Friday, 24 May 2013

Baking & Frying Tofu, Part 2 of: "Treat Me Right", The Tofu Story (with recipe!)

Welcome to Part 2 of our exploration of tofu and what to do with it. Hopefully you're been following along (come on guys, there's only one other part to read), but in case you haven't, the PREVIOUS episode concerned why people say they don't like tofu, the types of tofu and my tofu buying recommendations. If you haven't read it, you may want to give it a quick glance-over (or even a slow, considered read, followed by thoughtful comments and thanks) before starting here. Otherwise, if you've already read it or, like me, HATE reading instruction manuals, dive on in!

Without a doubt, one of the easiest things to do with tofu is to just season and bake it. Isn't that the easiest way to prepare anything?

Though you can technically bake any tofu, baking tofu is essentially "quick marinating" it: rather than leaving it in the fridge overnight or for a few days, you chuck it in the oven and all the molecules get all excited and jump around and... yeah, I'm not a scientist. Anyway, as such, it is best to use firm (or harder) tofu for baking tofu, as anything softer than that won't soak up (and hold) the marinade.

Rather than attempting my own recipe, I am deferring to Dreena Burton, whose Cumin Lime Tofu (from her third book, "eat, drink and be vegan" (which is actually my Mum's all-time favourite cookbook ever)) is one of my favourite dishes.

I will admit that I was very skeptical when I first read Dreena's recipe for this: "won't it taste like tofu? Won't it be soggy?"

Oh me of little faith.

It's essentially a matter of making the marinade in the baking dish, mixing it up, coating the tofu (which doesn't even have to be pressed!), and baking it. If you're still not quite accustomed to tofu (though the rather bold marinade does disguise it somewhat), use a good quality tofu to ensure that there's as little taste as possible (and what taste there is is delicious!). This is also a good one for making a large batch of and then storing the leftovers in the fridge for lunch or throwing in a stirfry or salad the next day.

The slices; covered in marinade; after the first 15 minutes; and DONE!

Cumin-Lime Tofu
This is another very simple tofu dish that yields bold, baked-in flavors. The lime juice, cumin, and touch of cayenne are in every bite, and the addition of pumpkin seeds adds just the right amount of crunch.

Makes 4 servings, about 24 squares.

1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
1 1/2 -2 tbsp agave syrup
1 1/2 tbsp tamari
3/4 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp curry powder
1/8 tsp allspice
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp sea salt
1 1/2 tbsp olive oil
1 pkg (12 oz/350g) firm or extra firm tofu, cut in half lengthwise then sliced into 1/4 - 1/2 inch thick squares, and patted to remove excess moisture 
2-3 tbsp raw or pre-roasted pumpkin seeds (or pistachios, lightly chopped)

Preheat oven to 375 F/190 C. In an 8 x 12 baking dish, combine all ingredients except tofu and pumpkin seeds stir to mix well. Add tofu and turn to coat each side.  Cover with aluminum foil and bake for 15 minutes. Remove from oven, turn tofu slices, sprinkle on pumpkin seeds and return to oven to bake for another 13-15 minutes, until tofu has soaked up most of the marinade. Serve warm, pouring any remaining marinade/spices over tofu.

I made this the other night and had it in a wrap with sauteed broccoli, homemade salsa, and a tart cashew & pepita cream. It was super delicious. Otherwise, you can just have it on sandwiches, with a side of veggies for dinner, chopped up and fried up with other veggies for breakfast, etc etc. If you don't eat it all in one go, wait until it's cooled then put it in a container and store in the fridge for a day or two. It becomes a little tough in the fridge, but it's still super tasty.

Fried Tofu
The other very simple way of preparing tofu is to simply fry it. You also don't need to press it for this because the heat of the pan will dry out the tofu. If you have fresh tofu, it will often crisp up by itself, but I love to coat the slices in cornstarch (just put the slices in a bowl, add cornstarch, and toss to coat), which gives them a lovely, crispy coating.

The sliced tofu (use a larger bowl, srsly); with cornstarch; beginning to fry, and fried!

Simply cut the tofu up (I'd recommend quite thin slices, around half a centimetre), give it a bit of a dab to dry it slightly, heat up a little oil (enough to lightly grease the bottom of the pan, or add about 1mm if you've coated it with cornstarch, so the thin edges are cooked) in a frying pan, and then add in the slices. Fry until browned on one side and then flip. This is great to do before adding the tofu to curries or satays, because it holds its shape and adds something chewy and crispy to the mix. Or, just coat with teriyaki sauce and enjoy!

The Urban Vegan also has instructions for dry-frying tofu, which is completely oil- and added-fat-free (but does require pressing), which you can find here. I will discuss pressing in the next part of this series.

And the journey continues! But not for another week or so. See you then.

I'll tag all of these posts "thetofustory", so if you want to see all of them together, just click on that label.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Vegan Tasting Menu and Mondo Organics, West End

I'm very suspicious of fine dining. Yes, we've had some amazing experiences, but just as often we have been met with disappointment. Thankfully, over the last couple of years, we have seen not only a broader number of restaurants show greater willingness to provide veg options in their restaurants, but also a number of restaurants and cafes (especially the latter) adding veg options to their standard menu (hurrah for not having to phone ahead!)

It's early days yet, though, and fine dining in Brisbane is still finding its way with veg food: we have never been told "No, we don't serve vegans" (as if we're some sort of disease-ridden sub-citizens), but sometimes... we wish they had. We have actually spent a little too much money trying to get vegan options on menus and to get chefs to experiment with them, and I really hope that comes back to us one day in the form of a massive benevolent wombat who bestows psychic gifts upon us and grants us a Free 1 Million Year Frolicking Pass in his Giant Acreage In The Sky (vegans: you owe us).

But until then...

After the fantastic Good Food Guide 2013 launch (ok, the next evening, after the alcohol had worn off), I was reading through the guide and noticed a "top 5 veg eats" section, and decided it would be good to put this to the test. We'd already been to three of the restaurants (though we'll certainly go back and reassess them), so we decided to start with one we'd never been to: Mondo Organics in West End. I sent an email asking if they'd be able to do a vegan tasting menu (they have an omni tasting menu as part of their regular menu), and was told that, if I could give a few days notice on my booking, we most certainly could.

We picked a Sunday, and decided to have a leisurely lunch (Matt was, after Sarah's birthday drinks, thankfully hungover, and as such was happy to be propped in a corner and just enjoy the various dishes as they came to our table).

Mondo Organics comes across as a yuppified wooden shack at the quiet end of West End: worn wooden slats cross over windows meet earth-toned, rendered walls; natural light shines through the gaps, illuminating your meal; all the while, a gentle stone fountain bubbles in the corner. Far from the hustle and bustle of Boundary Street, the only sounds are the occasional rumble of a bus, and the raucous laughter of fellow diners (which only appears about an hour into lunch, as the wine bottles slowly empty...).

We arrived a little later than we'd planned and found the restaurant empty: we were calmly directed to our table and waited for the meal to begin. I always associate dining with rush: "Quick, our booking is for 12 and it's already 11:50!"; quickly making your way through a restaurant to your table and hurriedly placing your order; fighting for the attention of the waitstaff with that much louder table opposite. Not at Mondo. It's difficult to tell whether it was the day or the fact that we were alone in the restaurant until our second course arrived, but I felt absolutely serene.

The waiter serving us was a little shy to begin with, but halfway into our second course offered us each a glass of Muscato (which she said always helped her when she had a hangover, with which Matt was suffering (though gladly sitting!)) and was extremely polite and helpful. With each course, she described the dish without hesitation, and answered any questions we had (we didn't have many).

Vegan tasting menu at Mondo Organics (courses in chronological order, L-R, from top left)
Our menu began with a caponata of eggplant, pine nuts, and capsicum, served on bread toasted in olive oil. Wonderful simple flavours, elegantly presented. The second course was a salad of heirloom tomatoes, frisse and fennel. The fennel was lovely, as were the tomatoes, but ultimately it was a salad, and was very quickly forgotten.

The third course, and without a doubt the favourite of us both, was confit endive, cauliflower and mushroom. I ate all the cauliflower first (one of my least favourite vegetables, though not unpleasant in this dish), and then took my first bite of one of the mushrooms: gorgeous, buttery, just a little bit sweet. I was in love, until it was surpassed by the endive: crisp on the edges, delicate at the centre, and perfectly seasoned. I think we both stopped after our first bite and look at each other in awe, savouring the delicate taste as it lingered on our palettes. And then, of course, I ate the rest all too quickly and, sadly, it was gone (though I cast a furtive look around and quickly scraped the bowl with my finger to get every last drop of the juices!)

The fourth course was Jerusalem artichokes, sauteed potato, zucchini and kale with a salsa verde. This was one of the few times where I was disappointed that I'd saved so much potato til last: though beautifully crisp on the outside, the centre was bland and quite dry beside the very flavourful dish. The Jerusalem artichoke, on the other hand, was stunning, and I wish there had been more! The kale was also perfectly cooked, and made me realise that as well as being delicious, the dish was also nourishing (hey, we think about these things!).

Finally, and all too soon, we moved onto the dessert courses. The first was a coconut pudding with fresh strawberries, dehydrated strawberries and rhubarb. I have only had rhubarb one other time (also in a dessert, albeit pureed), and unfortunately this dish brought home why it is such an unpopular vegetable. I dutifully finished mine (Matt was defeated by his) so I could enjoy the rest of the dish. The coconut pudding was lovely and soft, and slightly sweet, pairing beautifully with the strawberries.

The second dessert course consisted of caramelised bananas with poached quince, a quince jelly (made from the poaching water), and an caramel-almond powder. I found the almond powder a tad bitter, but the lingering taste was wonderfully caramel-y, and worked well with the other elements. The quince jelly was (oddly) my favourite element, though the banana was also moreish.

All in all, despite our disappointment with some elements, our lunch at Mondo was among my favourite meals that I've had in a long time. The calm environment, the slow (but not labouring) progression through the courses; I believe I could've happily sat there and continued the meal for another hour or two. And when we received our bill, we were pleasantly surprised to see we had been charged according to the meal we had received: rather than the $80 for the omni tasting menu (which had 8 courses), we were charged for our 6 course meal ($60 each). Again, I cannot tell you the number of times when we have received a (let's be honest) inferior meal but been charged the price for the omnivore meal. Finally, all the staff who served us were helpful and friendly.

We have heard some mixed reports from other veg people about their experiences with Mondo, but, for us, it was an absolutely wonderful experience, certainly deserving of its recognition in the Good Food Guide. I will happily return in future.

Mondo Organics' regular tasting menu is not vegetarian, so if you are vegetarian or vegan, make sure you let them know when you book (give about 3-5 days notice so they can plan your menu). Their full menu contains a number of vegetarian options, and most dishes are gluten-free, wheat-free and dairy-free, or can be made gluten-, wheat- or dairy-free (vegan items or items that can be made vegan are not marked, so best to ask what will be available when booking). As well as being open for lunch and dinner, they are open for breakfasts on Saturday and Sunday mornings from 8.30 - 11.30am.

Mondo Organics, 166 Hardgrave Road, West End
3844 1132,
Dinner: 6pm-Late (Wed-Saturday); Lunch: 12pm-3pm (Fri-Sun); Breakfast: 8.30-11.30am (Sat & Sun)

1 down, 4 to go! We'll continue to FORCE ourselves to visit these other restaurants for your reading pleasure and culinary edification, so please keep an eye on here, or look at our tag gfg2013top5veg to see all of the posts (and check out the tag on twitter, and we'll endeavour to use it).

Mondo Organics on Urbanspoon

Monday, 6 May 2013

"Treat Me Right", The Tofu Story, Part 1: Introductions

Food dislike seems to have three causes: traumatic experience, genuine dislike, and ignorance.

OH, CONTROVERSIAL. Bringin' out the "i" word.

The first of these is pretty easy to understand. I, for example, do not like raw celery because, when I was much younger (as I'm sure happened to many of us), I tried to eat a celery stick and I bit of a chunk and tried to swallow, but a strand of it kept half of it in my mouth while the other bit started to go down my throat and... well, it wasn't pleasant.

Genuine dislike is that kind of indefinable territory that plagues all arts: "I can appreciate it, but it's just not for me". This is where "personal taste" comes in to play but, unfortunately, it can be very easily mixed up with ignorance (where people play their ignorance disguised as personal taste).

Which brings us to ignorance. This is an extremely broad category, ranging from "I had a vegan biscuit once and it was awful THEREFORE ALL VEGAN FOOD IS BAD (and therefore I live on meat, eggs, milk and nothing else..?)", to "I heard from a friend that their sister-in-law's cousin heard from their husband that his naturopath that him shouldn't eat that because a study conducted on rat livers in 1947 showed that it might be dangerous, so I don't eat it."

Because the latter is about an entirely different sort of ignorance that internet is (sadly) greatly responsible for, I will leave that alone for the moment and focus on the former type of ignorance.

For the sake of sensibility, I'm excluding "universally horrible", in which I'd include dirt and other... dirt-like things, because that's beyond taste (rather like Passion Pop).

I notice that, at a close second to "vegan food", the most common case of food-dislike-ignorance (FDI?) is tofu. The amount of times people say "Oh is there tofu in this? Because I don't eat tofu." (NO IT'S A PIZZA WE DON'T JUST PUT TOFU ON EVERYTHING OH MY GOSH), or "I used tofu in place of pork at home once in the 80s and it was really bland", or "I've never actually eaten tofu, but I hear that vegetarians eat it, and so it must be gross because I hate vegetables lol".

The crazy thing is, tofu is quite possibly one of the most versatile ingredients out there, not only because it comes in so many different forms, but because it is, to a great extent, a protein rich blank canvas on which all manner of flavours can be painted. Furthermore, just as that gross supermarket tempeh pales (ha) in comparison to fresh tempeh, so too supermarket tempeh (having sat on the shelf for goodness knows how long) cannot possible be compared to fresh tofu, with its subtle sweetness and umami richness (and no, you can't just substitute any old cheap tofu and expect it to taste the same).

So, because I'm a vegetarian and therefore I Know What To Do With Tofu, I am here to give you a chance to patch things up with tofu and try again for, if not a friendship, at least a comfortable acquaintance. In order to make this more comprehensive, I will spread it out into a series (oh!) of posts, which will discuss different aspects of tofu usage:
  • Part 1: Introductions, in which I discuss the different types of tofu, and what brands to buy, and where to buy them (you're actually reading this right now)
  • Part 2: Baking & Frying Tofu, in which we discover the absolute easiest ways of preparing tofu
  • Part 3: Freezing, Boiling & Pressing Tofu, in which I explore the magic that happens when you put tofu in the freezer or in a pot of boiling water, and what to do with it once you have a block of frozen/boiled tofu
  • Part 4: Crumbling Tofu, in which the art of crumbling tofu leads to two very different, but equally delicious, preparations
  • Part 5: Some Final Notes On Tofu, in which we explore some other preparations of tofu, discover how to use the "bits" left behind by tofu making (okara), and also briefly explore non-soy tofu (Burmese tofu)
Hopefully you can join in on the series, asking questions, providing suggestions and corrections, and (hopefully) learning as well!

Until then, let us begin!

The Types of Tofu
If you're using a recipe, it will probably tell you what type of tofu to use, so stick with that. Don't go using extra firm when it asks for silken, or vice-versa.

If you're not using a recipe, it's important to know what you're going to be doing with it, so you can select the right type of tofu to get the job done. One of the greatest challenges is that there are some differences in what "firm" means depending on the maker, but get to know the brands available in your supermarkets and Asian grocery stores, and eventually you'll get used to which brand and style is best for which purpose.

Refrigerated tofu: in the packet, out of the packet, not resisting to the knife, and the clean slice inside the block

Silken: the texture of a soft-boiled egg or a panna cotta, silken tofu can be used to replace eggs (in some cases: e.g. in baked goods, in quiche, with some extra ingredients added, etc), can be blended with other ingredients to make a mousse or custard, or can be used to make a soft tofu scramble. Unlike other tofu styles, silken tofu is not make by pressing the curds (so almost no whey is lost) and is usually set in the container in which it is sold. It is very delicate and will fall apart under little strain. Because silken tofu is almost always set in the contain in which it is sold, the tofu will be moulded to the shape of that container (whereas other tofus will have some space around them as they are pressed and then placed in the container they're bought in). There are two kinds:
  • Tetrapack (usually either Morinaga (in Australia) or Morinu (USA)): shelf stable for up to six months (if unopened), has very little taste, so perfect for creamy desserts, or other applications where you want no "tofu" flavour to come through. Usually, this will be sold on the shelves in the Asian food section, and not in the fridge with the other tofu. While it is available either as "firm" or "soft", most recipes I've seen call for "firm", and I've never seen the "soft" kind available in in Australian supermarket. To ensure as little flavour as possible comes through, blend/process until it's smooth, then add other ingredients.
  • Fresh / refrigerated: sold in the refrigerated section of the supermarket with the other tofu, this has some flavour (the more fresh ones especially), so is appropriate for dishes where you do want the tofu to stand out a little more. Always choose the fresher one (not always more expensive! I recommend some brands at the end of the post), or stick to the tetrapack variety: I find the cheaper brands often have an unpleasant taste and can sometimes have a grainy texture.
Soft tofu: broken in half (curds very visible), under the pressure of the knife, and a clean cut (curds also visible)

Soft: pressed for the shortest time, soft tofu holds its shape better than silken tofu, but is still quite delicate. It doesn't take much pressure to break a block and, when broken, the curds are very visible. Squeeze too hard, and the block will essentially fall apart. This is best to use in dishes such as curries or soups where they merely sit in a sauce or broth (e.g. in miso soup). This is the type most often used in Asian restaurants (especially salt and pepper tofu, though sometimes silken is used).

Medium: this elusive type of tofu seems to be assigned to tofu that is halfway between "firm" and "soft". As I've said before (and will say again), though, there's so much variation in what is considered "firm" and what is considered "soft" that this is a really grey area. Furthermore, I'm not sure that I've ever seen "medium" tofu in a supermarket in Australia, though I believe I may have seen it mentioned in some books (I could just be making that up, though). If you do see it, give it a squeeze and see where it falls on the hardness scale and then decide what to do with it.

Firm tofu: very tight curds, clean cut.

Firm/Extra Firm: these are probably the most-used types of tofu in Western food. The difference between "firm" and "extra firm" will change by brand: some "firm" tofu will be closer to soft tofu (some brands will call this "medium"), while others will be almost indistinguishable from extra firm. Again, get to know your brands. (Extra)Firm tofu crumbles very well: if you try to "snap" a block in half, both halves will hold their shape, with the bumpy curds apparent at the break point.

Different brands of firm tofu will often quite differ in texture: even two brands that are as hard as each other may have slightly different textures. Some brands are quite dry (great for crumbling), others are slightly grainy, others are more elastic. Becoming familiar with different brands will help decide which brand of firm tofu is best for what you're doing.

Pressed tofu: the "domed square", no bend under knife pressure, split open, and a clean slice with some gaps from the curds visible (the green was because I was also chopping basil, not because I used mouldy tofu! Which I don't.)

Pressed: this is the hardest of all types of tofu. It is almost dry (but inside is quite smooth and elastic in texture), and holds its shape even under much stress. It is the least likely to be found in grocery stores; you will most likely have to go to an Asian supermarket, where it can be found in the refrigerated section. Earth Source are one of the few brands I have seen that make a pressed tofu, so if a local store stocks Earth Source, ask if they can get in their pressed tofu. The curds are barely visible (if at all), and you can nearly bend a block back on itself before it breaks. It is easily recognisable by its "domed square" appearance.

Tofu Buying Guide
It can be extremely confusing buying tofu, as every supermarket seems to carry different brands (especially now that Woolworths has replaced all other brands with their own "Macro" brand, which I'm yet to try, though I hear good reports), but keep an eye out of the different types above written on the label, and eventually you'll become familiar with the different brands.

For most preparations, buying cheaper tofu won't really matter, because the taste will be disguised in the sauce or marinade. When taste is important, though, for example when making simply "fresh" dishes (the kind that use uncooked tofu with a touch of soy sauce, for example, or tofu in a simple broth), quality is an imperative. Thankfully, this does not always translate to price. If you become familiar with your local supermarket, you may find a good quality tofu there, otherwise try health food stores, specialty stores, and Asian supermarkets. Many Asian supermarkets will have fresh tofu available in their fridges, and often this will be much better quality than any you will find in a supermarket (because it's fresher).

The three brands in Australia that are fantastic and reasonably widely available are Blue Lotus, Healthy Pulse, and Earth Source (all of which I've discussed in previous posts). All of these are high quality, aren't grainy, and taste fantastic. Blue Lotus is available in many supermarkets (or ask them to get it in if they don't have it), and they also make an absolutely stunning smoked tofu (and really need a new website). Healthy Pulse (the tofu used at Brisbane's Sake restaurant) is made on the Gold Coast and is the freshest you are likely to find in a shop, though it isn't available in a huge amount of places (in Brisbane, it's available at Genki Mart in Alderley, but I'm not sure of other retailers). They also sell okara, which can sometimes be difficult to find. Earth Source is biodynamic and is also one of the few makers of pressed tofu that I've found outside of Asian supermarkets.

Alternatively, make your own (either use fresh soy milk sold in Asian supermarkets (check the label to make sure there's no sugar added) or make your own soy milk (follow the link for stove-top instructions; scroll up for microwave instructions)).
Coagulating soy milk, homemade soft tofu and homemade firm tofu.
The next few posts will be on how to prepare tofu, so please stay tuned (and chime in with your own tofu taming tricks below!)

I'll tag all of these posts "thetofustory", so if you want to see all of them together, just click on that label.

UPDATE: It should be noted that there are also several other kinds of tofu that I haven't outlined above, namely tofu that has already undergone some other process (e.g. fermenting or frying), or which has been made with different ingredients added (e.g. premarinated tofu, or "fancy" tofu (where you place vegetables between the curds before pressing the tofu, so they are sandwiched inside the block (I just like using the word "fancy")). I will briefly discuss these in the final post, just so we have all our bases covered!