I’ve been an ethical vegetarian for seventeen years, raising both my children without animal protein as well. Believe you me, packaged vegetarian foods have come a looonng way in palatability. There is a whole new world of packaging rife with misspellings and quotation marks, such as “chickn” and “bakon”, just to make sure that no hen or pig will sue the company for false representation. Many vegetarian options were simply god-awful to eat; some still are. It is still hard to find products that aren’t filled with pieces of red and green peppers (ick!), whose flavor permeate the rest of the food making it disgusting if it had been palatable at all in the beginning.
There are wonderful meat substitutes that can vary a menu and add protein, and the ability to create mock meat has become an art and can be found in many restaurants, especially Thai or Chinese. I order several times a year from May Wah in New York, who sells mock meats created in Taiwan. Morningstar Farms makes wonderful standards such as fake bacon, sausage links and patties, chicken strips and meatless crumbles (like ground beef).
When my daughter and I toured England four years ago, the popular vegetarian option on all the menus that year was mushroom risotto. We ate quite a lot of mushroom risotto, as well as some very strange stuffed onions which were stuffed… with more onions.
Although there are many interesting varieties of fake meats, the least expensive and easiest way to provide extra protein to your diet (other than beans, kale and dairy products, etc.) is to learn how to prepare tofu.
Tofu is prepared soybean curd. It comes either in a water bath tub which must be refrigerated or in asceptic pouches which can be stored at room temperature. On the label you’ll see that it comes in ‘soft’, ‘firm’ and ‘extra firm’ for different uses. Most beginners at eating tofu say that it has no flavor and it just soaks up the gravy and seasonings it is cooked with. Not so. Fresh tofu has a delicate, fresh flavor that is available to a palate that is not overly spoiled by too much salt and seasonings.
I’ve grown to like the soft tofu as much as the firm, cooking it so that the outside has a crisp texture and the inside is smooth, and that is the recipe I’ll give to you shortly. For those who want something chewier, there is a great trick to make tofu more meat-like. Freeze it! This works best with firm or extra-firm tofu that is in a water bath tub. Freeze it, then thaw it out, press out the water, slice it however you want and throw it into whatever you are making. It is much more like a sponge and has more texture.
For fresh or thawed tofu, you should drain it. Pressing it is easy and can be done while you are gathering the rest of the ingredients for your meal. Just put a plate on top of a cake of tofu, which is on a cutting board or plate by a sink, and set a heavy can or two on top.
You’ll be amazed at how much water runs off. If you happen to own a Japanese pickle press (you don’t? Oh, you should!) it is really easy to press tofu.
I bought mine at Green Apple Japanese Market in Oceanside for about five dollars. The screw press holds the vegetables down into the brine, or acts as a torture device for tofu. If you press thawed tofu, it’s texture becomes so spongy that it doesn’t easily fall apart and you can squish it down pretty far! It’s fun!
A simple way to prepare tofu is to press it for no less than five minutes, slice it, and pan fry it.
I use a combination of olive oil (because it is one of the most recommended foods that you can eat, and you should have about two tablespoons a day!), sesame oil for flavor, and a product called Bragg’s Amino Acids. It is similar to soy sauce or tahini sauce, but is far less salty and very healthy, providing extra amino acids to your diet. I buy it at health food stores such as Henry’s Marketplace.
If you aren’t going to go run out and buy some right now (whyever not? Pick up a pickle press while you’re out!) use a little tahini sauce, or very lite soy sauce. As these sauces cook, the salt condenses and overpowers the flavor of the foods. So, to one cake of sliced tofu, I put about two tablespoons olive oil, half a tablespoon sesame oil and one tablespoon Bragg’s Amino Acids in a frying pan and heat it to medium-high. I mix them together to cover the bottom of the pan and set in the tofu slices. The more moisture in the tofu, the more it will splatter, so I turn up the heat a little more after setting the slices in the pan. I also use a splatter guard.
The slices should sizzle. Cook for about ten minutes, then turn them for another five. They should be light brown. Add them to vegetables, serve them seperately or top a bowl of noodle soup with them. A varient on this recipe is to use extra-firm tofu, well drained, sliced into smaller pieces and cooked at a higher temperature for a little longer. The pieces become crispy… mmmmm!
You can add soft tofu into smoothies or puddings, or scramble them to make something that really doesn’t taste at all like eggs but can be very tasty as well as nutritious with the right seasonings.
So don’t be afraid of your tofu. Buy it as fresh as you can (there is a tofu maker in San Diego!) and play around with it. Look for tofu that specifies non-GMO soybeans. There are so many ways to prepare it, but this method is quick and simple for busy people, and very tasty, too!