When I was in late middle school or early high school, I went through a decent vegetarian phase. I loved the plant-based foods that I would eat at restaurants like gorgeous, vegetable-laden curries and stir-frys. However, I wasn't particularly adept in the kitchen at that point, so I mostly lived on chocolate soy milk pudding cups and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
My parents, bless them, were incredibly supportive, and I distinctly remember my mother driving me to the local health food store to stock up on items other than Annie's shells and white cheddar studded with frozen broccoli (you know, for health!). We slowly rolled up and down the aisles, which smelled of boxed incense and a new delivery of fresh-baked sourdough. And we picked up items that I could use to make a complete meal: whole grain pasta, coconut milk, miso soup packets, a basket of vegetables, a smattering of nuts and seeds.
Suddenly, we turned the corner and were face-to-face with white, gelatinous blocks of tofu. I'd only ever seen and eaten tofu after it had been cooked — typically fried crisp and served with rice — so I wasn't quite sure what to do with it. It seemed like a very vegetarian thing to buy, so we did.
That block of tofu sat unused in the refrigerator for a while, until I sliced off a single sliver — like a butcher shaving a portion of pastrami — and pan-fried it. There was no seasoning, no preparation — only heat and a prayer. Unsurprisingly, it wasn't very good.
The rest of the block of tofu was mixed into fruit smoothies for a serving of protein. Though I continued to order tofu while out, I refrained from making it at home until recently.
Things shifted after I watched crispy tofu tutorials by Sophia Roe and Bettina Makalintal. Both recommend preparing your tofu beforehand — either freezing and thawing it, or pressing the water out of it — and coating it in cornstarch after marinating. The result is cubed tofu with a shatteringly crisp exterior, a tender interior and a wide variety of flavoring opportunities.
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My Kentucky is going to show here, but when I set about making my perfect weeknight marinade, I immediately reached for the bourbon (specifically, Old Forester). It's actually a great multi-purpose ingredient because of the nuance of flavor: some oakiness, a little peppery kick and some caramelized sweetness. I decided to play up that sweetness with a hint of maple syrup, which is cut with some apple cider vinegar. Finally, garlic adds a pungent, savory note.
If you prefer, you can pan-fry your tofu (which is what Makalintal recommends), but you can also place the marinade and cornstarch-drenched tofu on a sheet pan, flipping halfway through cooking, for a similarly crisp effect.
Recipe: Bourbon Maple Sheet Pan Tofu
- 4 tablespoons of bourbon
- 1 tablespoon of maple syrup
- 2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar
- 2 cloves of garlic, minced
- 1 12-ounce block of firm tofu, drained and cubed
- Cornstarch for coating
- Neutral oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
1. In a large mixing bowl, combine the bourbon, maple syrup, apple cider vinegar and minced garlic. Season with salt and pepper to taste. After draining the tofu (I like to do this by placing the block of tofu on a stack of paper towels and pressing it down with a weighted cast iron skillet), cube it and place it into the marinade. Allow it to sit for at least an hour in the refrigerator.
2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Fill another bowl with enough cornstarch to coat the tofu. Remove the tofu from the marinade, and douse it in the cornstarch. Place the tofu cubes on a sheet pan drizzled with neutral oil.
3. Bake the tofu for 24 minutes, flipping halfway through. Remove from the oven and salt again to taste. Serve with rice and a side of vegetables, such as steamed broccoli or sugar snap peas.
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