Monday 17 June 2019

Vegan starter: crispy tofu with marinated courgettes and cucumber gel.

Pretty dish
I wanted this to be light, fresh, packed with flavour and varying textures. I'd already signed up to the crispy tofu challenge, so what to put with it? Contrasting the sweet and savoury flavours of soy and mirin with citrus seemed obvious so I used my marinated courgette ribbon recipe that I've previously paired with salmon.

I think I originated this. I'm rather proud of it. It's fun watching guests do the "I don't really like cour.... oh my God, that's delicious". The citrus here is Yuzu, a fragrant fruit used in China, Korea and Japan, which complements the Asian flavours in the tofu glaze. Yuzu is similar to the mandarin but fearsomely expensive. You can buy tiny bottles of the juice in larger supermarkets. They cost about a fiver.

You'll also need to make a cucumber gel. Take a look at the recipe. if it's too cheffy, just use batons of cucumber. But try and make the effort. The gel is intensely flavoursome and brightly coloured. It's not difficult to do and is a handy kitchen skill to learn.

First we need to talk about tofu.

It tastes of almost nothing when raw. Broad beans would easily win in a brouhaha. A memory of a mushroom, maybe. Perhaps a cod fillet caught your eye? Let's agree on 'subtle'. 

There are many forms of this soya bean curd, usually categorised by texture: silken, soft, firm, etc. Here I'm using extra firm, allowing me to cut cheese like chunks that will withstand deep frying. A 450g block like this will serve four people as a starter.

"First catch your hare." as famed cookery writer Hannah Glasse once said*. Well here Ocado already has my 'extra firm' so the instruction start with "first press your tofu - a couple of days before you plan on eating it". Tofu is wet and it's stored in water. Water is not flavoursome. We want the water out. Wrap your tofu in some baking paper, place in a baking tin and put a heavy weight on top. Leave in the fridge for a day.

You'll find a pleasing amount of water in the tin. Discard this. Put the tofu in a plastic bag and freeze overnight. This forces out more water and gives the tofu a more friable texture.

Pressing tofu. The coconut milk was for dessert.
Ta dah. 24 hours later.
Post squeezing. Post freezing. A change of texture.
I did a few test runs and the most important tip I have is to season your tofu early and well. No surprises here as I do the same with fish and meat. Cut the tofu into slices, salt well and leave for an hour at least.

I also discovered that browning tofu in oil takes an astonishingly long time. Much longer than say potatoes. I'm guessing because it's still too wet and there are too few sugars to caramelise. I addressed both these issues by rolling the slices a couple of times in a mixture of approx 80% cornstarch, 15% sugar and 5% salt.

Ready for the fryer.
Using a deep fat fryer at 200°C or a fat pan and a sugar thermometer, deep fry the slices until golden and crispy. You could try shallow frying. Good luck. The crust should actually stay crisp even after you apply the glaze. Set aside.

Test fry. The left just cornflower and salt.
The right slice has the added sugar also.
The glaze can be whisked up in minutes in a glass or jam jar. Make too much and drizzle on chicken, salmon or chargrilled halloumi later. Mix together equal measures of soy and white wine or rice vinegar. Start with a tablespoon of each. Then add more to taste. This is a the holy trinity of salty, sweet and savoury.

Finely grate in a thumb of fresh ginger to taste - a microplane is useful here. Add honey or agave syrup (depending on just how vegan you are). A dash (steady!) of toasted sesame oil for smoky depth and silky mouth feel. Finally, a hit of cayenne, or not.

You'll have a sticky, rich, dark glaze. Taste. Adjust. It'll probably stand a little more ginger. Be bold. Set aside.

Next the marinated courgettes

First make your marinade. Key to this is vinegar. I use a fantastic lemon, basil, bay and juniper vinegar from Wormersley. You probably won't have this and it's not readily available in the shops. Ether give Rupert a ring and order some (you'll thank me if you do) or substitute a good quality white wine or cider vinegar, combined with some lemon juice and a few gratings of lemon zest. You want equal amounts of vinegar and mirin, about 70ml and half that of yuzu juice. I say 'about' because I never do this by weight or volume. Aways by eye and taste. I put the liquids in a click lock, watertight plastic box that I'll use to marinade the ribbons, shake and taste. Now add a pinch of salt and a tablespoon of freshly crushed coriander seeds. Don't even think of substituting with coriander powder. Add a drizzle of honey or agave syrup. It should be sweet, sour and citrus fresh and should smell deeply aromatic.

Take three medium, green courgettes. If you can find yellow too so much the better. Top and tail the veg with a knife. Using a vegetable peeler take off three or four ribbons from each side. Different peelers give different thicknesses. You want something worthwhile. Opaque. It has to sit in an acidic marinade for hours and anything too thin will disintegrate. Discard the first slice that's mainly skin. You want the next few: smooth, creamy white with a pleasing edge of green. Stop when you hit the seedy interior. Don't go there.

My courgette peeler of choice
Layer the ribbons in the click lock box and place in the fridge. Turn the box every few hours to ensure all the ribbons are immersed. Note that 24 hours is too long; the slices start to disintegrate, so I normally do this on the morning of the meal.

These ribbons work on their own as a side and especially well with cooked salmon or spicy chicken - should you be that way inclined. Vegetrians may wish to consider a nice salty feta.


To finish the dish I serve some finely diced apple and cucumber. In both cases, avoid the seeds. Keep the dice covered in the fridge tossed in a little olive oil and white wine vinegar.

To assemble. 
The amounts above will serve four people.

Remove from the fridge and have ready your tofu, glaze, cucumber gel, diced apple and cucumber, marinated courgettes and some interesting salad leave or micro herbs.

Refresh your tofu in hot oil for a few minutes to crisp and warm. On a tray, drizzle the warm pieces with the glaze.

In the middle of the plate loop up some ribbons, making sure you don't bring too much marinade with them. 

Around the edge of the plate make pretty with the dice, some salad leaves and the cucumber gel. Get creative. If you have some purple salad elements, so much the better.

Finally put your crispy tofu slice on the ribbons, drizzle a little more of the glaze and garnish with a salad leaf of distinction. 

*She probably didn't.

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