The closest I ever really got to becoming a vegetarian was living with one in college. My boyfriend Seth was an inspired cook. He could whip up a satisfying meatless meal from canned beans and iceberg lettuce bought at the bodega on our deserted corner in Williamsburg.
When he did procure prime ingredients-his favorite fresh tofu from Chinatown, for example-the variations were legion and sublime. Poached, stewed, braised, wok-fried, or baked, in Seth's hands tofu was good enough to make me forget I hadn't eaten bacon in months.
Then one day, a carnivorous friend came to dinner. Seth made crispy tofu, so golden and crunchy on the exterior and meltingly savory within that it reminded me of pork belly.
But as good as Seth's tofu was, it wasn't bacon.
"Just imagine what he could do with meat," my friend whispered as she left.
When the relationship ran its course, I left without asking for recipes. I didn't think that after crossing back into the land of burgers and steak, I might crave crispy tofu, too.
I spent the next decade attempting crispy tofu, always with the same sad results: The tofu cubes stuck to the bottom of the pan while the flabby centers overcooked and fell apart.
Eventually I gave up and ate my crispy tofu at restaurants when the urge struck.
But recently I decided to give home-cooked crispy tofu another go. Surely somewhere in one of my cookbooks or in cyberspace, I'd be able to find the crispy tofu key.
After a brief survey, one thing became clear. Most crispy tofu recipes assume you are dexterous with a well-seasoned wok. I am not.
Nor did I want to deep-fry the tofu. To me, deep-frying is a once-in-a-while, company-food technique. The crispy tofu that I had in mind would have to be an everyday meal that I could speedily whip up.
Eventually, I flipped to the tofu section of Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. There, embedded in her recipe for Golden Tofu, was the secret: a nonstick pan and the strict instructions not to touch the tofu as it seared.
"Let it cook undisturbed while you do something else," Ms. Madison's text read.
I knew immediately that all my disastrous crispy tofu trials were the result of a stainless steel pan and too much anxious poking and prodding.
Resolved to follow Ms. Madison's technique to the letter, I set about figuring what else should go into my tofu dish.
While ambling to the grocery store, I thought through my options, remembering all the other amazing tofu dishes I'd had in my life besides Seth's. There was spicy mapo tofu, Cantonese stuffed tofu with shrimp and pork, braised tofu and pork belly.
That's when it dawned on me that other than tofu, the unifying ingredient in all those dishes was pork.
Maybe it was Seth's specter lurking in my kitchen, but in all my years of tofu cooking, it never occurred to me to add pork. And it was high time to give it a try.
I cast around the store for the appropriate pork product to add. There was no ground pork, but bacon was a possibility. So was sausage, which I chose when I remembered a gorgeous dish of tofu with Chinese sausage in my past.
There was no Chinese sausage at my supermarket. But there was dried chorizo with a similar texture.
I also picked up some shiitake mushrooms to heighten the urnami meatiness of the dish.
At home, I heeded Ms. Madison and sliced the chorizo as the tofu crisped, unpoked, in the pan. When it was crusty, I improvised a little pan sauce of the sausage and mushrooms moistened with chicken broth, and seasoned with soy sauce for salty depth and a splash of mirin for sweetness.
The tofu was as perfect as Seth's, with a burnished exterior both crisp and delicate, and a supple center imbued with its pork- and mushroom-scented sauce.
Marvelous as it was, I can't say my tofu dish would have converted Seth to come over to the meat-eating side. But then again, if anything could, it just might be this.
- 1 pound extra-firm tofu, drained and cut into ¾-inch-thick slabs
- 2 tablespoons peanut oil
- 1½ cups (4 ounces) thinly sliced shiitake mushroom caps
- 3 ounces cured chorizo (1½ small links), diced (or substitute cured Chinese sausage)
- 2 scallions, thinly sliced, dark green parts reserved for garnish
- ¼ cup chicken broth
- 3 to 4 teaspoons soy sauce to taste
- 2 teaspoons mirin
1. Using paper towels, pat the tofu dry. Heat the oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat.
2. Place the tofu slabs in the pan and cook without moving until golden, about 3 minutes. Turn and cook the other side, 2 to 3 minutes more. Transfer the slabs to a paper towel-lined plate to drain.
3. Increase the heat to high. Add the mushrooms, chorizo, and the white and light green parts of the scallions. Cook, tossing occasionally, until the mushrooms are softened and light golden, about 3 minutes. Stir in the broth, soy sauce, and mirin. Cook until the sauce reduces and thickens slightly, about 1 minute more.
4. If the tofu is no longer hot, push the vegetables in the pan to one side; add the tofu and cook until heated through. Transfer the hot tofu to serving plates and top with the mushroom mixture and pan sauce. Sprinkle with the dark green scallions.