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Tofu: The hunt for great taste and familiar ingredients lands treasured recipes

Sunday, March 10, 2002

By Virginia Phillips

I've been slinging tofu till I'm blue in the face.

The Bachelor Sandwich - a winning combination of tofu and portobello mushrooms - and a sweet, no-bake dessert: Chocolate Silk Pie. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

This business of taming the T-food has been no joke. I'd had a history of grabbing a box of some kind of tofu, feeling good about it, taking it home and, after a decent interval, throwing it away.

Now I'd set myself a mission. Nothing short of:

Great-tasting dishes containing lots of the soy protein, not just the token spoonful.

Delicious results derived from a few ingredients, not the usual tofu-dish scavenger hunt for 50 weirdities, including galangal, hing and black Chinese vinegar.

It would be OK if the T-food was whirled into anonymity in sauce or soup. However, if offered up pale and naked, it must never present the slithery texture that gives people heebie-jeebies.

And overall, the dishes must taste good enough to make again.

So good, in fact, that my Minnesota-born husband, who never ate pasta until he was 40, who's had a lifelong mistrust of pale, smooth food (risotto, polenta) and who has displayed a poor tofu attitude all along, would give each dish one thumb's up -- maybe even two.

Second of three parts

Part 1
Eating the Asian way

Part 3
Thursday in Food: The Korean breakfast -- for dinner


This would call for tofu voodoo.

Why bother, you say?

Tofu dishes are easy on the calorie-count, the digestion and the planet. They contribute to strong bones and healthy hearts.

It's nice to have one or two dazzlers in your repertoire for the vegetarian or lactose-intolerant relative.

Foremost, tofu can be a wonderful spa after periods of indulgence. Light but filling, it lets you feel as if you have eaten more than you have. A fresh-fruit tofu smoothie for lunch, a delicious tofu entree for dinner, leftovers the next day, and you are back on the wagon fairly painlessly.

Believe all that? Very good, but what do we do when we get to those baffling supermarket displays?

A refrigerator case, usually near produce, is stacked with cartons of chubby little tofu mattresses marked "soft," "firm," "extra firm."

A nearby display holds unrefrigerated tofu, called "silken." Also offered in "soft," "firm," "extra firm," this product, a bit smoother in texture than the perishable kind, is sealed, airtight, in aseptic boxes like kids' juice drinks. Both refrigerated and silken are prepared from soy milk, the refrigerated using a method similar to cheese-making, the silken more like making yogurt.

Through a harrowing time -- more harrowing to my husband and friends -- I carried home all kinds of tofu, changing my recipe plan constantly, never seeming to have the precise variety stipulated.

The soft tofus, no matter how flavorful the accompanying sauce, proved a hurdle for most tasters (unless offered in the form of a few tiny cubes garnishing soup). The slippery stuff, lacking flavor or texture of its own, just didn't get any better for them after the first bite.

However, one discovery made life with tofu beautiful.

If we just stuck to firm tofu, either from the refrigerator or packaged in the little aseptic boxes, things turned out fine.

Surprisingly, firm tofu performs beautifully in making creamy things, a delectable fresh herb sauce, for example, or velvety chocolate silk pie. Not surprisingly, it sautes perfectly, too, acquiring a golden crust, but staying soft and mellow inside, as in a showy dish of green beans with golden fried tofu cubes in a spicy, crunchy peanut sauce.

Cut into larger slabs or triangles, firm tofu also takes to "lacquering," a sexy way of saying you will coat pan-fried tofu shapes in a highly concentrated sauce -- as simple as Worcestershire in a bottle -- turning the pieces into shiny, chewy hunks of flavor with still tender insides. You'll see how this works in a hearty sandwich exploiting tofu's affinity with mushrooms.

One exception: If you prefer a really dense chewy texture, consider baked tofu. It comes refrigerated, already flavored. Lemon pepper flavor works well for anything from the accompanying green bean dish to stirring into hearty soups or vegetarian chilis.

Searching out tofu gurus, I turned first to chef Deborah Madison, whose popular "Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone" taught Americans to love their vegetables.

Surely Madison could get a man to eat his tofu. From her recent "This Can't be Tofu," there is the Bachelor Sandwich.

Virginia Phillips is a free-lance writer and translator based in Mt. Lebanon.

Bachelor Sandwich

As Deborah Madison explains, "In about 15 minutes, you can go from looking at a carton of tofu to sitting down to a savory hot sandwich. What's inside it? Sauteed onions and mushrooms covering golden tofu glazed with Worcestershire sauce. Or use A-1 if you prefer."

1 carton firm tofu, drained
2 teaspoons olive oil
2 to 3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
Plenty of salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 large red onion, cut into 1/4-inch slices
2 portobello mushrooms, sliced as thick as the onions
8 slices rustic bread
Mayonnaise combined with chili sauce or ketchup, or horseradish mustard

Slice the tofu crosswise into 8 pieces, slightly less than 1/2 inch thick. Set them on paper towels and blot. Heat a large cast-iron skillet. Brush with 2 teaspoons of the oil and add the tofu. Cook over medium-high heat until golden, about 6 minutes on each side. Douse with the Worcestershire sauce and turn the tofu once. Continue frying until the sauce is absorbed and the tofu is laced with a fine glaze. Turn off the heat and season well with salt and plenty of pepper.

While the tofu is cooking, place a 10-inch skillet over high heat and add the remaining oil. Add the onion and mushrooms. Saute until seared and nicely browned, 5 to 7 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Toast the bread or not as you wish. Cover with the condiment you choose. (Fresh tomato and mayonnaise are terrific in summer.) Add the tofu slices, top with onions and mushrooms, press, and dig in. Flour tortillas roll-ups work beautifully too. Makes 4.

Minnesota critique: "I love Worcestershire sauce."

"This Can't Be Tofu" by Deborah Madison

Fresh Herb Sauce

This flavorful sauce, green with herbs, brightens everything: poached fish or chicken, vegetables, borscht, a turkey sandwich.

1/2 box firm silken tofu
1/2 cup yogurt
2 tablespoons sour cream or mayonnaise
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest plus
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/3 cup chopped fresh dill
2 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons finely snipped chives or green onion tops
Pinch salt and freshly ground pepper

Mix all ingredients. Makes 1 cup.

Minnesota: "This is good, especially on the spuds."

"This Can't Be Tofu" by Deborah Madison

Chocolate Silk Pie

Spoon this rich, velvety no-bake filling into a purchased pastry crust, graham cracker shell or simply swirl it into a pretty bowl. Just don't skimp on the toasted almond garnish.


1 1/2 cups semisweet chocolate chips
2 1/2 cups firm silken tofu
3 tablespoons honey
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup sliced almonds, lightly toasted

Heat chocolate chips over low heat until melted, stirring often, or melt in the microwave on low. Set aside. In a food processor, blend tofu until smooth. Add honey and blend until mixed. Add melted chocolate chips and blend until creamy. Pour filling into chilled pie crust. Sprinkle generously with the toasted sliced almonds. Place in refrigerator until firm. Serves 10.

Minnesota: Caught eating leftovers for breakfast.

Indiana Soybean Development Council

Green Beans and Golden Tofu With Crunchy Peanut Sauce

The fresher and firmer the green beans, the better this beautiful dish will taste. It is delicious heaped over rice or on its own. Tofu cubes will be chewy with soft interiors. Drizzle with the spicy peanut sauce.

1 cup peanuts, unsalted, dry roasted or raw
2 tablespoons peanut or canola oil, divided
2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 pound firm tofu, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 pound fresh green beans, trimmed
1 small hot red chile pepper, seeded and chopped

Place the peanuts in a blender, and grind briefly until they form a coarse meal. Set aside. Heat a medium-sized heavy skillet. Add 1 tablespoon of the oil, and the ginger and garlic. SauteZ for a few minutes, then add the crushed peanuts and the lemon zest. Cook over medium-low heat for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring often, until the peanuts are lightly toasted. (This will take just 3 to 4 minutes if using dry-roasted peanuts.)

Remove from heat and set aside. As the peanut mixture is cooking, heat a large, nonstick wok or large cast-iron skillet. Drizzle in a little oil. When it is very hot, add the tofu and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cook over high heat for 10 to 15 minutes, turning twice, to let the water evaporate. Sprinkle with lemon juice, reduce the heat, toss in the chopped red chile pepper, and cook for a few minutes longer.

Transfer the tofu to the pan containing the peanut mixture, and set aside. Scrape out the wok or skillet if necessary, and return to the heat. Let it get very hot, then add the remaining scant tablespoon of oil. When the oil is hot, add the green beans. (The pan should sizzle when they hit.) Stir-fry over high heat for about 5 minutes, then sprinkle with the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt. Stir-fry just a few minutes longer, or until the beans are tender-crisp (mostly crisp, but just tender enough). Add the peanut-tofu mixture and toss everything together. Drizzle with Peanut Sauce.

Peanut Sauce:
1/2 cup peanut butter
1/2 cup hot water
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
1 large garlic clove, minced
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

Combine peanut butter and water in a bowl; mash and mix until uniform. Add remaining ingredients, and stir until combined. Add a little more water if you prefer it thinner.

Serves 2 to 3 as main dish, 4 to 6 as side dish.

Minnesota: "This is the way I like tofu best, when it tastes like fried potatoes."

Adapted from Mollie Katzen's "Vegetable Heaven"

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