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Tasty, nontoxic tofu

by Ari LeVaux

I’ll spare you the un-gory details, but it wasn’t the greatest hunting season for me this fall. I try to bag enough animals to satisfy all of my family’s meat needs, but this year I’ll be looking to purchase my proteins on the open market. Thus, I’ve been reacquainting myself with tofu.

This isn’t the first time I’ve gone there. As a 10-year-old vegetarian, my dad fed me bean curd, as he called it, in order to keep my growing-boy status intact. Despite his good intentions, cooking tofu wasn’t his strong suit. After a few weeks of trying to swallow the slabs of juicy chalk that he prepared, I decided that killing animals for meat wasn’t such a bad idea after all. And here I am, having failed at this year’s attempt to do just that, jumping back on the tofu wagon.

Since my vegetarian days, there have been some changes on the bean curd scene. For one, there has been a wave of skepticism toward many non-fermented soy products, tofu included. It’s been accused of harboring estrogen-like molecules, which allegedly give breast cancer to women and breast augmentations to men. Soy products have been linked to thyroid problems, and developmental problems in children. They contain phytates, which are considered “anti-nutrients” because they bind iron, zinc, manganese, calcium and other minerals, making them unavailable to the body.

I’m going to examine these claims, and then offer some recipes for cooking tofu: one easy recipe, and one that’s more involved.

Lets start with the phytates, which do indeed bind minerals. Phytates also have been shown to halt cancer cell growth and reduce inflammation, which is the underlying cause of a variety of ailments, and there is evidence that they have cardiovascular benefit as well. They’re also anti-oxidants. At worst, their presence means your body might not get the full benefit of all of the minerals promised on the label of a brick of tofu. If you’re really concerned about phytates, grains, like wheat, are more concentrated sources.

Many of the concerns about soy products are addressed in an extensive meta-analysis, “Effects of Soy on Health Outcomes,” published by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. The study examined thousands of peer-reviewed articles and looked not only at whole soy products, like tofu, but also processed soy products like soy protein. The report noted that most of the research that’s been done has focused on markers for disease, rather than the incidence of the diseases themselves. It found virtually nothing to write home about in terms of a correlation between consumption of soy products and endocrine function, bone density, blood lipids, cardiovascular health and any other markers that they looked at. It’s worth noting that in addition to debunking claims about potential dangers of soy, this analysis also challenged claims, like that made by the soy industry, that daily consumption of soy reduces your chances of heart disease. The American Heart Association has also stated that evidence is inconclusive that substituting soy for meat has any cardiovascular benefit.

Meanwhile, a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found no link between infant consumption of soy formula and problems later in life. And a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found no link between soy consumption and thyroid function.

To me, the most compelling evidence that soy products are not dangerous comes from the Japanese island of Okinawa, home to the largest percentage of centurions on earth. The Okinanwan diet includes numerous servings of soy products, including tofu. The fact that Okinawans live so long is enough to convince me that feeding my family extra tofu this year won’t condemn us to short lives filled with health problems.

Another development in tofu land is the increase in the availability of sprouted tofu, or tofu made from sprouted soybeans. As a rule of thumb, grains, nuts, beans and anything else that’s a seed will be healthier when sprouted, and tofu made from sprouted soybeans appears to be no exception. Compared to tofu made from non-sprouted beans, sprouted tofu is higher in protein and fat – including saturated fat – all of which make it a more compelling substitute for meat than non-sprouted tofu.

Thus, here are two recipes. One’s a bit tricky, with specialized ingredients. One is barely more involved than opening the package.

First, in honor of my birth-tribe’s tradition of eating Chinese food on Christmas, I’ll leave you with a recipe, courtesy of Budai, Albuquerque’s finest Chinese restaurant.

Clay Pot Tofu

1 brick soft tofu

1/3 yellow onion, sliced

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 green onions, cut crosswise into inch-long pieces

1 tablespoon oyster sauce

2 tablespoons rice wine

Enough sesame oil (untoasted) for deep frying

1 egg

2 teaspoons sweet potato flour

1 tablespoon brown sugar

1 tablespoon soy sauce

8 tablespoons vegetable stock

Cut the tofu brick into four to eight rectangular pieces (I prefer fewer, thicker chunks). Dredge them in a mixture of beaten egg and sweet potato flour.

Heat sesame oil on high. When it’s hot enough that a drop of water flicked into the oil causes an eruption, add the coated tofu. Deep-fry for about four minutes, or until brown and crispy. Remove.

In a wok, sauté yellow onion, green onion, and garlic in sesame oil (you can use some of the leftover fry oil). Add veggie stock, rice wine, oyster sauce and brown sugar. Stir it together, and add the tofu. Transfer to a clay pot (or some other heat storing dish, like a cast-iron skillet), and keep warm until serving.

It’s a subtle, flavorful dish, in which the moist and mild-flavored interior contrasts with the rich sauce on the other side of the crispy skin. When made with thicker pieces it’s straight-up decadent, and hard to stop eating.

If that’s too complicated, here’s a very simple alternative. Cut a brick of firm tofu into slabs. Toss them in olive oil. Arrange on a baking sheet and bake at 300, turning once, until the slabs shrink and are browned on both sides. Drizzle with soy sauce and serve.

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