Thai pickled cherry tofu anyone?

When I got back from my last trip, one of the first things I did was try some of the Thai pickled cherries we made in July, and I wasn’t disappointed. The flavours are complex and interesting, and blend perfectly. The first thing that hits the tongue when you have one is the lemon grass, but that’s quickly followed by a strong cherry taste with a hint of hot spice, and the finish is pure lime. There’s something strangely satisfying about them, and they add an interesting accent to plate of (strong) cheese & crudités.

We’ve been making our tofu with nigari, the traditional Japanese coagulant, but wanted to try something a bit different, so decided to make a batch of firm tofu using the brine from the pickled cherries – just to see what would happen.

For the uninitiated, making firm tofu is straightforward; all you have to do is:

  • Slowly add your coagulant to hot soy milk until curds begin to form. If you made the soy milk yourself, remember to strain it through a cheesecloth first in order to remove the pulp, otherwise you will make very gritty tofu.
  • Let the mixture sit for 15 minutes.
  • Scoop the curds into a tofu mold lined with cheesecloth (or just pour everything in there). Tofu molds have holes that allow any liquid to run out, so you’ll want to put the mold in the sink first.
  • Once most of the liquid has drained out of the curds, fold the cheesecloth over so that the tofu is completely wrapped.
  • Put the lid on the mold and give the tofu a good squeeze over the sink.
  • Put the tofu mold in a dish (to catch any water that comes out as you press the tofu).
  • Put a weight on the lid, and let it sit for two hours.
  • If you’re not going to use the tofu right away, submerge it in water and put it in the fridge.
Fresh tofu

Fresh off the presses

We used about a quart of soy milk fresh from the soy milk maker, and it took 5 tablespoons of brine to make it coagulate. That made about 8 oz of firm tofu.

Using vinegar resulted in a somewhat less creamy texture than nigari does, and there was only the slightest a hint of all those great Thai cherry pickle flavours from the brine. Conclusion: there doesn’t seem to be much point in using a complex vinegar, but vinegar does give a good result. Even if you can’t find nigari, you can still make better-than-supermarket tofu at home using vinegar. The planet will benefit from your efforts by having a little less plastic in its landfills, and a little less CO2 in its air – and one thing’s for certain: if you take the time to make your tofu from scratch, you won’t be throwing it away.

Tofu frying

Tofu in wok

We used this particular batch of tofu to make Pad Thai, which we served with a few pickled cherries on the side. We used seitan instead of shrimp, though the meal wasn’t 100% vegetarian thanks to a couple of tablespoons of fish sauce.

Pad Thai with pickled cherries

Pad Thai with spicy pickled cherries

Past and future tofu

I fell in love with the neighbourhood my first night there. I was in the new apartment, which was empty except for the blanket I was sitting on and a small lamp. It was early evening; I had settled down with a good book.

Bonnie Lee was still in our old place in Fukuoka, and I expected to have a quiet evening at home … but then the music started. It was traditional Japanese music, played on wood instruments, and drums, and it was coming from somewhere nearby.

Kosugi shrine

Kosugi shrine

And so I left the apartment, and followed the sound to our local shrine, which was teeming with people and activity. Food stalls lined the edges of the main open area, and in its centre, women clad in summer kimono danced the bon odori around a wooden scaffolding. As I worked my way through the crowd, I felt like I’d been dropped into the middle of a Bond film, minus the two guys chasing me.

Bon odori

Bon odori

It was a good place … and one that we would stay in for 10 years, the longest either of us has lived anywhere. The apartment was next to a park, which itself was next to a river. The city museum was a short walk away, as was the little centre around Shinmaruko station, with its restaurants and shops. It wasn’t long before we discovered the local tofu shop, which made fresh batches of all it’s products every morning, and only stayed open until the day’s stock was sold out. Everything they made was fresh and rich and somehow decadent … and all that soy-based goodness spoiled us for lesser goods.

Like the stuff we get in LA.

So, after more than a year of eating stale, somewhat bean-y tofu and soy milk, we decided to take matters into our own hands, and get ourselves a soy milk maker and some soy beans. I doubt that we’ll ever make anything that comes close to what we got at our little shop in Shinmaruko, but it is bound to be fresher than what we can get locally – and there are other reasons why this makes sense. One critical one is very dear to my heart: it will lead to less waste. We can make what we need when we need it – and the soy products we make will not need to be packaged in plastic or transported.

The day after I got back from my most recent trip, Bonnie Lee showed me how to make soy milk – nothing could be easier. You just need to soak the beans overnight, pop them in the soy milk maker with some water, push a button, wait while the machine heats the water and grinds and seeps the beans, then filter the product through cheese cloth. You can drink the milk as is, or add a coagulant and make tofu with it. And there’s a free bonus in every batch: the pulp that you filter out with the cheese cloth (called okara) is edible and versatile.

The soy milk we’ve been making is much lighter and more refreshing than the store-bought variety (which is thicker and often sweetened). It’s been very nice over our  home-made granola, and makes a great smoothie. As for the tofu and okara – I’ll save talking about what we’ve been doing with those for other posts.

In the meantime, if you’re curious you check out some of my shots of the old neighbourhood on flickr.

Thai tofu cakes – attempt #1

We never finish a block of tofu in one meal, so often have a bit of frozen tofu on hand. As I mentioned in a previous post, tofu keeps well in the freezer – and after you thaw it, squeeze the water out of it, and crumble it, you’re left with a chewy, porous protein that absorbs flavors well.

One thing I’ve been meaning to try with it for a while is something similar to Thai fish cakes, and I made my first attempt at that this weekend.

The result was a bit too bready, and the flavors were less strong than I like them, so this recipe isn’t quite ready for company yet – but it did make for a tasty, hearty lunch, and went well with sliced cucumber (tossed in rice vinegar, honey, red pepper & cilantro dressing with a pinch of salt).

Thai tofu cakes - attempt #1

Thai tofu cakes (serves 2)

 Ingredients

  • 8 oz tofu, frozen, thawed, squeezed then crumbled (see image below)
  • 1 Tbsp fish sauce (or soy sauce)
  • 2 Tbsp grated ginger
  • 1 tsp red curry paste
  • 2 Tbsp cilantro, finely chopped
  • 1 Serrano pepper, seeded and finely chopped
  • 1 scallion, finely sliced
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • About 12 Tbsp panko or fine breadcrumbs
  • 2 Tbsp cooking oil
  • 1 lime
  • 4 Tbsp Thai sweet chili sauce

Directions

  • Toss tofu with fish sauce, grated ginger, and red curry paste.
  • Add in the cilantro, Serrano pepper, scallion and eggs, and mix well.
  • Mix in the breadcrumbs, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the mixture is sticky enough to form patties.
  • Make 4 patties, and place them in the fridge for 10 minutes, to allow them to set.
  • Heat oil in a skillet over medium heat.
  • Cook patties until they are golden brown – about three minutes per side.
  • Serve hot, with Thai sweet chili sauce.
Tofu: frozen, thawed, squeezed and crumbled

Tofu: frozen, thawed, squeezed and crumbled

Storing tofu

In Japan, we were spoiled. There was a tofu shop a short walk from our apartment, where the tofu was made daily. You had to go early to get what you wanted, because the shop closed once they’d sold what they made that day. And you had to get there particularly early to get the silken tofu, which was rich, creamy and velvety; with a little bit of soy and ginger, this stuff was decadent. It was best eaten fresh, and there were never any leftovers.

Japanese silken tofu

Outside of Japan (and that includes the rest of Asia), tofu is a completely different food; it’s good, but doesn’t feel like an indulgence. It’s also not a food that stands up on it’s own, so we tend to marinate it and mix it with other ingredients. For one meal, we only need half of a firm 12 oz block – which means that half needs to be stored. If I plan to use the other half in the next couple of days, I just keep it in the fridge, submerged in water. More often than not, though, I just freeze it.

Firm tofu holds up well to freezing – and I actually prefer the texture North American tofu has after having been frozen. It chewier. It’s also more porous, and absorbs other flavors well.

Before freezing their tofu, some people squeeze the water out. I don’t bother. I just pop it into the freezer (in a baggie) where it turns a lovely shade of yellow. I take it out of the freezer several hours before I plan on using it, and let it thaw in the fridge or on the counter. After it thaws, I squeeze the water out of it, crumble it, then get cooking.

For the dish below, I tossed the crumbled tofu in a bit of cooking oil, with a few drops of Worcestershire sauce, some chipotle powder, salt and pepper. I sautéed it with onions, garlic and diced red jalapeño, then served it on a warmed tortilla over melted cheese, along with avocado (tossed in lime juice), sour cream, and a hot salsa. Quick, easy and satisfying.

Tofu taco

Tofu taco