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.
PAN-FRIED TOFU WITH SPICY LEMONGRASS SAUCE
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!