Healthy Habits: Tofu

“The parts all contribute to the whole.”

As a drama director my job is to help folks bring every aspect of a character to life. Some excel at body language. Others mimic voices well. Most know how to speak with emotion but not always how to use facial expressions to enhance the emotion. When I work with folks, I get questions like, “But I sound just like an old lady. Isn’t that enough?” Or “What difference does it make how I walk?” And then I have to explain that every aspect of a character – how they speak, walk, dress, gesture – has to be spot on for the audience to believe in the illusion we are creating.

When I received an email this week from a wife who wants to get her husband to eat more tofu, I thought about the types of illusions created by food and cooking. Restaurant chefs learn how to garnish plated food artistically because “beautiful” food is better tasting. Right? Not necessarily but the illusion is created and our brains believe it, so our palate does too… sometimes. *grin* When we’re sad or upset, and we eat, it’s because somewhere along the line the illusion was created that “comfort” food is comforting. And sometimes it is, but most of the times it just makes us fat. *wry grin*

That doesn’t mean all illusions are bad, though, when it comes to food. For food like tofu, creating illusions is precisely what helps when a wife wants her husband to eat more of it so he can live a longer, healthier life. *grin* When one’s husband really wants a meat chili, what can you do to get his brain to believe in the satisfaction of a tofu chili instead? If he wants chicken in his stir fry, how can you make tofu an acceptable substitute?

The answer lies in the parts contributing to the whole. For example, what makes chili taste like chili? It’s the spices and the traditional add-in’s. Almost every chili recipe calls for chili powder or actual chili peppers. Most include onions and peppers, regardless of whatever else is also added. So, the key is to infuse all the part of a tofu chili with the flavoring which your taste buds associate with a chili. The other important factor in chili is the texture. People are particular about chili – that’s why you see all the debates about chunks of meat versus ground meat and meat only versus meat with beans. So, you have to mimic the texture of the type of chili you’re trying to substitute tofu into. I have a recipe below which I use which a lot of folks have liked in the past.

Another example of how to create illusions with tofu is baked tofu recipes. Commonly folks will substitute tofu in a stir fry or recipe by simply adding chopped tofu instead of chicken or beef. The problem is that folks were expecting a “meaty” taste and texture, but plain tofu is not going to supply that. Baked tofu, however, does. When tofu is baked, it becomes crispy on the outside and meaty, chewy in the center, the way beef and chicken can be. It’s obviously not the exact same, but if you flavor the tofu as you would the beef or chicken in a stir fry, you’ll find that the brain can buy into the substitution. Below I’ve pasted in some tips for making baked tofu.

Crockpot Tofu Chili


2 cups chopped kale

2 cups sweet white corn

1/2 cup chopped onions

1 1/2 cup chopped peppers (I like to mix red, yellow and green for color)

2 cups chopped butternut squash

1 tsp minced garlic

1 tsp ground chili powder

1/2 tsp ground cumin

28 ounce no salt added diced tomatoes

16 oz can drained, rinsed no salt added dark red kidney beans

1 tsp minced garlic

1 tsp ground chili powder

1/2 tsp ground cumin

2 tsp olive oil

1/2 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp ground chili powder

1 tsp minced garlic

1 tsp ground onion powder

2 14-16 ounce extra firm tofu

1 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp ground chili powder

1 tsp minced garlic

Cooking Instructions:

  1. Mix the kale, corn, onions, peppers, and squash with the garlic, chili powder, and cumin in a 6 cup crockpot.
  2. In a bowl mix the tomatoes and beans with the garlic, cumin and chili powder and then add them to the vegetable mixture in the crockpot.
  3. In a large pan, saute the olive oil with the cumin, chili powder, garlic and onion powder for about 30 seconds. Using your hands crumble the tofu into the pan so that they are in large chunks that look like ground meat. Mix the tofu into the hot seasonings well and saute until the water has evaporated out of the tofu mixture. Add to the mixture in the crockpot.
  4. Mix all the ingredients with the final dashes of cumin, chili powder and garlic. Cook on low for 4 to 6 hours.
  5. NOTE:  If you do not cook out all the water from the tofu, the chili will become watery. If that happens, simply use a spoon to scoop out the excess water and then remix your chili.

Tips for Making Baked Tofu:

  1. The tofu: Make sure you are using at least firm tofu. Extra or super firm is best.
  2. The seasonings: You can use whatever you want. Soy sauce, sesame oil, herbs, spices, pesto, black pepper, bottled sauces, whatever you like. You want to make sure to completely coat your tofu cubes well before you begin to bake them. If you use something like minced garlic, you should add that to the tofu later in the baking time so the minced garlic doesn’t burn. If you want to use a sauce, you can toss the tofu with oil and bake it and then toss them with the sauce after they’re done as opposed to before you bake them.
  3. Oil: Baked tofu works best if you have a little bit of fat to help with the crisping. I prefer to use oil. You can use olive oil or sesame oil or a nut oil or another plant oil… it all depends on the flavor you want and the seasonings you want to complement. Toss the tofu in the oil before tossing them with the seasoning you want to use.
  4. Shape: Cut the tofu into cubes for best baking. I like 1 inch cubes.
  5. Oven: 350 degrees is a good temperature to slowly bake the moisture out of the tofu and to create a crispy exterior.
  6. Baking Sheet: The best way to bake tofu is on a cookie sheet lined with parchment. It helps to absorb the moisture without causing the tofu to stick and allows the heat to reach all sides of the tofu.
  7. The baking: It’s good to place the tofu in a single layer and to turn them over at some point so the bottom side gets some of the circulating heat on it. The time will vary, depending on how watery your tofu is and how many you have on a sheet. Some tofu will be done in 15 minutes, others can take 30 minutes or longer. Some recipes will tell you to toss the tofu in cornstarch. This helps to reduce the moisture which can cut down on the time in the oven and can create a crispier texture. Other recipes will tell you to place items on top of the tofu to squeeze out the extra moisture before baking. This can cut down on the time, too. I never do that because I have no problem with baking the tofu a little longer while I do have issues with too many steps and the risk of squashing my tofu so I can’t have my neat little cubes.

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