Thursday, June 20, 2013

Tofu with Tomatoes and Thai Basil

With several eyes of round curing for some bresaola and some freshly sliced coppa sitting in my refrigerator, I can hardly be confused for a vegan.  I am a creature of the flesh and enjoy eating meat on a fairly regular basis.  At the same time, I enjoy tofu and tempe.  While the bresaola is curing in the fridge, I have a batch of tempe coming together in the oven (off, with the oven light on).  I'm complicated.

Actually, I am a slave to taste.  If something tastes good, I'll eat it.  While I admire  vegetarians and  vegans for their adherence to a diet that does without meat or animal products, I savor the taste of grilled pork and a succulent piece of brie.  Although fish sauce was foreign to my childhood, my enjoyment of life would be lessened without it.  The same with tofu and tempe.  My first tastes of tofu were probably as a dish that would be good for me, and I was underwhelmed.  It wasn't until I experienced it in refugee camps in Malaysia and living in Indonesia that I came to appreciate tofu.  That my wife is from Tofu City (Kediri) in Indonesia may be another reason for my fondness for tofu.  Tempe is probably unfamiliar to most Americans, and that is a shame.  What's worse is that most will only taste the health food type of tempe that is commonly available in the United States.  Javanese tempe is simple and exquisite.  It is the protein of the masses in Indonesia, and a good piece of tempe is every bit as ambrosial as that buttery piece of brie.

I can understand vegetarians and vegans abhorrence for meat.  As much as I might enjoy a quivering steak fresh off the grill, they view it as a moral abomination; I get that.  It's not going to make me enjoy my steak any less, but I understand how disgusted they may be by my choice.  Perhaps there's a Hell where pigs will be grilling pieces of my flesh on a spit, flames rising and dancing from the dripping fat. Oh well.

What I can't understand is how animated some meat eaters get about vegetarians and vegans.  They refuse to eat vegan dishes on principle.  Indignant perhaps that vegans would have them sentenced to Hell, they denounce the trappings of veganism as righteously as fundamentalists of one religion decry another.  "I'll eat a salad as a side, perhaps, but forget that tofu."  Tofu is viewed as an inferior meat, a poseur, and vegetarians should accept some of the blame for this in that too often tofu is used as a meat substitute.  However, if you appreciate tofu for what it is, a velvety flavor sponge, you can enjoy it just as much as that grilled steak. 

For vegans, vegetarians, and gastronomic agnostics, this is a wonderful dish.  You could spice it up by adding some minced chilies, but even without the chilies it is full of flavor.  For a variation, you can use nuoc cham (fish sauce with lime, garlic, and chilies) in place of the soy and vinegar based sauce in this recipe, but then it would no longer be a vegetarian dish. 

Tofu with Tomatoes and Thai Basil

4 or 5 blocks of Chinese tofu (approx. 4" x 4" x 1")
2 cups of cherry tomatoes, larger ones slice in half, smaller ones left whole
1/2 cup of Thai basil leaves
1/4 cup minced shallots
3 cloves of garlic, minced
scant 1 cup of water
2 TBS soy sauce
1 TBS rice vinegar
2--3 tsp sugar

1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup rice flour
2 TBS corn starch
1/2 tsp salt

oil for frying

Cut the tofu in 1/2-inch to 3/4-inch cubes.  Drain on paper towels.  Make a batter by mixing together the flours, corn starch, salt, and water in a bowl until the consistency of heavy cream.

Heat oil to the depth of 1 1/2 inches to 350º F in a wok or other vessel. Working in batches, dip the cubes of drained tofu in the batter and then gently fry in the hot oil, stirring to keep the pieces from sticking together.  Each batch should take about two minutes to produce golden brown cubes that retain custard-like centers.  Remove the fried cubes and drain on paper towels while frying the rest of the tofu.

Remove all but several tablespoons of oil from the wok.  Fry the shallots and garlic until just softened.  Add the cherry tomatoes and fry for a minute or two.  Mix together the water, soy sauce, vinegar and sugar.  Taste and adjust for a sweet/sour/salty tang.  Add this to the tomatoes and shallots and increase the heat so the mixture is boiling vigorously.  After the mixture has reduced some, stir in the tofu.  When the liquid is absorbed and the tofu is heated through, stir in the basil leaves.  Remove from heat and serve.