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Lenten Idea: Spicy Sweet and Sour Tofu

Rebecca LindamoodTofu. Right.

Tofu and I made a little peace many moons ago when I spent a few teen and young adult years as a vegetarian. A little peace, I say, because while I liked it alright, I never craved it. It was just kind of boring. In retrospect, I understand this means it wasn’t cooked the way I liked it, which was nobody’s fault but my own since I was the one cooking it. Live and learn, right?

In the past couple years, I’ve tried adding tofu to our family’s diet on a very occasional basis. Very occasional because while my eldest three kids, as a rule, do not complain about food, two of them complain vociferously about tofu. One of them loves it. Add the two youngest finicky eaters to the mix and the perpetual balancing act of motherhood falls flat and gives short shrift to my poor, long-suffering, tofu-loving eleven-year-old. He wasn’t the only one mourning the lack of the bean curd, though. The Evil Genius loves tofu.

I still serve it though, because they may be stubborn, but I invented stubborn. You can’t write off a food as hopeless until you have tried it at least twenty times or more. And I keep trying, because tofu is a wonderfully efficient and economical source of protein for meatless meals. It is simple to prepare and it can be adapted to just about any regional cuisine or style. I feel victory on the horizon! Mainly because I made this dish two weeks ago.

The ones who don’t usually like tofu liked this! The two youngest liked it enough to take three bites each. The rest of them? Ate it! In abundance! They ate it! And they loved it! And I loved it! And the Evil Genius loved it! And I need to step away from the exclamation marks! Now!

The point is this. I never craved a tofu dish before having this one. I liked this so much that the day after making it I announced that I wanted to make it again that night.  That might’ve been pushing it a bit. My eldest said, “Let’s not get carried away, Mom. How about we wait ’til next Friday?” From him, that was a ringing endorsement.

What makes this tofu dish different? The triangles are lightly fried in oil until golden brown, that gives a little crisp outer crust to the fluffy inner tofu. The Thai inspired sauce is spectacularly simple and bold; lime juice, soy sauce, ginger, garlic, a little heat and a little sweet and a little umami courtesy of fish sauce.

If you have dietary restrictions that contraindicate using fish sauce, you can simply replace it with an equal amount of soy sauce. But if you can, make it with the fish sauce. It gives it that little extra level of flavor that tofu often needs since it is, on its own, quite bland.

While you can substitute white sugar for the raw sugar, I encourage you to try it with the raw sugar first. It adds a rounder flavor and more body to the sauce. Do a little taste test with some raw sugar and white sugar. Do you taste the hint of caramel in the raw sugar? Once you start using this, you’ll be hooked!

P.S. As of Wednesday, one of the two youngest boys asked me how long until they got to try the tofu again. SCORE! (One last exclamation mark. I think you’ll agree it was warranted.)
Spicy Sweet and Sour Tofu

Click here and scroll to the bottom for an easy-print version of this recipe!

Ingredients:

  • 14 ounces Extra Firm Tofu
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 3 tablespoons raw sugar (Turbinado or Demerara preferably, white sugar can be used in a pinch.)
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons fish sauce
  • 1/2 teaspoons crushed red pepper
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
  • 1-inch piece of ginger, minced or grated on a microplane
  • zest from one lime
  • 1 tablespoon neutral oil (canola or peanut)
  • Optional for garnish: Chopped fresh cilantro

Lay the tofu block on its widest side on a cutting board over a towel. Lay two dinner plates on top of the tofu as a weight and let it drain for 10 minutes. Lift the plates, flip the tofu block, replace the plate and let drain for another 10 minutes. Repeat the process once more for each side.  Your total draining time should be at or over 40 minutes. This draining makes the tofu hold together better and pop less in the hot oil.

Set the tofu block on the long, narrow side and slice into four thin cards.

Stack the cards and cut lengthwise, then crosswise into four rectangles.

Cut the rectangles diagonally into triangles.

Then make a tofu sculpture. Because you can. Tofu. More fun that you ever knew before…

This should give you 8 triangles per card, for a total of 32 triangles.

Whisk together the soy sauce, sugar, lime juice and zest, fish sauce, crushed red pepper flakes, garlic, and ginger until the sugar is dissolved. Set aside.

Pour the oil into a 12-inch non-stick skillet (or well-seasoned cast-iron skillet) over medium heat. Carefully and quickly arrange the tofu triangles in the hot oil.

The combination of oil and tofu has a tendency to spit, so you need to be cautious. Work quickly, but don’t throw the tofu or it will splash you with hot oil and fall apart despite your best efforts.  Fry the tofu, without moving it, for 4-5 minutes, or until it is golden brown on the underside. Use tongs or a spatula to flip all the tofu triangles.

Turn the heat under the pan to high. Whisk the sauce one more time and pour over the hot tofu and pan. The sauce should bubble up and boil almost immediately.  Gently toss the tofu to coat well. Continue cooking and tossing until the sauce is syrupy. This will take  from 2-4 minutes.

Serve tofu triangles immediately in the syrup. I prefer this over sweet brown rice, but it is also good over Calrose or sushi-type rice. I like it accompanied by stir-fried green vegetables of some sort, but use whatever you enjoy most.

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