Though not a vegetarian, I often seek new ways with vegetables collected at the local farmers’ market. What’s in season dictates my dinner menu musings. Giving dinner a bit more heft, I like to add some protein into the mix, which presents a pristinely blank canvas for all kinds of culinary invention. And that’s where tea comes in. I love the taste of smoky tea infused into creamy firm tofu. When cooked quickly over high heat, those blocks of soy milk alchemized into solid form become the perfect foil for seasonal produce. Feel free to substitute the vegetables called for here with any that are your favorite or might be in season in your part of the world. Think of color, flavor and texture when choosing which members of the vegetable kingdom will grace this dish. Now in my markets, there is an abundance of cooler weather greens (Chinese broccoli, Broccolini, Black kale, Rainbow chard, and many others such as Japanese turnips, butternut squash, and fennel.
With a bit of advance planning, here’s the basic outline of the process for a quick dinner (there is some unsupervised marinating time called for but that can happen overnight in preparation for finishing the dish on the day you wish to serve it. I like to marinate not more than one day in advance of making the dish).
Tea-Edged Smoky Tofu with Fall Vegetables
To serve 2 generously as a main dish or 4 lightly as one of a series of dishes for a vegetarian assortment
Marinating the Tofu
- Your favorite smoky tea—Lapsang Souchong comes to mind but there are others, particularly Chinese black teas that have a smoky presence without having been smoked in their process before they reach the teacup
- 1 block firm tofu, drained and dried on paper towels and then cut into 1-1/2-inch squares
Brew 4 c. of tea; make it a bit stronger than you might if you were drinking it (use 1-1/4 t. per 8 ounces of 212° F. water for 3-5 minutes—taste it from the 3-minute mark on to check on the strength of the infusion). Allow the tea to cool and then place the firm tofu into a shallow bowl. Pour the cooled brewed tea over it and then cover the bowl. Refrigerate overnight.
Next Day, Cooking
(Gather the vegetables you intend to use; feel free to choose what looks best in your market but be sure to have an assortment of colors and vegetables whose textures after cooking are diverse.)
- Olive oil
- 1 t. garlic, peeled and finely chopped
- 4 Japanese turnips (about 4 ounces in total), peeled and roughly chopped
- 1 small butternut squash—called honeynut squash in these parts (about 8 ounces, or use 8 ounces of a larger one), peeled and cubed
- 1 bunch broccolini, stems, chopped, and leafy parts cut across the leaf in ribbons
- 1 small fennel bulb (4 ounces), cut into roughly 1-inch chunks with fronds cut off, but reserved for garnish
- 4 scallions, separate the white bulb base from the green tops; rough chop each separately and set aside in two small bowls
- 2 T. low sodium soy sauce
- 1 T. mild-flavored honey, or to taste
- 2 T. Toasted sesame seeds to garnish the dish just before serving
- Olive oil to cook the tofu
- Remove the tofu from the tea marinade, reserving the marinade. Dry off the tofu on paper towels as thoroughly as possible. In a heavy saucepan coated with a slick of olive oil, brown the cubes of tofu, turning them once or twice (be careful not to break them up), to brown all sides to a nice deep golden-brown color. Adjust the heat so that the tofu does not burn but browns instead. Remove the browned tofu to a plate.
- On medium heat, add more oil to the pan to coat and then add the garlic, stirring just until the garlic’s aroma is released. Immediately add the turnips and butternut squash into the pan and cook until tender and browned on all sides, about 7-10 minutes. Now add the broccolini stems and the scallion whites. Cook just until the stems are tender and the scallion whites have turned a bit golden. Remove everything from the saucepan (covering to keep the vegetable medley warm) and now make the sauce. You will not be reusing the pan so set it off to the side, or in the sink for cleanup after dinner.
- Place the reserved tea marinade along with soy and honey into a clean heavy saucepan and cook over high heat until the mixture thickens slightly. Watch carefully and do not burn. Return the cooked but still warm vegetables and tofu to the pan and gently stir to mix. Over medium heat, cook briefly again to warm the mixture and then serve immediately on warmed plates or bowls (scattering the toasted sesame seeds over each portion just before serving). Accompany this with some steamed rice if desired.