T-O-F-U: a four-letter word representing a mysterious soy product that some staunch meat-eaters make the sign of the cross at, and go running in the opposite direction of. And I should know; I was one of them. I used to wonder why anyone would want to eat tofu if they weren't vegan or vegetarian, anyway? Well, not so fast. More and more, I'm finding that viewpoint of tofu quickly becoming a thing of the past, even for those of us that have carnivorous tendencies. There's a warming trend slowly beginning to occur as we're looking to better our health with leaner, lower cholesterol protein options. But even though tofu is now as embraced and readily available as ever, I have the feeling that there are still some skeptics out there resisting even trying the stuff. You know who you are. And I know a few of you. Truth is, I thoroughly understand some of the issues with tofu; I can't argue with the fact that on its own, tofu can be quite—how shall I say it—“flavor-neutral”, to put it kindly. If you've never cooked with it, tofu can certainly seem a little like a mysterious white block slightly reminiscent of a block of feta cheese (though with none of the flavor), with a slightly egg white texture, depending on the “firmness” factor of it. Have I enticed you yet? Look, as I alluded to, I myself was never a part of tofu's cheerleading section in the past, until several of the clients that I cook for went vegetarian or vegan. At that point, I realized that I'd have to put on my tofu “thinking cap”, and come up with uber-delectable ways to prepare the stuff if I wanted to keep bellies happy; ways that even I, a meat-eater, could wholeheartedly and genuinely enjoy—that's my criteria. And me being me, the tofu dishes would have to have a coziness factor to them; they'd have to have a homey and comforting aspect, so that the meat that was now to be replaced with tofu, wouldn't be missed. In a nutshell, I would have to create an affinity for tofu that perhaps otherwise wasn't naturally there. And funny enough, tofu ended up winning me over in the process. I just love discovering new things, and experiencing a change in my own point of view.
When it comes to the preparation of tofu, you need to…Repeat after me, class, "SEASON WELL, and SEASON LIBERALLY". You've probably heard that tofu takes on the flavors of that with which it's cooked, which is true; however, I've found that a little pre-cooking marination gives it even more of a flavor boost. I personally love all of the flavor profiles found in Thai food, and those bold flavors are perfect to use when cooking with tofu; the brightness of herbs, the depth and warmth of garlic, the smoky-ness of lightly charred veggies—all of these things lend themselves so well to a colorful and healthy dinner using crispy tofu as a star ingredient, and that means that meat can be given a night off every know and then.
These days, I actually find enjoyment in eating tofu when it's offered as an option—no more running in the opposite direction for me. Whether you've made the resolution to cut back on meat this year but you're new to cooking with tofu, or you're an old pro and just need a fresh, healthy and taste-bud-pleasing dish to try out, this is a recipe that I think you'll really enjoy, and may even please some of the more meat-leaning individuals. With the new year here, maybe it's time to turn over a new culinary leaf; maybe it's time to try something you haven't previously tried or haven't been sure that you'd even like, and having a go with it. Hey, why not? To me, it seems as good a time as ever to take T-O-F-U off the meat-eater's list of four-letter words, and mix things up a bit.
Taste what's good and pass it on.
Thai-Style Crispy Tofu Sauteed with Red and Yellow Bell Peppers, Onions, Mushrooms and Tomatoes with Fresh Basil and Crushed Peanuts Over Brown Rice Noodles
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(Serves about 6)
1 (1 lb.) block “extra firm” tofu, cut into bite-sized cubes
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons sesame oil
4 cloves garlic, pressed through garlic press, divided use
½ teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper, divided use
¼ cup flour
• Vegetable oil
½ cup sliced mushrooms
1 Roma tomato, chopped
1 small red bell pepper, cored and seeded, and sliced into strips
1 small yellow bell pepper, cored and seeded, and sliced into strips
1 small orange bell pepper, cored and seeded, and sliced into strips
½ onion, halved again and sliced thinly
• Sweet Chili-Hoisin Sauce (recipe below)
½ pound brown rice pasta (I used spaghetti-style), cooked according to package instructions, then rinsed well and drained (*see note)
¼ cup fresh basil leaves, julienned, divided use
¼ cup peanuts, minced
(*Brown rice pasta can be a bit more starchy than normal pasta, so use a big pot with a lot of water in it; when you put the pasta into the boiling water, use tongs to move the pasta around to keep it as separated as possible, stirring occasionally during the cooking process; cook until soft but with a slight bite.)
-Place the cubed tofu into a large bowl, add the soy sauce, sesame oil, 2 cloves of the pressed garlic, and ¼ teaspoon of the cracked black pepper, and toss to coat; allow the tofu to marinate while you prep/slice the rest of the ingredients.
-Once marinated, add the flour to the tofu cubes, and toss to coat them as evenly as possible; to crisp the tofu, place a large non-stick skillet or pan onto medium-high/high heat, add about 2-3 tablespoons of the vegetable oil, and allow it to become hot; once hot, add the flour-coated tofu cubes to the pan in an single layer (working in two batches, if necessary), not moving them to allow them to crisp up on that side for about 2 minutes; turn them over once they're golden on that first side, and don't touch them again for another 2 minutes to allow them crisp on that second side; next, shake the skillet/pan a bit to move the tofu around to crisp on all remaining sides, for about 1 more minute; turn the heat off once the tofu cubes are golden, and slide them into a bowl or onto a plate, setting them aside for a moment and keeping them warm.
-Next, saute the veggies by placing the same large non-stick skillet or pan over medium-high heat, and adding about 1-2 tablespoons of the vegetable oil to it; once the oil becomes hot, add in the sliced mushrooms and chopped Roma tomato, and saute them for a 2-3 minutes until the mushrooms become golden, and the tomato begins to soften and become juicy; slide them out of the pan and onto a plate, and set them aside for just a moment; next, drizzle just a touch more oil into the hot pan if necessary, and add in the sliced bell peppers and the sliced onions; leave them undisturbed for about 2 minutes, to create a nice char/caramelization on one side, and then toss them a bit and allow them to char a little more, again undisturbed, for another couple of minutes; next, add in the remaining 2 cloves of pressed garlic and stir, and then add the crisped tofu cubes back into the pan, along with the sautéed mushrooms and tomatoes, Sweet Chili-Hoisin Sauce, the brown rice noodles and about half of the julienned basil; turn off the heat, and toss everything together to evenly coat.
-To serve, spoon equal portions of the brown rice pasta and tofu/veggies into a bowl or plate, and garnish each portion with about 1 tablespoon of the minced peanuts.
Sweet Chili-Hoisin Sauce ingredients:
½ cup Hoisin sauce
2 tablespoons sweet chili sauce
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
-Whisk all ingredients in a small bowl until combined; cover with plastic and refrigerate if not using immediately.