Ahoy, soy! It’s a versatile bean. Eat it unprocessed as edamame, replace your cereal milk or coffee creamer with soy milk (there are a ton of flavors), or eat it as a protein on its own or in stir-fries as either tofu or tempeh.
But today is all about tofu. And before I say anything else: if you dismiss this recipe, thinking “I don’t like that,” well, shame on you. If you say “I don’t like that” and you’ve never even tried tofu…well, in the words of Thumper’s mother, “If you can’t say anything nice; don’t say anything at all.”
Tofu doesn’t bother me (it never has), though, I understand that it definitely might not appeal to all of us, given that it can be very bland and unappetizing if poorly prepared or in some cases, unprepared. The dining hall at my college always had plain, no-flavor, watery tofu on the salad bar; I’m not sure if they actually expected folks to just put the flavorless blobs on their salad and be satisfied. Needless to say, that part of the salad bar was always well-stocked.
Many of us have seen tofu in this sad form, and unfortunately for people who don’t eat it regularly or have never had a successful meal with it, these unpreparations of tofu give it a bad reputation. It doesn’t help that tofu is often only used as a “meat substitute” and branded as “health food.” (You probably think I’m crazy. I actually choose to eat tofu on its own merit; in fact, I cook with it 2-3 times a week.)
It’s time to look past the stereotype and give tofu a chance! The recipe I’m blogging today is a great beginniner recipe because it has a lot of flavor, and it has a chewy, meaty mouthfeel. It’s great served with any vegetable side. Spicy Ketchup-braised tofu* is really a “meat and potatoes” kinda dish, at least in the relam of tofu anyway.
What is tofu, exactly?
Tofu is nothing to be afraid of–essentially, it is a fresh “cheese” made from soy milk. In fact, Mark Bittman has a recipe for homemade tofu in How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, and it is made in a very similar way to ricotta or fresh mozzarella: milk (in tofu’s case, soy milk) + an acid to make it curdle (rice vinegar or lemon juice).
One more thing: there are different kinds based on how firm the tofu is. But it’s not complicated, and you don’t really need to worry about it. I’ve been cooking with tofu for nearly four years, and I’ve only ever used one kind: extra-firm (it’ll be on the label). It’s the best kind for stir-fries, curries, or braising because it holds together while you cook it.
Okay, one last thing: Tofu can be cooked myriad ways–fried, dry panned, baked, grilled, steamed. Many stir-fries, or even the recipe I’ll share in a moment, recommend frying. If you’ve had tofu out a restaurant, you likely had fried tofu that was then thrown into your stir-fry. However, I don’t usually fry tofu for two reasons: 1) you have to fry which makes your house smells like oil and 2) it adds unnecessary fat. I usually dry-pan my tofu before I use it in a dish.
As Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa, would say, “Here’s how I did it!”
Dry-Pan Tofu Basics (can be used for any number of tofu dishes):
1. Press your tofu. Before you do anything to your tofu, it must be pressed. Pressing removes excess water. (Remember: we’re talking about fresh soy cheese so it makes sense that it’s sitting in water, just like fresh mozzarella does.) Some folks might buy this tofu press, but I say that’s a silly kitchen tool that would just take up space.
To press your tofu the redneck way, open the package and pour off the immediate excess water.
Line a rimmed baking sheet with a layer or two of paper towels and lay the tofu on top.
Then put another layer or two of paper towls on top of the tofu. Cover with another sheet pan. Then, in order to press the tofu, put something heavy, such as a cast-iron skillet or two, on top of the pans.
You can press the tofu for 45 minutes to an hour, but it’s best to let it press for at least two hours. Change the paper towels out half-way.
2. Now that the tofu is pressed, we’re ready to cook it. Preheat a nonstick pan on high heat.
3. Slice (or cube) the tofu however it’s dictated in the recipe you’re using. For the spicy braised tofu, I want long slices.
4. Put the slices of tofu onto a VERY hot nonstick pan that you’ve preheated (no oil; hence why it’s called dry-pan). Press them with a spatula to get out any remaining water. The tofu will make a very sad hissing sound as the water escapes and vaporizes.
Once the tofu is golden to dark brown, flip it and repeat on the opposite side. (You might have to do a few batches depending on how much tofu you’re using and the size of your pan.) Once the tofu is golden-dark brown on both sides, remove to a plate and set aside. Dry-panning only takes about 10-15 minutes.
It’s now ready for any recipe.
Spicy Ketchup Braised Tofu (serves four)
This is a recipe I found in Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian and have altered it a bit. He recommends frying the tofu (including dredging it in flour), but I think it best to cut-out the frying and extra oil. I tried it the first time when I followed the recipe exactly, and I believe dry-pan tofu actually tastes better here (more of a smoky taste instead of an oily one). Mister Bittman also has a recipe in the New York Times, which uses chicken in this same sauce (having tried both, I prefer the tofu!). If you’re watching your heart, use chicken breast instead of his recommended thigh if you go the bird route.
2 blocks tofu, pressed, sliced, and dry-panned
1 1/2 cups ketchup
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
Pinch of Cayenne Pepper
juice of 1/2 lemon
ground black pepper, to taste
1. In a large nonstick pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. When hot, add the garlic and let it become fragrant for about a minute.
2. Add the ketchup, pinch of Cayenne, and black pepper. Let it cook for about 5 minutes, until it thickens and begins to stick around the edges a little.
3. Add the tofu and toss to coat. Let the tofu warm back up. Finish with a squeeze of lemon juice.
I served mine with some roasted green beans: oven at 425, throw some fresh or frozen whole green beans in a pan, drizzle with olive oil, season with salt/pepper, toss to coat, and roast for 10-15 minutes, shaking once or twice).
Other sides that would be amazing:
Mashed Cauliflower, garlic would be a good addition to this recipe
Cucumber Salad with Dill, making sure you use nonfat Greek yogurt
Give tofu a try. You just might like it!