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Getting down with Meatless Mondays is pretty easy, but truth be told, for the die-hard carnivores in the crowd, cooking with tofu for the first time can be intimidating. Should you use firm or extra firm? Stir-fry or scramble? Why is some tofu tasteless, while others smack of fresh soy? Well, Asian food expert Andrea Nguyen’s new book out today, Asian Tofu, explores every how and why of cooking bean curd at home.
“I’d grown up eating tofu all my life, and my mom called and asked me, ‘Do you know how to make tofu? A Vietnamese woman is moving to Africa and wants a recipe and we didn’t know how to make it.’ I didn’t, so I started looking into making tofu,” explains Nguyen of how she caught the soy bug. “We don’t have access to freshly made tofu. By and large, it’s like buying really good bread down the street. We just don’t have that.” So she began buying 20-pound shipments of soybeans, and after much experimenting, began perfecting the process of making tofu from scratch. Here are Nguyen’s tips for buying, making, and cooking tofu.
With regard to buying tofu, people should look for tender tofu. “People get tofu that’s way too hard, so it turns out texturally like overcooked boiled chicken breasts,” says Nguyen. “It’s easier to work with but doesn’t have the wonderful, tender, rich quality of tofu that’s softer.” Nguyen recommends buying local tofu whenever possible and to seek out tofu makers in Chinatown and Koreatown. If you don’t have an Asian market nearby, she suggests buying the Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods brands of tofu.
Good homemade tofu starts off with good ingredients — but they are all around. “The great thing about tofu is that ingredients and equipment are all around you,” notes Nguyen, who suggests looking for non-GMO soybeans at health-food stores or Asian markets. “Use filtered water, or you could use spring water, and New York City water is good, too. For the coagulant, don’t go for the extreme. You can use food-grade gypsum. People say, ‘Oh, it goes in drywall,’ but it’s one of the most flexible coagulants.” Nguyen also stresses that if you’re not ready to grind your own soybeans to instead find freshly made soy milk in Chinatown and go from there — just make sure that it’s fresh and not from a box. “You can also make pressed tofu on your own and that doesn’t require soaking. Just buy blocks of tofu and simmer and bake it with the flavors you want. You can even tea-smoke it in a wok. You don’t have to go from bean to curd.”
Water is basically your nemesis when it comes to tofu. “You have to drain tofu,” explains Nguyen. There are all sorts of methods for draining blocks of tofu, from pouring boiling water over pieces of cut tofu and letting it drain, to even leaving it on the counter. “As soon as you cut into it, it starts weeping.” For stir-frying or deep-frying, the tofu should be as dry as possible before being placed in the skillet or in oil.
There are few failures in making your own tofu. “I’ve gone through them myself and there really are few,” exclaims Nguyen. “Just finesse it, like with bread or cheese. It can be confusing, but the first time I tried it, I was successful.” If you’re still not comfortable with making your own, though, a simple recipe Nguyen recommends for using store-bought tofu is a Japanese white tofu sesame salad (recipe below).
White Tofu, Sesame, and Vegetable Salad
Serves 4 to 6 as a side dish
4 ounces medium-firm or firm tofu
1 tablespoon white sesame seeds
About 1/8 teaspoon salt
11/2 teaspoons sugar
About 1 teaspoon light-colored soy sauce, such as Japanese usukuchi shoyu or light (regular) soy sauce
2 tablespoons Dashi Stock or water
12 ounces tender green beans
1/4 teaspoon toasted black sesame seeds, optional
1. For the dressing, break up the tofu into large chunks and put them in a non-terry dishtowel or piece of muslin. Gather it up and, standing over a sink, gently squeeze 2 or 3 times. Unwrap, transfer to a small bowl, and set aside.
2. In a small skillet, toast the white sesame seeds, shaking and stirring frequently, for 2 to 3 minutes, until light golden and fragrant. Let cool for 1 minute, then transfer the warm seeds to a small food processor. Add the salt and sugar and grind to a coarse texture. Add the tofu, soy sauce, and dashi. Process to a creamy mixture that is still somewhat coarse. (Or, use a mortar and pestle to pound the sesame seeds with the salt and sugar. Add the tofu and lightly pound and stir to combine. Stir in liquid ingredients.)
Regardless of the method, transfer the tofu to a small bowl and let stand for 5 minutes to develop its flavor. Season with salt or soy sauce, aiming for a pronounced savory and sweet finish. Resist thinning the mixture with dashi because it may dilute the flavors. The dressing may be made 2 days ahead and refrigerated. Return it to room temperature before using; if there is lots of pooled liquid in the container, pour it off. Makes about 1/2 cup.
3. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Meanwhile, trim the stem ends from the green beans. Blanch the beans for 1 to 2 minutes, until bright green and still crisp. Drain but do not rinse. Let the beans naturally cool, during which they will finish cooking. Like the dressing, the beans may be prepped up to 2 days ahead. Bring to room temperature before tossing.
4. To serve, you have two options. Short and dainty beans can be presented whole on a serving plate or individual dishes with the dressing spooned across their midline like a big creamy belt; invite guests to mix the ingredients themselves. Or, cut the beans into 2-inch-long pieces and toss in the tofu dressing, coating well; divide among small dishes or offer on a communal plate. Regardless of presentation, garnish with the black sesame seeds.
Reprinted with permission from Asian Tofu: Discover the Best, Make Your Own, and Cook It at Home by Andrea Nguyen, copyright © 2012. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.