have to come over for pasta!