Tofu, or bean curd, used to be found only in the kitchens of Oriental cooks, vegetarians and people who liked offbeat food. Now this mainstay of Chinese and Japanese cuisines is becoming a mainstream American ingredient and is readily available in supermarkets. As a low-fat, cholesterol-free protein that is also a good source of calcium, tofu's nutritional value is outstanding.
Tofu has another great advantage--it's perfect for preparing quick meals. It comes ready to eat and so can be quickly heated for a main course that is needed in a flash. In fact, it can be served even without being heated.
The smooth, appealing texture of tofu inspired some to call it "vegetarian foie gras," although, unlike foie gras, it is light and lean. On its own, tofu is bland and tastes best in well-seasoned dishes. Like pasta and rice, tofu absorbs the flavors of the ingredients that are mixed with it.
Classic Chinese recipes for using tofu can be complicated, but my husband and I like to use it in simple, though often untraditional ways. Usually we cut it into cubes and add it to familiar soups or sauces toward the end of their cooking time, so the tofu cooks just long enough to heat through and soak up flavor from the seasonings.
Although tofu is a terrific base for meatless main courses, it is also delicious in dishes that contain meat. We love it in spicy Middle Eastern meat-and-vegetable soups and in light Chinese or Thai soups with Oriental vegetables and rice noodles or bean threads. It's excellent in minestrone-style soups and in clear chicken soup, along with a handful of spinach leaves and a sprinkling of green onions. We enjoy the pleasing texture it contributes to the soups and appreciate that the satisfying protein enables us to eat less meat without missing it.
For a vegetarian entree, we like to heat diced tofu in tomato sauce with mushrooms and plenty of herbs and serve it as a spaghetti sauce over pasta. Another favorite of ours is a quick Mediterranean-style eggplant and tofu stew with garlic and peppers, accompanied by rice.
In many supermarkets, tofu is now available in three forms: soft, regular and firm; some brands come as extra-firm. Fresh tofu comes in liquid in a plastic container and keeps about a week or until the date on the package. It keeps best if the liquid is drained and the tofu is covered with fresh water every day. Pasteurized tofu, a relatively new product, does not need this treatment and has a much longer shelf life, but many people prefer fresh tofu's more delicate taste.
For heating in sauces or soups, regular or firm tofu is better than soft tofu, which tends to fall apart when diced. It is used instead for making dips, dressings and even desserts. Even firm tofu should be stirred as little as possible, so it keeps its shape and texture.
Tofu is a good addition to Mediterranean-style vegetable dishes, like this light, easy garlic-scented eggplant - pepper - and - tomato stew. Sometimes, I finish the stew with a dash of Mexican salsa verde or a sprinkling of grated Parmesan cheese. Serve it with rice or pasta, and with a green salad or a salad of diced cucumbers, radishes, tomatoes and red onion.
EGGPLANT-AND-TOFU CASSEROLE WITH TOMATOES AND GARLIC
1 (1- to 1 1/4-pound) medium eggplant, unpeeled
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 large cloves garlic, chopped
1 small sweet red pepper, diced
Freshly ground pepper
1 (28-ounce) can plum tomatoes, drained (juice reserved), coarsely chopped
1/4 teaspoon crushed hot red pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons dried leaf thyme, crumbled
1 (14-ounce) package regular or firm tofu
2 tablespoons chopped green onions, cilantro or Italian parsley
Cut eggplant into 3/4-inch cubes. Heat olive oil in heavy, wide casserole over medium heat. Stir in garlic and immediately add eggplant and sweet red pepper. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Saute, stirring, about 3 minutes. Add tomatoes, crushed hot pepper and 1 teaspoon thyme. Bring to boil. Cover and simmer over low heat, stirring often, about 20 minutes or until eggplant is tender. If stew is too thick, add 1 tablespoon reserved tomato juice.
Thoroughly drain liquid from tofu. Cut tofu into 3/4-inch cubes and add to casserole. Spoon some sauce over tofu cubes. Season to taste with salt, pepper and remaining 1/2 teaspoon thyme. Cover and heat gently, without stirring, about 3 minutes. Adjust seasonings to taste. Serve sprinkled with chopped green onions. Makes 4 servings.
Each serving contains about:
284 calories; 417 mg sodium; 0 mg cholesterol; 16 grams fat; 23 grams carbohydrates; 19 grams protein; 2.5 grams fiber; 51% calories from fat.