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Hunan Tofu, spare the salt (spoil the child)

tofu with broccoli

Last year my daughter kept hocking me that I never made enough meat. This year she’s going on twelve and decided, about a month before Passover, that she needed to be vegetarian because she has ambitions of becoming a veterinarian. Hard enough for anyone to deal with, but for a diabetic, it’s an added challenge, especially at Passover, which we got through with a lot of vegetables and a dispensation for tofu (though without soy sauce, which contains wheat) so she wouldn’t be stuck with only eggs and cheese and yogurt and nuts for protein. Next year, rice and beans are going back on the menu–I’m not stuck in Ashkenazi-think, and a lot of synagogues in the US are starting to reconsider the role of legumes, pulses and non-wheatlike grains at Passover. I’m all for it.

Still, we’re well past Passover now, and the issue today is tofu; see under: how to feed a vegetarian preteen some protein without overdosing her on sodium. One of our favorite Chinese restaurant dishes is tofu in black bean sauce, but no doubt about it, it’s loaded.

[Update Note, cue theme “Do the Math Yourself”: Check out the recent LA Times’ version of Hunan Tofu with Black Bean Sauce–looks wonderful, right? but the sodium stats at the bottom of the recipe are WAY off, even if Andrea Nguyen, the food writer, had been using low-sodium soy sauce. Perhaps the editors forgot to count the salt in the fermented black beans–which on its own is something like 850 mg per tablespoon, as far as I could find (it’s not listed in the USDA nutrient database). You really can’t rinse that kind of salt out, especially not if you’re using the rinse as a broth and adding it back into the dish. That plus 1/4 t. salt “or more” at 560 or so mg. and a couple of tablespoons of soy sauce–you’re looking at 750-1000 mg for each of 4 servings, or 1500-2000 each as “dinner for two”, or about an entire day’s worth of salt in a single dish–definitely not the 350 or so as stated in the article!]

Cooking at home is a lot cheaper in a number of ways (a 14-oz pack of firm tofu runs about $1.50 where we live), and we can figure out what to do about the sauce if we really want it. Invariably, the restaurant container is always swimming in sauce with a layer of oil on top, so I think just not doing that would be enough to improve the nutrition stats considerably.

Frying tofu at home won’t usually get you that crispy outside texture that you get in the Hunan tofu dishes from the restaurant–mostly, they’re shallow- or deep-frying the cubes or triangles in a lot more fat than you’d want to use at home for an ordinary dinner. A little less than that level of crispy is still okay by me. Getting any kind of brown on the outside would be a step up from the pale, flabby results I was used to achieving in the trusty nonstick pan.

So I started actually paying attention to the cookbooks I have on the shelf and to the techniques I invented for pan-browning things like salmon without salting the dickens out of them. I needed a (small amount of) sauce that tasted okay but wasn’t swamped with sodium. That means a little low-sodium soy sauce and a lot of ginger, garlic, maybe a bit of vinegar and sesame oil–and a surprise ingredient for browning and flavor depth: molasses.

Most syrups (agave included) run about 16 g. carb per tablespoon, a whisker more than a tablespoon of ordinary granulated sugar. Blackstrap molasses runs a bit less, at 11 g. per tablespoon. And it’s really thick, really strong-flavored, and really brownish-black. Also relatively inexpensive. Half a teaspoon will darken and thicken an ounce of sauce for frying tofu. It helps “stretch” the soy sauce–for looks as much as flavor and volume–without adding much sodium or carb to the dish. Even stranger (and better), molasses is a powerhouse source of potassium at 600 mg and iron at 20% of the RDA per tablespoon (not that we’re adding that much here, more like 1/6th tablespoon). The vinegar and sesame oil lend rich pungent flavor that doesn’t depend solely on the saltiness of the soy sauce, and ginger and garlic round out the combination.

So that’s the sauce. To get the tofu to brown in the frying pan, you have to get some of the extra water out of it first. There’s always the press-it-with-a-weighted-plate-on-top-for-30-minutes scheme, which always seems more of a pain than it’s worth. But I’m impatient.

There are two decent ways to press tofu other than the weighted plate setup. One requires thinking ahead (not my forte): slice the tofu and freeze the slices, then thaw them. The other–are you surprised yet?–is to slice and microwave the tofu on an open plate for a couple of minutes, say 4 minutes for a whole 14-oz. pad of firm tofu, or 2 minutes for half a pad. Then drain off the watery stuff that’s come out of the tofu (let it sit another few minutes and redrain), and pat the tofu dry.

To fry, heat a bit of olive or other vegetable oil in a nonstick pan. Brown some onion or scallion a few minutes. Make a frying sauce: 1-3 teaspoons of low-sodium soy sauce, depending on how much tofu you’re making, a minced clove of garlic, a teaspoon of fresh grated ginger, a few drops of sesame oil, a dash of vinegar and a pinch of brown sugar or better, a half-teaspoon of molasses. Hot pepper flakes or z’khug optional.

Pour the sauce into the hot pan and let bubble up a second or two. Then add the tofu cubes or triangles and toss a couple of times in the sauce. The sauce will be just enough to color the surfaces a little and get them started.  It’ll take another 5-10 minutes of stir-frying to get the tofu surfaces to brown nicely, but it does work. Serve atop microwaved broccoli and/or bok choy. Garnish at will with some chopped scallion, toasted almonds, fried mushrooms or slices of red bell pepper (or hot peppers and roasted peanuts for kung pao, if that’s your thing).

Sodium counts for this version:

If you figure the dish serves 3 people a decent meal-sized portion of protein, and the sodium is coming exclusively from the low-sodium soy sauce, a full tablespoon of soy sauce would be about 450-600 mg, so each serving is about 200 mg at the higher end. I don’t think I usually use quite that much for us, but even so it’s pretty reasonable. If you don’t mind doubling the sodium to about 400 mg per serving, you could make another dose of the frying sauce to drizzle the dish with at the last minute.

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