Tofu: The Other White Meat

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October is the shoulder season — the High Holidays are over and Thanksgiving is right around the corner. This is when you want easy snacks, quick lunches and no-fuss appetizers for unexpected guests. You want them to be delicious and filling, but you also want them come together quickly without too much effort. It would be nice if they were healthy and nutritious. Economical, too.

That’s a mighty tall order, but there is one ingredient that checks all the boxes. The trouble is, it has a bad rep. It’s been mocked and maligned, belittled and beleaguered, demeaned and defamed. In the words of Rodney Dangerfield, it don’t get no respect.


Of course, you guessed it — it’s tofu! Before you start with the bad jokes or dismiss it out of hand, consider the lowly chicken. That’s right, a raw slab of chicken, quivering on the cutting board, waiting to be cooked. You wouldn’t eat it like that because (aside from the obvious health reasons) it would be terrible. No, in order to remove the ick factor, you have to season it, prepare it, cook it — in other words, give it some love.

I have noticed that the less people know about a subject, the more opinions they have on it, so allow me to share with you the poetry of tofu. First of all, it’s a blank slate. Like that other white meat, it takes its cue from whatever you cook it with. Lemon and basil, tamari and tahini, lime and curry — whatever you choose will create a signature flavor note. Then there’s nutrition. Made from soy beans, tofu is high in protein and has no carbs, the ideal profile on which to build a dish. And at $2 a pound, it’s a steal.

So, like John Lennon (might have) said, give tofu a chance. I have successfully road-tested these dishes on preschoolers, octogenarians and carnivores. They can be used as party dips, sandwich fillings or treated like a schmear on toast or bagels. They are filled with surprising umami, that savory fifth taste — after sweet, sour, salty and bitter — that makes you want to keep coming back for more.

The Master Tofu Dip is the basis for the two variations I have also offered here. No matter which one you try, they are all based on the same formula: something sour, something salty and something sticky. If you include one of each, your dip is guaranteed to taste good. So, for example, something sour can be lemon juice or wine vinegar, something salty may be tamari sauce or minced capers or just plain salt, and something sticky could be tahini or vegan mayonnaise. Optional is something spicy, such as jalapeño peppers, chili paste or chipotle in adobo. You get the picture.

Whenever possible, I simplify amounts and use ingredients that are pantry staples. Unless there is a reason not to, I usually specify 1 pound (meaning one package) of tofu instead of an in-between portion like 8 ounces, because I would rather have an extra serving of prepared dip in the fridge, ready-to-eat, vs. inconvenient leftovers that may linger in the tub and spoil before I can decide how to use them.

Finally, an authentic ethnic flavor profile requires specific ingredients, so this is a good opportunity to build your pantry. Tamari sauce, chili paste, rice vinegar, tahini — some of these may not be in your cupboard right now, but as you expand your culinary repertoire, you may decide to “collect” them. With their long shelf life (basically forever) and versatility, you can add instant ethnic flavor to salad dressings, marinades, dips and much more. I always specify a commonplace substitute though, so you can proceed with the recipe with what you have on hand. For all recipes, amounts are approximate and to taste.

Master Tofu Dip

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound firm tofu
  • 1 small (about ½-cup) sweet onion or red onion, chopped
  • Wine or apple cider vinegar, several tbsp. up to ¼-cup to taste
  • Salt to taste (sprinkle in your palm to control the amount before adding)
  • Tahini (sesame) paste, several tbsp. up to ¼-cup to taste, or vegan mayonnaise 1-2 tbsp. mustard (brown deli-style or Dijon)
  • ½ – 1 tbsp. dried oregano and/or basil (sprinkle in your palm and crush to release essential oils)
  • Cracked black pepper to taste, generous amount
  • Optional: 1 clove crushed garlic, 2 tbsp. chopped scallions

Directions:

  1. Drain tofu, gently squeeze out excess moisture and pat dry.
  2. Mash tofu gently in a wide bowl with a potato masher or fork to uniform large-curd cottage-cheese consistency. Add remainder of ingredients and mix well. Taste and re-season.
  3. Chill for several hours or overnight, if possible, to blend flavors. Before serving, sprinkle with chopped scallions, if using.
  4. Serve with crackers, lightly toasted pita wedges, whole grain toast, crudités or salty chips. Good with pickles, olives or hot peppers on the side.

Asian Tofu Spread

This version of the basic tofu dip is adapted from a recipe called Thai Tofu Spread, attributed to a vegetarian Minneapolis restaurant called St. Martin’s Table. For those who don’t cook with fresh ginger often, crushed ginger is widely available in a jar. You can also freeze ginger root for many months in a resealable snack bag, breaking off a knob as needed.

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound tofu
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced or crushed
  • 1 tsp. crushed or minced ginger
  • ¼ cup unsweetened (natural) peanut butter or ¼ cup tahini paste
  • ¼ cup rice wine vinegar or juice of 1 lime
  • 3 tbsp. tamari sauce, and/or salt to taste
  • ¼ tsp. cayenne pepper (optional)
  • ½ medium red onion, diced
  • ¼ cup fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
  • 2 tbsp. chopped peanuts, optional

Directions:

  1. Drain tofu, gently squeeze out excess moisture, and pat dry.
  2. Mash tofu in a wide bowl with a potato masher or a fork to uniform cottage cheese consistency. Add onions, garlic and cilantro to tofu and mix to combine.
  3. In a separate bowl, combine peanut butter, cayenne pepper, rice vinegar and tamari.
  4. Pour dressing over tofu mixture and mix gently. Adjust seasonings to taste.
  5. Chill for several hours if possible to blend flavors. Before serving, sprinkle with chopped peanuts if using.
  6. Serve with crackers, pita, whole grain toast, crudités or chips.

No Egg Salad

This variation is based on the Master Tofu Dip recipe, modified to simulate your expectation of what traditional egg salad should taste and look like.

If you want to make a special effort, divide the mixture and only add turmeric to half of it, so you create the impression of yellow and white for a real egg salad effect. Chop tofu to a size that simulates chopped egg white rather than mashing it — and just mash the “yellow” part seasoned with turmeric for the yolk. Substitute celery for onion, and a generous amount of soy mayonnaise for the tahini. Add turmeric sparingly for yellow color until you achieve the desired effect. Use pickle relish if you think egg salad should have a dash of tangy sweetness. For vinegar variations, you may want to consider a scant amount of white vinegar, pickle relish juice from the jar, or lemon juice — but add sparingly since egg salad is usually fairly bland or even slightly sweet. Omit herbs or try fresh parsley, dill or dried tarragon. Season very well with salt and pepper.

For the authentic egg salad treatment, serve on toast with lettuce and tomato, stuff in a pita or pile on a bed of lettuce surrounded by wedges of ripe tomato and a pile of chips for scooping. Or stuff into a scooped out, very ripe, tomato for a luncheon entrée. Pickles, sweet or sour, always go well with any tofu-based dip.

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound firm tofu
  • 1 stalk (about ½ cup) celery, chopped
  • 1 scant tbsp. white vinegar, lemon juice, or sweet pickle juice, to taste
  • Salt to taste (sprinkle in your palm to control the amount before adding)
  • ¼ cup vegan mayonnaise
  • 1 tbsp. mustard (brown deli-style or Dijon)
  • 1 tsp. ground turmeric
  • ½ – 1 tbsp. dried tarragon (sprinkle in your palm and crush to release essential oils)
  • 1 handful parsley or dill, chopped
  • Cracked black pepper to taste, generous amount
  • Dash paprika

Directions:

  1. Drain tofu, gently squeeze out excess moisture, and pat dry.
  2. Mash tofu gently in a wide bowl with a potato masher or fork to uniform large curd cottage cheese consistency. Add remainder of ingredients and mix well. Taste and re-season.
  3. Chill for several hours or overnight if possible to blend flavors (or eat right away!) Before serving, sprinkle with a dash of paprika if using.
  4. Serve with crackers, stuffed in a lightly toasted pita, on whole grain toast, with crudités or salty chips.

Ruth Goldstein is a Pikesville-based freelance writer.

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