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culinating :: tops in tofu

poor tofu. it's gotten a bad wrap because people believe it's just hippie filler pretending to be meat. in fact, soy bean curd is quite lovely and is no more bland or forgettable than the water-chilled chicken breasts served up at many restaurants. the thing about tofu is, you want to combine it with other flavours, so that it can provide a solid base, but not have to play the starring role.

personally, i'm a little picky about tofu. for whatever reason, i really dislike the texture when crumbled, but i love it when it's properly cubed and sautéed with vegetables and noodles or rice in a stir fry. i honestly can't remember ever baking it before, but this past weekend, i was invited to a potluck supper and you can't very well stir fry at one of those. when you're going to someone else's house bearing a tray of food, the most you can hope is that someone will be able to stick your offering in a warm oven for ten minutes before it's dinner time.

since vegetarian options seemed a little thin on the sign-up list, i thought of making a tofu dish. i had an idea from something i'd found on pinterest a few days before that sounded manageable and since i had heard that there would be vegetarians present, i figured that they'd likely be forced to eat what i had on offer anyway. [as it turns out, someone made really delicious felafel as well, which just goes to show that it's much easier to feed vegetarians and vegans than you might have thought.]

one of the nice things about working with tofu- also one of the reasons why i suspect a lot of people like working with chicken breasts- is that it can take on the taste of whatever you put it with. it helps if you marinate it for a little while, but you don't need anything like the time it takes to marinate meat. half an hour should be fine to allow the flavours to permeate the soy tissue. plus, because there aren't any salmonella concerns with tofu [unless you're doing things very wrong], you can toss it, marinate it and bake it in the same liquid without fear for your safety.

this dish is a sort of "kitchen sink special". the recipe i used can be found here, but there are a few little points that i think add to the end product:


  • the tofu should marinate for about half an hour. five minutes doesn't let the flavours be absorbed. 
  • i used more ketchup than the recipe calls for- roughly equivalent to the amount of soy sauce. i found that this made the dish more tangy and less salty. if you like your saltiness, feel free to disregard this advice. 
  • i used more maple syrup as well- probably double the quantity called for. i didn't find this made it overly sweet and it helped to bring out the delicate maple flavour. if you find it gets too sweet for your taste, by all means add soy sauce. 
  • i used fresh minced garlic instead of garlic powder. the choice is yours. i think that using chili-garlic sauce would be a great way to add heat as well. 
  • be extremely careful with the liquid smoke. it's a miraculous product that really does add a smoky flavour to dishes, but it's really easy to overdo it, which results in your dish tasting like it fell onto live barbeque coals. i recommend adding this in small increments, blending well and tasting the sauce to see if it needs more. 
  • although it doesn't specify doing so in the recipe, pour all the sauce into the pan with the tofu. the sauce will sort of caramelize in the oven while at the same time keeping the tofu from drying out. it's miraculous. 

the best part is that even meat eaters seem to enjoy this, at least if the "after" photo taken above is any indication. that's pretty remarkable, given that this isn't a case where you're disguising the true "tofu-ness". you're just allowing it to be itself. but itself on a first date, when it really wants to make a good impression.

served at home, i think it would go really well with either basmati/ jasmine rice or steamed vegetables. there's a lot of flavours going on, so i wouldn't necessarily recommend pairing it with anything that will compete, but it is also a great, simple option if you're invited to bring food along to a party. or if you just want to bring some as a surprise.

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