A cook comes to love tofu after trial and error

SCOTT KEELER   |   Times

SCOTT KEELER | Times

My love affair with tofu began as most such relationships do, catching me totally off guard. It began about five years ago — a long time for an affair — and was slow to develop. A slow braise, you could say, rather than a searing flambe.

It was my son's fault. He came home from college one weekend about eight years ago and announced that he had renounced meat and poultry.

Oh, please, I thought.

I kept the thought to myself as he explained his concerns about the huge carbon footprint that meat production requires and described a horrific video that had been made at a commercial chicken farm.

I love my son and love cooking, and he seems to love my cooking for him. I respect his choices. But I was not happy. Because I also love roasting a chicken. I love bacon and a bearnaise-smothered steak.

So we had about five boring years at the table as I made mac-and-cheese ad nauseam and (500) days of beans, root vegetables and omelets. (They and dairy were okay, humanely sourced, of course.) Some seafood, certifiably sustainable. Salads. Lots of salads. He was endlessly appreciative that I embraced this lifestyle when he was home. He chipped in on the groceries and always did the dishes.

I felt both noble and deprived. Regarding the latter, I would sometimes inhale a stealth burger at work. He, too, admitted to meat cravings but he never once ordered the meat options at Taco Bell.

I turned to a kind of substitution cooking, one that would approximate familiar dishes. They always seemed to eviscerate the original in vegetarian translations.

Which is how tofu entered my life.

I had never once, ONCE, tasted it before my son's conversion and when I did, loathed it. Its only virtue seemed to be as a protein. A flavorless protein with an unappealing texture. The recipes I found in magazines and cookbooks were mostly about fooling your palate into thinking you were eating something forbidden since tofu is excellent at absorbing other flavors. Or about jumbling it into a kitchen sink of a mix so you shoveled it down your gullet without realizing you were eating it — a sort of bait-and-switch maneuver.

About three years ago, bereft of ideas, I began clicking, yet again, through the Internet for inspiration. And much like those who study chaos theory and at some point find a pattern revealed, I Finally Got It.

The problem had never been the limitations of vegetarian cooking or an ingredient such as tofu. The limitations were mine. Time and again, I scrolled past beautiful dishes because they weren't in my comfort zone of American and European food. Asian, Southeast Asian, Indian and Middle Eastern, some of the great cuisines of the world, I had mostly rejected because they were alien to me.

In the course of my exploration, tofu was probably my biggest triumph. I learned to appreciate, then actually like it as a valued partner and not a begrudged replacement. These days I tend to enjoy it most when it's surrounded by flavors rather than infused with them. The accompanying recipe is a good example.

Another important lesson I learned is that cooking globally requires a willingness to invest in new components to make a dish the way it should taste. And a commitment to cook those kinds of dishes a lot so I don't feel as if I'm squandering money on a bottle of something when I need only a tablespoon of it. My pantry contains, for instance, a number of different soy sauces in their various iterations. They keep for a long time and when I see a dish I want to try, I always have the right kind of soy. And I tend to go through most of them within a year at the most.

I owe my son an apology for those years I wandered in a culinary desert and a bigger thanks for opening up a larger world of food. I am amazed by how much fun I have in my kitchen (and his, now that he has his own place).

This story could have ended with tofu as metaphor for a failed experiment. Instead, it's a story about possibility, which is how all good cooking begins.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at lennie@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8293.

m Preparing Black Pepper Tofu

I can't imagine using anything but tofu for the accompanying recipe; it's a perfect, slightly crunchy-creamy foil to the fiery sauce. That sauce is fierce. Even my son, who loves heat and spice, suggested I tone it down after my first go with it. So I give you a range in the amount of peppers and peppercorns to use. Start with the minimum.

The most important thing is to make sure the peppercorns are all really cracked and smashed, not whole. And not ground up. My preferred method is to put the peppercorns between parchment paper and smash with a metal meat pounder. A hammer or the flat end of a barbell would work well, too.

You will have to go to an Asian market for the soy sauces. Light soy sauce, for example, isn't the low-sodium version on supermarket shelves. It's thinner and saltier than the dark soy sauce. Dark soy has molasses in it but is smoky, not sweet, and is used to add depth and color. Kecap manis, an Indonesian soy sauce, is quite sweet and cuts the heat. If you don't want to invest in them, use regular soy, which is a lot saltier than any of the above, and mix it with a few teaspoons of molasses and maybe up the amount of sugar a little in the sauce.

Lennie Bennett

>>moderate

Black Pepper Tofu

1 3/4 pounds firm tofu (2 14-ounce packages), drained on paper towels for an hour or two to remove excess liquid

Vegetable oil for frying

Cornstarch to dust the tofu

1 stick plus 3 tablespoons butter

12 small shallots (12 ounces), thinly sliced

5 to 8 fresh red chilies such as very ripe jalapenos, thinly sliced (and seeded if you want a milder dish)

12 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed with the flat side of a knife

3 tablespoons peeled and chopped fresh ginger

3 tablespoons sweet soy sauce (kecap manis)

3 tablespoons light soy sauce

4 teaspoons dark soy sauce

2 tablespoons sugar

3 to 5 tablespoons coarsely crushed black peppercorns

8 scallions, thickly sliced

Cooked rice, for serving

Pour enough oil into a large frying pan to come 1/4 inch up the sides and heat over high. Cut the tofu block into 12 cubes, about 1 inch, then cut each in half horizontally to make squares. Toss them in some cornstarch and shake off the excess, then add to the hot oil. (You'll need to fry the tofu pieces in a few batches so they don't touch each other and get crisp.) Turn them until golden all over. As they are cooked, transfer them onto paper towels.

Remove the oil and wipe the pan, turn to medium heat and melt the butter. Add the shallots, chilies, garlic and ginger. Saute for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the ingredients have softened. Add the soy sauces and sugar and stir, then the crushed black pepper and heat through for a few minutes.

Add the tofu to warm it up in the sauce for about a minute. Stir in the scallions. Serve with steamed rice.

Serves 4

Source: Adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi

>>easy

Chocolate Tofu Pudding

Silken tofu is very creamy and can't be replaced by other kinds of tofu in this recipe. Supermarkets often carry it and whole food/health food stores always have it. The tofu gives it a beautiful texture. That it also provides a big shot of protein is nice but beside the point for me. If you want it more mousse-like, fold the whipped cream into the chocolate mixture before you refrigerate it.

1 package (12 to 14 ounces) silken tofu, drained

3 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped

1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1/4 cup strong coffee or instant espresso, dissolved in hot water

1 tablespoon brandy or coffee or chocolate liqueur (optional)

1/2 cup plus 1/2 teaspoon superfine (also called castor) sugar

1/4 cup heavy cream (optional)

1 1/4 teaspoons shaved chocolate (optional)

In a blender or food processor, puree the tofu until it is smooth.

Put the chopped chocolate, cocoa powder, 1/4 cup coffee (or substitute water) and brandy or liqueur (if using) in a heat-proof bowl fitted over a pot containing an inch of barely simmering water. Bowl shouldn't touch the water. Stir frequently until melted and smooth. Add 1/2 cup of sugar and stir until smooth. Remove from heat. Cool slightly.

Add the chocolate mixture to the tofu and puree until smooth and well blended. Spoon the mousse into one large or four to six small serving dishes, cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

For optional garnish, whip the cream with a beater. When the cream is almost completely whipped, add the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of sugar and finish whipping. Top each serving with a dollop of whipped cream and a sprinkle of chocolate shavings and serve.

Serves 4 to 6

Source: Adapted from Ellie Krieger

A cook comes to love tofu after trial and error 08/23/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 23, 2011 6:31pm]

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