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Soy Goes Mainstream
by Elliot Essman
I rely on my computer's spell check feature to rein in my over-eager fingers, but I realized it had even greater value recently when it failed to flag the Japanese word "tofu." Tofu is American now. It's only a matter of time before "shoyu" (soy sauce) and "miso" (fermented soy paste) take their place as everyday English words like "spaghetti," "tamale," or "bratwurst." We've long known that soy is good for us. We're now coming to realize just how versatile soy-based products can be in the kitchen.

Kikkoman's U.S-manufactured "Naturally Brewed Soy Sauce" is probably the most well-known authentic shoyu brand on American supermarket shelves. Founded more than three centuries ago in Japan, Kikkoman has been producing shoyu and other soy-based sauces in its Walworth, Wisconsin plant since 1973. Quality soy sauce starts with a mixture of soy beans and wheat which is allowed to ferment with water and salt for at least one year. The cheap brands of soy sauce make up for the year-long wait by using chemical additives and artificial coloring. Soy sauce forms the base for scores of sauces and condiments all over Asia, from Indonesian kecap (yes, the ancestor for our own ketchup), to Japanese teriyaki sauce.

Nearly every recipe in Japanese cuisine uses soy sauce, so you can be sure that a heavy hand with the soy sauce will give an Asian tinge to your cooking, along with perhaps a bit too much saltiness. A drop or two in a western recipe(a soup, stew, salad dressing or salsa(imparts richness and flavor complexity without invoking the exotic orient. Shoyu makes an excellent component to a marinade, particularly for poultry. I mix a half cup of shoyu with a half cup of Madeira or sherry wine, add a quarter cup extra virgin olive oil, two tablespoons Dijon mustard, spices or dried herbs (particularly cilantro) to suit my taste or the nature of the bird I'm preparing. A two or three hour soak does the trick. Shoyu is a natural with garlic. To marinate shrimp for grilling or broiling, mix three tablespoons shoyu with a finely chopped clove of garlic along with half a teaspoon dried marjoram, oregano or thyme; marinate for fifteen minutes for peeled shrimp, an hour for shrimp still in its shell.

Shoyu also gives an excellent base for a barbecue sauce that's good for chicken, pork, and the quintessential favorite, ribs. To make a cup of the sauce, measure 4 tablespoons each of soy sauce, sherry, brown sugar, and water. Add the juice of one lemon (or try a lime) and a single tablespoon of diced onion or shallots. Cook over moderate heat until the sugar dissolves and thickens up to a good consistency for brushing on top of your meat, perhaps five minutes. Turn off the heat and energetically whisk in four tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil to finish the sauce. It's delicious and different.

We know miso in the United States primarily due to the excellent miso soup served in Japanese restaurants. Many Japanese wouldn't think of starting their day without a bracing bowl of miso soup for breakfast. You can find miso soup in ready mix packages in many supermarkets, though you usually have to visit an Asian specialty market or natural foods store to find real miso. Miso can be made from rice or barley, but the darkest most meat-like varieties use soy beans as a base. Miso is difficult to describe, except to liken the range of miso textures (there are many) to those of the world of cheeses. Miso is at least moderately salty, with a strong taste of fermented beans. You can crumble it into a soup or stew as you would squirt shoyu, but throw it in toward the end of the cooking time so it doesn't overcook; miso should never be boiled.

To make a healthful miso soup from scratch, chop half a scallion and simmer in a cup of water with a few small cubes of tofu and a one inch piece of wakame or other seaweed. Meanwhile, dissolve a teaspoon of miso in a small amount of hot water, remove the simmering liquid from the heat and stir in the dissolved miso. Let the combination steep a minute to combine the flavors.

I'm convinced we'll be hearing more from miso in the years to come, until the magic day comes when the powers that be at Microsoft decide no longer to flag the word.

Tofu, of course, is already in our dictionary. We've adopted it wholeheartedly without even needing to change the name (as we did with the "Chinese Gooseberry," which reached a market here only when a fruit distributor started calling it a "Kiwi Fruit.") Tofu is made from boiled crushed soy beans. As in cheese making, the tofu curds are separated from the watery whey, then a coagulant is added to help the curds form into tofu. The more whey extracted, the firmer the tofu. I find the "firm" variety of tofu available at most supermarkets and health food stores to be the most versatile. You can slice it, dice it, cut it into any shape you want, puree it, or carve animal figures with it. Firm tofu will also stand up to most hot cooking processes like stir frying, pan frying, and even deep frying. At the same time, tofu can be used uncooked, in salads, in cold appetizers. The softer silken tofu is excellent stirred into soups or crumbled like blue cheese onto salads or sandwich fixings.

Silken tofu can be used as is, but firm tofu should be pressed before cooking to remove excess water. To press, slice a block of tofu lengthwise into four pieces and place on top of a baking sheet that has been lined with a few layers of paper towels. Place several paper towels on top, cover with a second baking sheet, then weigh down with canned foods or last year's fruitcake for at least half an hour; longer wont hurt. The tofu that results will do anything you want it to do. Treat it like meat; treat it like a starch; treat it like a vegetable.

To make tofu "steaks," use the four flat pieces of tofu you've just dried without further cutting. Add a thin layer of oil to a heated skillet. The oil you use will depend on the flavors you want: sesame for Asian; olive oil for Mediterranean. A non-stick pan will work, but you don't get to scrape those yummy burnt bits off the bottom. Once the oil is hot, ease the steaks into the pan, making sure not to crowd the tofu (otherwise it steams and doesn't properly brown). Add sauce of your choice (soy, hot pepper, barbecue, depending on the nature of your dish) to the top of the steak. Have the discipline to let the tofu steak brown for at least a minute without nudging it. Flip carefully to brown the other side, adding more sauce or seasoning as you see fit.

When stir frying tofu, "feel" is more important than any rule of thumb. Tofu has a deserved reputation for absorbing and enhancing the flavors of other ingredients. For stir frying (preferably in a wok, but a skillet will do), I like to cut my tofu into strips of approximately a half inch high, a half inch wide, and an inch long. I will start the stir fry with aromatics like onions and carrots, season the stir fry, and add the meat, poultry or tofu at the end of the process so these protein foods do not overcook. When adding tofu, I find that if I keep the tofu mixed in long enough for it to warm properly it usually takes on the consistency and flavor I'm looking for. I don't want it too mushy. The same guidelines apply if you braise (simmer in liquid in a covered saucepan).

My favorite way to use high protein, low fat, zero carb firm tofu is to eat it cold combined with other healthy ingredients. For a lightning quick lunch, I cut half of a one pound block of tofu into one inch squares, open a can of tuna packed in water, mix in the drained tuna, sprinkle on a little oil and sauce, mix, and enjoy. Toasted sesame oil and soy sauce makes it Japanese; olive oil and hot pepper sauce makes it Cajun; truffle oil with salt and pepper and a few fresh herbs make it French; you get the idea. With tofu (the ultimate good-for-you food) anything is possible. Top -- Food Articles Home

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