When I was a child, one of the cooking oil companies had a commercial in which they deep-fried cubes of bread to show something or other superior about its brand of oil. I never noticed what because I was too distracted by the cubes of bread. They were golden, crunchy, and beautiful – and I was sure they had to taste better than anything else I'd ever eaten. When I got old enough, I actually tried frying bread cubes the way they did in the commercial. Then I forked them open and bit into them to find that they tasted, alas, like greasy bread.
Fast-forward to today. Our family tries to eat a few vegan meals per week – meatless, milkless, and eggless.
This means I have had to move outside my comfort zone in finding foods that six people with differing taste buds can agree on.
When I'd tried what seemed like every known type of bean – green beans and lima beans, mung beans and chickpeas, split peas in green and yellow and orange, baked beans, kidney beans, cranberry beans, black beans, refried beans, and great northern beans – with any number of spices and sauces – we hit "bean burnout."
It was time to move to the next level. It was time to get intimate with tofu.
The first time a person eats tofu, he or she either loves it or hates it. My husband took to it right away and will eat it by itself or with barbecue sauce, sliced or fried.
He also enjoys soft tofu mashed into fake egg salad and firm tofu carved into meatlike shapes.
As for me, I thought that, well, it was white and had no taste or texture. It took a while for me to learn to add ingredients to it, after which it became a staple of our diet.
Tofu is a pressed, curdled soybean product. It comes in white slabs, about four inches square by two inches deep, and in firm or soft textures. You can buy it prewrapped in thick plastic packaging. Our local Asian store sells it by the chunk in buckets of refrigerated water. You put your hand in a plastic bag and reach in, rather like pulling ducks from the stream at a carnival. It's strange to feel the cold water around your hand but not on it.
Another nearby store sells the chunks in the tiny green baskets that cherry tomatoes generally come in. I like that better because the experience is less tactile – and because the tofu can then drain and become firm.
Most tofu dishes are Asian, where many people believe the food originated. In Asian grocery stores, you can buy tofu spiced or dried, fried, or pressed into mock duck. I've made Indian dishes with tofu in coconut juice and lime.
But the best tofu I ever had or made started out as a mistake. One Saturday, I was going to fry something in olive oil and I poured way too much into the skillet. I turned off the heat, reflected on how we could fix the situation, and realized that I had left the tofu in the little green containers out overnight. I had five slabs of rather dry, firm tofu that needed to be cooked.
Tofu, I reflected, did not have to be Asian. Noodles started out as Asian and then became associated with Italian cuisine. What, I asked myself, if Marco Polo had brought back tofu as well as pasta? How would it taste?
I sprinkled a plate with oregano, garlic powder, and salt. I sliced the tofu into fish-stick-size slabs. I dredged each slab in the seasonings, refreshing the supply of spices as needed, and stacked them on another plate. Then I reheated the olive oil.
When cooked, the slabs looked exactly like the bread cubes on the salad oil commercial – golden on the outside, white on the inside – and were warm, crisp, spicy, and succulent.
I called my husband and my children into the kitchen to see. And soon, before I could decide on a starch and vegetable to go with the meal, the plate of tofu was empty.
Given the cost of olive oil, I don't make this dish often. But when I do, offspring emerge from the house and yard and hover, waiting for it to cook.
Half the appreciation comes from anticipation, as they breathe in the scents of garlic and oil, oregano and heat.
I take advantage of the crowd and get them to clear and wipe the table – and then set it.
Then I make pasta and a salad while the tofu cooks.
Finally, we all sit down and eat together, and reflect on what other marvels the world might know had Marco Polo's ship had refrigeration.
Marco Polo Tofu
4 (10-ounce) chunks of tofu
3/4 cup olive oil
Salt, dried oregano, and garlic powder to taste
Place the tofu chunks in a colander overnight (or at least 4 hours) to drain.
Slice the tofu into pieces about 1 inch wide by 4 inches long.
Sprinkle salt, oregano, and garlic on a plate. Dredge each tofu slice in the seasonings and then stack slices in a single layer on a clean plate.
Heat olive oil over medium heat. When hot, sauté each piece until golden. Drain on paper towels.
Serve with pasta and tomato sauce, garlic bread, and salad.
Makes 6 to 10 servings.