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Learning to Love Tofu

September 26, 1996|MARGARET SHERIDAN

When Mary Felando needed recipes to demonstrate tofu in a cooking class six years ago, she came up short.

She combed cookbooks, especially vegetarian cookbooks from the '70s. But recipes from "Laurel's Kitchen" and the like didn't work for her class.

"They were too rich," says Felando, a registered dietitian, who runs an outpatient program on diet and exercise for former cardiac patients. "The recipes would call for ingredients such as cheese, sour cream or eggs. That hearty style of cooking just didn't work for our California style of eating. Or for our medical purposes."

Felando decided to devise her own recipes that showed off tofu in salads, desserts, casseroles and soups. "The recipes had to be very good," she says, "because the students had critical palates. It was their past eating habits--rich, high-fat foods--that got them to me in the first place."

Six years later, many of her students from Cedars-Sinai Preventive and Rehabilitative Cardiac Center hold recipe competitions. They have devised interesting ways to please both their palates and their cardiologist, Felando says.

Finding great-tasting tofu recipes is easier these days. National publishers have tapped a niche. Three writers have finished or are finishing books on soy cookery--Dana Jacobi in New York and Marie Oser and Patricia Greenberg in Los Angeles.

Jacobi was also selected to write and develop tofu recipes for the revision of the beloved 65-year-old American classic "Joy of Cooking," to be published next year by Simon & Schuster.

"We're treating tofu as more mainstream," says "Joy" Project Editor Maria Guarnaschelli. "It won't have its own chapter, but tofu will be included with about 20 recipes in the chapter on beans and legumes."

The 1974 edition of "Joy" included a discussion of soy and how to make tofu, because, Guarnaschelli says, co-author Marion Rombauer Becker was "into health food."

Changing people's minds about tofu takes imagination, says Jacobi, whose "The Natural Kitchen: Soy!" (Prima Publishing; $14) is due out in October.

Jacobi was raised a vegetarian and has eaten soy products most of her life. She is also trained in European cuisines and during the '80s worked as a caterer in Manhattan.

She used to play a tofu game with her clients. She'd make some dishes--the chicken casserole with pears, the New York-style cheesecake, cocktail dips--with tofu, just to see whether they or their guests could detect a difference.

"Usually, when people like something, they tell me," Jacobi says. "When they'd ask about the recipe, they never believed tofu was an ingredient."

Cookbooks and vegetarian food magazines have used tofu for years, but Jacobi was unimpressed with the recipes. "It was earnest hippie food," she says. "The writers had morals, but the recipes had no taste. They were rich and heavy. Tofu became associated with bad taste. It was unfair."

Patricia Greenberg has taught cooking classes in Los Angeles for 15 years. The questions she used to hear five years ago--what is tofu? what do you do with it?--are changing, she says. Students are now more familiar with tofu and want ways to use it in Western-style cooking.

A younger generation of chefs has closed the information gap. "They grew up in the '80s eating Asian foods," Greenberg says. "They're not afraid to play with it."

And not just with straight tofu. Cooks inspired by today's range of tofu and soy-based products: deli "meats," tofu sausage, soy yogurt, tempeh, salad dressings, marinated ready-to-eat salads, spreads and dips with tofu, Italian and Mexican seasoning packets designed for tofu. There's even hickory-smoked tofu.

Greenberg makes a paella with chorizo-style tofu sausage. Jacobi uses bacon-flavored tempeh in red flannel hash and includes hickory-flavored tempeh in her wild rice salad with pecans. In her cheesecake, she combines soft tofu with tofu cream cheese.

Marie Oser is another fan of soft tofu. When she was creating recipes for a book on low-fat desserts, the Los Angeles-based food writer used it as a replacement for sour cream. Her research into soy spawned a second cookbook, the just-released "Soy of Cooking" (Chronimed Publishing; $15.95). Her recipes are a far cry from '70s tofu cuisine. She makes mushroom pa^te, frozen fudge cheesecake, Alfredo sauce for pasta and a filling for pumpkin ravioli.

All three authors believe the time is right for the mainstreaming of tofu. In the '70s, Jacobi believes, most cooks and diners weren't ready for tofu.

"We needed the Asian cuisine explosion in the '80s to prepare for tofu," Jacobi says. "In order to learn how to cook Chinese, Japanese or Thai food, cooks had to learn how to handle herbs, chiles and spices, and how to handle ingredients in order to change textures and flavors. That's basically how you work with tofu."

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