By Anne Palumbo
Oh, tofu. Poor, misunderstood tofu. It gets such a bad rap. Too mushy, too bland, too unknown. I used to be in that “not-for-me” camp, but all that ended when three important things happened: I cut down on my meat consumption; I discovered how to cook with tofu; and I realized how nutritious it was.
What exactly is tofu?
Tofu is condensed soymilk that has been curdled and pressed into blocks (much like cheese). And why should we be eating it?
Environmental reasons notwithstanding — it only takes about 200 gallons of water to produce one gallon of soymilk versus the 1800 gallons it takes to produce one pound of beef — tofu is a nutritional powerhouse.
Tofu is an excellent “complete” plant protein source, with an average serving of firm tofu providing about 10 grams. While most Americans get plenty of protein, certain groups — such as dieters restricting calories, the elderly and people with cancer — may have trouble eating as much of this vital nutrient as they need. Over time, a lack of protein can cause swelling, fatigue, a loss of muscle mass, dry skin and hair and mood changes.
This versatile food also packs a solid amount of calcium, an essential mineral that contributes to healthy bones. Although the amount of calcium varies between tofu types and brands, an average serving can deliver between 10-20% of our daily needs. Unlike protein, most Americans don’t get enough calcium in their diets. When this happens, children may not reach their full height potential and adults may have low bone mass, which is a risk factor for osteoporosis.
Tofu is remarkably high in manganese, a vital mineral that plays an important role in many bodily functions, including the metabolism of glucose, carbohydrates and cholesterol, the formation of bones, the clotting of blood and the reduction of inflammation. Some research suggests that manganese, when combined with calcium, may act as a natural remedy for easing PMS symptoms. And for people with diabetes, manganese may help lower blood sugar levels.
Isoflavones — a type of plant estrogen that is similar in function to human estrogen but with much weaker effects — are abundant in tofu. At one point, isoflavones were thought to increase the risk of breast cancer, but recent studies have suggested the opposite. In fact, the Shanghai Women’s Health Study revealed that Asian women who ate the most soy had a 59% lower risk of premenopausal breast cancer compared with those who ate the least amount. But that’s but one study; more research is needed.
A few more reasons to give tofu a chance? It’s super low in fat, sodium and cholesterol, and fairly low in calories: only 90 per half cup!
Turkish-Spiced Baked Tofu
1 block extra-firm tofu, pressed and drained
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon each: coriander, cumin, paprika, garlic powder, dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon each: turmeric, Kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon coarse black pepper
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
Garnishes: pickled onions, shredded carrots, cilantro
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. To press and drain tofu: slice block into 4 horizontal slabs, lay some paper towels on a baking sheet, place the slabs side by side on top of the paper towels, cover with another layer of paper towels, place a cutting board on top, and stack something heavy on the cutting board. Let tofu drain for at least 20-30 minutes.
Cut tofu slabs into cubes about 3/4-inch thick. Add cubes to large mixing bowl, drizzle with olive oil, and toss gently to coat. Combine all seasonings in a small bowl, sprinkle over cubes, and toss gently again until the tofu is evenly coated.
Turn seasoned tofu out onto a parchment-covered baking sheet, and arrange tofu in an even layer (not overlapping). Bake for 15 minutes. Then remove from oven, and flip the cubes for even cooking. Return to oven for 15 more minutes, or until the tofu reaches your desired level of crispiness. Garnish with topping of choice.
Read tofu nutrition labels carefully as the nutrition differences between silken and firm tofu are pretty big. Once opened, any unused tofu may be stored in plain tap water for up to 10 days. Just make sure the water is clear when ready to use; if cloudy, discard tofu.
Anne Palumbo is a lifestyle columnist, food guru, and seasoned cook, who has perfected the art of preparing nutritious, calorie-conscious dishes. She is hungry for your questions about SmartBites, so be in touch with Anne at firstname.lastname@example.org.