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Today let's take a look at tofu, another of those foods that many of us have to learn to love.

It usually goes by its Asian name (sometimes rendered "Dofu" or "Dou Fu" on Chinese restaurant menus) because the most common English translation - "bean curd" - seems less than appealing.

It's white, it's soft, its natural flavor is delicate at best: On first encounter most people find it, well, not exactly unappetizing but simply bland. But therein lies the happy secret of tofu: It so readily absorbs the flavors of whatever it's cooked in or with, it's the culinary equivalent of a painter's canvas awaiting a picture.

Healthy, digestible and high in protein, tofu is to the soybean as cream cheese is to the cow: It's made by curdling soy "milk" with a natural coagulant, then draining off the liquid to yield a soft, silken white mass that looks and even tastes somewhat like a simple farmer cheese (Indian "paneer," for example, or simple yogurt "cheese").

As versatile as, say, potatoes in Western fare, Tofu can be simmered, broiled, fried, grilled, eaten raw ... frozen, thawed, pressed, dried, fermented, marinated, flavored ... I can't think of a cooking technique that wouldn't work for tofu, other than maybe trying to brown a slice in your pop-up toaster.

Not too long ago, tofuficionadoes had to seek it out in Asian markets, and this wasn't always easy. I remember bringing some home from trips to Chicago or New York City (along with bagels and other exotica) as recently as the early '80s. Nowadays, though, it's available in just about every supermarket, packed like factory-made mozzarella in liquid in plastic tubs.

You'll find a lot of simple, Western-style recipes that use tofu as a substitute for meat in vegetarian fare. Many of these, such as a tofu salad that involves marinating chunks of tofu in bottled salad dressing - don't particularly appeal to me. When I'm in the mood for tofu, I like to go back to its roots and use it in Asian dishes; it's a staple of the diet from China to Japan and around Southeast Asia from Vietnam to Thailand and beyond.

Today's dish features a recipe that I'll call "Chinese" in quotes because it's not authentic and doesn't come from a cookbook. It illustrates a standard procedure that I use when I'm in the mood for something Chinese in style that takes advantage of whatever I have in the refrigerator: A protein source - tofu, in this case - plus vegetables for stir-frying and a seasoning mix.

The important thing to remember in stir-fry cookery is to get all your ingredients measured, cut to size and organized, so everything is at hand once you're ready to fire the wok and cook.

INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)

1/2 block (6 to 8 ounces) tofu
1 red bell pepper
1 green bell pepper
1/2 medium white or yellow onion
Garlic, enough to make 1 tablespoon chopped
Fresh ginger, enough to make 1 tablespoon chopped
2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
1 teaspoon Chinese hot bean paste
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon lime juice or rice wine vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup vegetable or chicken broth
1 teaspoon cornstarch
Vegetable or peanut oil for stir-frying
Chopped green onions or cilantro for garnish (optional)


1. Pat the tofu dry with paper towels and cut it into 1/2-inch cubes. Half of a standard 14 to 16-ounce block should yield about 24 cubes. (NOTE: Tofu comes in a variety of textures, from soft - sometimes sold as "silken" - to extra firm. I like to use firm or extra-firm for stir-frying.)

2. Cut the bell peppers into 1/2-inch squares. Cut the onion into rough squares of similar size: Cut it in 1/2-inch thick slices, then cut each slice into wedges and break the layers apart.

3. Peel and mince the garlic and ginger and mix them into the next five ingredients. Measure out the broth. Mix the cornstarch into a slurry with a little water.

4. Now you're ready to cook. For the simplest preparation, heat a wok, skillet or saute pan until very hot, then drizzle in 1 or 2 tablespoons oil. When the oil is sizzling over high heat, put in the onions and bell peppers, and stir-fry for a few minutes until the vegetables are hot but still crisp-tender. Turn the heat down to medium, put in the seasoning mix and continue stir-frying until the vegetables are well coated. Stir in the broth and add the tofu cubes. Simmer for a moment or two, then thicken with the cornstarch mix. Put in a serving bowl, garnish with the chopped green onions or cilantro, and serve.

VARIATION 1: To add textural interest, consider sauteeing the tofu first. Put a little vegetable oil or peanut oil in a nonstick sautee pan and heat it with a smashed garlic clove and "coin" of fresh ginger until the oil is sizzling and the vegetables aromatic. Put in the tofu cubes and sautee over medium-high heat, turning them gently on occasion, until they're golden and crisp on all sides. Then add to the stir-fry as above.

VARIATION 2: For more flavor, marinate the tofu in a seasoning mix before use. The combination of ingredients in today's seasoning mix would be one good approach, but remember that tofu easily takes up flavors, and just about any marinade that appeals to you will work. After marinating the tofu for 30 minutes to two hours, you can sautee it as in Variation 1, or use it directly in the dish.

VARIATION 3: Try other stir-fry vegetables in place of the green peppers. Chinese cabbage, for instance. Or broccoli. Or, of course, substitute poultry, seafood or meat for the tofu!

WINE MATCH: Tofu alone is neutral enough to work, if not to shine, with just about any wine, but consider the sauce flavors and other ingredients in making your match. Gewurztraminer is the cliche choice with Asian fare, but I find that Riesling often works better, especially with spicy dishes. I matched the dish above with a forgettable California Chenin Blanc (and wished it had been a Vouvray). A similar dish another night, featuring tofu with a spicy hoisin marinade and stir-fried fresh spinach, worked quite well with a Greek white, Santo 2000 Santorini Asyrtico.

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Thursday, March 27, 2003
Copyright 2002 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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