Tofu: Tasteless Mush or Wholesome Delight?
Tofu: bland, tasteless, sometimes mushy, or protein rich, a delightful alternative to meat. Whether you have cooked with tofu or not, you certainly have seen it popping up on menus. The only reference I had of tofu while growing up was on the television show “Clarissa Explains it All,” in which Clarissa’s mother was always using tofu in different recipes and it was seen as on oddity. In my mind, tofu was always this foreign, strange substance. The first time I tried tofu was when I had Pad Thai at a local Asian restaurant. I was amazed at its subtle flavor and I enjoyed each piece, which was slightly crispy. After researching, I realized that tofu was a healthy protein alternative to meat.
Tofu production first began in China during the Han dynasty, around 2,000 years ago. According to Chinese lore, it was invented when a cook tried to flavor soybeans with nagari and he ended up with tofu (also known as bean curd).�
Tofu is made from the soy bean and is processed similarly to milk. Soy is a complete protein and has eight essential amino acids. The soybean is processed into soymilk which is then separated into curds and whey, and the curds are what make tofu. Tofu can be purchased in several varieties: silken, extra firm, firm, soft, and baked marinated tofu. Silken is excellent pureed and used as the base for soups, dressings, dips, and sauces. Extra firm and firm can be used in a variety of ways, such as a replacement for meats in a stir-fry, while soft tofu is best eaten raw or in soup. The baked marinated tofu is the hardest to find and its texture is extremely dense, making it useful as a meat replacement in sandwiches and casseroles.
For those who are squeamish when it comes to trying new things, I have included a recipe that incorporates pork and is simple, Ma Po Tofu. This traditional Szechuan dish’s translation is “pockmarked grandmother bean curd,” apparently after the woman who created it.�
Saffron, the Empress of Spice
photo by melaniemar
I must admit I am a spice aficionado. I have cooked, tasted, and enjoyed the aroma of every spice on earth. However, when I unexpectedly tasted “Saffron Rice,” a dish cooked in culinary class, my taste buds were pleasurably provoked. The spice’s penetrating flavors teased my palate and I was instantly captivated. I felt compelled to find out more about its origins.
Saffron is obtained from the stigmas of the flower Crocus sativus Linnaeus. It is comprised of three components, namely safranal, which gives it its pungent smell, picrocrocin its exotic flavor, and crocin, its magnificent color(s).
Saffron origins and history are quite antiquated and mysterious. It is rumored to be native to the Eastern Mediterranean, the Balkans and Near East. Grand scale saffron cultivation began when countries recognized its culinary and medicinal value. Saffron is considered the most expensive spice in the world because its cultivation is laborious. Each flower is hand-picked, and thousands of flowers are required to produce a small quantity of the noble spice.
Used in a variety of cuisines, saffron is not only used in traditional foods such as paella, and bouillabaisse. This quintessential spice can also be used to enhance ice cream, cakes, chocolates, beverages and breads. I recently had the pleasure of eating a bar of delicious saffron chocolate, purchased from the renowned chocolatier, RichArt. It was addictive.
Saffron, aside from contributing exotic flavor to foods, also has chemical properties. For example, in Laura Esquivel’s brilliant novel, Like Water for Chocolate, Tita helps John make matches by coloring the cardboard sticks with saffron before applying the phosphorous mixture.
It is quite easy to be charmed by saffron, as its uses are versatile and adds treasured attributes of nutrients, aroma, flavor, and radiant color to food.
Szechuan Peppercorns: Asia’s Prized Berry
photo from Saigoncooking.com
After scouring five supermarkets and traversing Chinatown, my quest came to an end: I found my prized Szechuan peppercorns. A bag cost only $1.50, and I used the subtle floral, woodsy and lemony morsels to infuse my dinner.
Szechuan peppercorns are not as foreign as they sound and you have probably eaten them before. They are an ingredient in Chinese five powder spice (equal parts cassia, cloves, fennel seed, star anise and Szechuan peppercorns), a common spice mixture used in Chinese cuisine. In Japan, these peppercorns are known as sansho pepper and are part of Japanese seven spice powder, sichimi togarashi (black sesame seed, dried mandarin peel, roasted red pepper, fresh red pepper, sansho, poppy seed, and hemp seed). The spice is also vital in Tibetan and Bhutani cuisine of the Himalayas as one of the few spices that can grow in these regions.
The name, however, is a misnomer. The spice is often referred to as Szechuan pepper, but is neither a pepper, chile, nor peppercorn. Szechuan peppercorns are actually the dried shells of prickly ash tree berries. When the rough reddish brown berry shell splits, black seeds emerge, which one would assume to be Szechuan peppercorns. These seeds, however, are bitter and should be discarded; the red shell is the prized spice.
The pepper’s unique flavor can be described as tingling and metallic, and its aroma is distinctly woodsy with hints of lemon essence. The peppercorns are often paired with chilies in Szechuan cooking, in an effort to achieve balanced in flavors.
Szechuan peppercorns are hard to find. The United States Agriculture Department banned them in 1968 because they come from citrus trees which may carry canker, an agricultural pest. However, you can still find unlabeled packages of the peppercorns in most local Chinatown markets.