In our ever-expanding 21st Century Global village, not many ingredients remain undiscovered by home or professional cooks. Through Chinese, Mexican, French, Thai, Spanish, Greek, Persian or Scandinavian cuisines we have become gourmet foragers ready to take a plunge into many fascinating cultures. From Dragon fruit to tilapia, truffle oil to Galangal, we've learned to take advantage and enjoy all of the foods that are now widely available. Except, perhaps, for tofu, a neglected wonder…
And home cooks aren't the only ones to blame for this lack of interest toward what many call "soy cheese". Because, most of the time, we learn of new culinary trends through professionals. But in the hundreds of cookbooks that I consult every year, I seldom see a great European or North American chef dare to publish recipes including tofu, except, of course, for Asian cooks. I've always wondered why, when it comes to tofu, the chefs all hide behind their 6 burners and avoid it. Is it because they don't see tofu as a noble or sexy enough ingredient to work with? Go tell that to the Japanese and Chinese, who eat tofu and soy products on a daily basis and, as a result, have the lowest prostate, breast and colon cancer rates on the planet, not to mention stronger bones, fewer cardiac problems and virtually no menopause-related problems, thanks to soy's high content of antioxidants known as phytochemicals…
The challenge for most Western cooks is probably to learn to create flavorful dishes out of tofu because the raw material is totally bland and can be somewhat unpleasantly springy… But not more so than, say, bocconcini or octopus, two stars among the stars…
A nutrient powerhouse
Tofu truly deserves to become a regular kitchen staple for day to day use as well as haute cuisine because it is one of the best ingredients one can add to our daily regimen: low in saturated fats, high in top quality proteins and packed with many essential nutrients, it is highly adaptable and will transform into sweet, sour or salty delicious recipes quite easily with just a bit of practice and savoir-faire. It doesn't require any specific skills from a cook since any recipe can be adapted to use it.
As for paddlers, tofu is close to being THE perfect food: very economical, it is sturdy, lightweight, not bulky nor prone to bacterial proliferation, and many brands don't need refrigeration. It is also very nutritious and easily digestible, amazingly versatile, quick to prepare in a camp kitchen (it doesn't even have to be cooked) and so easy to include in any one-pot dish as the main source of proteins… But since a good percentage of soy cultivated throughout the world contains GMOs, it may be a good idea to choose tofu made out of organic soy beans. You can buy it at any health food store and in a growing number of supermarkets.
Of course, any food made primarily with soy offers the same great benefits: edamame fresh beans, protein powder, soy milk, dry soy beans, unsalted soy nuts, tempeh. But it is tofu that many cooks have the most problem getting used to because they still don't know how to prepare it with a zesty touch. But the fact is, you don't need to learn specific recipes, simply to adjust the ones you, your family and your fellow paddlers love the most: stir fry, vegetable soup, salad, tortillas, pastas, rice dishes, sandwiches, ragouts, anything goes, really…
Great health benefits
Half a cup of extra-firm tofu will provide you with 10 g of proteins and 25 mg of isoflavones. During a conference held in Orlando, Florida, a couple of years ago, 300 scientists from around the world shared their most recent findings about the health benefits of soy, and the results have since shaken the world's scientific community because they were so conclusive: not only is soy excellent for post-menopausal women as an alternative to hormonal therapy but the antioxidants it contains appear to have a protective effect against various cancers, especially the hormone-related forms. It is also effective against heart disease and helps people with diabetes keep their blood sugar in check. It can also be beneficial for those with weight problems because of its low caloric content. Soy has done such a good job in recent years at proving itself useful against all odds, detractors and bad publicity that it is now considered to be one of the most useful nutraceutic food for humans, which means it greatly contributes at either maintaining or even improving people's health.
All this is linked to the powerful arsenal called antioxidants that the plant uses to protect itself against aggressions from R-V rays, dust or pollution. When humans or animals consume soy at the other end of the food chain, this protective arsenal seems to be passed on to them. Amazing, isn't it? Now let's try to cook this pharmaceutical powerhouse into something delicious for your next paddling trip.
All you need to succeed are these basic tips:
- Tofu has no taste and a somewhat spongy texture that allows it to easily absorb any liquid and mimic its flavor. So the trick to learn to enjoy this food consists in marinating tofu with some savory ingredients long enough to infuse it. Then if you grill it, you also use the marinade in the process to boost the taste.
- Tofu can easily replace chicken, cheese, eggs or white fish in any recipe, which is quite convenient during a kayak or canoe trip since this vegetarian source of proteins is a truly hardy traveler, contrary to most meats and fish. Just adapt your recipe to include it as your main source of proteins, a few minutes before you serve meal, to heat it through.
- Tofu also adapts perfectly well to any multicultural recipe. It works wonders in a vegetable couscous or with a mix of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, oregano, tomatoes and basil for a Mediterranean touch in a "Greek" salad (don't forget the Kalamata olives!) or on skewers on the grill; use it with some garlic, fresh ginger, lime, sesame oil and cilantro to create an Asian fiesta. Or try it with yogurt, mint, chutney and some Indian spices as an appetizer.
- If you're new to tofu, cut it into very tiny pieces and add it to a crisp bed of greens with dressing, pasta salad, pesto sauce and rice or into any of your favorite soups. It travels incognito but will feed you wisely.
- Mash it with some green onions, celery, apple, fresh herbs and mayonnaise for a delicious sandwich spread. Or add it to some salsa served with corn chips for a quick and filling snack. I also love it with some cranberry compote on rye bread.
- Grilled tofu "steaks" are yummy. Simply brush a few half-inch thick pieces of extra-firm tofu with your favorite dressing, marinade, basting sauce or mayonnaise-Dijon blend. Grill on high heat in a frying pan or on an outdoor oiled grill on both sides until slightly browned and crispy.
- Semi-firm tofu is also surprisingly good for breakfast, slightly heated and spread on a multigrain toast, with a lot of your favorite jam or chocolate spread...
- It also replaces scrambled eggs quite well...
- For an easy dessert, choose silken tofu (soft variety) and simply add either honey or maple syrup with some freshly picked berries and a handful of nuts.