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Microwave Tricks: 10-Minute Tofu

Microwaved platter of low-sodium tofu with snow peas

Microwaved tofu platter in minutes, minus the big oil and salt overload of takeout. I’ve used snow peas and shiitake mushrooms this time, but you could use any greens you like and mix them up–bok choy, broccoli, green beans. Frozen snow or sugar snap peas work too.

This is the recipe I meant to put in the last post about reducing sodium in Chinese food.

Tofu is, as everyone knows by now, extremely versatile. It’s vegetarian, it’s shapeable, it’s mild but satisfying in flavor, it comes in a variety of textures and thicknesses, and it’s quick to cook–fried, steamed, stuffed, crumbled–or to eat cold. It’s also low-fat, low-sodium, nearly carb-free, and relatively high in protein, with some iron and calcium too. And it’s very inexpensive–less than $2 for a 14-oz. pad of tofu at the supermarket, about three or four servings’ worth.

When it’s hideously hot out, as it was much of September here in Pasadena, you can marinate a sliced cold block of silken tofu by pouring a jao tze-style dipping sauce over it maybe half an hour, garnish with scallion shreds or crushed toasted nuts, and serve it as an appetizer. Or eat firm tofu plain and cold, if you like it. Or throw some tofu cubes into a salad with cabbage, lightly-steamed (or microwaved) fresh brussels sprouts, scallions and halved hard-boiled eggs, and drizzle peanut sauce over it.

Or you can decide there’s no way you’re going to stand over a stove with a frying pan, but you’d like a proper cooked dinner that resembles kung pao or ma po tofu with some greens, just not doused in heavy greasy oversalted sauce or requiring a run to your local takeout, and it would be nice if it were very quick. Very quick. Like five minutes tops. And that it didn’t involve the stove at all.

When my daughter decided she wanted to be vegetarian a couple of years ago, I discovered that you can “quick-press” tofu for Hunan tofu in about 4-5 minutes for a standard 14-19 oz. pad by cutting it up, standing the pieces on a microwaveable dinner plate, and microwaving, then draining off the liquid. Then it’s ready to stir-fry and it’ll brown decently. But I’ve done it so often in the past two years that my daughter’s kind of tired of it now (and has also gone back to eating fish and chicken once in a while). But we still like tofu. And with 100-degree days filling so much of September, there was just no way I was going to stand at the stove. So….

The entirely microwaveable tofu dish below is my daughter’s current preference, because the tofu cubes are softer, steamed in the microwave in a thin sauce rather than browned, and the scallions never scorch. And it’s not bad at all, and it takes, if not a literal 5 minutes, maybe about 10, start to finish.

This is more of a technique than a recipe, really, because you can use whatever cookable greens you have and like–fresh broccoli with the stalks, green beans, bok choy, etc. are pretty classic and generally not expensive per pound, but I’m not against using frozen unsalted (store brand; I’m cheap) sugar snap peas or green beans if the fresh ones are out of season. You’re microwaving; it’ll work out, and you won’t overcook the tofu.

Two notes of caution about microwaveable ceramic plates:

First, this technique works pretty well for me, but don’t use your best plates for it. The industrial standard for labeling dishes  and casseroles “microwave-oven-dishwasher-safe” really isn’t all that reliable. If you microwave often this way, you should probably pick up an inexpensive couple of microwaveable stoneware dinner plates for cooking, because repeated microwaving can affect the glaze, and sometimes weaken the ceramic itself on some dishes, and you really don’t know which ones are likely to crack or overheat easily until you try them. I’ve had mug handles overheat and–after only a week or so of reheating coffee 30 seconds to a minute in the morning–crack off. Every single one. Not good.  They were part of a supposedly microwaveable set of stoneware dishes, although the thicker dinner plates from the same set were fine for microwaving and I’m still using them.

Also, some supposedly microwaveable dishes will overheat and be dangerous to handle after just two minutes, even with liquid in them. Of course, always handle hot plates with oven mitts or towels when you take them out of the microwave. But if a plate or casserole overheats easily to scorching temperatures, not just the normal heat of the hot food inside, be smart and don’t use it again. It’s absorbing a lot more of the microwave energy than it should.

That said…

–  –  –  –  –

10-minute Tofu with Greens

serves 2-3, so scale up if you need to, and probably you should cook it in 2 batches if you have 2 or more pads of tofu because the microwave timing depends partly on the quantity…it’ll still be quick.

  • 14 oz pad of regular or firm tofu (not “extra-firm”), cut in 1/2-inch dice on a microwaveable dinner plate
  • 2-3 cups or so raw green vegetables in reasonable bite-sized pieces: a couple of stalks of bok choy, a stalk of broccoli, a handful or two of snow pea pods (be sure to string these if they’re not very young and tender), sugar snap pea pods (fresh or frozen unsalted), green or romano beans if you have them. Feel free to use a mix of things. Sliced carrots and red bell pepper are probably fine too as part of the mix, especially if you’re going with chili-garlic paste. But I’d add them sparingly and maybe only for the last minute, because I like mostly greens, I like my carrots and peppers still mostly crisp, and I’m not crazy about the sweet or bitter flavors, respectively, that they impart if cooked too long.
  • a couple of mushrooms washed and cut in quarters or slices
  • a couple of shiitake mushrooms, fresh or dried, rinsed and then sliced or broken up, soaked a few minutes in a little hot water if they’re dried and you really care–they’ll steam and soften in the recipe anyway
  • 1-2 scallions, rinsed, trimmed and chopped
  • roasted peanuts, optional, for kung pao-style garnish, or toasted almonds (sliced or whole), also optional

Sauce

  • a decent-sized clove of garlic and about the same amount of fresh ginger, both minced, grated or mashed
  • 1/2-1 t. molasses (blackstrap is fine) or brown sugar
  • 1-2 T vinegar (any kind is fine, don’t panic and run out to the store for something fancy)
  • 2 t. low-sodium soy sauce
  • optional dab of z’khug, chili-garlic paste or chile flakes to taste; don’t throw in whole birds’-eye chiles the way they do for restaurant kung pao because the microwave will spread much, much more of their heat into the dish than stirfrying does, and you can’t get it back out. Plus they won’t stay crisp.
  • 1/2 t. Chinese toasted sesame oil
  • (if frying a few seconds instead of mixing cold) 1 T olive or polyunsaturated vegetable oil

Dice the block of tofu on a microwaveable dinner plate. I cut the block into 5 even strips lengthwise, 6 strips crosswise, and then the whole thing into three horizontal layers of cubes. You could just cut triangles or larger squares if you prefer–cut crosswise into six pads, lengthwise down the middle (12 2-inch squares) and then diagonally lengthwise from the center bottom to the top outside edge on each side for triangles (24 triangles). If you stand the triangles up on the plate they seem to drain better in the microwave than if they’re lying down…

Spread the dice (or triangles, or squares) out a bit and microwave 5 minutes on the uncovered plate–this is a little longer than for the fried Hunan Tofu recipe, but you want to get rid of a little more liquid on this one because the vegetables will add their own juices and you don’t want to swamp the dish. Drain as much of the liquid from the tofu as possible without losing any of the cubes to the floor or sink. Let the tofu stand a minute or so, then carefully drain again.

While the tofu is still cooking in the microwave, mix the sauce ingredients together. If you’re not adamant about keeping away from the stove, you can heat the sauce for about 15 seconds with a little olive or vegetable oil in a nonstick pan until it bubbles up and starts darkening a little, then toss the drained tofu cubes in the pan a few seconds to coat and put back on the microwaveable plate. If it’s just too hot to think about frying pans at all, mix the sauce ingredients (minus the olive oil) cold, pour it over the drained tofu cubes on the plate and toss gently to coat. Seems to work fine.

Add the greens and mushrooms to the tofu and cover with another microwaveable plate. Or you could take another plate, make a bed of greens and mushrooms, then stick the sauced tofu on top, if you think it needs to be prettier, and cover with the now-empty tofu plate (why waste dishes?). Microwave another 3 minutes or until the vegetables are jewel-green and just-cooked-through. Garnish with roasted peanuts or almonds if you think they go.

Serve with rice or noodles as preferred. Or microwaved spaghetti squash tossed with spicy peanut or sesame sauce and some scallions–that’s quick and good either hot or cold too.

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