The (partial) Redemption of Tofu

Brace yourselves people, we’re going to talk about tofu.  I understand that people typically don’t straddle the fence when it comes to tofu.  They’re either pro-tofu or have pledged death by starvation if the only alternative to such a death involves eating tofu. 

As an omnivore with a tendency to shun all things deemed “texturally displeasing” I had previously sworn a hatred of tofu. Other foods I find texturally displeasing are raw tomatoes, mushrooms of any kind, and fat-free cheeses. Honestly, I never even considered tofu edible until a vegetarian college roommate brought home “tofu-sesame chicken” from a Chinese food restaurant near our house.  This un-chickeny sesame chicken foody stuff made me realize that while it didn’t taste bad, it didn’t meet my strict standards for texture and should therefore be banished to the “foods I don’t like pile.” While that’s a terrible pile to be in, it was an upgrade from my previous label of “inedible.”

But a few Sundays ago I had it in my head to try making some steamed dumplings. As I perused the grocery store in search of wonton wrappers, I found them sitting right next to the aforementioned, texturally-displeasing tofu. In addition, among the recipes I had found for such dumplings my old standby recipe guru, Alton Brown, included tofu in his recipe for steamed dumplings. I stood and stared at the mystery food-ish product on the shelf for several minutes before I finally reached up and selected a package of tofu to take home. I reasoned that when chopped into pieces small enough to fill the tiny little dumplings I was making, and combined with all the vegetables and intense Chinese flavorings of soy sauce, sesame oil and ginger that I’d never even know that tofu was part of the party.

Tofu's cruchy friends: the veggies

I’d like to point out that I’m not the only person that considers tofu a questionable cuisine ingredient.  This was obvious before I even left the grocery store.  The check out kid at picked up the package to scan it and asked what my plan was for the spongy block with one of those, “I’d rather eat ear wax” looks on his face. I told him and he agreed that if there was ever an appropriate vehicle for tofu, a Chinese dumpling would probably be it. We then both agreed that the line of reasonable culinary applications for tofu was somewhere after Chinese dumpling and somewhere waaaaaaayyyyy before you got to tofurky.

I mean no insults to my vegetarian friends that wish to partake in spongy and oddly seasoned blocks of tofu and pretend it’s as delicious as a Thanksgiving turkey. I admire your dedication to being an herbivore even if it means oddly textured food-ish products. Just don’t expect me to accept your invitation to Thanksgiving dinner.

Dumpling assembly stage

Anyway, back to steamed dumplings…you can find the recipe here. When I started the process, the thought of spending my afternoon meticulously stuffing wonton wrappers with tiny dollops of the filling and carefully sealing each one sounded like fun. The novelty wore off after about 3 of them. Just letting you know in case you get the bright idea to make steamed dumplings yourself. I recommend inviting over lots of friends to help you stuff them. Make it a party. Consider including alcohol. If you can get your friends to drink enough, they might pass out before the dumplings are steamed and you won’t even have to share the results of all their hard work.

Brush the edges of the wrapper with water to seal

Dumpling origami - the gateway drug to napkin origami

Once I got to the part where I was all ready to steam the bazillions of little dumplings I’d been stuffing for roughly 1,467 hours (estimated) I realized that….I do not own one of those bamboo steamers. You might have though this is an issue I’d have addressed prior to making the dumplings but you’d be wrong. I figured there had to be SOMETHING in my kitchen I could go all geek on and engineer into a dumpling steaming device. I was right. All I needed was some disposable pie tins and a pair of sharp scissors. I then re-enacted a crime scene from Law and Order in my kitchen by stabbing my tins á la “crazed stabby girl,” and then I declared my tins adequately perforated (Law and Order People, call me!  I’m cheap easy available).

Home-engineered steaming apparatus

Then I addressed the issue of elevation. I needed something to keep the bottom tin out of the water in the pot and something to put in between the tins so I could steam more than one tray at a time. I found that some metal cookie cutters did the trick perfectly.  You could also use a ramekin or biscuit cutters. So, I put about half an inch of water in the bottom of my biggest spaghetti pot and put a cookie cutter in the center of the pot. I balanced a tin of dumplings on top of it. I then placed another cookie cutter in the middle of that tin and balanced another tin on top and repeated the procedure until the pot was full but I could still get the lid on.

Dumplings awaiting a turn in the sauna

After steaming all my dumplings, I dipped one in a touch of soy sauce and tasted. I couldn’t tell that they included tofu at all. They were even delicious.  But I needed independent verification so I called Don and Donna. The dumplings received rave reviews from my neighbors even after admitting that they included tofu.

Dumplings - way better than tofurky

Soooooooo…. I have upgraded tofu from “food I don’t like” to “conditionally tasty.” As a result I have developed the following set of tofu rules:

1. Tofu may only be used in dishes with texturally complex ingredients to mask its chewy/spongy nature. Raw or lightly steamed veggies are perfect. The addition of nuts or other crunchy ingredients would be even better.
2. Tofu should never be the “soloist” but may serve as “backup singer” in a dish.
3. Dishes containing tofu should include strong flavors to serve as further distraction from the less appealing texture.
And finally
4. Tofu should be served cut into the tiniest pieces possible to prevent the possibility that one ends up with a large bite of “spongy stuff.”

So, I apologize to tofu for underestimating you for so long. You’re not terrible. We can be friends acquaintances. Just bring some of your crunchy friends along when we hang out, okay?

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