Last week, chickpeas were in the No-Cook Cooking spotlight as an easy, flexible source of meat-free protein. This week, we’ll explore the versatility of tofu.

One thing No-Cook Cooking cooks have learned during the COVID-19 pandemic is that even shortages can have unexpected silver linings. While the meats on the first draft of your shopping list can seem hit or miss these days — and expensive when they do make an appearance — the pandemic is serving up opportunities for discoveries.

Tofu, a solid but silky paste made from soybeans, can step in for meat in many recipes — or stand on its own simply because you like it. The humble bean curd is far more than a second-banana meat substitute.

Tofu contains all nine essential amino acids, making it a valuable source of plant-based protein. It also packs calcium and iron, not to mention manganese, phosphorus, magnesium, copper and zinc.

If misconceptions have kept you away, now is a great time to set them aside. If you like starting a meal of Chinese cuisine with hot-and-sour soup, you’ve been eating and enjoying tofu all along. And, depending on where you’re from, if you grew up during the low-fat craze of the 1970s and ’80s ordering hamburgers in your public school cafeteria line, there’s a very good chance you packed away quite a bit of soy-protein goodness without even realizing it.

I’ve heard friends complain that tofu “doesn’t have any taste.” I disagree, because I like its subtle flavor, but my usual response is that its less assertive presence makes it the perfect culinary canvas.

If you have been following cauliflower’s recent moment as a playground for all kinds of wild-to-mild spice profiles, you may find tofu to be an equally versatile staple in the No-Cook Cooking kitchen.

Your favorite sauces — the ones you savor on chicken or beef — will taste just as good on tofu. If you enjoy General Tso’s chicken, for instance, try ordering General Tso’s tofu next time. If you have experimented at home with sriracha and orange marmalade as the basis of a sauce for orange chicken, you’ll probably like it stir-fried with tofu, which gets delightfully golden and crispy edges in the wok but stays soothingly creamy inside. If you enjoy brushing grilled salmon with pineapple juice and brown sugar, try that combination on stir-fried tofu.

Many of today’s younger foodies have grown up in an era when grocery cases always had boneless, skinless chicken breasts and lean meats were served every night, so they may not remember a time when meat often needed to be “stretched.” If you ever hear your grandmother talk about cooking casseroles and skillet meals in the 1970s, don’t wrinkle your nose. Meat was such a disproportionately expensive chunk of her grocery budget, especially during recessions, that picking up a bigger package of ground beef just for one meal’s richer spaghetti sauce or some extra on-sale chicken to pop in the freezer often wasn’t an option.

Her wisdom is just as valuable today, especially during the pandemic. Just as she’d chop up some mushrooms to help stretch a pound of beef to feed six people instead of four, or to make sure there were enough leftovers for another meal, you can chop up tofu and mushrooms today. Tofu and mushrooms are a reliable combination, and they both play well with beef. Have fun experimenting with a pan of lasagna or a pot of chili to see how richly the three flavors enhance each other, and don’t be surprised if at least one person at the dinner table has no idea the tofu is even in there.

Tofu comes in a range of textures, from firm and extra-firm choices that make sturdy slices and cubes to varieties soft and luscious enough for desserts. Silken tofu’s texture may remind you of the cheesecake you keep turning down on your diet, and you’ll find plenty of vegan recipes online using it in chocolate mousse, lemon squares, and all kinds of fruity, silky pies, including “cheesecake.” If you’ve been skipping desserts, the lower-fat nutritional profiles may make it possible for you to indulge more often.

Silken tofu is a secret weapon for providing creamy textures without cream — but without sacrificing calcium in the process. Silken tofu is great in dips, and if you’ve been looking for alternatives to higher-fat dairy products, such as cream cheese, your favorite creamy dip might be just the recipe for your next experiment. Picture your favorite spinach, ranch or French onion dip with less fat but more substance — and dig in.

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