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Tofu Takes on Tempting Flavors

Food Fitness to Nourish Your Body

Tofu has significant nutritional benefits but those benefits are rarely enough to tempt wary diners into trying it. The art of the soft sell may be a better way to introduce this super soy food into family menus: Capitalize on the versatility of tofu by presenting it in the guise of more flavorful dishes -- such as lasagna or taco salad.

In these and other highly seasoned specialties, the unremarkable look and bland taste of tofu in its natural state become advantages, enabling tofu to take on the flavor and even the look of a wide range of other ingredients.

Of the two types of tofu that are generally available, firm tofu is the better choice for cooked dishes; soft tofu is ideal for creamy salad dressings and desserts.

Pressing out residual moisture in tofu enhances its affinity for seasonings and firms it for cooking. To press tofu, drain it and cut into one-half inch slices. Arrange the slices on a clean folded kitchen towel and cover with another folded kitchen towel. Set a heavy cutting board or a tray, weighted with a large pan of water on top of the towels and leave everything in place for half an hour before cooking the tofu.

To make tofu even more tempting, slice it into neat matchsticks or dice for stir-frying or crumble it for pasta fillings and other cooked dishes.

Tofu, also known as bean curd, is sold in most supermarkets, natural food stores and stores specializing in Asian foods. Tofu comes in several forms. Most forms are packaged in water. Fresh tofu is kept in the refrigerator case (often in the produce department). Tofu in aseptic packaging, which requires no refrigeration, is available on the shelf (often in the ethnic food section).

Check the expiration date on the package, and try to use the tofu by that date. Otherwise, freeze the unopened package in an airtight container for use later.

  • Tofu textures vary, ranging from the soft mushy one that repels the wary, to the firm and extra-firm kind used in stir-fry cooking. Most large supermarkets carry packaged tofu and/or pasteurized shelf-stable tofu in the produce section. Natural foods stores tend to have greater variety.
  • Tofu comes in firm, extra-firm and soft. Recipes will specify which is preferred for a particular dish. Soft tofu is used mainly for soups and some stir-fry dishes. Depending on the texture, it can be cut into cubes of varying size for grilling, or crumbled into chili, casseroles and eggless "egg" salad.
  • Silken tofu, which is pasteurized, doesn't have to be refrigerated. It does not stir-fry well, but can be pureed for dips, sauces, spreads, salad dressings, egg replacement in cakes and some breads. Do not freeze it. To achieve a smooth consistency, whip the tofu in a small food processor or blender until it reaches the consistency of mayonnaise. You can whip it with a hand blender - not a hand-held electric mixer - but it will take a while. Be patient.
  • To drain tofu, simply pour off the water. Tofu
  • To press tofu - in order to remove excess water, which makes it easier for tofu to absorb marinades - loosely wrap the tofu block in several layers of a clean kitchen towel, place it on a plate and put a 1-pound bag of beans on top. Leave it for 15 minutes. It should lose several tablespoons of water. Rewrap the tofu in a dry towel, put the bag back and let it sit for another 15 minutes. This will prime the tofu block to absorb marinades.
  • To freeze tofu, place the unopened container in the freezer for at least 36 hours. It can remain in the freezer for up to three months. It can be thawed in a microwave - poke several holes in the top, place the tub on a plate and defrost on high (100 percent power) for 5 to 7 minutes. It also can be defrosted at room temperature, which should take about three hours. Then drain and press. It will be darker than regular tofu, but it will also have a chewy texture. Freezing tofu increases its ability to absorb flavors.
  • Baked tofu comes marinated with ethnic flavors and can be used on sandwiches or crumbled in tacos, enchiladas, on pizza, in lasagna. It can also be sliced and eaten on sandwiches.
  • To bake tofu, slice an extra-firm block of tofu into 1/2-inch thick slices and simmer for 15 minutes in a marinade. Remove the tofu to a baking dish that has been sprinkled with sesame oil. Flip the tofu so that each side gets a coating, then bake on both sides in a 450-degree oven until tofu is browned, 7 to 10 minutes.
  • To fry tofu, slice a firm block, dust it with flour (or cornstarch) and carefully place in hot peanut or vegetable oil. Then fry the slices on both sides until browned. Drain on paper towels and season with soy sauce and chopped green onion.
  • To store tofu: Once opened, a package of tofu will keep up to five days if it is refrigerated, kept under water and tightly covered. Change the water daily. If it has an odor, throw it out.

Tofu Recipes

Baked Lasagna with Tofu-Spinach Filling Recipe
With more vegetables and less fat than traditional lasagna recipes, the following dish features fresh spinach filling that combines tofu and ricotta cheese. The sauce cooks in very little time, although making it a day ahead improves the flavor.

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small onion, chopped finely
1/2 cup sliced mushrooms
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup chopped carrots
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup white wine
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3 cups canned Italian-style tomatoes, drained and chopped
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
Tofu-spinach filling (recipe below)
Vegetable oil for greasing baking dish
1 package (16 ounces) spinach lasagna noodles, cooked and drained
2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese mixed with 1 /4 cup bread crumbs

To prepare lasagna sauce, heat oil in saucepan over medium-high heat; add onion, mushrooms, garlic, carrots and celery. Saute two minutes. Add wine; simmer 15 minutes. Add nutmeg, tomatoes, basil and oregano. Cover and cook over medium heat 30 minutes, stirring frequently. Puree sauce in blender. Set aside.
Prepare filling. Set aside.
Preheat oven to 375-degrees. Lightly oil 12 x 9-inch baking dish.
Assemble lasagna by layering filling, sauce and cooked noodles in baking dish. Repeat layers two more times, using all ingredients and ending with noodles on top.
Sprinkle lasagna with Parmesan-bread crumb mixture. Bake in preheated oven 30 minutes. Let stand five minutes before serving.
Recipe makes six to eight servings.

Tofu-Spinach Filling:
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cups sliced onions
2 cups sliced mushrooms
1 cup white wine
2 cups chopped spinach leaves
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1 cup pressed, crumbled firm tofu
1 cup part-skim ricotta cheese

Heat oil in saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onions and mushroom; saute three minutes. Add wine; simmer until soft, about ten minutes. Add spinach leaves and salt; cook, covered, one minute. Remove from heat and mix with tofu and ricotta cheese.

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Tofu Taco Salad Recipe
If you enjoy the spicy flavors of taco salad, be sure to try this chili-seasoned tofu version.

2 cups pressed, crumbled firm tofu
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 cups torn leaf lettuce
3 large, ripe tomatoes, cored and coarsely chopped
1/2 cup minced red onion
1/2 cup seeded and diced cucumber
1/2 cup grated jack cheese
Warm tostadas or corn chips
Prepared salsa

In bowl, mix tofu with cumin, cilantro, chili powder, salt and pepper.
Heat oil in heavy skillet over medium heat; add tofu mixture and brown lightly. Simmer ten minutes.
Arrange lettuce in center of each of four serving plates; spoon warm tofu mixture over lettuce.
Arrange tomatoes, onion and cucumber on top of tofu mixture; sprinkle with grated cheese. Surround taco salad with warm tostados. Pass salsa at table.
Recipe makes four servings.

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