Photo Credit: The Washington PostI've baked it, fried it, steamed it and eaten it raw. I've crumbled it, seasoned it and persuaded it to play the part of eggs (in a scramble and a salad) and even meat (in a "chorizo"). And every time I think I've pushed the limits of tofu, it surprises me by going further.
The latest iteration? Feta - or perhaps I should say "feta."
The trick comes as part of a recipe from British chef Lee Watson in his new book, "Peace & Parsnips: Adventurous Vegan Cooking for Everyone" (The Experiment, 2016). Watson, who cooks at a retreat center in Wales's Snowdonia National Park, writes with humor and energy about his world travels and the recipes they have inspired. The idea for a combination of warm figs and raw greens was born on a trip to Sancerre, France, but his stroke of brilliance is the decidedly nontraditional addition of what he calls lemon tofu feta.
The tofu gets crumbled, then pan-fried with nutritional yeast (that nutty-tasting ingredient vegans often use to impart cheese flavor), lemon and garlic, which give it a feta-like umami and tang.
It won't fool anyone into thinking it's really cheese, but that doesn't matter, because it's delicious nonetheless. It offers protein and a little bulk, turning what might seem like a side salad into a meal. And it allows me yet another use for that block of tofu that's always in my refrigerator.
Charred Fig and Spinach Salad With Lemon Tofu Feta:
This summery lunch salad takes advantage of tofu's chameleon-like qualities. For a bigger contrast between sweet and peppery, use arugula instead of spinach.
MAKE AHEAD: The dressing can be refrigerated for up to 1 week. The tofu feta can be refrigerated for up to 5 days.
For the lemon tofu feta
1 tablespoon nutritional yeast flakes
1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest plus 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (from 1 lemon)
14 ounces firm tofu
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more as needed
1/4 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
For the dressing:
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon brown rice syrup
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more as needed
Vegetable oil, for the pan
6 ripe figs, quartered lengthwise
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
6 cups baby spinach (may substitute arugula leaves; see headnote)
3 tablespoons toasted pine nuts (may substitute toasted slivered almonds) (see NOTE)
1/2 cup lightly packed basil leaves
For the tofu feta: Combine the nutritional yeast flakes with the lemon zest and juice in a mixing bowl; let it sit for a few minutes to dissolve the yeast.
Wrap the tofu in paper towels and set on a plate. Top with another plate and a large can of tomatoes or another heavy object and let sit for about 20 minutes to press out the extra liquid. Unpack, discard the paper towels, pat the tofu dry and use your hands to crumble it.
Heat the extra-virgin olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the tofu and garlic. Cook, stirring frequently, until the tofu starts to turn slightly golden, about 10 minutes, then stir in the nutritional yeast mixture, salt and pepper; cook, stirring frequently, just until the lemon juice has evaporated. Taste, and add salt if needed; the tofu should taste a little bit too salty, like feta. Spoon the lemon tofu feta back into the bowl you used to mix the nutritional yeast, and let cool.
For the dressing: Whisk together the lemon juice, brown rice syrup, oil, vinegar and salt in a small bowl, or shake to combine in a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid. Taste, and add salt if needed.
When you're ready to make the salad, brush a grill pan lightly with the vegetable oil and set it over medium-high heat. Just as the oil starts to smoke, place the figs, cut sides down, in the pan, setting them perpendicular to the pan's ridges. Cook for 2 minutes, until charred on one side, then quickly baste them with the balsamic vinegar, turn them to coat, then quickly remove from the heat (before the vinegar burns).
To serve, scatter the spinach leaves on individual plates. Top with the warm figs, a couple spoonfuls of the tofu feta, a sprinkling of the pine nuts and the basil.
NOTE: Toast the pine nuts in a small, dry skillet over medium-low heat for several minutes, shaking the pan often to prevent scorching, until fragrant and lightly browned. Let cool before using.