Have you ever tried to change someone? Make them behave or look a certain way? It’s a losing battle, right? I feel like I’ve had this sort of dysfunctional relationship with tofu for years.
I’m not sure when I first tasted it, but I’m willing to bet it was in the very late 1990s at a Japanese restaurant when I tried miso soup - one that is similar to this delicious version from “Twist on Tofu” by Corinne Trang. I remember loving how the broth tasted like the sea and the little cubes of smooth, mild tofu felt creamy and comforting on my tongue. For years, that was the only way I ate it.
More recently, I, like many others, have shifted to a more plant-centric diet and so have wanted to slip tofu into my regular recipe rotation. So, I tried - and I tried.
At first, I fixated on firm and extra-firm tofu. I pressed it, microwaved it, squeezed out all the water. I cut it into nuggets and coated it with spices and then fried it and, later, air-fried it. I’d dip my not-really-crisp, chewy tofu cubes in a flavorful sauce and - meh. I also grilled it, pan-fried it and sauced it, but the texture was a turnoff.
I’ve enjoyed amazing tofu dishes at restaurants and recipes from my colleagues at The Post, but I still had not come to the point where reaching for tofu at the grocery came as naturally to me as reaching for chicken thighs, so I made getting cozy with it one of my 2023 New Year’s resolutions.
I’ve made progress. Slowly, over time and by watching my colleagues and reading better food writing about tofu, I came to the realization that the problem was one of perspective rather than technique. I had been torturing tofu because I was trying to make it act like meat, particularly chicken. I was treating it as an also-ran, rather than appreciating it for what it is.
Trang, who grew up eating tofu as a matter of course, believes that the idea of tofu as a substitute for meat grew out of people in the West trying to describe tofu by comparing it to more familiar foods. “We say everything tastes like chicken. It doesn’t… . Tofu is something that is quite unique - like an apple is unique,” she said. “It has an earthy note … like beets.”
Also, in Western cooking, there is too much emphasis on removing the water from tofu through weighing it down and pressing, resulting in dry, tough protein, Trang said. “Why would you do that to tofu?”
Instead, she simply places the tofu on a towel-lined plate, covers it with another towel and lets it sit for about 15 minutes. The exterior dries while the inside stays moist and tender. Pan-frying results in a crisp exterior and creamy inside.
While it’s true that you can use tofu to turn meaty recipes into vegetarian ones, that’s not the only way to embrace this versatile ingredient, said Trang, whose cookbook includes an efficient “Tofu 101” chapter that covers the types of tofu, draining and cutting. She recommends approaching tofu and appreciating it as you would any legume, using the mild-flavored, tender cakes as a vessel for the flavors you love.
Trang recognizes that she grew up eating tofu because it is a natural part of Asian cooking in which a balanced meal is usually 75 percent vegetables with a little animal protein, a broth to cleanse the palate and a starch, such as noodles or rice.
Today, she cooks vegetarian dishes at home. The transition followed her deep dive into yoga and martial arts and the realization that her food cravings were now revolving around vegetables and the freshness and crispness they bring. “It was just natural. You can’t force that kind of shift,” she said, adding that the reasons people eat less animal protein vary and can include the health benefits, the environmental impact of mass-produced meat and animal rights.
If you’re still easing your way into plant-based eating, tofu can be an important part of that effort, she said.
Her cookbook is great for tofu lovers, but she also wants it to help people, like me, who are eager to make it a staple in the kitchen but are still figuring out how. To that end, she includes 52 recipes from around the world, so that those who are on the fence can find flavors to please their palate. There is a chopped salad and a tofu and mushroom Bolognese, a tofu burrito and empanada, as well as a kimchi tofu stew and tofu jambalaya.
She recommends starting with small, low-lift dishes. Make starters, such as tofu french fries, whipped guacamole dip or grilled satay with peanut sauce. Miso soup is also a good beginner recipe for those dipping their ladles in, because it is a near-instant soup that gets so much flavor from the shiro miso and could be made more substantial with noodles, spinach or other add-ins, she said. The tofu plays a supporting role.
“When you adopt a different perspective, have a little patience, and practice using tofu, you will open the door to endless possibilities in the kitchen,” she writes.
I now consider my door open.
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Tofu, Pea and Mushroom Miso Soup
Corinne Trang, author of “Twist on Tofu,” says “let the weather inspire what you put in the pot” with this simple miso soup. Here, the miso broth contains bites of silken tofu, peas, seaweed and scallions, which is how the soup is “served in typical Japanese sushi restaurants,” but she suggests adding noodles, spinach and other types of vegetables to make it heartier.
It can be difficult to remove soft or silken tofu from its container in one piece. To try to get it out whole, use sharp kitchen scissors to cut off the four corners of the box and, with your hands or a sharp knife, remove the plastic wrap. Gently pull the long sides of the box away from the tofu just a bit and run each side under a thin stream of water. Let the tofu drain for a minute. Then, place a cutting board over the tofu, and flip it over. It should slide out, but it’s okay if a piece or two breaks off. Just drop them into the soup.
Where to buy: Wakame, a type of seaweed, is available at Asian markets and online.
Storage notes: Refrigerate the soup base and tofu separately for up to 5 days.
1 tablespoon wakame
4 cups water, plus more as needed
1/2 cup shiro miso (white miso)
6 medium fresh shiitake mushrooms (4 ounces total), stems removed and caps julienned
1/2 cup fresh or frozen peas
One (12-ounce) container silken tofu, any kind
4 tablespoons toasted sesame oil, for garnish
1 scallion, thinly sliced into rounds, for garnish
2 teaspoons finely grated fresh ginger, for garnish (optional)
Toasted sesame seeds, for garnish (optional)
Shichimi togarashi, for garnish (optional)
Place the seaweed in a cup and add just enough water to cover.
In a medium pot over high heat, bring the water to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and whisk in the miso until fully combined. Add the mushrooms and peas and cook until heated through, about 5 minutes.
While the mushrooms simmer, cut the tofu lengthwise into 4 sticks. Turn each piece onto its side and halve each lengthwise, then crosswise into 4 pieces. You should have 32 cubes.
Drain the wakame and discard the liquid. Divide it and the tofu among individual soup bowls. Pour an equal amount of soup with the mushrooms and peas, into each bowl. Top each serving with 1 tablespoon of the oil, a quarter of the scallions, and if using, some of the ginger, sesame seeds and a pinch or two of shichimi togarashi.
Nutrition information per serving (1 1/4 cup): | Calories: 253, Carbohydrates: 20 g, Cholesterol: 0 mg, Fat: 18 g, Fiber: 4 g, Protein: 8 g, Saturated Fat: 2 g, Sodium: 693 mg, Sugar: 11 g,
This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.
Adapted from “Twist on Tofu” by Corinne Trang (Storey Publishing, 2023).