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Korean dish proves how fuss-free bean curd may be

Joe Yonan

THE WASHINGTON POST – The more you cook, the more you learn. And sometimes unlearn.
Take tofu. My knowledge of how to best prep and cook it has taken many twists and turns over the years, especially when it comes to the one thing that seems to be so vexing: how, why and whether to get extra moisture out of it.

Long ago, I used to press. You may know the drill: If you don’t have a special device, then it’s a matter of balancing plates and maybe a heavy can to squeeze the tofu for a half-hour or so. The reason? To make room for a marinade to penetrate, theoretically adding flavour to each millimetre of the interior. But in my experience, those marinades don’t ever penetrate all that well, even when the tofu is pressed. More often, I just focus on the power of a glaze or sauce to add so much flavour to the exterior that it provides a nice contrast to (or compensates for) the neutral interior.

Instead of worrying about getting too much moisture out of the tofu, you can focus on just getting it off the tofu. By drying the outside, you set it up for better pan-frying, getting the exterior firm and a little chewy-crisp, while leaving the interior creamy. (Shatteringly crisp tofu, on the other hand, happens only when you dredge it in a starch before frying, and for that you don’t even need to dry it, because the moisture helps the starch adhere).

A few years ago, after I read about a microwaving technique, where you wrap it in towels and nuke it for a minute or so, I went that direction. Besides expelling moisture, that can also help the tofu hold up better in stir-fries and the like, although if you use extra-firm or firm tofu, this isn’t much of a problem.

Since I’m always on the lookout for new tofu methods, I was intrigued by one I read about in J Kenji Lopez-Alt’s comprehensive new book, The Wok. He calls for you to slice the tofu and pour boiling water over it, writing that the hot water “will actually cause the tofu to squeeze out more moisture”.

When I tried it in Lopez-Alt’s recipe for Korean-style spicy braised tofu, though, the tofu never felt “slightly tacky and dry to the touch” as promised. I patted it dry, moved right along, and loved the dish that resulted: A quick pan-fry gets the tofu wonderfully crisp-chewy, then it quickly simmers in a spicy soya sauce that becomes a glaze.

After talking to my friend Andrea Nguyen, author of Asian Tofu and other great books, I tried the same recipe three more times, prepping the tofu a different way for each.

Korean-style spicy braised tofu. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

For pan-frying, Nguyen likes to dry brine tofu, lightly salting slices and letting them sit for a few minutes before blotting away moisture. That worked nicely, too, as did the microwave method. Do you know what also worked? Doing nothing. That is, I sliced the tofu and simply patted it dry before frying.

This was another suggestion from Nguyen, who has proven in such cookbooks as the wonderful Vietnamese Cooking Any Day that she has an unerring sense of just what is worth doing in the kitchen, and what isn’t. (She often just lets the tofu drain for a few minutes as she preps other ingredients. “I rarely press it,” she said).

Again, I got that crisp-chewy exterior, virtually indistinguishable from the tofu I prepped using the other methods.

Lopez-Alt’s recipe, which puts a delicious dish on your table in a mere 25 minutes, works beautifully whether you fuss over your tofu – or just let it be.

KOREAN SYTLE SPICY BRAISED TOFU

Four servings

This recipe from J Kenji Lopez-Alt results in a slightly chewy, sweet-spicy tofu dish that goes from start to finish in less than half an hour. After prepping the tofu, you cook it twice in a wok: first pan-frying it in oil, then braising it in a simple, fiery sauce that turns into a syrupy glaze.

Note that while this recipe was written for the wok, and is from Lopez-Alt’s new book extolling that pan’s virtues, you can make it in a cast-iron or other heavy skillet, instead.

INGREDIENTS

FOR THE TOFU
One (14- to 16-ounce) block firm tofu, drained and cut into half-inch slabs

Two tablespoons peanut, rice bran or other neutral oil

FOR THE SAUCE

Quarter cup water

Three tablespoons low-sodium soya sauce

One tablespoon gochugaru (Korean chili flakes), or to taste (may substitute crushed red pepper flakes or Aleppo pepper)

Two teaspoons granulated sugar

Two teaspoons toasted sesame oil

One teaspoon toasted sesame seeds, plus more for serving

Two medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed

One scallion, trimmed and thinly sliced

DIRECTIONS

Make the tofu: Pat the tofu dry with a clean dish towel. If you’d like, wrap the tofu slices in the towel and microwave on HIGH for one minute. (Alternatively, you can sprinkle the tofu slices on each side with quarter teaspoon of fine salt and let sit for 10 minutes before patting dry).

Heat a wok over high heat until lightly smoking. Reduce the heat to medium, add the oil and swirl to coat. Add the tofu, one piece at a time, in a single layer (it will come up the sides of the wok a little) and cook, occasionally swirling the pan gently, until crisp and dark golden brown on the first side, three to five minutes. (If the tofu sticks at all when you swirl the wok, let it cook undisturbed for one or two minutes before gently prying it off with a thin metal spatula and swirling the wok to ensure nothing is sticking).

Slide the tofu out of the wok onto a large plate and return the wok to medium heat.

Flip the tofu pieces (pry them apart if they’re stuck together on the edges), then return them to the wok and cook on the other side, swirling the pan gently, until crisp on the second side, three to five minutes. Slide the tofu back out onto a plate and set aside.

Make the sauce: In a small bowl, whisk together the water, soya sauce, gochugaru, sugar, sesame oil, sesame seeds, garlic and scallion until the sugar dissolves.

Reduce the heat to medium-low, add the sauce and the tofu to the wok and cook, turning the tofu occasionally, until the sauce reduces to a syrupy glaze that coats each piece, about two minutes. Sprinkle with additional sesame seeds and serve.

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