Monthly Archives: February 2015

The Trouble with Tofu

If there’s anything that summarises the virtuous, worthy perception of vegetarianism, and its reputation for bland, tasteless food, it’s got to be tofu. Even some other vegetarians I’ve met will give tofu a wide berth. They don’t want to be seen as the “tofu-eating type” of vegetarian – you know, the ones who wear sandals and socks, and tote acoustic guitars, like Mike Leigh’s monumentally irritating couple Keith and Candice-Marie in Nuts in May.

I think tofu is unfairly maligned in the Western world. Personally, I really like the stuff. My favourite Chinese dish was always Ma Po Tofu (now I have it without the minced pork or beef), and I am a bit obsessed with inari-age sushi. I think fried tofu lends itself really well to spicy Thai curries, because it absorbs the flavours. But I have always had a hard time convincing people that tofu can be, well, even edible. And it’s even been blamed for global warming. It’s not looking good.

Part of the problem with tofu is that people’s first encounter with it is often at vegetarian health food-type cafes. In Oriental cuisines, tofu is a staple – it is used both in vegetarian and meat dishes, and often freshly made, no vacuum packing or slightly funky-smelling water – and here’s the thing, they know how to cook it. I remember as a student going to these health food cafe type places, usually where a high proportion of the staff had dreadlocks, and you could fill up on vegetarian food for next to nothing. It was hearty, sure – but often pretty lacking in the taste and texture department. You can’t just take tofu out of the packet, chop it up and chuck it in and hope for the best.

Thankfully, the bad old days of bland “wholefood” type vegetarian restaurants are fast receding, as vegetarian cuisine becomes more mainstream and more creative. Well-cooked and well-flavoured tofu is a good source of protein, and can provide calcium, magnesium and iron, as well as other trace elements, and it’s low in fat and calories. It’s easy to start relying on cheese as a vegetarian for your main source of protein – if you go on vegetarian support boards, eating too much cheese is a common worry, particularly for rookie veggies. And it makes sense. In our house, with two cheese lovers around, it’s the food we can often agree on. My partner will happily eat vegetarian dishes if there’s a generous cheese component.

The texture that a lot of people don’t like can be mitigated by using firm tofu instead of the silken kind. I used to think tofu was just tofu, until I bought silken tofu by mistake and it went to mush in my stir-fry. You live and learn. If you want it to have any chewiness to it, dare I say meatiness, you need the firm kind. Silken tofu has its place – for example, making dairy-free cheesecake. Mamma Cucina is a particular favourite with my dad’s wife Sussi, who has a milk allergy, and the main ingredient is silken tofu. It doesn’t quite taste like or have the texture of cheesecake, but it’s close, and much lighter than its cheesy counterpart. Sussi and I have actually been known to get through a whole one in one day *guilty face.

The first thing to do is dry it. It will inevitably come in water – that’s important for keeping it fresh, but conversely, the less liquid the better when it comes to cooking it. This “Tofu for Tofu Haters” guide gives step by step instructions – both a quick method, and a longer one, which takes a little more effort, but I am told is worth it, particularly if you want a good crunchy crust when deep-frying it. I particularly like this for stir fries, and I used the salted boiling water method for the stir fry I made the other day.

tofu

I coated the tofu in a mixture of gluten free flour and Chinese five spice, and then shallow-fried it in coconut oil before adding broccoli, greens, chopped garlic, ginger and soy sauce. The texture turned out pretty well. I am going to try the same salted boiling water method to make another favourite tofu dish of mine using this Agedashi Tofu recipe.

Still not confident? Maybe try some of the ready-marinated options out there. My favourites are the Taifun range of marinated, naturally flavoured tofu cutlets. The wild garlic flavour is great for stir fry, while the oregano flavour works well in a pasta dish. The pizza flavour one is strong, but a good veggie substitute for pepperoni due to its spiciness. These have a really firm texture, and the flavours mean that you don’t have to worry about the characteristic blandness.

Gluten free and vegetarian at the Wildmoor Oak, Bromsgrove

On Sunday, we were down in Bromsgrove visiting my partner’s mum for her 60th birthday. She had chosen the Wildmoor Oak, a local pub just outside their village of Catshill, for a Sunday lunch.

I’ve been to the Wildmoor Oak before, and knew they had some gluten free options, but eating out suddenly got a lot harder for me now I stopped eating meat. The Oak also does fantastic Caribbean food, so I was hoping that there would at least be something on there I could sample, and I wasn’t disappointed. The Tobago Medley, which is like a Caribbean bean stew with spices and cooked in coconut milk and served with rice and peas, was absolutely fantastic – they did it for me with gluten free bread instead of traditional hardo bread as well. The dish was perfectly seasoned, had a nice bite (and you can add Encona hot pepper sauce if you want to add some extra heat) and the rice and peas perfectly cooked. The only thing I would say is that it didn’t need the salad – particularly not plain, undressed lettuce leaves just stuck on the side of the plate. The Caribbean dishes speak for themselves.

As excellent as the dish was (and reasonably priced, too) it was the only dish on the menu that fitted a gluten free and vegetarian diet. There was a jerk halloumi option, but for some reason, the jerk dishes are not gluten free – I’m a little nonplussed by that, because I make jerk dishes at home myself, and the marinade recipes I use to make it from scratch use no gluten containing ingredients. I’ve also found plenty of gluten free jerk marinade and sauce options in the shops, so it is pretty easy to make or find gluten free jerk sauce. The other possibility is that the sauce contains barley malt vinegar – because this is made from barley, there is some confusion about whether coeliacs can eat it, but in fact, according to Coeliac UK, yes, we can – the fermentation process removes the gluten, making it safe to eat in the small quantities that we usually would do, such as putting vinegar on your fish and chips, or used in a condiment like sauce or pickles. A lot of restaurants don’t know this, as the information doesn’t really seem to have disseminated very well. Understandably, too, I’m sure a lot of restaurant owners would prefer to err on the side of caution when it comes to coeliac guests, and there is also a legal requirement to state that the product contains barley, which can be confusing.

Overall though, I applaud the Wildmoor Oak for providing good, clear menu information, giving different types of options (Caribbean as well as normal pub fare) and having staff who were able to explain how a dish is adapted for a gluten-free diner. Keep up the good work!

Vegetarianism, I hate you.

Since my “vegucation” a week ago I have not eaten any meat or fish. I’ve discovered that Waitrose Indian Bhaji burgers are a perfectly good Friday fast food dish – think a cross between an onion bhaji and a vegetable pakora, grilled and served in a gluten free roll with lettuce, tomato and Holy Cow Bombay ketchup. I made a vegetarian risotto with asparagus, courgette, peas and celery that even my committed carnivore partner really liked, and I nearly fell over with shock when he said it didn’t need bacon. I’ve made some yummy veggie pizzas using these fantastic herby pizza bases from Venice Bakery – gluten free AND vegan, no less. No animals remotely harmed in the creation thereof, and they taste great, as did the topping of grilled artichokes, black olives and Peppadew spicy peppers.

But the novelty has worn off now. I want a steak, pretty badly. However, I have yet to decide if I am actually going to have one.

The thing is, it would be an easy decision, if a) the vegetarian food I’ve been finding and making had been terrible and b) I hadn’t found that my body has responded so well to a vegetarian diet.

The second one, in particular, is irritating, because I hadn’t thought it would be the case at all. I’ve gone Paleo before, with some success, particularly in the weight loss department, and Paleo doctrine dictates that vegetarianism is unhealthy. I was pretty sold on that for a while, and I ate a lot, and I do mean a LOT, of meat. How many people are going to say no to a diet that legitimizes bacon? I sure as hell wasn’t. Bacon is great. It smells great, and it tastes great. And eating bacon and losing weight? Sign me up.

However, Paleo was hard to follow, and expensive, because to give Paleo philosophy its due, it does advocate organic or at least free range, pasture-raised meat and eggs (dairy is a no-no). But high-welfare meat, whilst if you are going to eat meat, is the best way of doing it, is much more expensive than the factory farmed flabby antibiotic-ridden stuff. And I ran into problems with Paleo in the gut department, the details of which I will spare you – suffice to say, if you have strictures, there actually is such a thing as too much protein. I also had a serious low blood sugar problem on Paleo, and I couldn’t manage any exercise without feeling like I was going to pass out. And I was a little skeptical with regard to all this stuff about grains being soooooo bad for you. Gluten? Yep, sold, that’s my enemy number one. Sugar? No brainer. But rice? Rice? Really? I’ve been to rural China, Vietnam and Cambodia. They live on the stuff, and I don’t think I ever saw an obese person around those parts. They don’t eat much meat either, because it’s too expensive, unless you catch it yourself, or you develop a taste for deep fried insects, which I didn’t. I lost weight there, living off a lot of rice, a lot of veg, fresh fruit, and a bit of meat, fish or tofu when it was around. So I don’t buy this theory that rice is evil and must be destroyed.

Following a vegetarian diet for the past week has not only improved my energy levels, reduced my joint pain (painkillers required only 3 days out of 7) and the stiffness I get in my hands and feet in the mornings, I’ve even hit on the Holy Grail – a vast improvement in dysfunctional gut behaviour, even necessitating a reduction in the medication I take to keep everything working. That is seriously worth its weight in tofu, and it’s definitely enough to keep me motivated, at least for now, to carry on with it.

Don’t get me wrong – I am definitely motivated to follow a vegetarian diet and reduce my consumption of animal products in general because I don’t want to support factory farming or cruelty to animals, and I am also concerned about the environmental impact – and in turn, the impact on people, because you can’t screw up the environment without screwing things up for the people who live there. All that is good, and noble, and I am 100% in support of veggies and vegans for whom this is enough motivation to master their taste for bacon. In fact, brain scans of vegetarians and vegans have shown that they may be more compassionate than their omnivorous counterparts – but I wonder what came first? There’s a chicken and egg theory here – do vegetarians and vegans become such because they feel more compassion to begin with, or does being vegetarian or vegan increase feelings of compassion? Are certain types of individuals more likely to become vegetarian or vegan, or could anybody develop this heightened sensitivity, if they were to be vegetarian or vegan for long enough?

I suspect for a lot of people, there needs to be more motivation than just the squeamishness factor around killing animals for food. I will admit that I am possibly one of these people, and that I probably also need the health benefits factor to keep me motivated to stay off the bacon. Without the fact that I feel pretty good on it, I’m not sure I’d stay motivated enough. It’s not that I want to kill animals – I really don’t, but being a coeliac vegetarian living with a meat-loving, eats-anything partner, that’s going to be pretty difficult. Sharing food together is powerful, and if I can no longer bond with my guy over a rack of BBQ ribs, I at least want to know that there’s a payoff. The trade, at the moment, is a flatter stomach, less pain and cramping, less bathroom trauma, and moving around easier – that, I can trade an 8oz ribeye for, and he can probably deal with me being one of those knowing that my health is better for it.

Damn you, vegetarianism. Why did you have to end up being so darn good for me and give me absolutely zero good excuses to go back to eating steak?