It took me a while to come around to tofu and soybean products. It wasn't until college, living away from home and making my own food choices, that I discovered "mock chicken" at a restaurant in San Francisco's Chinatown while dining out with friends. I had to ask the waiter what the mock chicken was made from because I hadn't a clue. I remember thinking that it was tasty, but the meat-eater in me decided that it didn't compare to the real thing.
Later, in my mid-20s, I did something I never thought I would do, just for the love of a guy (isn't that usually the reason?): I stopped eating meat. I switched to his diet and went full-on macrobiotic for almost two years. I had to relearn how to cook using tofu and miso and seitan and gave up all things dairy, nightshades and my beloved avocados, while spending more money than I made on organic everything. My meat-loving Mexican food-eating family was so beside themselves. Looking back, I don't blame them. For a family that's always gathered around the dining table for every celebration, those two years made some tough times when it came to holiday eats!
The moment I gave up on the guy, I went back to my meat-loving-and-eating ways. The difference was, I now had a learned appreciation and love for soybean products. Cubed tofu now happily found its way into a pot of simmering broth or was tossed into a veggie stir-fry for added protein and bulk. Simple and low-fuss with a nutritional boost, I would often scramble it with eggs for breakfast.
That is, until the morning I had breakfast with a friend at the then-newly opened The Mission in North Park. It was 1998, and the restaurant was alive with chatter, clinking silverware and hustling wait servers. All the menu's offerings were enticing, but I quickly zeroed in on the Zen Breakfast. I was working out extensively with a trainer at the time, so I was picky about my food choices. It appeared the most healthy menu option: scrambled egg whites, braised organic tofu, brown rice, grilled zucchini and squash with tomato and green onion garnish.
Breakfast that morning did not disappoint. All these years later, it remains my all-time favorite breakfast dish. I tried for the longest time to duplicate that tofu at home, and though I could whip up a tasty breakfast each time, I could not figure out how they made the tofu so wonderful. Theirs had a bit of a crunchy exterior with a creamy, tender interior, and every bite exploded with teriyaki yumminess. Mine had the flavor; it just always lacked the texture.
Fast forward to 2015, and I'm perusing the food queue at work of incoming food stories from our wire services, when I stumble upon an article discussing the merits of tofu. The author recommended pressing tofu before cooking to remove as much of the packing liquid as possible.
According to the author, pressing and baking dries out the tofu enough to prime it for soaking up whatever tasty sauce you marinate it in.
That elusive textural element I'd been trying to achieve all the years of attempting to replicate the Zen Breakfast at home finally seemed within reach.
That very weekend, I brought home my favorite sprouted tofu, sliced it up, pressed it for 30 minutes under heavy weight, baked it and then proceeded with my braising. I had the best home-prepared tofu of my life that night. After more than 25 years of eating tofu at home, I had no idea I was missing out on a much better tofu-eating experience.
I started pressing and baking tofu for pretty much every recipe where I didn't necessarily need soft, creamy tofu. The results were always better than they'd been before my newfound knowledge.
That's where these spicy peanut tofu tacos come in. Before discovering the pressing/baking trick, I'd prepare the tofu in this marinade and serve over noodles. But now that I could change the texture of the tofu, I thought they'd make a good taco filling.
After I'd developed the recipe and was ready to photograph it for the blog, I asked my sister to come over to be my hand model for step-by-step photos and then eat lunch with me. No stranger to tofu herself, she, too, fell in love with this method.
This recipe might seem like a lot of work, but if you break it down and follow it as I've written it, it's not overwhelming at all.
While the tofu is weighted down, prep the veggies. When the tofu goes into the oven the first time, saute the veggies and make the marinade.
Once the tofu is golden and crispy, toss it into the marinade for 5 minutes, then put it back into the oven to caramelize. You now have just enough time to clean up and set the table. Ten minutes later, it's taco time!
This taco is a healthy yet satisfying meatless meal. I love to serve the tofu wrapped in freshly made homemade corn tortillas, but you can use store-bought corn tortillas, whole wheat or even low-carb tortillas for an even healthier bite.
If you prefer to avoid grains altogether, this spicy peanut tofu is equally delicious served on a bed of scrambled eggs.
SPICY PEANUT TOFU TACOS
This recipe calls for sprouted tofu, which is made from sprouted soybeans, making it more easily digestible than regular tofu. It's also higher in protein, calcium, iron and good fats (high in omega-3) and lower in carbohydrates. My favorite is Trader Joe's Organic Extra Firm Sprouted Tofu.
Makes 5 servings (two tacos per serving)
FOR THE TOFU
15.5-ounce package of Trader Joe's Organic Extra Firm Sprouted Tofu (or your favorite extra firm tofu)
FOR THE TOPPING
5 large leaves red chard
1/2 medium red onion
3 large radishes
1 1/2 teaspoons olive oil
1 teaspoon of rice vinegar
pinch ground black pepper, or taste
FOR THE PEANUT SAUCE
1/4 cup sesame oil
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon smooth peanut butter, preferably unsalted natural with no added sugar
1/4 cup low sodium soy sauce
1 garlic clove, pressed or finely minced
1/2 teaspoon finely minced fresh ginger
3 teaspoons chili paste such as gochujang, sambal or harissa
1/4 cup water
10 corn tortillas
Cut tofu into 1/2-inch slices; place onto a towel-lined large plate or rimmed baking sheet and cover with a second towel. Place a second baking sheet or plate on top of the tofu and weigh it down with several heavy cans evenly spaced. Press the tofu for 30 minutes.
Prepare the vegetables while you wait for the tofu. First, begin by removing and chopping the stems from the chard; rinse chopped stems, drain and set aside. Slice the leaves in half lengthwise, then slice each half lengthwise again. Stack the slices, chop into bite-sized pieces, then place them into a large bowl of cold water, swooshing leaves around to remove any dirt. Drain the chard, then pat dry with paper towels or use a salad spinner to dry; set aside. Thinly slice radishes; set aside. Thinly slice onions; set aside.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Spray a rimmed baking sheet with cooking spray. Remove weight from tofu. Cut tofu into bite-size pieces and place them on the baking sheet, making sure the pieces don't touch each other. Bake for 10 minutes; remove from oven, flip tofu and bake an additional 10 minutes.
Make the peanut sauce by combining all the sauce ingredients into a medium-size bowl and whisking to create a smooth marinade; set aside.
Set a saute pan on medium-high heat; drizzle olive oil into the heated pan. Toss in the chard stems and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Stir in the onion and radishes; cook until tender, 1-2 minutes longer. Add the chard leaves, stirring until leaves begin to wilt. Splash the rice vinegar over the vegetables, tossing to incorporate _ season with a pinch of black pepper, or to taste; set aside.
Remove baked tofu from oven; toss into the bowl of marinade, and let it sit for 5 minutes. Generously spray the same baking sheet with more cooking spray. Use a slotted spoon to add the tofu to the pan in a single layer, reserving the leftover marinade. Bake the tofu until it starts to caramelize, about 10-15 minutes.
To assemble tacos, place two tablespoons of the spicy tofu on a warm tortilla. Drizzle a bit of the reserved peanut sauce over the tofu, if desired, then top with the veggies and serve immediately.