Here’s the trouble with tofu, at least to some Western eaters: You can’t dip it in nacho cheese sauce.
Or can you?
Even as people have become accustomed to the idea of drinking soy milk lattes, the idea of eating tofu — which is, after all, just coagulated soy milk — can be a non-starter for many who see it as a weirdo ingredient limited to vegans or championed by Hippies Without Tastebuds.
In Western cuisine, tofu is not only viewed with skepticism, it tends to be practically nonexistent in our culinary repertoire. Rebranding it as “bean curd” hasn’t really helped its cause, either. For some, the ick factor surrounding tofu is almost equivalent to their aversion to edible insects, despite the fact that many cultures around the world happily devour both as reliable sources of protein. But once we look at tofu as a protein that can be married with many other kinds of “typical” American ingredients, including cheese, eggs and, yes, bacon, then there is no excuse not to give tofu pride of place on the plate.
Growing up, my consumption of tofu generally came in the form of small bits floating in a bowl of hot-and-sour soup at the local Chinese restaurant, or glorious deep-fried puffs made by my friend Caroline’s Vietnamese mother after school, which we dunked, scalding hot, in fish sauce. For many years, I thought of tofu only as an Asian ingredient, rather than just another protein source that could be a part of my everyday kitchen, no matter what cuisine was on the menu.
That is, until I came across a pasta recipe in the classic cookbook “From a Monastery Kitchen” that incorporated both tofu and Parmesan. I can honestly say that it had never actually occurred to me to pair tofu with cheese; like seafood, it seems to be accepted that they just don’t belong on the same plate. But, surprisingly, it turns out that the simple act of adding a sprinkling of freshly grated Parmesan to enhance tofu’s subtle nuttiness can be a real game-changer, even for avowed tofu-haters.
Over the years, my updated version of that recipe, Linguine with Broccoli and Tofu, has become a favorite of my vegetarian family — and my omnivore friends love it, too.
For those who want to increase their intake of healthy, plant-based proteins without necessarily giving up eggs, cheese and meat, creatively combining tofu with more familiar ingredients can be a painless, and tasty, way to take a more flexitarian approach. Extra-firm tofu can be easily crumbled into ground beef for hamburgers or thinly sliced and layered with Gruyere for a new take on a croque monsieur. Some might say it’s the cheese or meat that makes the tofu bearable, but — why not?
“There are ways you can use tofu that are more familiar to Western palates,” says longtime vegetarian cookbook author Crescent Dragonwagon. “There’s no reason you can’t mix it up.”
For Dragonwagon, that might mean blending firm tofu with Neufchatel cheese for a creamy enchilada filling, or layering it with eggy crepes. The trick is in understanding that all tofu is not created equal.
“Different kinds of tofu are as different as different cuts of meat,” Dragonwagon says.
Waterpacked firm tofu can be a marvel of versatility, whether marinated, grilled, baked, fried or pureed.
Because tofu is naturally mild, it takes well to marinades and is easily reimagined in dishes traditionally made with chicken or even pork. Cut firm tofu into wedges and soak in tangy buttermilk before flouring, frying and slathering in a spicy buffalo wing sauce, served with a creamy dill-flecked blue cheese dressing on the side. Marinate slices in Tabasco-and-honey-spiked soy sauce, then broil and top with a poached egg for Sunday brunch. Toss chilled tofu cubes with lemon juice and cracked black pepper to accompany bacon, hard-cooked eggs and avocado in a twist on a traditional Cobb salad.
Silken tofu, the shelf-stable product found in aseptic packaging, is the perfect base for a rich chocolate mousse and a savory egg-free mayonnaise. It is easily adapted for use in cheesecake and pudding recipes, providing a light take on creamy desserts that can be a godsend for anyone with a sweet tooth who wants to have their cake, and eat it, too — but with fewer calories, less fat and more protein.
Dragonwagon blends silken tofu with coconut oil, almond butter and melted semisweet chocolate chips for a luscious mousse that can be topped with either dairy or nondairy whipped cream, saying, “I’ve served it to people who thought they’d never be able to enjoy a dessert like that again and they literally had tears of gratitude.”
If you still find tofu intimidating, looking to commercial tofu makers for advice can be a good place to start, says Kala Patel, vice president of marketing for Sunrise Soya Foods, Canada’s largest tofu manufacturer. “We’re focused on educating customers on how to use tofu in their everyday recipes,” she says. “For new users who aren’t Asian, they may think of tofu as used mostly in Asian stir-fries and soups, but those might not be recipes they typically cook at home. Now we’re seeing them take their favorite dishes and just substitute tofu for certain ingredients.”
It’s no surprise, then, that one of the most popular recipes on Sunrise Soya’s website is Tofu Parmigiana, a reimagining of the classic chicken dish in which slices of extra-firm tofu are marinated overnight in pesto, dipped in an egg batter and coated with seasoned bread crumbs before being fried, then baked with tomato sauce and Parmesan.
“I think these kinds of recipes show that you don’t have to be vegan or vegetarian to enjoy a plant-based protein,” Patel says. “People are interested in making small changes that contribute to a healthier lifestyle, or help stretch their grocery budget. They can add firm tofu to ground beef for a lasagna, or throw soft tofu instead of yogurt into the blender for a smoothie. There are no rules.”
So pile that tofu high, Dagwood-style, onto your favorite deli sandwich. Wrap it in bacon, as the Japanese do, and whip it into a rummy piña colada. Splash it with Sriracha, coat it in cheddar, barbecue it on a bun.
As for dipping it in nacho cheese sauce? Don’t mind if I do.
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