Five-Spice Baked Tofu
With Seared Bok Choy
I think there’s a common misconception about perfectionists. I get it – the word ‘perfect’ is right there, so I can understand how people are apt to believe that there’s an element of vanity involved (i.e., perfectionists believe they’re better than others or that their work is above reproach). I can’t speak for everyone, but when I call myself a perfectionist, what I mean is that I’m not satisfied until something is as good as I can make it. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect, but it’s as perfect as I can get it. In fact, I’m sure that many perfectionists look a the finished product and think “boy, I wish I had the skills to take this a step further.” But that’s part of the game – it gives you something to look forward to and something to shoot for. But perfectionism has a serious down side – it can make you approach things from a very binary, black-or-white perspective. So when things take a turn for the worse, the desire to scrap everything and start over becomes very strong. Mistakes are to be eradicated. To quote Ripley from the timeless classic film Aliens “I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.”
It’s tough for me to keep this mentality in check. So when my baked tofu came out of the oven looking like IT had been nuked from orbit, I was ready to toss my hands up in the air and order a pizza. I was shooting for crispy and brown, not flamethrower black. Fortunately, two things came together to keep me moving forward. First – the tofu actually tasted really, really good. Even the burnt ones. I’m not really sure how that happened… the burnt layer was really thin (but no, it couldn’t be scraped off… trust me), and each little morsel was actually quite tasty. Second, my wife is much, much saner than I am when it comes to these hurdles. She is the sober yin, to my raging yang. The calm “honestly, it’s fine” to my frantic “THIS IS THE WORST FOOD I’VE EVER MADE.” So I persevered, albeit grumpily. The bok choy was a snap to make, and wonderfully tasty. Then something wonderful happened. I picked out the least scorched tofu, put a bowl together, and suddenly realized that I’d assembled one of the tastiest, prettiest vegan dishes I’d ever come up with.
So if you’re going to take away anything from this, I’ll hope you’ll remember 1) that it ain’t over til it’s over, 2) that you should always be thankful for the person in your life that balances you out and helps you see things for what they really are, and 3) watermelon radishes make everything better.
As you might guess from the little diatribe above, you need to keep a close eye on the tofu. In order to crisp up, the tofu needs to be baked at very high heat, which means there’s little room for error. The recipe I adapted this (see below) from calls for the tofu to be baked for 10-15 minutes. I foolishly didn’t check, and 10 minutes turned out to be much too much. But ovens are finicky and pretty personal, so I’d encourage you to watch this like a hawk.
If you have a silicon baking tray, I strongly recommend using it – even with a high smoke-point oil, the pan tends to smoke a little. Turn on your oven fan to help deal with it. Don’t be tempted to omit the corn starch – it’s what makes the tofu crispy as it cooks, rather than just dry.
The bok choy is a pretty easy part of the meal, but make sure that you sear the stalk/heart and sauté the leaves separately for best results. I used a medium-sized bok choy cut into quarters, but baby bok choy cut in half would work very well too.
The basic premise for crispy baked tofu came from Crescent Dragonwagon’s excellent Bean by Bean cookbook. If you’re interested in cooking with beans (or bean products like tofu), I thoroughly recommend this book. It’s packed with incredible recipes, the majority of which are vegan or vegetarian. Her recipe for baked tofu is a little more pan-Asian than this one, but I’m sure it would be exceptional.
Note that the nutritional information given is for the tofu and veggies only; rice is not included in these numbers.
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