Friday, February 17, 2012

What the Tofu?

My father-in-law recently sent me this joke:

A man in the grocery store noticed a woman pick up a package of extra-firm tofu and put it in her basket.
"Excuse me, but what do you do with that?" he asked.
"I usually just put it in the fridge, forget about it, and throw it away when it expires," she said.
"Oh," he said, "that's what my wife does. I was hoping you had a better recipe."

I remember the first time I ate tofu. My friend was an inconsistent vegan; that is, she sometimes cheated on her veganism by going out with a milkshake or spending an evening with a grilled cheese sandwich. We were at her house one afternoon when she brought out some tofu, mixed it into a soup, and let it simmer.The soup may have just been bad, but the tofu made it worse. After a few spoonfuls of the slippery, slimy mess, I pretended I wasn't hungry. A grilled cheese with a milkshake would have been heavenly at that moment.

Everyone says, "tofu absorbs whatever flavor you cook it with!" like tofu is the food equivalent to lead andwith a little alchemyit can transform into garlic sauce, pancakes, or chocolate mousse. But, I have eaten enough mucousy tofu to tell you that isn't true. Tofu can easily ruin a dish.

So, what do you do you do with tofu?

Look toward Asia, go farther, yes, stop there in Thailand. I've been to every Thai restaurant in the valley, and I know that some cooks plop in uncooked tofu at the last minute. I don't return to those restaurants. Others, however, bring out crisp, spicy cubes of tofu dancing in a sea of chili-spiced coconut milk with potatoes, onions, and cashews.

Bom from Aiyara taught me the difference. "Do you want your tofu fried?" she asked.

At last, it all made sense. And now that I know the secret, I will share it with all of you.

Thai Curry

One package of extra firm tofu
Two large white sweet potatoes
One large onion
Two cloves garlic
Fresh or dried basil
One bunch of asparagus
One large sweet bell pepper or six mini sweet bell peppers
A handful of cashews
Two 16 ounce cans coconut milk (I use light coconut milk and it's lovely)
Prepared Thai curry paste (like Thai Kitchen or something from the grocery store)
Ground fresh chili paste (Chinese style)
Flour and sesame seeds (about 1/2 cup)
Olive oil or vegetable oil for frying

Drain the tofu. Place on a plate and put some weight on it to squeeze out excess liquid (I usually put a stoneware bowl on it).
While the tofu drains completely, scrub the sweet potatoes. Cut off any blemishes. I don't peel potatoes because the skins are full of nutrients. Or because I'm lazy. Cut the sweet potatoes into cubes. Heat a shallow pool of oil in a frying pan. Add the sweet potatoes and stir frequently.
Slice the tofu in half laterally to make smaller cubes. Cut tofu into about one-half-inch cubes. Roll the tofu cubes in the flour and sesame seed mixture until each cube is covered. Remove the fried sweet potatoes from the oil and drain. Add more oil if necessary. Add tofu to the oil and let the tofu cubes become crispy on each side before turning them over.
Slice the onion into long strips. Crush the garlic. Chop the fresh basil. Trim the ends of the asparagus and cut into one-inch pieces. Slice the bell peppers in long strips. (I suggest red, gold, or yellow bell pepper with the sweet potatoes. I recently used six mini sweet peppers, and it was delicious.)
Remove the crispy tofu from the oil and let it drain. If necessary, pour out the excess oil in your frying pan. Add the onion. Simmer about two minutes and add the garlic and basil. When I use dry basil, I will just sprinkle a layer over the onions. If using fresh basil, add in about four chopped leaves. Simmer a couple more minutes. Add the peppers and asparagus. Toss in the cashews. Stir it around with all of the joy a stir fry deserves.
Shake the coconut milk really well. If you don't, the thick stuff will stick inside the bottom of the can. Pour in both cans of coconut milk. Add in a couple of teaspoons of curry paste. This recipe is probably better with red curry paste. Stir the paste in really well.
Stir the sweet potatoes and tofu into the curry.
Increase the heat with spoonfuls of fresh ground chili paste. You know how much spice you like, so you'll need to taste it. I like spicy (but I can't put in too much spice because of my children), so I'll add in three or four teaspoons. Stir it well.
Let the mixture simmer long enough for the vegetables to absorb the flavor.
Serve over white long grain rice. Jasmine rice is recommended with Thai food, but we always use Basmati rice.
Variations: use regular potatoes instead of sweet potatoes. With a green curry paste, use green bell pepper. Mix in your favorite chopped vegetables. (I do not recommend broccoli. Broccoli makes the curry taste kind of rotten.)

 Maybe next time you pick up tofu in the grocery store you won't just put it in the fridge, let it expire, and throw it away. Or, more likely, you'll actually buy the stuff because now you know what you can do with it.


  1. Judith taught me to mix cornstarch and water and coat the tofu cubes before pan frying. They are crispy and yummy.

    1. Aargh! I completely forgot to include the step about rolling the tofu in flour and sesame seeds. I've edited it in now, so it should make more sense. Thanks for the reminder!