Tofu’s versatility is no secret, but to embrace its many uses is an exquisite thing — it can be pan-fried, grilled, blended into spreads and dressings, or tossed in a smoker for a few hours. Those who know tofu well understand it as an ingredient that is subtle and ever-so-slightly sweet, a willing canvas for flavours or a base for them to intermingle.
The joy of tofu is what should keep us returning to it: We should be endlessly excited about it. How many ingredients are as multifaceted?
A dish centred on tofu usually has to be prepared to weather imaginary criticism. Consider this recipe a series of well-prepared comebacks. There is a dash of rice vinegar, a sweet acid to gently sting the sceptical palate. There is coconut milk for richness, molasses for caramelization, ginger for freshness and soy sauce for umami.
The dish’s contrasting textures may be the most satisfying part. Firm tofu slices are pan-seared for a golden-brown crust and a soft interior. Whole cashews offer a buttery crunch. The snap peas nod to the flavours of summer while looking back at the green shades of spring. If blistered perfectly, they add a nice char to the plate and an audible crunch as you bite. The mint does whatever mint does. Does it bite back?
Long summer days are all about spending as little time as possible beside a hot stove. So let’s keep it simple. One wide saucepan will work for everything here. Sear your tofu and set it aside; blister your snap peas and transfer them to a bowl. Build the sauce in the same pan, add your tofu back and let it soak up all that is sweet and savoury. Serve over steamed rice or a fresh handful of greens, and garnish with more fresh, tingling mint leaves.
There is, of course, just as much to be gained from this recipe by using other proteins: chicken thighs, slices of pork shoulder or cubes of rib-eye. But alongside these fresh ingredients from early summer’s bounty, tofu can really shine.
Perhaps that’s the secret to tofu: It shouldn’t be treated like a substitute for anything. Now is as perfect a time as any to give it centre stage.
Recipe: Crispy Tofu With Cashews and Blistered Snap Peas
Yield: 4 servings
Total time: 30 minutes
1 (14-ounce) block firm or extra-firm tofu, drained
3 tablespoons neutral oil, such as grapeseed, vegetable or canola, plus more as needed
Kosher salt and black pepper
3/4 pound snap peas, trimmed
1 (2-inch) piece fresh ginger, peeled and grated (about 2 tablespoons)
2 garlic cloves, grated
1 (13-ounce) can unsweetened coconut milk (light or full-fat)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons molasses, dark brown sugar or honey
1/2 cup toasted cashews
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
4 scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced
1/4 cup mint leaves, torn if large
1/2 to 1 teaspoon red-pepper flakes (optional)
Rice or any steamed grain, for serving
1. Slice the tofu in half horizontally, and leave on paper towels to dry any excess liquid.
2. In a medium skillet or cast-iron pan, heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium-high until it shimmers. Season both sides of the tofu with salt and black pepper, place in the pan and sear without moving until tofu is browned and golden on both sides, turning once halfway through, about 8 minutes total. Move the tofu to a plate.
3. Add 1 tablespoon oil to the pan, and add the snap peas. Cook, stirring occasionally, until blistered and just tender, about 3 minutes. Season with salt and move to a bowl.
4. Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon oil, add the ginger and garlic, and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Pour in the coconut milk, soy sauce and molasses. Simmer, stirring frequently until the sauce reduces and its colour deepens to a dark brown, about 6 to 8 minutes. It should coat a spoon without running right off. Stir in the cashews, break the tofu into 1-inch pieces and toss in the pan to coat with sauce. Remove from heat, and taste and adjust seasoning, if necessary.
5. Toss the snap peas with the rice vinegar, scallions, mint and red-pepper flakes, if using. Divide among plates, along with the tofu and cashews. Serve with rice or any steamed grain.