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Eric Akis: Use tofu for a meat-free version of Kung Pao

Tofu is made by cooking and grinding soybeans to yield a milky-looking liquid. Like milk when making cheese, that liquid is then coagulated, turned into curds, moulded, pressed and formed into blocks.
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In this version of kung pao, sizzling cubes of tofu replace the chicken normally used. ERIC AKIS

Tofu is made by cooking and grinding soybeans to yield a milky-looking liquid. Like milk when making cheese, that liquid is then coagulated, turned into curds, moulded, pressed and formed into blocks.

The English word tofu comes from the Japanese tōfu. That word was borrowed from the Chinese Mandarin one dòufu, which means bean curd, a term also used to describe this cholesterol-free, high-protein food that also contains a variety of vitamins, minerals and essential amino acids.

Those nutritional benefits are one reason tofu has become popular to eat in North America. But when you first open a tub of tofu there’s not much to get excited about. It’s not exactly mouth-watering to look at and its taste is as bland as can be.

But that soon changes when you combine tofu with other ingredients, such as a flavoured liquid or sauce, seasonings and produce, such as colourful vegetables. Tofu, like plain pasta, does a marvelous job of absorbing the tastes of things you prepare it with, transforming it from something very plain tasting, to one that bursts with flavour.

When tofu is made, its texture can vary from being quite soft, to being very firm, depending on how much liquid is pressed out during processing. That explains why in grocery stores you’ll see various types for sale, such as soft, medium, medium-firm and extra-firm tofu. You’ll also see smoked tofu, flavoured tofu and silken tofu, a soft, velvety textured type processed differently than pressed tofu.

What you intend to use the tofu for will determine what type you should buy. For example, if you want to blend tofu into a smoothie, an easily pureed soft type would fit the bill. If you want the tofu to holds it’s shape, though, such as in today’s recipe for kung pao tofu, you’ll need to use a firmer style, that won’t break apart when cooked.

Kung pao is usually made with chicken. But I replaced it with marinated, seared cubes of tofu, which were combined with a palate-awakening sauce, stir-fried vegetables and peanuts.

To make the recipe, which yields two servings, I used half a 454-gram tub of tofu, which means you’ll have some leftover. To store it, submerge the tofu in fresh cold water, cover and refrigerate until ready to use in another dish. It will keep several days.

Kung Pao Tofu

Marinated, seared cubes of tofu combined with a salty, sweet, sour and spicy sauce, stir-fried vegetables and peanuts. Serve the tofu with steamed rice.

Preparation time: 30 minutes, plus marinating time

Cooking time: about seven minutes

Makes: two servings

For the tofu

227 grams medium or medium-firm tofu (see Note)

1 1/2 tsp soy sauce

1 1/2 tsp Chinese cooking wine, rice wine or sherry (see Note)

1 1/2 tsp cornstarch

For the kung pao

2 Tbsp vegetable oil

3 Tbsp soy sauce

3 Tbsp water

1 1/2 Tbsp rice vinegar

1 1/2 tsp granulated sugar

1/2 tsp cornstarch

1/2 medium red bell pepper, cut 3/4-inch cubes

1 medium celery rib, thinly sliced on the bias

16 snap peas, each halved on the bias

1 tsp finely chopped fresh ginger

1 medium garlic clove, minced

1/8 tsp red pepper flakes, or to taste

2 Tbsp unsalted roasted peanuts, coarsely chopped

1 large green onion, halved lengthwise, then cut widthwise into 1-inch pieces

Cut the tofu into 3/4- to 1-inch cubes; you should have at least 36 of them. Gently pat the cubes dry with paper towel.

Combine 1 1/2 tsp soy sauce, 1 1/2 tsp cooking wine (or sherry) and 1 1/2 tsp cornstarch for the tofu in a wide, shallow-sided plate. Set the cubes of tofu on the plate in a single layer and carefully turn each one to coat it with the soy sauce mixture. Let tofu marinate at room temperature 20 minutes.

Place oil in a large non-stick skillet set over medium-high heat. When oil is very hot, set in the pieces of tofu, leaving the remaining marinade behind. Sear tofu for two minutes, and then turn each piece over and sear 90 seconds to two minutes on that side.

Remove skillet from the heat. Lift tofu out of the skillet and on to a clean plate.

Make sauce mixture by combining 3 Tbsp soy sauce, water, rice vinegar, sugar and 1/2 tsp cornstarch in a small bowl.

Drain all but 2 tsp of oil from the skillet you cooked the tofu in. Set skillet back over medium-high heat. When oil is very hot, add the bell pepper, celery, snap peas, ginger, garlic and pepper flakes and stir-fry two minutes. Return tofu to the pan, along with the peanuts and green onions. Pour in the sauce mixture and cook, gently stirring occasionally, until sauce thickens and coats the tofu, about one minute, and then serve.

Note: Half a 454-gram tub of tofu will yield the 227 grams needed here. Save the rest for another use. Chinese-style cooking wine, such a Shaoxing rice wine, is sold at food stores in Victoria’s Chinatown and in the Asian foods aisle of some supermarkets. Mirin, a sake-based condiment, could also be used here.

eakis@timescolonist.com

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.