Secret to great tofu is all in the pressing

Low in calories, devoid of saturated fat and a great source of protein, calcium and iron

My mom started travelling abroad when I was in high school. And after each of her trips, we cooked a meal from the country she’d just visited.

It was after her trip to Italy that I became a huge fan of veal. Veal, of course, is notoriously bland, so what’s the appeal? I love it because it functions mostly as a firm landing strip for the delicious sauce of your choice, and I’m a nut for sauces. Recently, I figured out that tofu plays the same role for vegetarians as veal does for carnivores.

Made from soybeans, water and a coagulant, tofu is notably healthy — low in calories, devoid of saturated fat and a great source of protein, calcium and iron. But there’s the little matter of tofu’s flabby texture and its flavour (or lack thereof), which is why I’ve always shied away from the stuff.

It turns out, though, that properly prepared tofu is a great sponge for flavour, a natural fact exploited to good effect in this light entree for the new year.

The first step is to lose the excess water in tofu, which will — Duh! — water down your dish. So you force out the excess water by putting a weighted plate on top of the tofu and let it press and drain for about 30 minutes. The tofu becomes firmer and less watery the longer you press it. This also ensures that when you cook it, the tofu will have a springy texture and a crispy exterior.

The crispy slices of tofu are a wonderful foil for this recipe’s intense chili-orange sauce. The sauce is complemented with broccoli and red pepper. Serve it on brown rice and you’re looking at a one-dish meal, light but filling. My husband, a die-hard carnivore, had no idea that this was a healthy vegetarian dish. He just scarfed it down and said thank you.

SAUTEED TOFU WITH BROCCOLI AND RED PEPPERS IN CHILI-ORANGE SAUCE

Start to finish: 1 hour 15 minutes

Servings: 4

14-ounce package extra-firm water-packed tofu

1/4 cup fresh orange juice

1/4 cup water

2 tablespoons hoisin

1 tablespoon soy sauce

2 tablespoons chili-garlic sauce

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1/2 teaspoon sesame oil

4 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided

1 red bell pepper, cored and cut into thin strips

6 cups medium broccoli florets, blanched until crisp-tender, then drained

2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger

2 teaspoons minced garlic

Brown rice, cooked, to serve

Toasted cashews, to garnish

Cut the block of tofu in half horizontally to create 2 thick slabs. Wrap each slab in a clean kitchen towel and place on a plate. Place a second plate on top of the tofu, then weigh it down with several heavy cans. Press in this manner for 30 minutes to drain water from the tofu and firm it up. Unwrap the tofu and cut each slab into 1/2-inch pieces. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the orange juice, water, hoisin, soy sauce, chili-garlic sauce, cornstarch and sesame oil. Set aside.

In a large nonstick or stick-resistant skillet over medium-high, heat 1 1/2 tablespoons of the vegetable oil. Add half of the tofu pieces, sprinkle with salt, then cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown on all sides, 8 to 10 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the tofu to a medium bowl. Repeat with another 1 1/2 tablespoons of oil and the remaining tofu.

Return the skillet to the heat and add the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil. Add the red pepper and cook, stirring, until it is almost tender, about 3 minutes. Add the broccoli and cook for 2 minutes. Add the ginger and garlic and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Whisk the sauce in the bowl to make certain the cornstarch is dissolved, then add to the skillet, whisking. Bring to a boil to thicken, then add the tofu and cook just until heated through.

Arrange a mound of rice on each of 4 serving plates, then top with the tofu mixture and cashews.

Nutrition information per serving: 490 calories 230 calories from fat (47 per cent of total calories) 26 g fat (3 g saturated 0 g trans fats) 0 mg cholesterol 49 g carbohydrate 8 g fiber 8 g sugar 18 g protein 580 mg sodium.

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