I like to eat meat, but just not in large quantities. I’m a low-meat eater, having grown up in a household where animal protein was never presented at the table in the form of entire roasts or birds. No Normal Rockwell images at the holidays. Food was offered in bite size pieces to (1) make it easier to pick up with chopsticks and (2) feed our family of seven on a budget. We consumed a lot of vegetables via canh (soups), lettuce and raw herbs, stir-fries, and noodle dishes. We regularly ate tofu too, usually seasoned with fish sauce and/or cooked with meat in various Vietnamese preparations. Yes, you can have your meat and eat tofu too!
I didn’t know of vegetarian tofu scrambles, tofu steaks, and tofu blanketed by cheese sauce until I moved to Santa Cruz, California, in the late 1990s. A bastion for natural living, there were and still is a vegetarian restaurant named Dharma’s. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the Hindquarter Bar and Grille, whose motto is: “where the elite meat.”
I live and eat between those extremes and tofu plays a key role. If you want to consume less animal protein and/or save money, you don’t have to forgo meat altogether. Having tofu in your diet is not about deprivation, or some kind of monk-like existence. Without sacrificing flavor and with a little help from tofu, you can turn many meat-filled dishes (e.g., stews, curries, stir-fries, dumpling filling, meatballs and meatloaf – not roast beef) into low-meat ones. Here are some ideas:
Don’t go whole hog by replacing all the animal protein in a recipe with tofu. Keep some real meat flavor for the tofu to absorb and carry along. Try replacing a third or half of the meat with tofu. The idea is to extend the natural meat flavor with tofu, not replace the meat flavor with tofu.
Think of tofu as meat by choosing a texture like firm or extra firm tofu, which has a certain rich tenderness (think of it as the tofu equivalent of chicken thigh and pork shoulder) that allows it to be receptive to the flavor of surrounding ingredients. Super-firm tofu, which has its practical uses, is super dense like overcooked chicken breast and pork loin so I prefer to not use it when partially replacing meat in recipes; it does not quickly absorb flavors because the curds are super compacted.
Use a little more tofu than the protein you’re replacing because tofu has water. For example, in a spicy Thai basil chicken recipe, I replaced 8 ounces (240 grams) of chicken thigh with 10 ounces (300 grams) of tofu. After draining and panfrying, there was a net amount of tofu that weighed around 8 ounces. (Get the spicy basil chicken and tofu recipe here.)
Prep the tofu an appropriate size. If you’re replacing some ground meat with tofu, squeeze the tofu in muslin to remove some of its water and crush it a bit; finish by mashing with a fork. For stir-fries and stews, cut the tofu into pieces that best match size of the meat pieces in the recipe.
Salt and fry tofu if you’re going to add it to a stir-fry or saucy, stewed dish. We often season meat before cooking it so why not do the same with tofu too? I like to soak tofu in salted water but in a pinch, you can sprinkle salt on pre-cut tofu, just go lightly. Then, either sear, panfry or deep-fry the tofu to give it texture and extra flavor – more character! Again, think of what you do with meat when you cook it. Tofu can take a similar kind of treatment.
Add tofu in the middle or toward the end of the cooking process. Partially or fully cook the meat before adding the prepped tofu. For the spicy basil chicken and tofu stir-fry, I added the tofu after the chicken was nearly cooked (the photo at the top of the post) to enable the tofu to blend with the chicken well. Tofu is an unusual protein because it’s already “cooked” and ready to eat. Let the animal protein catch up with the doneness of tofu before adding the tofu!
Imbue tofu with sauce or liquid seasonings. Tofu has its own delicate umami but it needs to soak up other flavors to shine. Once tofu is seared, panfried or deep-fried, the pieces are like a damp sponge with pores that are ready to absorb flavor. Let it sit in your sauce or allow it to simmer with the liquid seasoning sauce (if needed, boost the seasonings by a smidgen and add a tablespoon or so of water so there’s something for tofu to soak).
Give tofu the chance to pick up on the flavors of meat and other ingredients in your recipe and you won’t regret it.
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