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Press, bake tofu for flavorful Asian fusion taco filling

A carton of tofu, forgotten in the holiday excess, was one of the few items left in the fridge when I returned home from visiting family a day before New Year’s Eve.

Tofu, aka bean curd, admittedly ranks far down the list of most people’s ideas of celebratory meals. Good thing I wasn’t really aiming to celebrate. After weeks of too much sugar and fat and too few vegetables, I was more than ready to get my eating habits back on track the day before the new year.

And the tofu was perfect for one of my standby pantry-staple dishes: Thai-style coconut milk curry. In truth, the dish is perfectly satisfying when it comprises only vegetables, like the example I posted last month highlighting winter squash. But because my fridge’s crisper drawers were down to the last few veggies, the tofu would beef up a curry with just two types — winter squash and green beans — to complement it.

In curry and other soupy dishes, I prefer tofu as soft and creamy as possible. But for almost every other dish, I press it before cooking. As Anita L. Arambula, a writer for the San Diego Union-Tribune attests, the method really does make all the difference. Not only does pressing out moisture make for a crispy tofu when fried but it also leaves a void into which tofu can absorb marinades and sauces.

Peanut sauce infuses tofu with Asian flavors — and even more protein — in Arambula’s recipe for tacos. It’s right in line with the Korean taco craze, simply spotlighting a flavor that’s more Southeast Asian for this fusion.

Tacos, of course, are a familiar vehicle for incorporating more plant-based foods into one’s diet. If you haven’t resolved to eat more meatless meals this year, augmenting your typical recipes with more vegetables, such as the chard indicated here, is an obvious bid for better health.

Spicy Peanut Tofu Tacos

1 (15.5-ounce) package Trader Joe's Organic Extra Firm Sprouted Tofu (or favorite extra firm tofu)

5 large leaves red chard

3 large radishes, trimmed

1/2 medium red onion, peeled

Cooking spray, as needed

1/4 cup sesame oil

2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon smooth peanut butter, preferably unsalted natural with no added sugar

1/4 cup low sodium soy sauce

1 garlic clove, pressed or peeled and finely minced

1/2 teaspoon peeled and finely minced fresh ginger

3 teaspoons chili paste such as gochujang, sambal or harissa

1 1/2 teaspoons olive oil

1 teaspoon of rice vinegar

Pinch ground black pepper, or taste

10 corn tortillas

Cut the tofu into 1/2-inch slices; place onto a towel-lined large plate or rimmed baking sheet and cover with a second towel. Place a second baking sheet or plate on top of tofu and weigh it down with several heavy cans evenly spaced. Press tofu for 30 minutes.

Prepare vegetables while you wait for tofu. First, begin by removing and chopping stems from the chard; rinse chopped stems, drain and set aside. Slice leaves in half lengthwise, then slice each half lengthwise again. Stack slices, chop into bite-sized pieces, then place them into a large bowl of cold water, swooshing leaves around to remove any dirt. Drain chard, then pat dry with paper towels or use a salad spinner to dry; set aside. Thinly slice the radishes; set aside. Thinly slice the onion; set aside.

Preheat oven to 425 F. Spray a rimmed baking sheet with some of the cooking spray. Remove weight from tofu. Cut tofu into bite-size pieces and place them on baking sheet, making sure pieces don't touch each other. Bake for 10 minutes; remove from oven, flip tofu and bake an additional 10 minutes.

Make peanut sauce by combining in a medium-sized bowl, the sesame oil, peanut butter, soy sauce, garlic, ginger, chile paste and 1/4 cup water; whisk to create a smooth marinade and set aside.

Set a saute pan on medium-high heat; drizzle the olive oil into heated pan. Toss in chard stems and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Stir in onion and radishes; cook until tender, for 1 to 2 minutes longer. Add chard leaves, stirring until leaves begin to wilt. Splash the rice vinegar over vegetables, tossing to incorporate; season with a pinch of the black pepper, or to taste; set aside.

Remove baked tofu from oven; toss into bowl of peanut sauce and let sit for 5 minutes. Generously spray same baking sheet with more cooking spray. Use a slotted spoon to add tofu to pan in a single layer, reserving leftover sauce. Bake tofu until it starts to caramelize, for about 10 to 15 minutes.

To assemble tacos, place 2 tablespoons spicy tofu on a warm tortilla. Drizzle a bit of reserved peanut sauce over tofu, if desired, then top with veggies and serve immediately.

Makes 5 servings (2 tacos per serving).

Tribune News Service photo