Et Tu, Tofu?

Adventures in curd-based cooking


By Maria Johnson

Lately, I’ve been eating a plant-based diet.

“Don’t you mean vegetarian?” a meat-based reader might say.

Here, I would split hairs — in the way only a plant-based person would — and say, “No.”

First of all, “plant-based” is a hipper term than “vegetarian,” which sounds so . . . Moosewood (see Moosewood Cookbook, a vegetarian standard published in 1974).

Also, I think “plant-based” sounds more flexible. To me, it means my diet is mostly plants, but it also leaves room for the fact that if you waved a Ruth’s Chris petite filet, seared medium, under my nose, I’d probably bite your fingers off to get at it.

Granted, it’s a slight distinction, but accuracy is important to me. It’s also accurate to say that most of the time, I don’t miss meat.

All of which brings me to tofu, a protein-rich staple of many people who eat plant-based diets.

Tofu is bean curd. Smooth, white and gelatinous, and it’s sold in chilled squares. Imagine clammy, chalky Jell-O, minus the flavor. Not a great sales pitch I know, but there you have it.

Tofu is what I would call a member of the blah food group — think grits, rice, potatoes, couscous — which is to say that when it’s cooked right and dressed up to the point you don’t recognize it, it can be really good.

My fave local Asian restaurant — shout out to Timmy and the crew at Thai Corner Kitchen #2 — fries up some mean tofu cubes: golden brown and chewy, they’re the perfect sop for whatever scrumptious sauce they’re swimming in.

Inspired, I started playing around with tofu at home, adding it to stir fries and curries with favorable results, meaning that my husband and my hound, a reliable food taster, ate it without complaint — and also, I think, without the knowledge that they were eating tofu, but that’s beside the point.

The point is, I started wondering if I should serve a tofu turkey for Thanksgiving, not as a replacement for the Pilgrim kind, but as an option, along the lines of serving both pumpkin and pecan pies.

After all, we’re likely to have a vegan and several plant-leaning folks at the table this year, and I thought it would be nice to give them — us — more choices.

To that end, I started reading reviews of store-bought tofu turkeys, which, thank goodness, aren’t molded to resemble turkeys, à la Spam lambs. Rather, they favor meat roasts. Lump-like and comforting.

The best-known brand offered an oblong product called “a plant-based holiday feast,” which received an average of 4.1 out of 5 stars from 47 reviewers. Their opinions ran the gamut.

“OK. SO . . . I can eat a whole one by myself. These little sh*ts are hella delicious,” wrote Christie R.

That sounded good. Ish. If one could get the imagery out of one’s mind.

Michelle S., who doesn’t put much stock in punctuation, was slightly less sanguine: “Its OK a lil on the cardboard side.”

As a hostess, I was hoping for a lil more.

“I like their vegetarian sausages,” declared Jaismeen K., managing to confuse everyone.

Rachel T., however, was clear.

“This is perhaps the most disgusting thing I’ve ever put in my mouth, and I mean that’s saying a lot for me,” she wrote.

So many questions for Rachel.

Maybe, I thought, I should make a tofu turkey from scratch instead. SO — as Christie R. would say — I dredged up a recipe for a trial run, ran to the store, and commenced to sweating some tofu, which means wrapping the blocks in a dish towel, laying heavy objects on top of them and bleeding out the liquid — pretty violent stuff in plant-based circles.
Then, per the recipe, I mixed the tofu with lots of herbs and spices, shaped it into a dome, hollowed out a well, packed in the stuffing, capped the well and brushed that baby with a glaze made of soy sauce, spicy mustard and red wine.

An hour later, I pulled it from the oven. It smelled great. It looked like an asteroid.

I cut into it. The stuffing was recognizable. The tofu was more mealy than meaty.

I summoned the husband and the hound.

“I kinda like it,” Jeff said, several forks in.

Really?” I squeaked, chewing slowly.

“Yeah, I didn’t think I would,” he said. “But I do.”

He went for seconds. God love him.

I held out a piece to Rio. He sniffed it and left the room.

I thought so.

I blamed myself. Then I blamed the recipe, which felt better.

Later, I was searching The New York Times cooking app for another version, when I ran across this question-and-answer column by food editor Sam Sifton:

Q: How does one cook a tofurkey? I’m having some vegetarian guests for Thanksgiving this year.

A: One does not. The point of vegetarian food is not to make meat out of vegetables. One makes vegetables and calls them by their proper names. And if one can’t make a turkey to place alongside them, or if one needs a vegetarian main course, one’s way is clear. One makes really big beets.

To find Sam’s Really Big Beets recipe, search “No Tofurkey for You (and Other Thanksgiving Cooking Advice)”.

You can thank me later. OH

Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry. Email her at

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