Conquering Tofu

This is a terrible confession to make as someone who spent 15 years as a vegetarian, but it is not until recently that I really learned how to cook tofu. While I have often enjoyed this much maligned protein source when eating out at awesome places that really know how to prepare it, at home it always felt spongy and squeaky. Not wanting to contribute to its bad reputation, I pretended nothing was wrong.

Then, one fateful day, while trying out a new tofu recipe, I saw that it called for one to “press” one’s tofu. I looked up what this meant and it changed my life. Pressing the tofu, in addition to keeping it in the freezer (as we almost always do), helped so much with its spongy texture that all of a sudden it became less agonizing to work with. Nowadays we pretty much always keep a block or two of tofu in our freezer, and we utilize it with considerably less angst.

While I am pleased to have come such a long way in my tofu journey, I will also confess that I am a little bit lazy about always turning to the same handful of recipes, like the Grilled Tofu & Soba Noodles from 101 Cookbooks and the Sensitive New Age Sloppy Joes from my treasured Rebar cookbook. While I highly recommend both of these, I do aspire to be more adventurous. Recently I decided that I should branch out, and almost immediately I stumbled onto a sample recipe from a cookbook that I have already mentioned coveting on here: Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty. His Black Pepper Tofu appealed to the junky Chinese food lover in me, and I was intrigued by his suggestion that you coat your tofu in cornstarch and pseudo-deep fry it. I knew I had to try it, and let me tell you: IT RULES. It is recipes like these that are increasingly convincing me of the versatility of tofu; this tofu was crunchy and without a hint of sponginess. It was about as close as I can imagine getting to awesome Chinese fake tofu in my own kitchen, especially as quickly as this dish cooked up. The flavours were awesome too–sweet and spicy and really incredibly fragrant–but that tofu preparation is really what convinced me to put it up here, because I know that I will be stealing it for all manner of other dishes. It really transforms it as an ingredient. I have tofu shame no more.

Black Pepper Tofu
The original recipe, up at Epicurious, is awesome and can be followed as is. I will post my adapted version of it here as well, as I added in some veggies to make it a self-contained dinner, and scaled it considerably down. This cooked up fairly spicy, so adjust the chiles and pepper if you aren’t too into that. Either way, enjoy it!

Serves 3-4

300g firm tofu, pressed
Vegetable oil for frying
Cornstarch to dust the tofu
4 tbsp butter
4 medium shallots (12 ounces in total), thinly sliced
4 fresh red chiles (fairly mild ones), thinly sliced
6 garlic cloves, crushed
1.5 tbsp chopped fresh ginger
1.5 tbsp sweet soy sauce (kecap manis) [I could not find this, so I put in more dark soy sauce and a bit more sugar]
1.5 tbsp light soy sauce
2 tsp dark soy sauce
1 tbsp sugar
3 tbsp coarsely crushed black peppercorns (use a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder)
1 head of broccoli, cut into florets
4 small and thin green onions, cut into 1 1/4-inch segments

Start with the tofu. Pour enough oil into a large frying pan or wok to come 1/4 inch up the sides and heat on medium-high heat. Drain the tofu and cut into large cubes, about 1 x 1 inch. Toss them in some cornstarch and shake off the excess, then add to the hot oil. Fry, turning them around as you go, until they are golden all over and have a thin crust. As they are cooked, transfer them onto paper towels.

Remove the oil and any sediment from the pan, then put the butter inside and melt it. Add the shallots, chiles, garlic and ginger. Sauté on low to medium heat for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the ingredients have turned shiny and are totally soft. When the mixture is almost done, steam the broccoli for 2 minutes, until it is bright green but still nice and crunchy. Add the soy sauces and sugar to the shallot mixture and stir, then add the crushed black pepper.

Add the tofu and broccoli to warm them up in the sauce for about a minute. Finally, stir in the green onions. Serve hot, with steamed rice.