So good you won’t believe it’s tofu

Chefs—and diners—are raving about these pan-seared versions of the vegetarian staple

Tastes like pencil eraser. That’s what chef Rich Landau thought the first time he tried tofu at a bad Chinese restaurant. Landau and his wife, Kate Jacoby, own and operate Horizons, Philadelphia’s first all-vegan restaurant. Such was Landau’s distaste for tofu (which is made from soybeans; three ounces has as much protein as an egg), he didn’t put it on the menu when he first opened 15 years ago. “I thought tofu would be like the evil icon of vegetarianism,” he said. He wanted to elevate vegetarian cooking from its healthy and boring reputation to fine gourmet dining. “We didn’t want to be these ’70s hippies: pot smoking, listening to the Grateful Dead, parting the beads and [inviting you to] come try my vegan chili.”

In November, Landau proved he’s achieved that goal: he’s the first vegan chef to be invited to cook an all-vegan dinner at the illustrious James Beard House in Manhattan, joining the ranks of chefs like Daniel Boulud, Nobu Matsuhisa, and Charlie Trotter. For the main course, Landau prepared “peppercorn-seared tofu with creamed leek and truffled parsnip purée, salt-roasted golden beets, hazelnuts, and apple cider vinegar reduction.” “It was the highlight of the evening!” Landau’s wife wrote in an email to Maclean’s. “We just kept working with it and working with it and now tofu is probably my favourite thing in the world,” Landau said on the phone, explaining his change of heart. “As anyone who cooks meat will tell you, you can’t just boil it and make it taste good. The same goes for tofu.”

To prepare the tofu, which is Horizons’ signature dish, Landau lets it rest on a plate for 20 minutes. “It will release some of its water. That’s all I really do. I don’t press it.” Next, he marinates it in a brine of water, lemon, rosemary, garlic, peppercorns, olive oil and sherry vinegar. The tofu is then coated in a spice blend of “salt and pepper and garlic flakes, and lots of seeds like caraway, fennel and coriander. But the real key is searing the tofu in neutral oil on high heat,” he says. “You get a beautiful golden crust. There’s not a lot of fat you’re taking on by pan-searing it like this. It’s just a beautiful texture and it eats beautifully, too.”

Bestselling cookbook author Mollie Katzen doesn’t press her tofu either, she tells Maclean’s. She suspects the pressing may be the discouraging step that deters many home cooks from eating it. “The main method given in most cookbooks is to literally put a brick on it overnight. There’s something about that pressing step that has people thinking, ‘Oh my God, that’s too much work.’ ” Her method for getting water out of tofu “is simply to boil it first,” she says. “When you’re done simmering it, it’s firmer. I have a recipe in my new cookbook [Get Cooking] that is my absolute favourite go-to way of making tofu. I use za’atar, a Middle Eastern spice, and then cook it in a Louisiana-blackening style which is very high-heat but no oil to get it really crisp on the outside. I’m using a cheap old cast iron skillet. I give specific instructions in my cookbook that I want everybody to get themselves a short, metal-bladed spatula, a thin metal blade. You assertively get under that tofu and you go for separating everything that’s food from everything that’s pan. No oil. But you’ve got to get the pan hot enough. Heat is going to be your key. Usually texture is the big sacrifice with tofu but in this case, it’s the banner. It’s very crispy.”

In Toronto, restaurateur Ruth Tal of the Fresh chain of vegan restaurants knows how popular crispy tofu can be. Two months ago when the restaurant changed its menu and removed the “ninja bowl,” a dish featuring the restaurant’s beloved “crispy tofu cubes,” uprising ensued: “We had a huge backlash.”

The crispy tofu is “kind of KFC-ish,” says Tal. It’s coated in a dry blend of nutritional yeast, wheat germ and garlic powder and then deep-fried like French fries. “We couldn’t reprint all the menus but we’ve had to bring it back as a daily special,” she says. “We had an onslaught of emails. Some of the customers were downright pissed, saying, ‘How could you? If you don’t put it back on the menu, I’m not coming and neither is my mother!’ ”

Tal says the chain has “always set out to battle the stereotype that vegetarian food is bland and boring and people who like it are alternative. We want to seduce people with really good-tasting stuff but it’s not like we went to KFC and said we’ve got to copy this flavour. I think it’s the nutritional yeast. It has a very pungent, savoury flavour. It’s really, really tasty. People write and say, ‘Oh my God, you changed my life. I had the crispy tofu.’ ”

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