You haven't tried tofu until you've tried this tofu

As a cook, tofu has never really been my thing. My attempts over the years to bake or stir-fry it often turned out bland or gummy, and I’ve long doubted its merits as an eco-friendly meat substitute, given that many brands source their soybeans from water-intensive factory farms in California or China.

Then, one of our sons brought his vegetarian girlfriend to dinner, a lovely young woman I wanted to impress. I could only serve beans so many nights in a row.

When I looked for locally made, fresh tofu, I hit a dead end. Why, in the land of 10,000 soybean farms,” I thought, “is there no one making local tofu?

Want to learn from Beth how to cook local, plant-forward dishes this summer? There’s still space in our Bare Bones Cooking Class, but it’s filling up quickly!

Yan Small, founder of Minn Tofu, asked the very same question when she arrived here from China 21 years ago. Small is the first to make tofu in Minnesota with all-local ingredients. Her non-GMO soybeans come from a family farm in St. Peter, are cleaned in in Eden Prairie and then processed in Spring Lake Park. “Our local soybeans are lighter in color, have a milder flavor and are plumper than commodity soybeans,” she says.

“We use the Chinese method I learned from my grandmother, who bought fresh tofu at the market each morning, so I know how tofu should taste” — mild, light and earthy.

You can find Minn Tofu at the three Lakewinds grocery locations, and other Twin Cities natural food co-ops.

She prides herself on the thoroughness of her grandmother’s Chinese method, which takes far longer than the Japanese method that is favored, for its speed, by most industrial producers. After crushing and soaking the soybeans, Small not only strains the milk but adds an extra step, filtration, resulting in a purer, lighter end product.

Fresh Chinese tofu is very delicate, and should be handled like cut flowers. After removing the block from its tub and rinsing it, replace the liquid with cold water to keep it fresh. Minn Tofu is available soft, for smoothies and desserts; medium, for gentle stir-fries; or firm, my favorite for light sautés like the recipe below. Firm tofu is compact and easier to chop or dice, especially if it’s pressed first.

Given its mild flavor, tofu is best served with assertive dressings, sauces, and vinaigrettes. But what I’ve realized through experimenting with Minn Tofu is that it’s more than a mere substitute for meat. Pan fried, stir-fried, baked or grilled, it’s a subtle, steady canvas for a range of dishes. It’s especially good with summer vegetables that bring vibrant color and crunch. The recipe below calls for just one pan and three ingredients to make a breezy, hearty summer sauté.

Summery Tofu Sauté

Serves 4

This light sauté of curly kale, beauty heart radishes, and tofu is a flash in a pan (the good kind).

Finish the dish with dark sesame oil, ginger, and lime juice. Pair with soba noodles or Jasmine rice.

1 14-ounce package firm, water-packed tofu, rinsed and patted dry, cut in half vertically

2 tablespoons lime juice

1 teaspoon honey

1 teaspoon light soy sauce

1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger

3 tablespoons toasted sesame oil

8 to 10 curly kale leaves, thick stems discarded, torn

1 small beauty heart or watermelon radish, cut into ½-inch cubes

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Sliced scallions for garnish

Place the tofu slices on a plate or cutting board with several layers of paper towels on it. Lay several more layers of paper towel over the tofu, and set a heavy pot on top to drain the tofu for at least 10 minutes. Discard the water that presses out, and dice the tofu into 1-inch cubes.

In a small dish, whisk together the lime juice, soy sauce, ginger, and 2 tablespoons of the dark sesame oil.

Film a sauté pan with the remaining sesame oil and set over medium heat. Sauté the kale and the cubed tofu until the kale is just wilted and the tofu is heated through, about 5 minutes. Toss in the watermelon radish cubes and then enough of the lime-ginger vinaigrette to lightly coat all of the ingredients. Season with salt and freshly-ground black pepper, and serve garnished with the scallions. 

Bare Bones features weekly-ish essays on food, family and what nourishes us from Beth Dooley and Kip Dooley. Learn more about their Bare Bones Cooking Class (starting 6/21) here. You can subscribe or share what they’re cooking below: