Most people who claim that tofu “tastes funny” really mean that tofu doesn’t taste like anything they’re familiar with. The customers of a good tofu culinarian don’t realize they are eating tofu. They simply marvel at the wonderful flavor of all the menu items prepared by this tofu professional.
The texture of tofu you select depends on what you want to do. If you’re preparing a smooth sauce, you’ll select silken tofu. If you want to include tofu on a grilled brochette, you’ll select extra firm. Generally, silken and soft tofu are used when a soft or creamy texture is desired. Firm and extra firm tofu are used when the tofu is needed to hold its shape. In a pinch, you can purée firm tofu, but the texture can be a bit grainy.
Tofu has a neutral flavor. A chef wouldn’t serve a plain piece of bread to a customer without some flavoring, condiments, or spices. Here are some ideas for preparing tofu dishes either sweet or savory.
Blend silken tofu with fresh berries, rice syrup, and powdered ginger, and you have a product that can be the basis of a fruit shake or smoothie, an alcoholic beverage, a “cream” pie, or a dessert sauce.
Sweet tofu is often served at Asian dim sum or as a hot breakfast dish. Soft tofu is simmered in a broth of water, fresh ginger, and simple syrup (a neutral-flavored syrup that can be prepared with equal parts vegan sugar and water or corn syrup and water that is cooked on the stove until it has a syrupy texture) then served as several pieces of creamy smooth tofu with a sweet, hot sauce. Done in this way, flavored tofu can be served warm as a breakfast “pudding” or used as a base for a breakfast sundae layered with warm fruit, maple syrup, and chopped nuts. Chill it and use as a base for tofu “cheesecake” or cream pie.
To sweeten soft tofu, simmer gently in “scented” broth. You could scent the broth with lemon or orange zest, rose or orange water, vanilla or almond extract, sweet spices such as ginger or clove, and maple syrup or simple syrup. Another way to sweeten silken or soft tofu is to blend it with various fruit purées, sweeteners, and extracts. To prepare tofu to use as a basis for a creamy dessert, blend tofu with mango or berry purée. Allow it to chill for an hour or so before using it as an ingredient. Tofu can be blended with fruit juice concentrates, a combination of rice syrup, orange zest, and ginger, almond extract and simple syrup, or vanilla extract and rice syrup. Sweetened tofu can be chilled in individual dessert dishes, garnished with fresh fruit slices, shaved chocolate, fresh mint or dessert cookies, and served as a tofu “chiffon” or mousse. For example, purée silken tofu with mango purée and garnish with candied ginger and dark chocola te curls, or blend soft tofu with ripe bananas, vanilla extract, and rice syrup, and garnish with fresh berries.
Savory tofu takes a bit more time to prepare than sweet tofu. If savory tofu will be subjected to high heat, such as grilling or roasting, you may want to “toughen” it before flavoring and cooking. To “toughen” firm or extra firm tofu, allow it to drain for at least 4 hours in a colander, weighted down with a pot lid or several china plates. This will remove excess liquid and condense it.
Firm and extra firm tofu can be marinated or smoked, using the same technique you would use for portobello mushrooms. A simple marinade of minced fresh garlic, chopped green onions, black pepper, vinegar, and oil makes a savory tofu. You can marinate the entire block or if you want to ensure consistent flavor throughout, cut the tofu into smaller pieces before marinating.
Tofu does not need to be tenderized, only “flavorized.” For this reason, tofu does not need to marinate for more than an hour. If you are using acid-containing marinades, you’ll only want the tofu to rest in them for no more than 20-30 minutes. If you allow tofu to marinate for too long, it will lose its texture and be more suitable for sauce than for sautéing. Teriyaki and barbecue marinades, wine or vinegar marinades, and vegetable and herb marinades all work well with tofu.
To get a barbecued flavor into your firm or extra tofu, you can simply cover cubed tofu with prepared barbecue sauce and allow it to “rest” for 20-30 minutes. If you want to take a little more time, you can combine dry barbecue spices, such as black pepper, dried garlic, dried onion, and cumin, and rub the exterior of the tofu. The flavor of the rub will penetrate about one inch into the tofu, so be prepared with a flavorful sauce to enhance the interior flavor of the tofu. Savory-flavored tofu can be baked or roasted to form a chewy crust and a creamy interior. It can be grilled or barbecued and served as tofu “steaks.” The same technique can be used with any savory marinade.
Smoked tofu is available commercially prepared. If you would like to try this for yourself, there’s the fast way and the traditional way. The fast way would be to add liquid smoke to a small amount of liquid, such as a vegetable stock, and allow firm or extra firm tofu to marinate for 10-20 minutes. The traditional way would be to use a smoker. Wrap firm or extra firm tofu in banana leaves, cornhusks, or foil that has been slightly perforated. Depending on your smoker, allow the tofu to smoke for 40 minutes to an hour. The smoky flavor will permeate the entire block of tofu. Smoked tofu can be served cold as an appetizer with dipping sauces or cubed and used to garnish soups. For vegetarian salads, you can use diced smoked tofu in place of tuna or chicken. And smoked tofu can be use in place of meat or fish in curries, stir-fries, and pasta combinations.
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