Crispy Tasty Tofu
For a back to reality dinner
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As I write this, on what is known as “Tumbleweed Tuesday” here in the Hamptons (and probably in other summer tourist towns too), I’m getting a big dose of reality. Somehow it always feels like “back to school” even though I haven’t been to school in years (nor do I have kids). That first Tuesday after Labor Day just feels like a wake up call from all the summer fun we’ve been having. Today is particularly harsh because it’s raining (and boy do we need rain), which kind of adds to the generally gloomy feeling. Is it sweater weather already?
I started the day by making a long to-do list of all the things I’ve been putting off for the last few weeks, so I knew that making dinner needed to be easy and healthy today (too many French fries and too much ice cream lately!). I always keep a block or two of tofu in the fridge for days like this because I know I can make a fairly quick grain bowl with stuff I have in the house already, and it never fails to satisfy. I always start with brown rice or another grain. Today it was freekeh, which is roasted green wheat, similar to bulgur or cracked wheat; I just bought a bag when I was in the city because I’ve been having trouble finding it lately at my supermarket here. But the real star is always the tofu, which I get better and better at making into something tasty and craveable (or is it an acquired taste?).
We all know tofu is pretty bland on its own, so it needs some zhuzhing. I’ve experimented with various ways of cooking it over the years, treating it more or less like meat, seasoning it well and searing it in a pan — but more often than not, the best crispy part would stick to the pan. Then I saw a technique that is pretty widely known but for some reason I had never tried: coating the tofu in cornstarch before cooking. Wow! This just locks in all of the flavors and forms a lovely brown crust that never sticks, all with a minimum of oil.
I made this same tofu when I was in my apartment in the city a few weeks ago and noticed a pre-pandemic jar of “garlic flakes” (aka dried minced garlic) that I suspect I had bought for a shoot and used once. I thought — after confirming that it was usable — that it might be a nice addition to the crispy tofu, and wow. I just bought a fresh jar to use at the house. I used to be a garlic snob, but lately I’ve been using garlic powder on everything, and now I’m adding minced garlic to the mix! If you don't have dried minced garlic, add garlic powder to the tofu coating — it adds lots of flavor and helps form the crust.
I saw some really pretty baby-ish green beans today while I was shopping for a work project so I grabbed them for dinner, but usually I can pull together a bowl with what I have in the house. Bits and bobs of assorted veg, which I usually roast together (but in separate piles) on a sheet pan. Today I slid the tofu onto a plate when it was finished cooking then sautéed the beans right in the same garlicky pan. I added a splash of water or three to keep the garlic bits from burning while I cooked them over high heat for 4 to 5 minutes. The water also helped to steam the beans.
For a quick sauce for our bowls, I found an almost-empty jar of tahini and added some mild chili crisp, some Yondu (a yummy vegan umami seasoning that’s kind of like fish sauce), and enough water to make it creamy and smooth, which was probably about 1/4 cup. It looks like Russian dressing but tastes nothing like it. We ate the last of it straight, it was that good. I usually add some beans or chickpeas to the bowl for variety and extra protein. Today I used some black chickpeas that I found in the freezer. They were almost a year old, and of course they were perfectly fine. Whenever I cook dry beans I prepare more than I need and freeze them in their cooking liquid — which I’m always grateful for on days like today. Finally, I add a raw element for crunch and freshness, often radishes. Sometimes a little raw or pickled cabbage.
As for the tofu, you can wing that a little bit too. Just sprinkle it with whatever flavorings you want to use (like soy, rice wine vinegar, sesame oil, sriracha, etc.) and let the tofu marinate a little. Then dust it with the cornstarch and mix everything up well using your hands. You can vary the flavors according to what you have in your pantry.
If you haven’t already started to eat at least one meatless dinner a week, this is a great place to start!
Crispy Tasty Tofu
Serves 2 to 4 (depending on how hungry you are)
I usually use firm tofu for this, but if you want to try medium-firm tofu, you will be rewarded with a more custardy center. The pieces will be more fragile, so you will have to take care when coating them.
1 14-ounce block firm or extra-firm tofu, drained
1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
1 teaspoon sriracha (or another thick hot sauce)
Kosher salt, to taste
2 teaspoons sesame oil or neutral vegetable oil, plus more for cooking
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 teaspoons dried minced garlic or garlic flakes
Cut the block of tofu widthwise into 4 pieces. Then cut each bar of tofu in half so you have 8 rectangles. Lay the tofu out in a single layer on a double thickness of paper towels and press lightly. Let sit until paper towels are saturated, and, if desired, repeat with fresh towels.
Place the tofu in a wide shallow bowl or on a dinner plate. Sprinkle with the soy, sriracha, salt, and oil. Use your hands to coat the tofu well. Let sit, tossing once or twice until the tofu absorbs the liquid.
Use a small strainer to sift half the cornstarch over top, turn the pieces and sift the remaining cornstarch over, then use your hands to coat everything well.
Heat a large (12-inch) skillet over medium-high heat. Add 2 teaspoons neutral vegetable oil and add the tofu with one of the large sides down. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, or until the tofu is well browned and crisp on the first side. Turn using a small offset spatula and cook for 2 to 3 minutes on the second side.
Add the minced garlic or garlic flakes and cook one minute longer, tossing, until the garlic is a shade darker.
Serve as soon as possible! (But you can also reheat in a dry pan.)