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The Worst Cook in Columbus: Tofu

“It’s a lot like making fresh cheese,” Kate Djupe, owner of The Commissary, tells me before my tofu-cooking lesson. This is not helpful, since I have no idea how fresh cheese is made either. I also can’t make soup, macaroni and cheese, bread, or pasta primavera unless it comes in a marked container because I am a terrible cook. It’s the same deal with tofu. I’ve always bought it in a clearly marked box. Until now.

Djupe now likes to challenge my claim to the title The Worst Cook in Columbus, assuring me that I have made progress in my lessons at The Commissary, where she runs classes, lessons, teambuilding exercises, and general playfulness with food. She thinks I am ready for a tofu lesson.

As a vegetarian, I get a lot of jokes about tofu, a food almost synonymous with hippies and other general liberal fruit nuts. Soulless meat. Food for the trashcan. Tastes like nothing, but still tastes like shit.

Oh, I understand the attitude. Tofu is not a pretty food. It doesn’t add zest or crunch or color. It doesn’t occur in nature either. Tofu is probably the result of an accident where semiliquid soybeans somehow collided with impure sea salt, creating a gel.

The beauty of tofu is its ability to pick up and enhance the flavors of other ingredients, particularly in savory dishes. Despite its strong association with vegetarianism, East Asian cuisine (not necessarily a vegetarian diet) tends to view tofu as a staple ingredient for soups, sauces, and stir-frys. In Western diets, tofu finds additional use as a mock meat or as a replacement for high-fat, high cholesterol ingredients such as mayonnaise, sour cream, or cheese.

My tofu instructor, John Franke, dismisses all accusations of tofu as a strange food or one with specific cultural, political, or gender associations. Rolling up his sleeves, revealing a formidable number of tattoos, Franke begins to instruct me in a basic science project that was started 2,000 years ago.

He begins by telling me why I should not buy my tofu in a box. Although it will have a clean, machine-pressed texture, it’s been sitting in its own brine for far too long, adding to its reputation as a tasteless food.  And it won’t stay fresher any longer than tofu made from scratch.

Obviously, tofu is traditionally made from soybeans, but Franke has been experimenting.  We’ll be making both soybean and black bean tofu. Containers of both type of beans, which have been soaking overnight, sit on the counter. The chef has made this an easy task. A pound of beans will generally produce an approximately one pound block of tofu.

After straining and rinsing the beans, Franke gives me a large hand-held mixer and a gallon of water. We add enough water to crush the beans until they are foamy, but not quite pureed. Then the beans and the rest of the gallon of water go into a six-quart stockpot on the stove. Except for stirring the pot occasionally or reducing the heat to make sure the beans don’t burn or foam over, this is the time to smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.

In about 15 minutes, we have soymilk. I have never thought about the origins of soymilk, except from, of course, coming from a box. While the boxed version is usually fortified, the stovetop version has a distinctly nutty and pleasant aroma.

Now for the real science. To create “curds and whey” from soymilk, a coagulant must be added. Franke pulls out a bag of a salt-like substance called nigari.  Available from Amazon.com and sometimes found in Asian food markets, nigari is a seawater product (and one of three Japanese words I know) that will create an acid to react with the proteins of the soymilk. An alternative is to use three tablespoons of lemon juice or apple cider vinegar.

Franke strains our soymilk/beans into a transparent container so that I can see the full effect of the nigari at work.  He creates a very slow “whirlpool” of soymilk and I pour in about half of the nigari, mixed with water. Franke stops the whirlpool with a slow, downward motion of his spoon.  Almost instantly, soft clouds of soy curds begin to form in the liquid.

And brother, are they ever ugly. The rest of the nigari gets added and the curds are pulled from side to side—slowly, so they will not break.  After the “whey” is strained off with a mesh strainer, we pack the curds in a tofu mold lined with cheesecloth for pressing. If you want extra firm tofu, you can weight down the mold with a canned good on top overnight.

Unwrapped from its cheesecloth, the tofu block is surprisingly innocent looking, and as promised, subtly nutty and packing a significant amount of protein and iron. The black bean version, as promised retains a mild black bean flavor. I’ve never eaten tofu “raw,” but I obligingly follow Franke’s lead and break off a chunk. I shouldn’t be surprised by now, but the non-boxed version of food is undeniably superior.

Of course, I get to take my tofu home, where it will be fresh up to a week – which can be extending another week by adding salt water to the block.  Unfortunately, I am so proud that I can make tofu that I have forgotten that making tofu is not the same as cooking with tofu.  Back at home in my kitchen, with few non-boxed ingredients at my disposal, I look up a recipe for crispy tofu and realize I’ll have to substitute flour for cornstarch.  I don’t quite burn the tofu, but I wouldn’t exactly serve it to guests either.

Or maybe I could, along with my not-completely-cooked-rice.  After all, I am The Worst Cook in Columbus, and I have a reputation to maintain.


A Game of One:

Franke, a noodle and steam bun guru with over fifteen years cooking experience, is responsible for Mashita Noodles food cart, Two Daughters kimchi and pickle business, and has recently taken on the role of Sous Chef at Harvest Pizzeria.  He has made the art of tofu, in true Asian style, beautifully streamlined.

  • One Gallon of Water
  • One Pound of Soybeans (Or Black Beans, or Chickpeas)
  • One Tablespoon of Nigari
  • One Cup of Water (For Dissolving the Nigari)

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