Terrific Tofu

By Cheryl Tallman and Joan Ahlers

Tofu is the Japanese name for soybean curd. Dating back to its use in China around 200 B.C, tofu is believed to be the first processed food. Today, it is a dietary staple throughout all of Asia.

Tofu is a relative newcomer to the USA. Established in 1906, Quong Hop in San Francisco claims to be the first tofu shop in America. Today, it's found in nearly all heath food stores and is fast becoming a common item is most grocery stores too.

So why is tofu so popular? Along with being a very versatile food to cook with, tofu is an incredibly healthy food. It is a great source of high-quality protein. It is also a good source of B-vitamins and iron. In most cases, the curdling agent used to make tofu is calcium salt, which makes tofu an excellent source of calcium.

In addition, some scientists have found that people who consume diets high in soy have significantly lower rates of heart disease, osteoporosis, cancer (breast, colon and prostrate) and fewer menopausal symptoms. It's believed these disease protecting qualities come from the "isoflavones" found in the soybean plant.

Along with all the good press, soy does get some negative press. With so many reports written about soy's health benefits, some people believe more of a good thing would be better. This is not necessarily so. There is some research that indicates that "mega- doses" of isoflavones may not be healthy, but most of this research is concerned with supplement pills containing large amounts of isoflavones, not the natural levels of isoflavones found in soybeans (and thus tofu) which are rather low. We believe the best way to get nutrients is the natural way - in foods like tofu, not with pills.

If you thought tofu was simply a vegetarian substitute for meat, we'd encourage you to embrace a broader opinion of this food. Tofu is much more than just a good source of protein.

Age to introduce: 8-10 months in babies - the silken type, mashed or the soft type cubed as a finger food (look out - it is slippery!). To reduce the slipperiness of tofu cubes, toss them with crushed graham crackers or Cheerios.

Allergy note: Soy allergies are common. Introduce tofu as the only new food in your baby's diet for 3-5 days. If you notice an allergic reaction, remove it and talk to your health care provider.

At the market: You'll find tofu in the refrigerated produce section of the market, although some stores sell it in the dairy or deli sections. Tofu is perishable, so check the expiration date on the package.

There are four main types of tofu available:

Firm tofu is solid and holds up well in stir fry dishes, soups, or on the grill. This is a great choice if a recipe calls for marinating tofu.

Soft tofu is a good choice for recipes that call for blended tofu, or in oriental soups. Soft tofu doesn't hold up well in more "rigorous" cooking methods. It is more delicate and will fall apart easily.

Silken tofu is a creamy, custard-like product and works well in pureed or blended dishes. Silken tofu often used for dips, dressings, sauces and desserts.

Baked tofu is a pre-marinated tofu that has been baked. It is available is a variety of flavors. It is great for sandwiches, salads and on the grill.

Storage: Once the tofu package is opened it should be used within 2-3 days. To store leftover tofu, rinse and cover it with fresh water. Change the water daily to keep it fresh.

Preparation: Tofu is like a sponge. It has very little flavor of its own, and it will pick up the flavors of the ingredients it is cooked with.

For the best results in cooking, drain tofu before using it. Removing the water will allow the tofu to absorb more of the flavor of the dish. Here are two quick methods to drain the water from tofu.

- Pour off the water and set the tofu in a colander/strainer and leave it in the sink to drain for 30 minutes
- Pour off the water and wrap the tofu in a clean cotton dish towel, weigh it down with a plate. The towel will absorb most of the water within 30 minutes.

Note: The silken and baked tofu varieties do not need to be drained.

Tofu is extremely versatile. Here are some quick ideas to add tofu into your family meals:

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