Tofu! Lately, it's the ingredient that's commanding more shelf space in the marketplace. And shoppers are grabbing the soy-based product in every form. From milk to fake "ground round," hickory-smoked "turkey" and frozen desserts, this is a skyrocketing expansion on the look-alike "bacon bits" that have been around for decades.
Why the growing popularity? Nutritionally, tofu is a solid source of protein, omega-3 (the healthy fats), iron and other minerals. Research has shown that a regular intake of soy protein can help lower total cholesterol levels, lower LDL (the bad cholesterol) levels and triglyceride levels, leading to reduced risk of heart disease. It has also been shown to help alleviate certain symptoms of menopause.
Tofu's been around for more than 2,000 years, and today, it's a dietary staple throughout Asia. According to Chinese legend, the first batch of tofu was created by accident, around 200 BCE. A Chinese cook added nigari (mainly magnesium chloride) to flavor a batch of puréed cooked soybeans; the curd that was produced is now known as tofu.
This soft, cheese-like mixture -- also known as bean curd -- is made by adding a coagulant to fresh, hot soy milk so that it curdles. The curdling agent (nigari) is a compound found in natural ocean water, or calcium sulfate, a natural mineral. An acid such as lemon juice or vinegar may also be used.
The resulting curds are then pressed into a solid block to make firm and soft tofu. Firm is dense and holds up well in stir-fry dishes, or wherever you want the tofu to maintain a shape. The soft tofu is a good choice for recipes like dips, dressings or in soups. Silken tofu is a creamy, custard-like product best for puréed dishes or, as in Japan, served with a dab of soy sauce and topped with thinly sliced scallions.
Besides all the health benefits, tofu is neutral in taste, and thus has the ability to absorb whatever flavors may be added. It's a perfect base for salad dressing -- add herbs and seasonings, and you have a piquant mixture to liven greens or cooked vegetables.
Crumble it into a pot of spicy chili sauce for a vegetarian chili, or blend it with melted chocolate and a little cream -- and, suddenly, it's a chocolate-cream pie filling. Dice the firm variety and add to casseroles or side dishes for a protein booster.
In our markets, you'll find tofu in vacuum packs or in aseptic brick packages. Refrigerate after opening. As with any perishable food, check the expiration date on the package before buying. Upon opening, drain off the water, squeezing to get out as much as possible. Use it within three days.
Fresh tofu should be off-white in color and smell fresh; it should never be discolored or smell sour. Tofu can also be frozen for up to four months. Defrosted tofu has a pleasant caramel color and a chewy, spongy texture, which can quickly soak up marinades and sauces. It's great for grilling or frying.
However, you can't just top a salad with raw tofu and expect the family to like it. Instead, introduce it by using some of the following ideas and recipes.
They'll never even know it's there -- unless you tell them.
· Crumble into meatloaf mixture to lighten.
· Mash with canned tuna or salmon and chopped herbs for a sandwich filling.
· Marinate sliced tofu in barbecue sauce. Grill and serve on crusty bread.
· Stir silken tofu into sour half-and-half for a reduced-fat baked-potato topping
· Substitute puréed silken tofu for part of the mayonnaise in chicken salads.
· Sauté chunks of firm tofu in olive oil and seasonings, and toss with cooked vegetables or stews.
Crisp Baked Tofu
Wash all greens well (even if the package says "prewashed"). Dry in a salad spinner.
20 oz. (about 1 and 1/2 packages) firm tofu, drained well
2 Tbsps. sesame seeds
2 Tbsps. olive oil
1 tsp. sesame oil
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
medium bunch arugula, washed
dipping sauce (optional)
Preheat the oven to 400°.
Spray a baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray.
Cut the tofu into 20 squares. Place in a medium bowl. Add the sesame seeds, oils and salt. Toss.
Arrange on the prepared baking sheet in a single layer.
Bake until golden-brown and bottoms are slightly crisp, 8 to 10 minutes. Flip and bake 8 to 10 minutes more or until tops are golden-brown. Cool.
Serve with arugula on the side and a sauce to dip (optional).
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 301; protein, 23 g; carbohydrates, 7 g; fat, 22 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 256 mg.
1 package (14 oz.) firm tofu, drained
1/2 ripe avocado, cut up
2 Tbsps. lemon juice
3 Tbsps. mayonnaise
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1/4 tsp. minced garlic
3-4 fronds fresh dill, snipped in 1-inch pieces
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Crumble tofu into food-processor bowl.
Add the avocado, lemon juice, mayonnaise, olive oil and garlic. Process until smooth.
Add the dill.
Pulse about 3 to 4 times until chopped. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Serve with crudites, crackers or party rye.
Makes about 2 cups.
Approximate nutrients per tablespoon: calories, 32; protein, 2 g; carbohydrates, 1 g; fat, 3 g; cholesterol, 1 mg; sodium, 6 mg.
Teriyaki Sampler Plate
Adapted from The Healthy Kitchen by Andrew Weil, M.D., and Rosie Daley.
1/4 cup orange marmalade, warmed
1/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce
2 Tbsps. frozen orange juice concentrate, thawed
3 Tbsps. grated fresh ginger
1/4 cup sherry
1 block (14 oz.) firm tofu
1 whole boneless, skinless kosher chicken breast
1/2 lb. asparagus, trimmed and cut in 4-inch pieces
1 Tbsp. sesame seeds for garnish
Preheat the oven to 400°.
Mix together the marinade ingredients. Divide the mixture equally among three separate baking dishes -- one each for the tofu, chicken and asparagus.
Slice the tofu into three 1 and 1/2-inch thick pieces. Cut each piece at an angle from corner to corner to make six triangles. Arrange in one of the baking dishes, turning to coat. Set aside.
Place the chicken in a plastic bag or between 2 sheets of wax paper. Tap with a tenderizing hammer or mallet to flatten.
Cut diagonally to make 6 pieces. Place them in a baking dish with marinade, turning to coat.
Place the asparagus in the remaining dish with marinade. Cover with foil.
Place all the dishes in oven. Bake for 15 minutes.
Sprinkle the chicken and tofu with sesame seeds.
Arrange on a platter with the asparagus and serve.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 205; protein, 21 g; carbohydrates, 15 g; fat, 7 g; cholesterol, 23 mg; sodium, 399 mg.
Prepare in two 8-inch square dishes. Serve one and freeze the second.
2 Tbsps. vegetable oil
8 green onions, green and white parts, thinly sliced
3 cups sliced mushrooms
1 jar (48 oz.) all-natural spaghetti sauce
1 package (14 oz.) firm tofu, crumbled
2 packages (10 oz. each) frozen chopped spinach, defrosted, drained
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 tsps. lemon-pepper seasoning
1 and 1/2 tsps. dried oregano
1 package (8 oz.) lasagna noodles, uncooked
3 cups shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese
Preheat oven to 350°.
Spray two 8-inch square baking dishes with nonstick cooking spray.
Heat the vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium heat.
Add the green onions and mushrooms. Sauté for 3 minutes, or until mushrooms lose their raw look.
Add the spaghetti sauce. Stir and set aside. You will have about 8 cups of sauce mixture.
In a bowl, combine the tofu, spinach, eggs and seasonings.
In one baking dish, pour about 2 cups of the spaghetti sauce mixture.
Top with half the tofu mixture, half the noodles and 2 cups of the sauce.
Cover with foil. Repeat with remaining ingredients.
Place baking dishes in preheated oven. Bake for 40 minutes. Remove foil.
Sprinkle each with 11/2 cups cheese. Return to oven, and bake 15 to 20 minutes longer. Let stand 10 minutes before serving.
Serves 8 to 10.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 333; protein, 19 g; carbohydrates, 21 g; fat, 19 g; cholesterol, 62 mg; sodium, 307 mg.
Mock 'Egg Salad'
1 package (14 oz.) firm tofu, drained and crumbled
3/4 tsp. turmeric
1/4 cup lite mayonnaise
2 Tbsps. Dijon-style mustard
2 Tbsps. pickle relish
1/3 cup diced celery
1/3 cup diced red bell pepper
1 Tbsp. chopped black olives
2 Tbsps. snipped fresh parsley
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Place the tofu into a medium bowl. Add the turmeric, mayonnaise and mustard. Stir to mix.
Add the remaining ingredients. Mix well.
Refrigerate for a few hours to let the flavors blend.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 215; protein, 16 g; carbohydrates, 9 g; fat,15 g; cholesterol, 5 mg; sodium, 395 mg.
Strawberries & 'Cream'
1/ package (about 7 oz.) silken tofu
2 Tbsps. cream cheese, softened
1/3 cup strawberry jam
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 pint fresh strawberries, sliced
2 Tbsps. grated chocolate (optional)
In the blender or food processor, combine tofu, cream cheese, jam, and vanilla. Process until smooth. Refrigerate 1 to 2 hours.
To serve, spoon strawberries into serving dishes.
Top with the chilled "cream."
Serves 4 to 6.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 111; protein, 4 g; carbohydrates, 17 g; fat, 3 g; cholesterol, 5 mg; sodium, 26 mg.
Ethel G. Hofman, the author of Mackerel at Midnight, is a past president of the International Association of Culinary Professionals.