When it comes to tofu, there is one thing my siblings and I had a lot of growing up, and that was my mom & dad's famous tamari fried tofu in the ever-loved and very well used cast iron fry pan that got used I think more frequently than tooth brushes in our household. This is not to say that we weren't good teeth brushers (we were), but with both parents home for the bulk of our childhood years, came the much added bonus of enjoying home cooking an awful lot.
It's a given when I visit my folks (who may or may not still be using the same pans) to lovingly (and hopefully without eye rolls) observe their routines from years of living together that over the course of almost 40 years have become etched like well-worn grooves in the sandstone that lords majestically over the beaches & waterfront of where they live. They live modestly (always have), and you see it in everything they do.
On the island, no one runs the taps for longer than it takes to get just what you need, and in efforts to conserve precious water flushing toilets is reserved for only the necessary functions (i.e. no flushes for number one). You don't find paper towels or harsh cleaners in their house, and every plastic bag is re-used until it tatters and practically falls apart. The house is warmed in winter by a real wood fire, and leftovers are re-cooked on the gas stove and enjoyed until they are gone. There is no microwave or dishwasher, just real chores to be done by real people. Chop wood, carry water. Do it today, do it tomorrow. These are the basic rhythms of their simple island life.
I guess my reason for sharing this all today, is that tofu cooked in a cast iron skillet is in my blood, just as rolling up my sleeves to get hard work done is. Mental toughness and rough, ragged edges are a huge part of who I am, and of who we are (and were) as a family. It's funny that no matter what you do, there are some things from childhood you just never outgrow. I still serve my kids tamari-fried tofu, with added delicious flavours like yeast & ketchup --- just like my parents and their friends started doing 4 decades ago, but I also love re-imagining those old favorites in new & delicious ways, starting with this Mollie Katzen classic which until now, I had oddly never tried. I may not chop firewood or drink water from a well, but there are parts of this life that I am resolved to honour, starting with this yummy ode to cast iron pans & that oft-maligned 'hippie' food: tofu.
Whether you cook it in a cast iron skillet or not, make sure to eat leftovers and be thankful for the hands that made it. Always a good rule no matter how complex or simple life is.
Sweet & Sour Tofu with Cashews, Veggies & Cilantro:
Adapted from Mollie Katezen's Enchanted Broccoli Forest
- (1) 350 gram block of firm tofu
- (2) tbsp toasted sesame oil
- (1) medium onion, chopped
- (1) small carrot, chopped
- (1) small red pepper, chopped
- (3) tbsp cornstarch
- (3) green onions, sliced
- (1) cup cashews, lightly toasted
- (1/2) cup chopped fresh cilantro
Sweet & Sour Sauce:
- (1) small 15 oz. can of pineapple (drained for the juice, save the pineapple chunks for another use)
- (1.5-2) cups orange juice
- (1) tsp grated orange rind
- (2) large cloves garlic, minced
- (1) tbsp fresh ginger
- (2) tbsp soy sauce
- (1/2) tsp salt
- (1/4-1/2) tsp crushed red pepper flakes or cayenne
- (2) tbsp brown sugar
- (2) tbsp cider vinegar
Cut the tofu into one inch cubes. Place them in a medium-sized saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil, lower heat to a simmer, and cook for about 10-15 minutes. Drain and set aside when done. While the tofu is cooking, prepare the vegetables by chopping the onion, carrot, pepper, & green onions, making sure to set them aside in separate bowls as they will cook at different times. Measure out the corn starch into a separate bowl as well and set aside to have it ready.
To make the sauce, drain all the juice from the can of pineapple (setting aside the chunks for another use : kids love them!). In a 4 cup measuring glass, add enough orange juice to make 2.5 cups of liquid all together. Add the orange rind, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, 1/2 tsp salt, sugar vinegar & crushed red pepper to the juice and stir well with a whisk. Transfer the sauce mixture to a medium pan and heat gently until warm but not boiling. Cover & set aside until needed, keeping the whisk handy.
When ready to cook, put up a pot of your favourite grain to cook if you desire. Here I served it with red quinoa for a light, protein packed option, but you could enjoy it with white or brown rice, or even noodles if you prefer.
Heat a large wok or frying pan on medium-high. Add the sesame oil and onion and cook for on high for one minute - if desired you can salt the onion lightly to bring out more flavour in the cooking process. Next, add the carrots and cook another three minutes, stirring. Add the tofu & bell pepper and cook for 2 minutes longer, keeping the heat steadily high.
While the veggies are cooking, whisk some of the warmed sauce mixture into the bowl of cornstarch, using about (1/2) cup to start. Whisk until the cornstarch is dissolved and the mixture is smooth & thick, and then whisk the cornstarch mixture into the remainder of the hot sauce. Add the entire sauce mixture to the vegetables and cook, stirring constantly on high heat until the sauce has thickened and the tofu & vegetables are perfectly coated. Just before serving, stir in the scallions.
To toast cashews, simply lay them on a large tray and toast them dry in a 350-degree oven for 5-6 minutes until golden.
Serve hot, over a cooked grain or noodle of choice topped generously with toasted cashews & reserved cilantro. Leftovers will keep beautifully in a sealed container in the fridge for at least 4-5 days without issue (even longer if needed). Keep it on hand for re-heating on a cold winter's night and you won't regret it. Promise ;)