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Not just for vegans: How to rock your tofu with cheese, eggs - and even meat

By: Kristen Hartke The Washington Post
June 12, 2018 Updated: June 12, 2018 at 9:31 am
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Stacked Deli Sandwiches With Seared Tofu. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post.

The trouble with tofu, for some Western eaters, is that you can't dip it in nacho cheese sauce.

Or can you?

Even as people have become accustomed to drinking soy milk lattes, many see tofu - which is simply coagulated soy milk - as a weirdo ingredient limited to vegans or championed by Hippies Without Tastebuds.

In Western cuisine, tofu is not only viewed with skepticism, but also tends to be practically nonexistent. Rebranding it as "bean curd" hasn't helped either. For some, the ick factor surrounding tofu is almost equivalent to their aversion to edible insects, though many cultures around the world happily devour both as reliable sources of protein. But once we look at tofu as a protein that can be married with many other "typical" American ingredients, including cheese, eggs and, yes, bacon, then there is no excuse not to give tofu pride of place on the plate.

Growing up, my consumption of tofu generally came in the form of small bits floating in a bowl of hot-and-sour soup at the local Chinese restaurant, or glorious deep-fried puffs made by my friend Caroline's Vietnamese mother after school, which we dunked, scalding hot, in fish sauce. For many years, I thought of tofu only as an Asian ingredient, rather than another protein source that could be part of my everyday kitchen, no matter what cuisine was on the menu.

But then I came across a pasta recipe in the classic cookbook "From a Monastery Kitchen" that incorporated tofu and Parmesan. It had never occurred to me to pair tofu with cheese. As with seafood, they don't seem to belong on the same plate. But adding a sprinke of freshly grated Parmesan to enhance tofu's subtle nuttiness can be a real game-changer, even for avowed tofu-haters.

Over the years, my updated version of that recipe, linguine with broccoli and tofu, has become a favorite of my vegetarian family, and my omnivore friends love it, too.

For those who want to increase their intake of healthy, plant-based proteins without giving up eggs, cheese and meat, creatively combining tofu with familiar ingredients can be a painless, tasty way to take a more flexitarian approach. Extra-firm tofu can be easily crumbled into ground beef for hamburgers or thinly sliced and layered with Gruyere for a new take on a croque monsieur. Some might say it's the cheese or meat that makes the tofu bearable, but why not?

"There are ways you can use tofu that are more familiar to Western palates," says longtime vegetarian cookbook author Crescent Dragonwagon. "There's no reason you can't mix it up."

For Dragonwagon, that might mean blending firm tofu with Neufchatel cheese for a creamy enchilada filling, or layering it with eggy crepes. The trick is in understanding that all tofu is not created equal.

"Different kinds of tofu are as different as different cuts of meat," Dragonwagon says.

Waterpacked firm tofu can be a marvel of versatility, whether marinated, grilled, baked, fried or pureed.

Because tofu is naturally mild, it takes well to marinades and is easily reimagined in dishes traditionally made with chicken or even pork. Cut firm tofu into wedges and soak in tangy buttermilk before flouring, frying and slathering in a spicy buffalo wing sauce, served with a creamy dill-flecked blue cheese dressing on the side. Marinate slices in Tabasco-and-honey-spiked soy sauce, then broil and top with a poached egg for Sunday brunch. Toss chilled tofu cubes with lemon juice and cracked black pepper to accompany bacon, hard-boiled eggs and avocado in a twist on a traditional Cobb salad.

Silken tofu, the shelf-stable product found in aseptic packaging, is the perfect base for a rich chocolate mousse or savory, egg-free mayonnaise. It is easily adapted for use in cheesecake and pudding recipes, providing a lighter take on creamy desserts that can be a godsend for anyone with a sweet tooth who wants to have his cake and eat it, too, but with fewer calories, less fat and more protein.

Dragonwagon blends silken tofu with coconut oil, almond butter and melted semisweet chocolate chips for a luscious mousse that can be topped with dairy or nondairy whipped cream, saying, "I've served it to people who thought they'd never be able to enjoy a dessert like that again, and they literally had tears of gratitude."

If you still find tofu intimidating, look to commercial tofu makers for advice, says Kala Patel, vice president of marketing for Sunrise Soya Foods, Canada's largest tofu manufacturer.

"We're focused on educating customers on how to use tofu in their everyday recipes," she says. "For new users who aren't Asian, they may think of tofu as used mostly in Asian stir-fries and soups, but those might not be recipes they typically cook at home. Now we're seeing them take their favorite dishes and just substitute tofu for certain ingredients."

It's no surprise, then, that one of the most popular recipes on Sunrise Soya's website is tofu Parmigiana, a reimagining of the classic chicken-based dish in which slices of extra-firm tofu are marinated overnight in pesto, dipped in an egg batter and coated with seasoned breadcrumbs before being fried, then baked with tomato sauce and Parmesan.

"I think these kinds of recipes show that you don't have to be vegan or vegetarian to enjoy a plant-based protein," Patel says. "People are interested in making small changes that contribute to a healthier lifestyle, or help stretch their grocery budget. They can add firm tofu to ground beef for a lasagna, or throw soft tofu instead of yogurt into the blender for a smoothie. There are no rules."

So pile that tofu high, Dagwood-style, onto your favorite deli sandwich. Wrap it in bacon, as the Japanese do, or whip it into a rummy piña colada. Splash it with Sriracha, coat it in cheddar, barbecue it on a bun.

As for dipping it in nacho cheese sauce? Don't mind if I do.

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