One of my favorite vendors for workhorse teas—by which I mean, tea that you can have at breakfast or while you work, tea that doesn’t demand your whole attention for steep times but still tastes good and makes you feel happy—is eco-cha, which specializes in teas from Taiwan produced by farmers who are trying to ethically and responsibly produce tea. This doesn’t always mean certified organic teas—organic certification is expensive and that expense is not always compatible with small farms.
This tea is sweet and delicate for the first few minutes of the tea, but if you forget that you have half a decanter still going, instead of getting bitter, it starts to have a little bit of a spicy bite which I quite enjoy. It’s perfect for a breakfast tea.
Welcome to my tofu TED talk
When I made an offhand joke (OR WAS IT) about weekly tofu last week, I expected maybe one person would tell me they wanted a weekly tofu. Instead, there was what I will describe as an outpouring of tofu appreciation, or at least in some cases, a desire to appreciate. This is unfortunate because now I have nothing to stop me from telling you about tofu.
One of the things that I heard from quite a few people was, “I would like to eat more tofu but I am not very good at cooking with it.”
If this is true for you, please understand that it is not your fault: the way tofu was introduced to the Western palate was through a category error. When I was in high school, I told my parents I wanted to be vegetarian, and their response was, “sure, but you’re cooking for yourself and you have to make sure you meet your nutritional needs.” They bought me a cookbook.
This cookbook told me that in order to properly cook tofu, you had to squeeze it into submission and then marinate it properly for many hours, and if you did not do this, it would be horrifically bland and unappetizing. I duly followed the directions; no matter what I did, I could only ever manage a crust of yummy seasoning surrounding very bland tofu. Obviously, I concluded, tofu was impossible.
Several decades later, with an entire internet filled with amazing recipe guidance from chefs who in turn have had generations of experience in cooking tofu, I am much, much more knowledgeable. I can safely say that the above advice for cooking tofu is rubbish. The main source of rubbishness, in my opinion, is that when tofu was introduced to Western vegetarians, it was presented as an alternate to meat. In many parts of the West, meat is a source of protein and it is a source of savory umami flavor.
Tofu is a source of protein that (generally, there are tofu exceptions) has a very mild flavor. So the recipes were trying to shoehorn a thing that it is—plant-based protein—into a thing that it wasn’t—a source of flavor.
This is goofy, because the Western world already understands how to treat plant-based material with mild tastes. They just seemed to forget how to apply any of those rules when tofu came along. So here’s my encouragement: if you are even a slightly versatile cook, you already know how to cook foods that have a mild taste.
Think about rice or potatoes: these foods do not, by themselves, have strong flavor. How do you use them? Well, you can get them to absorb flavor (VERY RARELY BY MARINATING THEM: in what circumstances would you marinate a potato? The answer is non-zero but if someone told you the way to make a potato taste good was to marinate it, you would think they were limited in their potato recipe repertoire); or you can use them to provide a counterpoint for dishes that are full of flavor; or you can enjoy the mild taste of it on its own with maybe a little fat and salt as an addition. The flavor principles of cooking tofu are not wildly different than any other mild-tasting food.
So step one in cooking tofu, for those who think that tofu is an ordeal to be bypassed, is to reset your thinking: tofu is a mild-tasting plant-based food that has higher amounts of protein than many, but not all plant-based foods.
I almost never press my tofu. I almost never marinate it. This is because I’m a lazy chef who cannot plan anything in advance. Tofu is, nonetheless, extremely delicious. Thank you, ancestors.
Tofu Kimchi pancakes
So here's one of my favorite breakfasts. Or lunches. Or dinners. I started searching for recipes for kimchi pancakes after I first had them as banchan when we went out with my step-mother-in-law to get Korean food (she is Korean).
Then I started looking for recipes with tofu because kimchi and tofu are kind of the perfect combination. Kimchi is tangy and spicy and full of flavor, and tofu is a creamy counterpoint. Kimchi is crunchy; tofu is soft. When you put them in the same dish, I feel like the heavens open and angels sing, and the thing they sing is “please put that on my plate, I really need another one.”
The pancake is crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. The first time I made this, I followed this recipe, but I am inherently lazy and I’m not going to take time to smush up tofu into little bits when I can just whack it into cubes and let that go.
This isn’t authentically Korean, and it’s not trying to be. It’s something quick and easy.
½ C kimchi
Roughly equal amount of tofu by volume, cut into ½ inch cubes, maybe 3 oz
(What kind of tofu? Fresh tofu. Not silken. Anywhere from soft to extra-firm will work. I prefer soft, but if your only source of tofu is your standard Western grocery store, you’re probably not going to have soft tofu unless you live in an area that has a decent sized Asian population.)
1 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tbsp flour (of basically any kind)
1 tbsp potato starch (for making crispy
½ tsp baking powder
If you want to be Fancy™: salad, dressing, and an additional egg for frying.
If you are currently tofu agnostic, before you do anything, I suggest taking your block of tofu and cutting off a thin slice, a little less than ¼ of an inch thick, topping it with kimchi, and popping it in your mouth.
Before you do, set your expectations: you’re going to be tasting 90% kimchi. The tofu will come in as an aftertaste, mild and creamy with a hint of soybean. (You’ll actually taste the tofu better in the actual pancake for a number of reasons.)
A second fun test: another slice, but this time drizzle a tiny amount of good olive oil and salt on it. Again, the first flavor in your mouth will the the olive oil and the salt, and then you’ll get the tofu as an aftertaste.
Why am I suggesting you do this? Because you don't actually need to do anything to tofu except have the right ratio of tofu, cut into small enough pieces, and something with flavor. No pressing. No cooking.
Anyway, back to the tofu: mince the kimchi until it's in small pieces, cut the tofu into ½ inch cubes, lob all this in the bowl with the suggested ingredients. You may have to add salt, but it's unlikely—kimchi is salty, soy sauce is salty, you’re probably good to go on seasoning. Mix all the ingredients together.
Now, the amounts above are guidelines because (a) we’re adding some moisture with the tofu, who knows how much, and (b) kimchi, depending on how long its been fermenting, also contains variable amounts of moisture. So you kind of have to eyeball the mixture. You want it right on the borderline between gloppy (like cookie dough) and gloopy (like pancake batter). It should not flow, but if you kind of press it with a spoon it should make itself flat-ish.
If it’s too gloppy, you should add more liquid. I personally like adding some of the kimchi juice. If it’s too gloopy, add more flour. This is very scientific.
Heat a non-stick pan on medium. Add a little bit of oil, not because you need it not to stick, but because you want it crispy. Put some amount of the not-dough-not-batter on the pan in a vaguely circular shape, press it with a spoon and encourage it to be not much thicker than the thickest pieces of tofu, and then let it cook until the edges turn brown and the middle starts to bubble. Flip it and wait until the underside cooks, then take it off and behold! A pancake.
You can eat it just like that, and frankly, you should.
But also, sometimes while it’s cooking you can make a little dressed salad of lettuce and tomato and cucumber and olive oil and salt and a splash of rice vinegar, and then after you cook the last pancake, fry an egg. Throw the salad on top of the pancake and the egg on top of the salad, and now you have not just a pancake, but a full and satisfying meal.
Once upon a Marquess
So you’re probably thinking, right, after a tofu TED talk, of course Courtney is going to talk about a book with tofu in it.
Instead I will say that this is a book that contains turnip sandwiches.
“A turnip sandwich—a proper turnip sandwich—was made with two toasted slices of bread. One should be smeared liberally with brown gravy. The other bore a scrape of gooseberry preserves. Between these two disgustingly bedecked pieces of bread, there was a generous slice of roasted, peppered turnip. Liberal salting was the key.”
So what does this have to do with tofu? Pretty much…nothing, except to remind you that flavor is good and there are very few things out there that cannot taste good if they are paired with things that already have flavor.
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