In 1986, not long after Great Basin National Park was designated as a national park, I traveled there to visit its ancient Bristlecone Pine forest. In order to get there, we had to travel through Utah’s vast west desert. There’s not a whole lot of civilization out there, so when we stopped at a little gas station/convenience store, we decided to snoop around for any possible provisions we might want to add to what we’d brought.
Eight years earlier I’d stopped eating meat, and in the ensuing years I’d also become wary of unpronounceable ingredients on processed food labels. I was—and still am—a habitual label reader. Needless to say, there were few items in this little store with ingredient lists that looked even remotely healthy.
Then I came upon a packaged cookie. I don’t remember the brand name, but I will never forget the tag line: “Tastes too good to be natural!”
After decades of eating healthy, I’ve grown a bit tired of the widely disseminated trope that foods that are good for you taste bad and foods that are bad for you taste good. After just a few years of intentionally eating whole, natural, cooked-from-scratch foods and avoiding processed foods, my taste buds completely changed. Suddenly, processed “foods” like Twinkies—despite the fact that I loved them in first grade—really tasted awful. Even the healthier frozen entrées available these days almost always end up being disappointing, in spite of the appetizing photos on their packages. Decades of cooking from scratch have spoiled me. I actually crave supposedly bad-tasting foods like broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts, squash and even the most maligned of all natural foods, tofu.
Tofu gets a bad rap. Sure, it doesn’t taste like much if you eat it straight out of the package, but its inherent flavor neutrality and natural absorbability (is that a word?) make it a great chameleon. It easily takes on whatever flavors are introduced to it. Over the years I’ve prepared it in so many tasty ways—marinated and baked, marinated and sautéed, frozen and sautéed (which makes it super chewy), and just sautéed with a little salt. Silken tofu makes a great dairy-free base for sauces. I’ve even made a heavenly chocolate pudding with tofu as the base. It really doesn’t take much to make tofu come alive.
This week, I’m sharing probably the simplest preparation possible, sautéed in peanut oil with a little salt. You can eat it on its own, add your favorite sauce (BBQ sauce is good), or add it to a stir fry, casserole or sauté.
Chewy Sautéed Tofu
1 package tofu
2-3 T peanut oil
- 1. Drain your tofu: Place the whole tofu slab on a dinner plate. Place an upside-down dinner plate on top of the tofu. Set on your counter top and place something sort of heavy—a filled can or jar or a bag of flour—on top of the top plate. Let it sit for 10 minutes or so. Remove the weight and grab both plates with both hands. Gently squeezing the plates together, tip them over the sink so that the excess water drains out.
- 2. Cut the tofu into 1/2-inch to 1-inch cubes, whatever size you prefer. You can also cut it into slabs.
- 3. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium to medium-high heat.
- 4. After a few minutes, when the oil is hot, add the tofu cubes. They will probably sputter a bit at first, so take care not to get too close to the hot oil when you put the cubes into the pan. Use a large, long-handled spoon or spatula. Spread the tofu pieces out into a single layer. Sprinkle some salt over the tofu. Once the tofu is situated, I like to place a splatter screen over the pan to make cleanup easier.
- 5. It will take several minutes for the tofu to begin to color. Check on it every few minutes. When it starts to color, turn it over to expose another side to the hot oil. Even if it looks as if the oil has all been absorbed, you need not add more. The residual in the pan will color the tofu. I usually don’t sauté all six sides. It’s not necessary. Sautéeing two to four sides is enough to flavor the tofu, and the tofu itself has enough oil in it to keep it cooking. Make sure you don’t overcook the tofu, as it can become overly dry. Just a little golden color is enough to create a chewy crust.
- 6. Drain on paper towels for a minute or so. Add more salt if you like.