Saturday, 16 March 2013

Getting to grips with tofu

Tofu can be nasty. I remember one of the first times we met. It was disguised as a strawberry cheesecake. What a horrible masquerade. How does a food that's supposed to be 'natural' turn out tasting like well-chewed paper? (I do know what that tastes like, as it happens, and I can tell you that it has more texture than tofu.)

I actually blame that cheesecake for creating a psychological barrier between me and veganism that took decades to sort out. The hang-up it created in me lasted a lot longer than the restaurant that served it up. 

Tofu is offensively bland. I can't imagine why the person who first created thought it was worth keeping. It has no colour, no texture, no smell and no taste. It disappoints every sense you apply to it. It's unpleasant to even get it out of the packet - you're bound to end up drenched in cold, cloudy water. It's as if by popping a knife through the celophane cover you've inadvertently 'broken the waters' - I suppose I could continue the analogy and describe the process of 'delivering' a dripping new tofu block into the world, patting it dry, weighing it, cutting it up... let's not push that one any further.

I'm about to do a cookery demo at Brighton VegFest entitled 'Getting to grips with tofu'. I hope people will appreciate the subtext there - tofu is a slithery, slimy beast. It puts me in mind of a 'toy' that was once passed around in a classroom (it was an RE lesson, we were bored, the teacher was past caring) - it was a kind of rubbery tube filled with water that had the ability to leap out of your hands as if it had a life of its own. We all thought it was outrageously rude. You'll know what I mean if you've ever encountered one. Anyway, tofu is a bit like that, but much less interesting.

The point I'm hoping to make is that you've got to show tofu who's boss. And if you want any taste or any texture from it, you're going to have to put it there yourself. 

I'm going to explain to the pulsating crowd that will gather around me tomorrow that there are essentially two ways of imposing flavour on tofu - you can put flavour on it, or in it. Putting flavour on it is pretty straightforward, you just slice it, fry it and douse it with something tasty, like chilli sauce or teryaki marinade. And then cook it a bit more. Or cube it, paste some barbecue sauce onto it, stick it onto a skewer and barbecue it. Or pour a sauce over it. 

That method looks fairly effective if you're working with smallish bits of tofu, or thinish slices. It falls down when you try doing it on something bigger - as soon as you cut into the finished dish you'll encounter virgin white tofu flesh. It's wearing a tasty coat but nothing much has changed in the inside. Very disappointing.

There's a kind of mantra that has attached itself to tofu: Tofu Absorbs Flavours. Well, no, it doesn't, not necessarily. Granted, tofu is like a sponge, but when it comes out of the packet, it's saturated with water. It can't suck. You have to get some of the water out, by pressing it between layers of kitchen paper as firmly as you dare, or even leaving it under a weighted plate to squash the amniotic fluid out. Now you can start to make use of the spongey quality, because now it has the capacity to soak up something flavourful. 

I've had surprisingly good results from soaking tofu slices in a mixture of vegetable stock, soy sauce, onion powder (at last, a use for it!) and a lot of nutritional yeast flakes. The yeast flakes are weird. They have a taste that many consider cheese-like. Presumably, the longer the amount of time that has passed since you ate any cheese, the more likely you are to be of this opinion. The texture reminds me of flakey dry wallpaper paste. They're a bit like cheesey fishfood. I would never, ever have anticipated the effect that this marinade would have on tofu. The taste that results is like southern fried chicken. OK, it has been a long time since I tasted southern friend chicken. (In fact, I don't think I've ever eaten it. I only know what it tastes like because I once pulled off a bit of the crispy stuff and tried that. It turned out that underneath the crispy stuff was a chicken's leg, with skin on, and the idea was to take a hefty bite and chew on not only the tasty crispy stuff, but also a mouthful of chicken flesh and skin. As a child I was frequently admonished for just eating the tasty bits of dishes, but I still think I was the sensible one. Is it not OK to just want the nice bits? Yes, I was the little girl who didn't run the sport's day race but instead, when they said 'Ready, steady, go' ran straight up to the teacher who handed out the lollipop prizes. And yes, the apocryphal old lady who sucks all the chocolate off the nuts and then offers the nuts round did exist, that's my nana you're talking about, and when I get old I hope I have the nerve to do the same.)

Soaking tofu in a marinade with nutritional yeast flakes makes it taste a bit chickeny. Soaking tofu in a mixture of stock, soy sauce, lemon juice and seaweed flakes makes it taste a bit fishy. (But refer to previous aside, it has been a long time since I tasted fish...) There are extra bits to learn here. Press the tofu first. Slice it before you marinate it, not afterwards. Put the marinade onto the tofu hot. It seems to help. Leave it a long time. Overnight is best. Then, fish the tofu out and lock the taste in by baking it for 30 minutes in a medium oven. Turn it over half way through. This is the very best way to get taste inside tofu. 

The next job is to sort out the texture, because even after you've pressed it, marinated and baked it, it'll still be a floppy thing when you put it into your mouth. Nobody wants that. 

You can put flavourful tofu into a big bowl with some peanut butter and fresh breadcrumbs and scrunch it all up together between your fingers until it's all mixed up, then shape it into balls and fry it. That's one in the eye for the tofu masters who define the texture of tofu and think you should like it that way. I like doing this at demos, lots of people seem quite shocked that you can take matters into your own hands and do what you please with the structure of tofu. Lots of people seem quite shocked that cooking might involve actually touching the ingredients. (I once saw a woman attempt to deseed a chilli pepper without touching it at all. She had quite a clever technique with a fork... but what worried me was how very scared somebody had made her of touching food.) Once you've made the tofu balls, flatten them out a little and shallow fry them. Don't worry them around in the pan, let them sit and form a crust, then turn them. Good in pitta breads or on top of spaghetti. (Not all covered in vegan cheese.)

If you're prepared to accept the basic structure of the tofu as it stands, the best option is to coat it with something that lends some texture. Beer-battered tofu is nice, and really easy. A cup of beer, a cup of flour, whisk together, tah dah! Dip the tofu slices in flour before you batter them, otherwise the batter doesn't stick. Shallow fry, but be a bit generous with the oil. I know vegan bistros aren't thick on the ground but this is what they all sell. Sometimes on a stick. 

I've also had good results from coating tofu in a mixture of dried breadcrumbs and polenta, to make something resembling a fish finger, and using a mixture of flour and black sesame seeds. I got very excited about the black sesame seeds. I have no idea whether they're nutritious like their pale beige relatives, but they're... funky! I don't know anything else that delivers the same combination of dramatic colour and satisfying crunch. Love them. 

Before we wash our hands of tofu, a couple of notes. Generally speaking, tofu is either 'firm' (the sort of thing you can slice) or 'silken', which is more like blancmange and isn't all that useful unless you're in the business of sneaking some serious protein into a sauce, or something. See note on cheesecake above. The 'firm' tofu we get in supermarkets in the UK is not especially firm - try 'artisan' varieties for firmer texture or see what you can find in Chinatown. The Chinese make all sorts of variations on the theme including a kind of tofu skin which I haven't been mentally prepared to eat yet. (I'm still shuddering from the day we had hot chocolate at school and mine formed a skin which attached itself to my upper lip and hung down over my chin.) There's also a tinned 'marinated' tofu which some say makes a reasonable stand-in for tuna, but again, the texture is like skin torn from a marinated cadaver. If you're the kind of person who thinks that the skin on a rice pudding is the best bit, then you're welcome to it. 

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