I’m about to share one of my deepest, darkest secrets.
I’ve been a vegetarian in Charlotte, NC for 12 years, and vegan on and off (mostly on) throughout those years.
But until last year … I never had a single f*cking clue what the heck to do with tofu. More, I was pretty happy NOT knowing.
I know, I know. As a vegetarian, I’m supposed to subsist entirely on tofu, black bean burgers, and quinoa. Not jumping on the tofu bandwagon and marching in lockstep with all the other tofu lovers makes me a bad vegan.
Bad, bad vegan.
It wasn’t so much that I hated tofu as that I just didn’t like it. Sure, I’d go to Chinese restaurants and eat it in vegetable stir-fries, but I was always like “meh.” I did like tofu better at those restaurants where it was a little crispier or chewier. When it was softer, the texture sometimes grossed me out – a slimy cross between a smooth creamy cheese and a slug.
“Wait!” I can hear some tofu lover sneering in the background. “You’re vegan! You don’t eat slugs!”
Well, I don’t now, but back in my omniverous days I did try escargot (snails) once. I was with my Mom and I can’t remember why we did it, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. Bad ideas always do. Snails taste like mushrooms but they’re weirdly soft and chewy. It’s a totally indescribable mouth feel. If you spread a little Brie cheese on top of a stretchy escargot pulled from its shell, that’s exactly the texture of some of the softer tofus.
I did buy a block of tofu once and let it languish in the refrigerator. Every now and then I would take it out and look at it despairingly, then put it back. I breathed a sigh of relief when the expiration date came and went and I could finally throw the weird little white block away.
Fast forward to last autumn. My partner, always great at saving a buck and finding a deal, found a bunch of tofu coupons online. (Online tofu coupons are actually pretty plentiful – for starters, you can pick one up here.) Charlotte’s biggest grocery chain, Harris Teeter, just happens to double coupons and they just happened to have tofu on sale that week, which meant we could get the tubs of tofu for – yeah, free.
You can’t beat free. You just can’t. Especially if you work in real estate in Charlotte, like me. (Ok, everyone – stop snickering.)
With Harris Teeter’s coupon policy you can use three like-kind coupons per day, which means between the two of us we could get six free tubs of tofu per day for a week, for a possible total of 42 free tubs of tofu. I don’t remember how many tubs we actually wound up with (we might have missed a day of shopping), but let’s just say we had a LOT of tofu.
And then my partner left it up to ME to figure out what to do with it all. With 30+ packages of tofu expiring in a month, I had to learn – and learn fast.
One of the first things I learned is that firm and extra-firm tofu freezes really well. Which is a good thing, because otherwise we would had to eat tofu every day for over a month – and I don’t think our relationship could have withstood that. Freezing changes the texture of tofu slightly – makes it a little spongier, a little chewier, less slug-like – which I consider to be a good thing! I’ve since come across dozens of opinions and theories on freezing tofu, some of them astoundingly complicated. (Drain your tofu, wash it, press it, drain it again, wrap it in foil, put in plastic bag, even effing vacuum seal it …) But I didn’t know that at the time, and ignorance can indeed be bliss. I just tossed half the packages in the freezer without opening, thawed them a day in the refrigerator before using them, and they all did just fine.
The second thing I learned is that tofu really is a protein powerhouse, which made me a little more willing to eat it. It’s a complete protein, with all the essential amino acids. One-half cup of firm tofu has 10.1 grams of protein, compared one egg’s 6 grams of protein or a half cup dairy milk’s 5.1 grams. Calorie for calorie, tofu even has more protein than BEEF – 100 calories of tofu has 11 grams of protein but 100 calories of beef has only 8.9! (Tofu also has zero cholestoral, zero antibiotics, and zero RGH – unlike eggs, dairy, and beef.)
There seems to be more organic tofu out there than non-organic, and they cost about the same. (In our case free, but seriously there’s only a few cents’ difference.)
And if you’re worried about tofu being made from GMO soybeans? Don’t be – GMO soybean crops are used to feed animals, not people. (Although many people who are concerned about GMOs will then eat the animals which ate the GMO soybeans – duh.)
Third, I learned to ignore most of the hoo-ha about how and where and why to press your tofu, and for how long. It’s a highly individual thing. Some people swear by expensive tofu presses (and if you’re really into tofu, a press could be a smart purchase). Others, like Chef Charlie of Bean Vegan Cuisine, don’t press their firm or extra-firm tofu at all – Charlie claims he just drains and slices it. I take a middle-of-the-road approach – I drain the tofu, wrap in a clean dishtowel, place it between two plates with a ginormous can of crushed tomatoes on top, and then wander off to watch Big Bang Theory. Eventually, I’ll remember the tofu and will consider it drained. There are variations to this approach – some change the dishtowel several times or use paper towels, flip the plates back and forth, use bricks or books as ballast on top of the plates. It’s up to you to create your own peculiar tofu ritual.
I also learned as I experimented that, with the exception of “eggless” egg salad and Indian tofu scramble, I greatly prefer tofu to be a supporting player in a meal, not a star. I like it in stir fries, and as a replacement for chicken in casseroles, and as a stand in for paneer in Indian dishes. But I really don’t like a big slab of tofu on my plate, no matter what it’s been marinated in.
My secret to great-tasting tofu in a stir fry: Drain tofu and cut in cubes (or, drain cubed tofu). Measure 1 tsp turmeric, 1/2 teaspoon red chili pepper, and 1/2 teaspoon salt into a bowl and stir until spices are blended. Add tofu and toss to coat. Fry in oil until brown on both sides, remove tofu and drain. Then fix the rest of your stir fry and add the tofu back in at the end.
This is also the method I use when adding tofu to casseroles or “pretending” it’s paneer.
Speaking of paneer, since tofu absorbs the flavors of whatever it is cooked with, tofu also does well in the “simmer sauces” you can find at Indian stores. Cube it, toss it in turmeric (turmeric and tofu were MADE for each other, you will not believe how much more appetizing tofu looks when tinted a golden yellow instead of white), bake it or fry it, and then add to the sauce to simmer for awhile.
Did I say bake it? Yes, baking is another easy option you have. Drain and press your tofu, cut into cubes or strips, spray lightly with cooking spray. Toss the tofu in whatever spices you like, or sprinkle with garam masala or whatever floats your tofu boat. Bake at 400 for 20 minutes, then flip the tofu and bake for another 20.
One final thought on tofu? If you use tofu for tofu scrambles or eggless egg salad, try a little black salt (also called kala namak or sel noir). It’s actually purplish, not black. It’s salty like salt, but also very … pungent. In fact, the first time I smelled it I thought of rotten eggs! Black salt is a bit of an acquired taste, but once you acquire it black salt is addictive! It’s commonly used in Indian cuisine for a myriad of things – in chaat, raitas, on fruit – but add a little to your “egg” salad or scramble, and the black salt will make it taste exactly like eggs!