In today’s health- and weight-conscious society, where the often disparaged tofu waits on the sidelines for the chance to demonstrate its delightful dietary dynamo, an introduction is needed for people who don’t know about the positive aspects of tofu but have heard that it is kryptonite to the taste buds. I am certain that with a bit of hands-on, or rather “teeth-on,” exploration of this little-understood and much maligned food, their culinary horizons will be expanded to encompass the enviable opportunity to pompously exclaim, “You’ve NEVER eaten tofu? How sad...”
Titles I considered: "Tofu - One Woman's Quest for Calcium"
"Tofu - Not as Disgusting as You Think!"
"Tofu - Eat It or You Don't Get Any Ice Cream!"
Tofu is a cool food we got from the Chinese, who have eaten it for thousands of years without ever feeling the need to ridicule each other about it. They refer to it as "the meat without bones;" in fact, it was first developed as a meat substitute for the Buddhist monks who are strict vegetarians. Tofu is a relatively inexpensive, highly digestible protein that has no cholesterol, is low in calories, high in calcium and also provides iron. People will complain that it is high in fat while stuffing the last of a quart of ice cream into their mouths. The truth is, a person eating a healthy diet is not going to max out on fat intake by enjoying a tofu entrée.
People also whine that tofu is "tasteless," but this is precisely what gives it its versatility. It can be mixed with seasonings and baked into all kinds of shapes like "meatballs," "meatloaf," and "burgers," or sautéed with just about any kind of sauce. It can even be used in a variety of desserts.
If it helps, think of it as eating beans - tofu is simply processed soybeans where the curd is mixed with a coagulant so it sticks together in a block like soft cheese. Picture refried beans out of a can... it doesn't look so much like pinto beans as like brown goo, but people enjoy it. So don't think "weird," think "bean."
I understand firsthand the deeply entrenched resistance to eating tofu; it has been a running gag in American culture for so long that even my own daughter is prejudiced. She'll eat it disguised as a tofu burger or hot dog, but the other day I had her taste a really obvious piece that I had sautéed until crispy in oil and soy sauce (I only had to pay her a dollar), and she concluded, "It tastes pretty good, except I hate tofu."
So for folks who are similarly wary of trying tofu, I highly recommend starting out with the aforementioned burgers and hot dogs. These can often be found in the frozen food section of a major grocery store, though it may be necessary to venture out to a health food store, especially in a region whose specialty dish is spelled “B-B-Q.” The burger and hot dog shapes lend credibility through their superstar status in American tradition and thus are a better bet that they'll take the first bite if you're going for the bait and switch approach with the kids (this technique also works on your own inner child): "Here, eat this... do you like it? It's tofu."
When you're bored of this game and are ready to make a meal using raw tofu (I promise it's far less disgusting than handling a slab of bloody meat), I recommend starting with recipes that lend themselves to best-selling vegetarian cookbook author Mollie Katzen's wise advice on how to serve tofu to children (this includes disdainful spouses, by the way): "Lots of ketchup!!!" This harkens back to the previous suggestion of "make it at least vaguely recognizable as something they've managed to choke down before." I find that "crispy with ketchup" fits the bill.
First, the intrepid chef must find the ingredient. Clever places tofu will hide: in the refrigerated section near the eggs or in the produce department near those over-priced lettuce mixes. It might be necessary to ask a store employee. I promise they won't laugh, unless of course they don't carry it, in which case the correct move is to laugh self-righteously back at them and say, "You don't carry TOFU?!? This IS the 21st century, you know!" and flounce out of the store. It will be fun.
So, having scored some bean curd (buy a pound of "firm" for this), proceed to the kitchen, heat up a non-stick frying pan to medium-high, cover the bottom of the pan with about two tablespoons of vegetable oil and, while it's getting hot, cut the tofu into "chicken-strip" sized slices. Sometimes I like to get fancy by dipping each slice in beaten egg and then in seasoned bread crumbs before cooking. Fry for about three to five minutes on one side, add some soy sauce (about a tablespoon), then flip them and sauté the other side until they are golden brown. More soy sauce can then be added, to taste, or even teriyaki, peanut or BBQ sauce... the possibilities are endless. The kids, of course, are liable to want ketchup.
Another easy and delicious dish can be made by crumbling the tofu, mixing in some salt and pepper and adding some minced onions, bell peppers, and/or mushrooms before sautéing (a pinch of turmeric will make it look yellow like scrambled eggs.) Just make sure the tofu is cooked until good and crispy, and a bit salty, so it goes with all the ketchup. Or try adding grated cheese and salsa after cooking for a "huevos rancheros" deal.
Mollie Katzen also suggests tricking kids by sneaking mashed tofu into mashed potatoes. This ruse may work for tiny kids who don't know any better, or for kids who play video games with one hand and eat with the other. But most people unmask snuck food eventually, then they’ll probably hate tofu just for spite. An honest approach is best - "It's not your usual dead cow, I know, but it's what I cooked, so eat it or you don't get any ice cream."
Freezing tofu first gives it a more meaty texture when used in any of the above recipes. They say this preparation makes the tofu a great substitute for ground beef or cubed chicken in common recipes. As far as "meat-substitute" goes, however, I find the best bet is just to make friends with a new food. The only way tofu could ever satisfy a hankering for charred flesh is if a person were a Buddhist monk. So just give it a chance as its own individual foodstuff.