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This saucy stir-fry finally got me hooked on tofu

THE WASHINGTON POST – I’ve been on a tofu kick lately. But you know what? I never thought I’d type that sentence. I grew up in the meat-and-potatoes Midwest, and beef was on the dinner table more often than not. For most of my life, I thought of tofu as something other people enjoyed – it just wasn’t for me. Even when I lived in a vegetarian co-op, I avoided it, favouring other plant proteins over the creamy white blocks of bean curd.

About five years ago, motivated by friends who loved tofu and my desire to be a recipe developer, I decided that I’d need to understand and embrace the ingredient. After all, it’s a staple in the diets of millions of people around the world. It’s highly nutritious and a dense source of complete protein that doesn’t come with the animal welfare or climate crisis issues meat carries. I was going to learn to love tofu.

I started cooking with it, experimenting with silken, firm, extra-firm and super-firm varieties. I ate tofu plain and marinated, sauteed and baked, fried and grilled. I sliced it, shredded it, crumbled it, cubed it and cut it into slabs. Gradually, I started to enjoy it. But whenever I got hungry, I still didn’t think: “I’d love some tofu right now.”

Then, I met my boyfriend, Joe. He’s a good cook, and tofu is often in his fridge. One night, he fried okonomiyaki for dinner and topped each pancake with strips of marinated and seared tofu. I enjoyed it so thoroughly I assumed it was an aberration. “Maybe I was just really hungry,” I thought. A few weeks later, he made us an eggplant and tofu stir-fry with a sweet, spicy and salty sauce. It was served over rice – my favourite kind of meal – and I didn’t just have seconds. I had thirds.

“How is this tofu so good?” I blurted, mouth still half-full.

“I love it when the outside is a little crispy and the inside is still spongy, don’t you?” Joe said.

Crispy Tofu and Zucchini Stir-Fry. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

That was it. It’s not that I hadn’t had fried tofu before. It was that I hadn’t stopped to appreciate its great potential for textural variability. In the right oil, at the right temperature, cubes of plain tofu pick up a golden brown crust while the inside stays plush. I love those fried nuggets so much I’ve often popped them into my mouth plain, like pieces of popcorn.

Fried tofu was the catalyst for this recipe, a seasonal stir-fry with an adaptable sauce. First, you’ll shallow fry cubes of tofu in vegetable oil until they pick up that thin, crisp exterior. Then, stir-fry scallions and zucchini until they soften and blister. Form a sauce with garlic, ginger and a few pantry items, including soy sauce, oyster sauce, chili-garlic sauce or – my favourite – doubanjiang or Sichuan chili bean paste. Depending on the base that you use, you’ll end up with a stir-fry that’s glazed in something salty; sweet and salty; or sweet, salty and spicy.

After I developed this recipe, I made it another three times – not just to test it, but because it’s so easy to love, it’s become my favourite way to eat tofu.

CRISPY TOFU AND ZUCCHINI STIR-FRY

Loaded with zucchini and tofu, this stir-fry has an adaptable sauce that can swing sweet, salty or spicy. You’ll start by frying cubes of tofu until crisp. Then, stir-fry zucchini and spring onions or scallions just until they take on some colour. Finally, mix together a simple sauce.

Adding oyster sauce (vegan or not) will make your sauce slightly sweet. Using only soy sauce will keep it salty and savory while stirring in chili-garlic sauce or Sichuan chili bean paste (doubanjiang) will turn it spicy. If you don’t want to fry the tofu, skip that step and just stir fry it briefly before adding the vegetables.

Doubanjiang, such as the Juan Cheng brand, can also be labeled as broad bean chili sauce or fermented chili bean paste.

INGREDIENTS

Half cup neutral oil, such as vegetable, plus more as needed

One package or extra-firm tofu, cut into three-quarter-inch cubes and patted dry

Four spring onions or scallions, parts cut into one-inch pieces and green parts thinly sliced for garnish

Two medium zucchini, chopped into roughly three-quarter-inch cubes

FOR THE SAUCE

Two tablespoons cold water

One teaspoon cornstarch or potato starch

Three cloves garlic, minced or finely grated

One piece fresh ginger, minced or grated

Two tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce

Two tablespoons rice vinegar

Two tablespoons doubanjiang, chili-garlic sauce, oyster sauce or additional low-sodium soy sauce

Cooked rice, for serving

DIRECTIONS

Line a large plate or small, rimmed baking sheet with a tea towel.

In a wok or large flat-bottomed skillet over high heat, heat the oil until it shimmers. Add the tofu in one layer – you may need to do this in batches – and fry, flipping occasionally, until lightly browned on all sides, about eight minutes. Transfer to the prepared plate or baking sheet to drain.

Pour off all but one tablespoon of the oil – reserving it for another use – and return the pan to high heat. Add the white parts of the spring onions or scallions and the zucchini, and stir-fry, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables take on colour, about four minutes.

Make the sauce: Meanwhile, in a small bowl or liquid measuring cup with a spout, stir together the cold water and cornstarch or potato starch. Stir in the garlic, ginger, soy sauce, rice vinegar, and the doubanjiang, chili-garlic sauce, oyster sauce or additional soy sauce.

Add the sauce to the wok, and let it come to a boil and thicken, about one minute. Remove from the heat and stir in the tofu until well coated with the sauce. Garnish with the scallion greens and serve, with rice, if desired. – G Daniela Galarza

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