Another Kind of Soy Sauce
One of the marvelous food transformations is the conversion of soy beans into bean curd, a.k.a. tofu. In the vegetarian kitchen, it shows up all over the place--in "cutlets", in scrambles, as a meat substitute in Thai curries. But until I went to a dinner featuring Japanese-food expert Elizabeth Andoh I had never seen tofu used as a sauce (or if I had, it didn't enter my memory bank). The Japanese name for this sauce is shira aé, and in her book Washoku, she recommends the sauce as a good way to use up extra pieces of tofu. The sauce is quite simple and contains just a few ingredients (two of which are based on soy). I put the shira aé on a mixture of konnyaku (a.k.a. devil's tongue, an elastic substance made from a powdered tuber and sometimes flavored with hijiki seaweed) and carrots that were cooked in konbu stock, soy sauce and sake, and cooled to room temperature before tossing with the sauce. Here's a recipe for the sauce:
Creamy Tofu Sauce (Shira Aé)
About 4 ounces silken or firm tofu
2 teaspoons white or Saikyo miso
A few drops of mirin (sweetened cooking sake)
A pinch of salt
A small saucepan
Colander or large strainer
A piece of cheesecloth (at least 8" by 8") or clean kitchen towel (non-terry cloth)
Food processor or food mill
- Prepare the work area: get out your food processor, drape the cheesecloth across the bottom of a colander in the sink, and fill a small saucepan with water.
- Bring the water to a boil.
- Carefully lower the tofu into the boiling water and let it cook for two minutes. Gently remove the tofu with a slotted spoon and place on the cheesecloth.
- When the tofu is cool enough to touch, gather the corners of the cheesecloth above the tofu to form a wrapper, then gently twist the gathered corners to squeeze water from the tofu. Don't worry about breaking the tofu block at this stage, as it will go into the food processor.
- Place the squeezed tofu in the food processor and pulse until smooth. Scrape the sides of the workbowl, add the miso, salt and mirin, and pulse again until smooth.
The Magic of Miso
Another important product derived from soybeans is miso, a paste made from soybeans (or a mixture of soybeans and rice or barley) that have been cooked, mashed, salted, mixed with a mold called koji, fermented and then aged (here is a great description of the miso making process). There are numerous varieties available (the venerable Berkeley Bowl Marketplace near my house has at least 20 different kinds), each with their own character. Red miso (akamiso), for example, is richly flavored and salty, while white miso (shiromiso) is sweeter and less salty. Miso is associated with Japanese cuisine, but other Asian cuisines also feature fermented soybean products (Chinese black bean paste, tempeh, Korean dwenjang).
Miso soup is an excellent and easy way to use this flavorful and nutritious product. A wide range of vegetables are appropriate, with mushrooms, sea vegetables, and green onions having a special affinity for miso. Tofu, either diced deep-fried or diced firm, can add textural interest and additionnutritionalnal value. Making the soup is relatively simple, and recipes are all over the place (and usually even on the miso package itself).
The May/June 1998 issue of Saveur had a wonderful story about miso making in Japan, and I just discovered that the full text and recipes (but not all of the pictures) are on-line. (The May/June 1998 issue is one of my favorites, as it also has two outstanding recipes: a cherry clafoutis and an Italian chard-feta torta)
Smooth as Silk
The third part of my trilogy is silken tofu topped with something savory. The rich flavor of oyster or shiitake mushrooms are a perfect foil for the smoothness of the tofu. To prepare a topping like the one pictured at left, saute sliced mushrooms in oil over high heat until they are lightly colored. Sprinkle in a little salt, then deglaze the pan with some sake. When the liquid is reduced, pour in a mixture of soy sauce, vegetable stock and mirin. Let the ingredients simmer for a few minutes, then add a pre-combined mixture of cool water and cornstarch to thicken the sauce.
Proper pre-treatment of the tofu will result in the best flavor and texture. Andoh recommends that the tofu should first be lightly pressed for an hour or two to reduce the moisture content. I usually place the tofu on a plastic cutting board, put another board on top, stack a bit of weight on the upper board, and then tilt the assembly slightly to allow the liquid to drain away (into the sink or another container). Another approach is to place the tofu under a weight in a colander in the sink.
If you want to eat the tofu in less than one or two hours, Andoh recommends a "zap and blot" procedure. First remove the tofu from its container, then blot it dry with a paper towel. Wrap it in fresh paper towels, place in a bowl, then microwave on high for 30 seconds. Pour off any liquid that was released, replace the wet towels with fresh ones, and repeat one or two times, until the tofu has firmed up. To heat the tofu for serving, Andoh suggests cooking it in the microwave for two minutes on the highest setting, and pouring off any liquid that the tofu releases before covering it with the topping.
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