Recently, a colleague confessed to being tofu-challenged. She had tried cooking it years ago and was so disappointed in the results she never tried again. But a stellar dish of crispy tofu in a Laotian restaurant prompted her to want to get back on the horse. So she asked me: What are the secrets?
Tofu is a complex product, with multiple varieties and strategies to match, depending on the dish. But for what she was after, I boiled down my tips to this: Drain and press out as much of the moisture from the tofu as possible so it can soak up the flavors of a good marinade, then coat it in cornstarch and pan-fry it. Or skip the marinade in favor of an after-frying glaze, using hoisin or teriyaki sauce or something like it. Or do both, adding flavor before frying and after.
That same before-and-after approach is what drew me, coincidentally, to a recipe for fried hoisin tofu in Ginny Kay McMeans’s new book. The base of the bowl is wonderfully slippery udon noodles, which you bathe in an easy peanut sauce before adding wilted spinach for more nutrients — and color. The hoisin marinade helps the starchy coating stick to the tofu, meaning that with just a few minutes of pan-frying you give its flavor-packed, tender interior a crackly crust.
Now, for the after. Here’s where tofu shows its advantage over, say, meat, poultry and fish: With no cooking required to solve any food-safety concerns, you are free to repurpose the leftover hoisin marinade to use as a condiment, tying the elements of the dish together with a sweet-and-salty drizzle.
MAKE AHEAD: The tofu needs to be weighted/pressed for 20 minutes and marinated for at least 30 minutes, or as long as overnight.
8 ounces extra-firm tofu, drained
1/2 cup hoisin sauce
9 ounces dried udon noodles
1/2 cup cornstarch or potato starch
2 tablespoons coconut oil, peanut oil or sunflower oil
10 ounces fresh baby spinach, chopped
1 1/4 cups homemade or store-bought vegetable broth
1/2 cup smooth/creamy peanut butter
2 teaspoons low-sodium tamari, or more as needed (may substitute soy sauce)
Wrap the tofu in paper towels, set it on a plate and set another small plate on top. Place a 28-ounce can of tomatoes or another weight on the top plate. Let the tofu sit for 20 minutes, then unwrap and discard the excess liquid. (Alternatively, you can microwave the wrapped tofu on HIGH for 30 seconds, re-wrap in fresh paper towels and repeat a few more times.)
Cut the tofu into 1/2-inch cubes, placing them in a medium bowl. Add the hoisin sauce and toss to coat evenly, then let it sit for at least 30 minutes, and up to overnight. (If you marinate for more than 2 hours, cover the bowl and refrigerate.)
While the tofu is marinating, cook the udon noodles: Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil over medium-high heat, add the udon and cook according to the package directions. Drain.
When the tofu is ready, sprinkle the cornstarch or potato starch into a large shallow bowl or on a small rimmed baking sheet. Working in batches as needed, use a slotted spoon to transfer the tofu from the hoisin marinade to the starch, reserving any extra marinade left in the tofu bowl. Toss to coat the tofu thoroughly with the starch.
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the tofu and fry, stirring and tossing frequently, until browned and crisp all over, about 6 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer to a bowl, and pour out and discard any excess oil from the skillet.
Return the skillet to medium-high heat and add the chopped spinach. Cook, stirring, until it wilts completely, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer the spinach to a separate bowl.
Add the broth, peanut butter and tamari to the skillet, stirring to incorporate. Once the mixture comes to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low and cook to form a thickened sauce, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in the cooked udon, tossing to coat with the sauce, then return the wilted spinach to the pan, stirring to incorporate and just heat through. Taste, and add more tamari, as needed.
Divide the spinach-udon mixture among individual bowls. Top with the fried tofu and drizzle the reserved hoisin marinade over each portion. Serve warm.
Tested by Joe Yonan; email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Adapted from “The High-Protein Vegan Cookbook: 125+ Hearty Plant-Based Recipes,” by Ginny Kay McMeans (Countryman Press, 2019).
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The nutritional analysis is based on 5 servings (using 1 tablespoon of oil).
Calories: 480; Total Fat: 20 g; Saturated Fat: 5 g; Sodium: 1280 mg; Carbohydrates: 60 g; Dietary Fiber: 6 g; Sugars: 15 g; Protein: 20 g.