Plant Based Eating Guide: All About Tofu

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Matar tofu

I have a lot of friends who ask me about how to start eating less processed, plant based meals at home. So I wanted to start a series of cooking guides in order to demystify the process. Plant based eating doesn’t have to be difficult or expensive. I see a lot of people who maybe are not prepared and decide to take the plunge but end of being hungry or not get enough nutrients. Figuring out what to eat can be daunting – especially if you’re a busy person! You don’t have to shop at expensive grocery stores to go plant based. You also don’t have to go 100% plant based right away. Gradually swapping out animal products makes sense so that you don’t waste food or have to bring home 10 bags of groceries on one day! I wanted to start with tofu. Tofu is widely available these days. It’s made from soybean curd and used in quite a few Asian dishes. Tofu does not necessarily need to be cooked and can be eaten straight out of the package but is flavorless. It also comes in different forms: silken, firm, extra firm, high protein, sprouted, etc. The softer, silken kinds can be found in the Asian pantry aisle (not refrigerated) and are used for things like smoothies, quiches, sauces, and cheesecakes. Silken tofu can can be put in a blender because it doesn’t hold its shape. Firm tofu is great for crumbling. It can be used as a substitute for scrambled eggs. Extra firm tofu will hold its shape and is good for grilling, pan frying, stir frying, deep frying, and baking. High protein tofu is very dense and packs more grams of protein per serving (it is not typically stored in water so you won’t need to press it). Sprouted tofu is made with sprouted soybeans – one manufacturer states it is “easier to digest”. I haven’t noticed much difference between it and regular tofu. Because fresh tofu comes packaged in water, it is water laden. This can make cooking it tricky and may slow down the process. This is why fresh tofu should be “pressed” before using. By this, I mean allowing the water to seep out using a clean towel. Simply wrap the tofu in a clean kitchen towel and allow it to sit in a colander to drain. Some people will place a heavy object over it to squeeze more water out. You only need to press tofu for about 10 minutes. After pressing it, you can slice firm/extra firm tofu into “steaks”, cube it, or crumble it before cooking. Deep fried tofu is delicious but it’s, of cours,e much higher in fat. I don’t deep fry anything so if you’d like to use this method, I would recommend a high heat friendly oil such as peanut oil or canola oil. You can achieve the same crispiness of deep frying by cutting your tofu into 1″ cubes, brushing it or spraying it with oil, and baking it on a baking sheet at 425F for about 30 minutes. Make sure to flip it halfway through baking. You can also crumble tofu with a fork or with your hands to make a breakfast scramble. Crumbled tofu can be pan fried in some oil for a high protein breakfast. Tofu “steaks” can be marinated and grilled. Just cut the tofu in half lengthwise and marinate it for a few hours prior to grilling. Stir frying tofu in a pan takes a lot of time. The tofu will eventually brown and become crispy but you’ll have to use a lot of oil. Using a wok makes this a little quicker since the wok will be much hotter than a regular saute pan. My favorite brand of tofu is by Phoenix Bean (aka Jenny’s tofu). This Chicago based company makes high quality, non-gmo tofu that has a distinct taste vs. other brands of tofu. You can also buy marinated, baked tofu that is ready to eat at places like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. Chipotle has a delicious meat alternative protein called “sofritas” that is made with tofu. I think it’s important make sure your tofu is non-gmo and organic. It’s also important to note that soy products such as tofu contain weak, plant based estrogens known as phytoestrogens. Studies on the health effects of phytoestrogens do not suggest that it is harmful to most people but this is controversial. How soy consumption affects an individual’s health depends on their personal health history, age, gender, how much soy is consumed, and what type of soy is consumed. Talk to your doctor if you have any concerns about adding tofu into your diet. Generally, very processed soy does not have the same health benefits as less processed soy such as tofu. Beware of meat substitute foods such as soy “chicken” tenders that are high in protein but very processed. I prefer to keep my consumption of these types of foods at a minimum because a plant based diet that is high in processed foods is much less healthy than a plant based diet that is minimally processed. I usually incorporate tofu into my diet several times a week. Tofu is high in protein, low in carbohydrates, and lower in fat and calories vs. meat protein. Tofu is a great source of iron and calcium. Tofu also contains a good amount of omega 3’s. Below are some of my favorite tofu recipes to get you started!

Matar Tofu

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This dish uses extra firm cubed tofu that is baked.

Tofu Chorizo Breakfast Tacos

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These tacos use crumbled firm tofu.

Quinoa Fried Rice with Tofu and Vegetables (with video)

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This recipe uses stir fried tofu cubes.

Spicy Peanut Soba Noodles with Crispy Tofu

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Soba Noodles with Tofu

Red Curry with Tofu and Vegetables

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Red Curry Tofu

Bourbon Spiked Vanilla Pudding (vegan)

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Vanilla Pudding Made with silken tofu.

Potato and Kale Tart (vegan, gluten free)

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Potato and Kale Tart Made with silken tofu

 

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Vegan Split Pea Soup

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Winter in Chicago has me on a comfort food kick! I’ve been craving things like soup, pasta, and roasted vegetables lately. Split pea soup has always been one of my favorite things. Vegetarian or vegan split pea soup is hard to find unless it’s homemade. The traditional version uses ham for flavor but I think the vegan version is fantastic! Split pea soup may not have the best color but it’s so tasty and filling. I made a big batch of it this weekend and it’s been keeping me happy all week! Split peas are the same as regular sweet peas. They are the dried and split version and are packed with protein and fiber. They’re low in calories and, in my opinion, are less gas producing than other beans such as kidney beans. You don’t need to soak them ahead of time but make sure to wash them and sort out any debris. The peas typically will need about 45 minutes to 1 hour to cook all the way through. They will be uniform in color and not light in the center once they are done.

Split green peas

I like my split pea soup to be smooth instead of chunky so I used an immersion blender to finish it. You can skip this step if you prefer it to be chunky. Split pea soup has a unique, savory, herb-y flavor that is so delicious and satisfying. The garlic thyme croutons and pea tendrils add texture, crunch, and freshness. You can find the recipe for the garlic and thyme croutons in a separate blog post (click here). This is an inexpensive meal or side dish if you are on a budget. You can also make your own vegetable broth if you have time. Homemade vegetable broth is so much better tasting vs. the store bought version. I simply brought one onion, a potato, one carrot, one stalk of celery, and a bay leaf to boil in about 6 quarts of water and let it simmer for about 1.5 hours. I then strained out the vegetables and bay leaf and stored the extra broth in the fridge. If you buy broth from the store, I recommend a brand called Saffron Road. Their vegetable broth is actually really tasty! I’ll be making split pea soup again this winter because it’s so easy and good! If you decide to cozy up with this recipe make sure to take a picture and tag @thefriendlyepicurean on Instagram and Facebook or pin this recipe on Pinterest!

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Split Pea Soup

  • Servings: 6
  • Difficulty: easy
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Ingredients

  • 1 lb split green peas (about 2 1/4 cups)
  • 8 cups vegetable broth
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 1 large carrot, diced (about 1 cup)
  • 3 stalks of celery, diced (about 1 cup)
  • 2 large cloves of garlic, minced (about 2 tbs)
  • 2 tbs olive oil
  • 1 tbs chopped, fresh thyme
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/2 tsp salt plus more to taste
  • 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 package of fresh pea tendrils (optional garnish)
  • garlic and thyme croutons (optional garnish)

Directions

Heat olive oil on medium heat in a large Dutch oven or sauce pan. Add onions and cook until translucent and soft, about 6 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add carrot and celery and cook for about 5-6 more minutes. Add thyme and cook for about 1-2 minutes. Next, add green peas and saute for about 1-2 minutes. Add broth, bay leaf, salt, and black pepper and bring to a boil. Once boiling, lower heat and simmer, partially covered, for about 45 minutes to 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Peas will be uniform in color when done. Use an immersion blender to puree soup to desired smoothness or carefully transfer to a blender in batches to puree (optional step). Add more salt and pepper to taste. Top with fresh pea tendrils and garlic and thyme croutons before serving. May store in the fridge for up to 5 days.


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Garlic and Thyme Croutons

I could eat croutons all day as a snack! They are so flavorful, crunchy, and delicious. I put them on everything – including salad, soup, and even on avocado toast! Homemade croutons are SO easy to make. They are also way tastier than store bought ones. There are so many variations to this recipe. You can use your favorite herb instead of thyme. Rosemary would work just as well! I like these croutons a lot with my vegan split pea soup recipe. They are amazing on almost everything, especially salad! Make sure you use bread that has been sitting around for at least 2 to 3 days. I used an Italian bread I found at Trader Joe’s but any type of bread would work with this recipe. This is a delicious way to make use of extra bread and herbs. I will be making lots of variations of croutons this winter to go with my soups or just to snack on!

Garlic and thyme croutons with vegan split pea soup.

Garlic and Thyme Croutons

  • Servings: 6
  • Difficulty: easy
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Ingredients

  • 6 slices of 3 day old bread, cut into 1 inch cubes (about 6 cups)
  • 2 tbs chopped, fresh thyme
  • 2 large cloves garlic, minced (about 2 tbs)
  • 1/4 tsp salt plus more to taste
  • 3 tbs olive oil
  • olive oil spray

Directions

Preheat oven to 375F. Grease a baking sheet with olive oil spray and set aside. Cut bread into 1 inch cubes and place in a large mixing bowl. Whisk together olive oil, garlic, and salt in a small bowl. Toss bread cubes with olive oil mixture, making sure bread is coated evenly (add more salt to taste if desired). Spread bread cubes in a single layer on baking sheet and bake for about 12-15 minutes or until golden brown and crispy. Allow croutons to cool completely before storing. Make sure to store croutons in an airtight container or Ziplock bag. May store in the pantry for up to 4 days.

Matar Tofu

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The holidays are over and winter is here to stay for the next few months. January is not an exciting time for produce in Chicago. I tend to make things from pantry ingredients more: soup, curry, casseroles. I also roast a lot of vegetables this time of year. Indian food is great for a quick weeknight dinner on cold nights. It’s spicy, tasty, filling, and easy to make. Matar paneer is a classic North Indian, tomato based curry made with peas and paneer – homemade dairy cheese. I grew up loving this dish but found that tofu is the perfect vegan substitute for the homemade paneer cheese. The tofu adds a lot of protein to this healthy meal. I use organic frozen peas which are delicious and don’t even need to be thawed out prior to making this dish. This is a simple recipe that really requires only one pot. Jasmine rice or Naan bread are the perfect accompaniment for this dish. I’ve recently discovered Trader Joe’s frozen Naan bread which is delicious and very authentic tasting. If you like really firm tofu, I recommend using high protein tofu or baking cubed, extra firm tofu in the oven at 420F for about 20 minutes on a baking sheet. You can toss it in canola oil or coconut oil and about a 1/4 tsp of salt before baking. This dish tends to get more flavorful with time. I like to make it one day prior to serving so that the spices can get absorbed by the tofu and settle into the sauce. It also makes an excellent, high protein desk lunch! If you make Matar Tofu make sure to take a picture and tag @thefriendlyepicurean on Facebook and Instagram or pin the recipe on Pinterest!

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Matar Tofu

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: easy
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Ingredients

  • 16 oz extra firm tofu, drained of excess moisture and cubed into 1 inch pieces
  • 1, 16oz bag frozen peas
  • 1, 28oz can diced tomatoes
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1/2 cup coconut cream
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp coriander
  • 1/4 tsp turmeric powder
  • 1 tsp grated fresh ginger
  • 1 green chili pepper, minced
  • 1 tsp garam masala
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 2 tbs fresh chopped cilantro
  • 1.5 tbs canola oil
  • Jasmine rice or Naan bread to serve

Directions

Heat oil on medium heat in a large sauce pan. Add onions and cook for about 7 to 8 minutes or until golden brown. Add garlic, cumin, coriander, and turmeric and cook for about 3-4 minutes or until garlic is fragrant. Add ginger and chili pepper and cook for about 2-3 minutes. Add tomatoes and reduce heat. Let simmer for about 5 minutes. Add green peas, tofu, garam masala, and salt and simmer for about 10 minutes. Stir in coconut cream and simmer for 5 more minutes. Top with fresh cilantro and serve while hot. Serve with Jasmine rice or Naan bread. May store in the fridge for up to 3-4 days.

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Peppermint Hot Chocolate

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This is an easy and festive recipe for the holidays! I love peppermint bark but didn’t want to go through the trouble of actually making it at home. Peppermint hot chocolate has all of the same delicious flavors but takes just a few minutes to make. I found organic, vegan candy canes at Whole Foods. The colors of the organic candy canes aren’t as intense but they are just as delicious as traditional candy canes. Peppermint and dark chocolate together are so irresistible! These rich warm flavors make this drink so comforting on a cold winter day. Adding both cocoa powder and dark chocolate makes this hot chocolate thicker, more flavorful, and creamier than just using cocoa powder. You can also find coconut whipped cream at most grocery stores to top off your hot cocoa. Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!

Peppermint Hot Chocolate

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: easy
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Ingredients

  • 4 cups almond milk
  • 4 organic candy canes (plus more for garnish)
  • 2 tbs cocoa powder
  • 2 tbs agave syrup (or 2 tbs Stevia)
  • 1.75 oz dark chocolate
  • coconut whipped cream (optional topping)

Directions


Heat almond milk until just boiling. Add cocoa powder, agave, and dark chocolate and stir until dissolved. Add candy canes one at a time until melted, stirring often. Top with whipped cream and serve while hot.

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Penne with Roasted Butternut Squash, Sage, and Ricotta

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Butternut squash with sage is one of my favorite vegetable and herb combinations. I love butternut squash soup with sage and wanted to capture that flavor in a hearty pasta dish. Fresh sage has an unforgettable scent, unique flavor, and velvety texture. This is an easy, crowd pleasing recipe that will warm you up on a cold winter day. The vegan ricotta makes it extra creamy and rich and the pine nuts add flavor and crunch. Roasted butternut squash is soft and will stick to your pasta a little to add some additional texture. The lemon juice adds bright acidity that ties this dish together. This pasta is fragrant and colorful with the orange squash and green sage. It’s also hearty and very flavorful. It’s kid friendly as well. The key to making delicious pasta is not overcooking it. Typically around 8-10 minutes is perfect for al dente pasta. Removing it from the heat immediately after cooking helps to keep it from cooking any further. The pasta water contains starch from the pasta and will provide a smooth, silky texture to the pasta if you add a little of it after cooking. I usually save about 2-4 tbs of the pasta water to add in while I am adding the sauce or vegetables. You can salt your pasta water to make your pasta more salty from the inside out or wait until the end to season the entire dish.  This pasta would go beautifully with a kale salad or sauteed spinach. It also pairs well with white wine such as Viognier or Chardonnay. This is festive, easy, vegan recipe is great for the holidays! If you make it, make sure to take a picture and tag @thefriendlyepicurean on Instagram and Facebook or pin the recipe on Pinterest. Happy holidays!

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Penne with Roasted Butternut Squash, Sage, and Ricotta

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: easy
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Ingredients

  • 4 cups uncooked penne pasta
  • 2 lbs cubed butternut squash (about 1/2 inch cubes)
  • 1/2 cup vegan ricotta cheese (such as Kite Hill brand)
  • 1 cup sage, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup pine nuts
  • 2 tbs olive oil, divided
  • olive oil spray
  • 2 tbs lemon juice
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper

Directions

Preheat oven to 420F. Spray two baking sheets with olive oil spray. Toss butternut squash with 1 tbs olive and spread in a single layer on baking sheets. Roast for about 30 minutes, flipping squash with a spatula halfway through cooking time. Squash should be fork tender but not browned. Cook penne in a large pot of boiling water for about 8 minutes. Save about 2 tbs of the pasta water. Drain pasta immediately and set aside. Next, heat 1 tbs olive oil on medium heat in a medium-large Dutch oven or saucepan. Add garlic and cook for about 3-4 minutes. Add chopped sage and saute for another 3-4 minutes. Add pine nuts and the roasted butternut squash and turn heat off. Add cooked pasta, 2 tbs pasta water, lemon juice, salt, pepper, and vegan ricotta cheese and stir to combine well. Add more salt and pepper to taste, if desired. May store in the fridge for up to 5 days.

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