Featured food: tofu

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAn ancient food for modern times

As I said last week, when it comes to meatless dining, I’m opposed to fake meat.  But I am not opposed to tofu, a versatile high protein plant food that blends with plenty of flavorful dishes.  Another benefit: tofu is much easier to deal with than messy raw meat or poultry.

Tofu was developed over 2000 years ago in China, and spread throughout East Asian cuisines.  It’s made by coagulating soy milk, similar to the way dairy cheese is made.   The resulting curds are pressed into blocks, again similar to cheese production.   Although the production process is similar, tofu is nutritionally quite different from cheese:

per 100 gr   % water   protein g    fat g    carb g   calories
firm tofu      70         16         8.7       4.3       145
cheddar        37         24        34         1.3       406

When the soy milk is coagulated with a calcium salt, the resulting tofu has a calcium content similar to cheese.  And because tofu is a plant-based food, it has fiber; cheese has no fiber.

As you can see from the chart, tofu has twice the water content, and 1/4 of the fat of cheese.  This reduces calories.  It also means tofu does not melt like cheese, so you really can’t substitute it successfully in recipes that call for cheese.  A grilled tofu sandwich will be very different from a grilled cheese.  Same for tofu lasagna or pizza.

Tofu should be appreciated for what it is, rather than trying to substitute it for something it isn’t: cheese or meat.  It works well in Asian style dishes, or just crumbled into casseroles or salads to boost protein.  The bland flavor allows it to blend well with stronger flavors like soy sauce, fish sauce, Sriracha or curry spices.  Most grocery stores carry tofu, typically in the refrigerated dairy case.  It comes in 3 basic varieties: soft, firm and extra firm.  Soft tofu can be crumbled into salads or burritos.  Firmer tofu has had more water pressed out, and is a good choice for cooking.

Recently a query went out to several of my RD colleagues for delicious, easy tofu recipes.  Here are some of the responses:

Sharon Palmer RD:

I use tofu several times a week, and … I also include lots of tofu recipes in my book, Plant-Powered for Life. Pressing your tofu is a great way to remove excess water. Tofu is also good when it’s included in dishes with a flavorful sauce, such as in Asian stir fries, casseroles, and lasagna; and roasted with a marinade. You can shred tofu into dishes, scrambles, and taco filling, too.

Jessiana Saville, MS RD LD:

We always put our tofu in the freezer when we get home and then take it out the day before we cook it and put it in the fridge to thaw (you can thaw in the microwave too if you’re not too antsy about microwaving it in the plastic for a bit until it will pop out onto a plate). Freezing the tofu will give it more of a “bite-able” texture rather than the usual soft/gelatinous texture. You still have to press it, but the texture makes it much easier to cook with (for me anyways). A lot of recipes that you would use for chicken you could use with the frozen/thawed tofu (we do General Tsao’s tofu among others), though of course stronger or distinct flavors are probably a little better given how bland tofu is.

Jane Korsberg, MS RDN LD FAND:

I’m not a tofu expert, but I have found many great recipes that my family
enjoys. One of my favorite resources is the Moosewood Restaurant cookbooks. Here is one recipe you might try: Stuffed Green Peppers with a Creamy Walnut Sauce from “Sundays at the Moosewood” (NOTE: please refer to the book for the recipe).

Karman Meyer, RD LDN

Here’s a recipe I developed for Stone Soup: Tofu Veggie Pot Pie.  If you just want crispy tofu, you can use the cooking method listed and add it to any other dish you choose!  The key is to get the pan hot and then add oil before adding in your tofu. Flip the cubes every 2-3 minutes to get each side crisp. I actually prefer to use coconut oil now instead of olive oil.

 Jackie Gutierrez, MS, MSEd, RD, CDN

 I make a sweet and sour tofu dish that my children enjoy. Cut the block of firm tofu into cubes. Prepare a bowl of flavored breadcrumbs, and another bowl of 1 Tb honey, 1 Tb mustard, and 1-2 Tb water. Dip the cubes into the honey-mustard mixture, and then into the breadcrumbs.  Bake for 30 min at 400 F, on a greased pan. These go well with homemade onion rings, which are made the same way, dipping onions in the honey mustard and the breadcrumbs. That is an easy meal that my children really enjoy.

Joey Gochnour, BS, BS, MEd, RDN, LD, NASM-CPT

(re: frying tofu) My guess is a tofu sticking problem is just not using enough oil for the pan or it is not being agitated enough or cooked too long.

One of my favorite and easy ways to use tofu is with soba noodles.  Prepare the soba noodles according to package directions.  Cut up a block of firm tofu and fry slices in hot peanut oil.  Sauté vegetables like snap peas, broccoli, red pepper, onion, carrot or bok choy.  Mix everything together and season with sesame oil, soy sauce and rice wine vinegar.  Easy.  Also pretty.

For more information and ideas on cooking tofu, check out the Soyfoods Association website.

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