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Old-school plant proteins

Popularity of plant-based proteins has proliferated amid the pandemic.

It’s true these products already were on the rise — as much as 60% in some grocery categories — but the coronavirus infected consumers with yet more concerns about meat. Outbreaks at meatpacking plants and fears that other viruses will jump to humans from animals commonly consumed for food were good news for makers of meat substitutes. Suddenly, more Americans developed an appetite for Beyond, Impossible and other brands that mimic meat.

Buzz around these products is somewhat lost on me, I’ll confess. That’s probably because I’ve been a fan of plant-based proteins in less flashy forms for decades. Although not a vegetarian, I’m inclined to agree with people who proclaim that if they wanted to see, smell and taste a substance that passes for meat, they’d just eat the real thing. To them, those products are exactly what they don’t want in their sources of dietary protein.

So I say there’s still plenty of appeal in good, old-fashioned tofu, tempeh and other products formerly consigned to the crunchy and ethnic fringes. And although my family eats a fair amount of meat, we incorporate soy foods several times a month into our menus, where they aren’t relegated to the backdrop but coaxed into complementing other flavors, textures and visual elements of a dish.

More than a decade before “blended” burgers were trendy, I was cutting ground turkey and chicken with soft tofu to make it more healthful and to maintain moisture in meatloaf, meatballs and burger patties. I crumbled tempeh into tortillas and the cavities of roasted winter squash. And I folded silken tofu into scrambled eggs and blended it with fruit for smoothies.

These methods, admittedly, were borrowed from a legacy of pioneering cooks with much more impetus than I have for catering to special diets. These decades-old approaches, however, are even more relevant today for Americans gravitating to costly plant-based proteins, when they could spend pennies, pound for pound, on tofu and its ilk, particularly types that are shelf-stable and invaluable pantry staples. Extending more costly ground meat with tofu not only saves grocery dollars but safeguards one’s health.

Auxiliary debates about soy aside, it’s indisputably heart healthy: A half-cup serving provides nearly 20% of your daily protein, has fewer than 100 calories, more calcium than a cup of milk and is an excellent source of iron and copper. Unlike many meats, it has no cholesterol or saturated fat.

Getting comfortable with tofu starts by becoming acquainted with its various types, which range from pudding soft to very firm. Selecting the right type for your dish is perhaps the largest consideration.

For recipes that call for a meat-like texture, go with fresh (water-packed) extra-firm or firm varieties, which lend themselves to sauteing, pan-frying, grilling, baking and broiling. Other varieties will tend to break apart under these conditions. Be sure to drain, rinse and pat dry before cooking.

With an almost custard-like texture, “silken” tofu is ideal for smoothies, pies, puddings and sauces. It also can be blended into dressings and dips or be substituted for mayonnaise or sour cream.

Soft tofu is similar to silken, but less smooth. Crumbled and sauteed with herbs and vegetables in a bit of olive oil, soft tofu makes a good stand-in for scrambled eggs. Use about half the quantity of ground meat to augment a meatloaf or meatball recipe. As tofu adds moisture, more binding agents, such as breadcrumbs, may be needed to maintain the item’s integrity.

Regardless of variety, tofu itself is rather flavorless. Luckily, it absorbs other flavors very well. Use marinades, spice rubs and flavorful sauces to add character to dishes.

Because peanut sauce is among our household favorites, I recently used it to boost the appeal of firm tofu, instead of roasted chicken, on our favorite Chinese chicken salad. The sauce combines 3 tablespoons peanut butter (all-natural), 2 tablespoons soy sauce, 1 tablespoon each: rice-wine vinegar, fish sauce, light-brown sugar and warm water; juice of 1 lime, 1/2 teaspoon peeled and minced fresh ginger, 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper or Sriracha and 1/8 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder.

Pressing and baking about 6 ounces of tofu, tossing it in the sauce, then finishing it in the oven produced a deeply flavorful contrast to our salad of steamed asparagus and citrus. Grease your baking sheet, as both the tofu and sauce will stick during baking. A similar method is cited in this recipe for a whole-grain and veggie-packed “sushi bowl,” another family favorite.

Sushi Bowl

1 (14-ounce) package extra-firm tofu, rinsed

3 tablespoons soy sauce, divided, plus more for serving

1 cucumber, peeled, seeded and sliced into half-moons

1 avocado, pitted, peeled and cubed

1 carrot, peeled and shredded

2 scallions, trimmed and finely chopped

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoon rice vinegar

2 teaspoons sesame oil

1 tablespoon mild red or yellow miso paste

3 cups cooked rice (white, brown, sushi or a combo)

1 (0.7-ounce) package crisp seaweed

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Slice the tofu into 1/2-inch thick slabs. Set slabs on a baking sheet lined with a clean kitchen towel. Cover with a second towel. Weight with another baking sheet. Let drain for 15 minutes.

In a large bowl, toss together the cucumber, avocado, carrot and scallion. Season with the salt, vinegar, sesame oil and 1 tablespoon of the soy sauce.

Whisk together the miso into 2 tablespoons of the soy sauce. Cube drained tofu and toss with soy/miso sauce. Spread out on an oiled baking sheet. Roast in preheated oven, stirring once, for 20 minutes.

Add the rice, roasted tofu and seaweed to bowl with vegetables. Toss. Add a little more soy, if you like. Serve at room temperature.

Makes 3 servings.

Tofu-Pesto Pasta

8 ounces button or cremini mushrooms

1 medium vine-ripened tomato, cored and seeded

8 ounces dried fusilli, gemelli or small penne pasta

3/4 cup packed basil leaves (about 30 leaves)

3 tablespoons olive oil, divided

6 ounces soft tofu

3 to 4 ounces Parmesan cheese

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

1/4 medium onion, minced to yield 2 tablespoons

2 to 3 medium cloves garlic, minced to yield 1-1/2 teaspoons

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat.

While water is heating, clean the mushrooms and discard stems, then cut mushrooms into thin slices. Cut the tomato into small dice to yield about 3/4 cup; discard juices.

Add the pasta to boiling water; cook according to package directions (about 12 minutes). Drain and transfer to a large bowl.

While pasta is cooking, combine the basil and 1 tablespoon of the oil in a blender or bowl of a food processor; pulse until well blended, then add 1 tablespoon of oil, the tofu, Parmesan to taste, the lemon juice, salt and pepper. Process until smooth.

Pour into a large skillet, preferably nonstick, over low heat. Stir until just warmed through.

Heat remaining tablespoon of oil in a separate medium skillet over medium heat. Add the mushrooms, onion and garlic; cook, stirring often, for 5 to 7 minutes, until mushrooms have yielded their liquid and onion has softened.

Add to pasta in bowl, then add blended tofu-pesto mixture. Toss to combine, then divide among individual wide, shallow bowls. Top with diced tomato. Serve immediately with a mixed green salad.

Makes 4 servings.

— Recipe adapted by The Washington Post from “Eat Cheap but Eat Well,” by Charles Mattocks.

Cilantro Goddess Dressing

12 ounces silken tofu, drained

1 large or 2 small garlic cloves, peeled

1 cup lightly packed cilantro leaves and stems

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1/4 cup unseasoned rice vinegar

1/4 cup peanut oil (may substitute vegetable or canola oil)

1 tablespoon peeled and chopped, fresh ginger root

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more to taste

In a blender or food processor, combine the tofu, garlic, cilantro, lime juice, vinegar, oil, ginger and 1/2 teaspoon salt; puree until smooth, stopping to scrape down sides of blender or food processor bowl as needed. Taste and add salt if needed.

Transfer to a container with a tight-fitting lid; use right away or cover and refrigerate for up to 2 weeks. Makes 16 servings (about 2 cups).

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.