Tricks for working with tofu

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Once relegated to the crunchy and ethnic fringe, tofu has moved solidly into the mainstream.

After years of populating mostly Asian markets and natural foods stores, tofu now is a staple of major grocers. And with good reason. Not only is it a great low-fat alternative to meat, the soy protein from which it is made is heart healthy.

A 1/2-cup serving provides nearly 20 percent of your daily protein, has fewer than 100 calories, more calcium than a cup of milk and is an excellent source of iron and copper. And unlike many meats, it has no cholesterol and no saturated fat.

But how to use it as a meat replacement without disappointing carnivores? It's easy, if you know the tricks.

The problem many people have with tofu is its texture, which can range from pudding soft to very firm depending on variety, brand and water content. The key is to select the right type of tofu for the dish you are making.

For recipes that call for a meat-like texture, go with fresh (water-packed) extra-firm or firm varieties, which lend themselves to sauteing, pan-frying, grilling, baking and broiling. Other varieties will tend to break apart under these conditions.

Firm and extra-firm varieties of tofu generally hold their shape well during cooking and their dryer texture means they better absorb the other flavors of the dish. Be sure to drain, rinse and pat them dry before cooking with them.

These types of tofu also can be pressed or frozen to provide even more texture. To freeze, simply place the unopened container in the freezer overnight, then thaw and use as desired. The texture will be somewhat coarse, similar to ground beef.

To press, drain the block of tofu then place it between two clean towels on a plate. Set something heavy (such as a cast iron pan) on top. Let it sit in the refrigerator for an hour or so to produce tofu that is uniformly firmer.

Silken tofu (which often is sold unrefrigerated) has an almost custard-like texture; it is ideal for smoothies, pies, puddings and sauces. It also can be blended into dressings and dips, or (with some seasoning adjustments) be substituted for mayonnaise or sour cream.

Soft tofu (which comes as both fresh and shelf-stable) is similar to silken, but less smooth. It also works well in sauces and dips. Crumbled and fried with herbs and vegetables in bit of olive oil, soft tofu makes a good stand-in for scrambled eggs.

Regardless of variety, tofu itself is rather flavorless. Luckily, it absorbs other flavors very well. Use marinades, spice coatings and flavorful sauces to add character to your dish.

And many companies now offer pre-marinated, smoked and baked tofu, which make for a quick meal such as a tofu, lettuce and tomato sandwich. These varities of tofu also tend to have very firm textures, making them excellent for stir-frying.

This recipe for tofu ranchero calls for slicing, crumbling and pan-frying extra-firm tofu. The result is golden-brown chunks with plenty of appealing crispy edges. Vegetables, black beans and jarred picante sauce deliver vibrant flavor.


Start to finish: 25 minutes

Servings: 4

14-ounce package extra-firm tofu

2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 cups frozen chopped spinach (bagged variety, not the frozen blocks)

15 1/2-ounce can black beans, drained and rinsed

1 1/2 cups sliced button mushrooms (about 4 ounces)

1 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels

1 1/2 cups prepared picante sauce

8 corn tortillas, warmed (optional)

Drain and rinse the tofu, then pat dry. Slice the block crosswise into eight 1/2-inch-thick slabs. Crumble each slice and set aside.

In a large nonstick skillet, heat the oil over high heat. Add tofu in a single layer. Cook, without stirring, until the pieces begin to turn golden brown on the bottom, about 5 minutes.

Gently stir, then continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until all sides are golden brown and a bit crisp, another 5 to 7 minutes.

Add the spinach, beans, mushrooms and corn, then saute until the vegetables are just cooked, another 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in the picante sauce and cook, stirring often, until heated through. If desired, serve with warm corn tortillas.

Nutrition information per serving: 291 calories; 10 g fat (2 g saturated); 0 mg cholesterol; 34 g carbohydrate; 21 g protein; 9 g fiber; 760 mg sodium.

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