Tofu’s versatility is no secret, but to embrace its many uses is an exquisite thing — it can be pan-fried, grilled, blended into spreads and dressings, or tossed in a smoker for a few hours. Those who know tofu well understand it as an ingredient that is subtle and ever-so-slightly sweet, a willing canvas for flavors or a base for them to intermingle.
The joy of tofu is what should keep us returning to it: We should be endlessly excited about it. How many ingredients are as multifaceted?
A dish centered on tofu usually has to be prepared to weather imaginary criticism. Consider this recipe a series of well-prepared comebacks. There is a dash of rice vinegar, a sweet acid to gently sting the skeptical palate. There is coconut milk for richness, molasses for caramelization, ginger for freshness and soy sauce for umami.
The dish’s contrasting textures may be the most satisfying part. Firm tofu slices are pan-seared to create a golden-brown crust and a soft interior. Whole cashews offer a buttery crunch. The snap peas nod to the flavors of summer while looking back at the green shades of spring. If blistered perfectly, they add a nice char to the plate and an audible crunch as you bite. The mint does whatever mint does. Does it bite back?
Warm late summer days are all about spending as little time as possible beside a hot stove. So let’s keep it simple. One wide saucepan will work for everything here. Sear your tofu and set it aside; blister your snap peas and transfer them to a bowl. Build the sauce in the same pan, add your tofu back and let it soak up all that is sweet and savory. Serve over steamed rice or a fresh handful of greens, and garnish with more fresh, tingling mint leaves.
There is, of course, just as much to be gained from this recipe by using other proteins: chicken thighs, slices of pork shoulder or cubes of rib-eye. But alongside these fresh ingredients from the season’s bounty, tofu can really shine.
Perhaps that’s the secret to tofu: It shouldn’t be treated like a substitute for anything. Now is as perfect a time as any to give it center stage.
CRISPY TOFU WITH CASHEWS AND BLISTERED SNAP PEAS
- 1 (14-ounce) block firm or extra-firm tofu, drained
- 3 tablespoons neutral oil, such as grapeseed, vegetable or canola, divided, plus more as needed
- Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste
- 3/4 pound snap peas, trimmed
- 1 (2-inch) piece ginger, grated (about 2 tablespoons)
- 2 cloves garlic, grated
- 1 (13-ounce) can unsweetened coconut milk
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 2 teaspoons molasses, dark brown sugar or honey
- 1/2 cup toasted cashews
- 1 tablespoon rice vinegar
- 4 scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced
- 1/4 cup mint leaves, torn if large
- 1/2 to 1 teaspoon red-pepper flakes (optional)
- Rice or any steamed grain, for serving
Slice tofu in half horizontally; place on paper towels to absorb excess liquid. Season with salt and pepper.
In a medium skillet or cast-iron pan, heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium-high until it shimmers. Add tofu and sear without moving until tofu is browned and golden on both sides, turning once halfway through, about 8 minutes total. Move tofu to a plate.
Add 1 tablespoon oil to pan; add snap peas. Cook, stirring occasionally, until blistered and just tender, about 3 minutes. Season with salt and move to a bowl.
Add remaining 1 tablespoon oil to pan; add ginger and garlic. Cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Pour in coconut milk, soy sauce and molasses. Simmer, stirring frequently. until sauce reduces and color deepens to dark brown, 6 to 8 minutes. It should coat a spoon without running off.
Stir in cashews. Break tofu into 1-inch pieces and toss in pan to coat with sauce. Remove from heat; taste and adjust seasoning, if necessary.
Toss snap peas with rice vinegar, scallions, mint and red-pepper flakes, if using. Divide among plates, along with tofu and cashews. Serve with rice or any steamed grain. Serves 4.
Nutritional information unavailable.