Tofu can be a rather misunderstood foodstuff. It’s viewed as bland, though if prepared properly it can be one of the most flexible, healthy and tasty ingredients you could find. The thing about tofu is it absorbs flavour, which means it doesn’t have a strong flavour of its own. That’s the key. I once prepared some baked tofu for a little buffet party at home and one of my friends remarked ‘How did you get tofu to taste so good? I thought it always just tasted of nothing!’ The answer is marinating, but I’ll get to that in a bit.
Tofu (also known as bean curd) is made from the milk of soy beans, using a process a bit like cheese making. It’s a complete protein and full of the good stuff like calcium and iron, so although there have been some people not keen to eat soy, scientifically speaking, there’s no reason not to. In fact, there’s evidence it may play a part in reducing the risk of breast cancer.
There are two main types of tofu easily available here in the UK. One is firm (or extra firm) tofu and the other is soft, or silken, tofu. They can be used for all sorts of exotic, lovely meals, but I’m just going to cover the basics here.
Firm tofu is available from the refrigerated section in your supermarket. It’s also available from health food stores. It’s stored in water to retain freshness, so it needs to be drained before you use it. Once you drain it, for best results you’ll want to press it. The reason for this is that tofu’s a bit like a sponge, so when you press it, then marinate it, it’ll absorb all the lovely flavours and taste great. There are commercial tofu presses out there, which also double as marinating dishes, which looks very swanky to me. So far, I’ve always gone for the wrap-tofu-in-two-clean-tea-towls-and-stick-some-heavy-books-and-cans-of-beans-on-top method. If you’re a bit rough round the edges like me, you’ll want to do that for about half an hour on one side then flip the tofu over and let it be pressed for another half an hour. One of my favourite marinades is a mixture of balsamic vinegar, soy sauce, garlic and thyme. I chop the tofu into cubes and let it marinate for as long as I can, again, flipping over the pieces halfway through. You can make up whatever marinade you like, be it spicy, herby or whatever. Once the tofu is marinated you can bake it in the oven to make a great meat replacer that can go with veggies or in a sandwich or stir fry. All that being said, I don’t always press the firm tofu. Sometimes, if I’m making a spicy soup like this one, I like the calmness of unflavoured tofu to counterbalance it. It’s very much up to you.
Silken tofu can also be found at some supermarkets, but on the shelf. Again, other varieties may appear in different spots in your health food store. This tofu is much softer and has a much greater moisture content and is therefore far more delicate to handle. Some restaurants manage to serve it successfully with something yummy poured over the top, but to be honest, in my house, it gets blended 99% of the time. You can make everything from chocolate mousse to mayonnaise with blended silken tofu as your base, and there’s even a fab recipe for cookies that uses it, which I love. Again the flexibility is its main strength and if you thought you had to give up creamy sauces and desserts when going vegan, don’t worry, silken tofu comes to the rescue! You can even make ice cream out of it. It’s a great alternative to sour cream too (mmm, burritos…) and the great thing is that ALL the traditional recipes that use dairy are made infinitely healthier if you substitute tofu and taste just as great! Have a look at your old recipe books and see what you can veganise with tofu, or check out some online recipes here.