Taking the mystery out of tofu

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Carly Rodgers gathers ingredients for tofu burgers, on the dinner menu at Twin Oaks Community in Virginia.

Tofu Burgers. The patties can be refrigerated for up to one week or frozen for up to three months.

Carly Rodgers has her hands full, figuratively and literally. She’s under the gun to finish cooking dinner for 70-odd people, the bulk of the population at Twin Oaks, the so-called “intentional community” where she lives. And she’s forming tofu patties that she’ll fry up and coat with a mushroom gravy, as a vegetarian alternative to tonight’s buffet-style main course of Salisbury steak.

Wearing drawstring pants, a nose ring and an apron that issues the two-word order “Eat Tofu,” Rodgers is the picture of the modern-day hippie. She’s also the beaming young kitchen manager at Twin Oaks, where she cooks four times a week, more often than any other member.

“I used to do more stuff,” Rodgers says as she blends tofu with eggs, nuts, seeds and spices for the burgers. “But I’ve whittled it down to this. The kitchen is where I’m most at home.”

She and the 92 other residents also work full-time at this 450-acre compound near Charlottesville, Va., dividing their duties according to interest and need among jobs that support the community, which was founded in 1967 and is now one of the oldest such places in the country. Those jobs include such domestic duties as cooking, cleaning, growing vegetables and maintaining cars and bicycles, crucial tasks that keep Twin Oaks members happy (not to mention clothed, fed and cared for). And for many, they include working at one of the businesses that help pay the egalitarian community’s expenses. For a long time, the most profitable venture was its handmade hammocks. These days, the tofu business – whose slogan is quoted on that apron Rodgers is wearing – is just as important, and getting more so.

My first exposure to Twin Oaks was through the tofu, which I started buying a few years back and appreciate for its fresh, clean flavor and firm, easy-to-work-with texture. When I met a couple of residents offering samples of the product at a Whole Foods Market in D.C. several months ago, their friendly energy made me interested in learning more. And when I realized they eat a home-cooked lunch and dinner together every day, I drove down to their sprawling property in Louisa, Va., on a recent weekday to get a firsthand look, and taste.

One of those members I met at Whole Foods was Aubby Duggan, 37, whose duties include sales and marketing management of the Twin Oaks tofu line. “We used to have other people do it,” she says, referring to the store demos. “We would see sales for the store jump by maybe six or seven units. When we go in there ourselves, we can sell 60 pieces in an hour, because we live here and we make it and we’re excited about it.”

The most common question Duggan gets from would-be buyers at those demos is, “What did you do to this tofu to make it so good?” When she tells them that she quickly seasoned and pan-fried it, nothing more, they often react with skepticism.

That’s probably because even many experienced cooks find tofu mysterious and foreboding. They’ve read about various ways to get all that water out of it and some flavor in: wrapping, pressing, microwaving — even freezing. But because Twin Oaks doesn’t pack its tofu in water, there’s no need for such fuss.

That’s something that can speed the path to dinner for any busy cook, but especially for someone like Rodgers as she works with tofu in much bigger quantities than I ever do. Her favorite method: Marinate, bake and let the tofu cool in the liquid. “Whoosh! It sucks up the marinade right from the pan,” she says as she shows me around the large kitchen, equipped with restaurant-quality equipment, in Twin Oaks’ main building. (If you pan-fry it, as I did to make her spring rolls, that marinade can be turned into the base of a dipping sauce.)

Her second-favorite technique is from Duggan: Toss cubes of the tofu in just enough oil to coat, then bake the cubes on a perforated pan in a hot convection oven until crisp. When she blends plain tofu to make those patties, the addition of mushrooms, cashews (or cashew butter), sunflower and flax seeds, tamari, cumin and chipotle (all bound with a little egg) gives them an umami-packed flavor and a moist-but-hearty texture that could almost be described as, well, beefy.

Rodgers, 23, went to culinary school in Oregon before moving to Twin Oaks two years ago, but she isn’t vegetarian. In fact, only 13 residents are. That’s partly because many of them who didn’t eat meat as a way of avoiding factory-farmed products changed their tune once they got to Twin Oaks, which raises cattle in addition to growing vegetables. Still, half of all meals are meatless, “because we need to stretch that beef,” Duggan says. (On any given night, 20 to 25 residents don’t take part in the communal dinner because they’re away or are making meals for themselves or other residents in one of the eight SLGs, or small living groups.)

Everything at Twin Oaks is carefully budgeted – and sometimes rationed if supplies outstrip the cash flow. In managing the kitchen, Rodgers steers cooks toward the cheaper canola oil in order to conserve more-expensive olive oil, for instance. She confers regularly with the garden managers about what’s being harvested and how to get the most out of it. The community grows all of its own vegetables but buys such items as flour and rice, things that could theoretically be produced or grown there but that would require more resources in machinery and manpower than makes sense. That goes for the soybeans, too; the community buys them from a farmer in Westmoreland County, and they’re certified organic and not genetically modified.

When she first started cooking at Twin Oaks, Rodgers often turned to the classic “Food for Fifty” by Grace Shugart and Mary Molt, but as a former caterer she is also an intuitive cook, willing to take in good ideas and follow her impulses, as is obvious when I help her make lunch. After baking that oil-coated tofu to crispiness, she has me slice onions and carrots while she soaks rice noodles in lukewarm water rather than boil them. “One of the cooks told me this is the best way to make sure they don’t get all sticky and clump together,” she says. “You soak them very slowly until they’re barely starting to get tender, and then you can finish them in the pan.”

Like anybody who manages other cooks, especially those whose experience levels may vary widely, Rodgers is in no small part a teacher. She has posted instructional sheets with such headlines as “How to scale a recipe” (“The first thing you need to do is calculate your conversion factor”) and “Boggled by beans?” (“Don’t be! 1 cup raw yields this number of cups cooked. …”). Heating up the wok, she remembers a time she saw another cook struggling to do the same. “He didn’t realize that to use the wok ring,” that device that gets the rounded bottom of the wok closer to the flame, “you have to remove the burner grate,” she says. “The wok was sliding all over the place, and it wasn’t getting hot.” She gently set him — and the wok — straight.

The onions and carrots go into canola oil Rodgers has swirled around the smoking-hot wok, and she and Duggan take turns stir-frying them while Rodgers also keeps an eye on that tofu in the oven and those noodles in the water. Soon enough, it’s all getting tossed together, along with vinegar, tamari, sesame oil and parsley. The noodles are tender and slippery without being gummy; the tofu is pleasantly chewy. “Next time I’d probably put some more greens in there,” she says.

I saw Rodgers working only with the plain tofu, which Twin Oaks has made since 1991, but the line of products has expanded far beyond that over the years. Among the additions are two other versions of the extra-firm tofu, in which the curds are seasoned with an herb-and-spice blend before being pressed, so the flavors are fully infused; tempeh (fermented soybeans); vegetarian “sausage,” made with wheat gluten; a spread made with mushrooms and okara, the soy pulp left over from making soy milk for tofu (it also helps feed the cattle); and a marinated, seasoned product with extra ingredients such as quinoa and amaranth called More Than Tofu.

The expansion will continue – if not in the number of products, at least in overall output. When Duggan shows me the small “tofu hut,” it’s clear that the made-by-hand claim is an honest one. Workers wearing hairnets (and in one case, a beard net) weigh the soybeans and pour them and water into barrels, and after the beans soak overnight, the workers lift them out by the bucketful and pour them into a machine that grinds them and filters out the okara, leaving pure soy milk. They pour in nigari, Japanese bitter salt, which coagulates the soy milk, and they use colanders to submerge the curds so they can scoop out the whey that rises. They pack the curds into large cheesecloth-lined molds for pressing, cut the finished tofu into 1-pound blocks, and use a small machine to vacuum-pack them before transferring the packages into tanks for pasteurizing.

One of the hut’s walls has been knocked down, and the room is being bumped out to create space for new machinery that will allow for more automation, but that doesn’t mean the workers won’t be in there watching and guiding every step of the way; it just means the work will be less physically demanding and more efficient. “We want to take on more of the bigger accounts that we have to keep saying no to,” Duggan says.

Until then, there is plenty of tofu for Rodgers and the other cooks to turn, along with their homegrown produce, into meals.

Some of the residents try to ration their own consumption of the tofu, even though they don’t have to. Ethan Hirsch, 30, is one of the three vegans at Twin Oaks, and he says that when he moved there six years ago from the District of Columbia (“I wanted a vision of the type of world I was working toward”) he was excited about learning to grow his own food, and about the tofu. These days, though, “I try not to eat too much of it,” he says, “mainly because if I have it for every single meal it can get a little old.”

In other words, he wants to keep it special. If he had gotten to those spring rolls before they were gobbled up by others, he would have realized that they certainly qualify as that.

Tofu Spring Rolls

Makes 12 pieces

These pretty, open-ended rolls make a satisfying appetizer or light lunch.

Twin Oaks tofu is available at Whole Foods Markets.

MAKE AHEAD: The tofu needs to marinate for at least 4 hours and up to 24 hours. The rolls are best right after they are assembled. Adapted by Washington Post Food editor Joe Yonan from a recipe by Carly Rodgers, kitchen manager at Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Va.

For the tofu

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 cup unseasoned rice vinegar

6 large cloves garlic, chopped

1/4 cup honey

2 tablespoons hoisin sauce

1 tablespoon Sriracha (hot chili sauce)

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1 pound extra-firm tofu, preferably Twin Oaks brand (see NOTE)

For the sauce

6 tablespoons creamy peanut butter

1/4 cup warm water, plus more as needed

Soy sauce (optional)

For assembly

Flesh of 1 ripe avocado

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

Twelve 9- or 12-inch rice paper wrappers

12 tender lettuce leaves, center ribs removed

1 medium carrot, scrubbed well, then cut into matchsticks

12 whole chives

12 stems cilantro

For the tofu: Whisk together 2 tablespoons of the oil and the vinegar, garlic, honey, hoisin, Sriracha and salt in a mixing bowl. Cut the block of tofu in half and then cut each half into 3 “steaks.” Place the tofu steaks in a large, shallow bowl or casserole dish, pour the marinade over them, cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or up to 24 hours.When ready to cook the tofu, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Remove the steaks from the marinade, letting excess marinade drip off.

Reserve the marinade to make the dipping sauce.

Working in batches as needed, place the tofu in a single layer in the skillet. Cook until dark brown, 5 to 7 minutes per side. Transfer to a cutting board and cut each steak into 4 long strips, for a total of 24 strips.

For the sauce: Whisk together the reserved marinade, peanut butter and warm water in a mixing bowl until smooth, adding more water if needed to thin the sauce. Taste, and add soy sauce, if desired.

To assemble the rolls: Cut the avocado into 1/4-inch slices and sprinkle them with the lemon juice.

Fill a large bowl with hot water. Lay a clean dish towel on a flat work surface. Dip one rice paper wrapper in the water for about 5 seconds, until just barely softened yet still slightly stiff. (It will continue to soften as you assemble the wrap.) Fold the wrapper gently in half to create a half-round shape, and place on the towel with the folded (straight) edge on the left and the rounded edge on the right.

Place a lettuce leaf a couple of inches from the bottom left edge of the wrapper. Arrange several carrot sticks, 1 or 2 avocado slices, 2 tofu strips, 1 chive and 1 cilantro stem on top, letting one end of the long filling ingredients extend an inch or two over the left edge. Pull the rice paper up from the bottom and over the filling ingredients, leaving them partly exposed on the left, and continue rolling tightly, tucking in the right side of the wrapper as you go. Transfer to a serving dish when finished. Repeat with the remaining wrappers and filling ingredients.

Serve immediately, with the dipping sauce on the side.

NOTE: If you use Twin Oaks brand extra-firm tofu, there’s no need to press out extra liquid, because it isn’t packed in water. For regular water-packed tofu, wrap in paper towels, set on a plate, top with another plate and put a can of tomatoes or beans or another weight on top; press for 30 minutes, then proceed with the recipe.

Tofu Burgers

8 servings

Carly Rodgers sometimes tops these with mushroom gravy for a vegetarian version of Salisbury steak, and sometimes serves them on buns (or in lettuce wraps) with the usual accompaniments: tomato, onion, ketchup and mustard.

MAKE AHEAD: The patties can be refrigerated for up to 1 week or frozen for up to 3 months. Adapted from a recipe by Rodgers, kitchen manager at Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Va.

3 tablespoons canola oil

4 ounces cremini (baby bella) mushrooms (unstemmed), chopped

5 garlic cloves

1 pound extra-firm tofu, preferably Twin Oaks brand (see NOTE), cut into 1-inch cubes

2/3 cup raw cashews

1/2 cup raw hulled sunflower seeds

1/2 cup flax seed

2 large eggs

1/4 cup low-sodium tamari

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground chipotle or ancho chili powder

Pour 1 tablespoon of the oil into a large skillet over medium-high heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the mushrooms and garlic and cook, stirring frequently, until the mushrooms soften. Let cool slightly, then transfer to a food processor.

Wipe out the skillet.

Add to the food processor bowl the tofu, cashews, sunflower seeds, flax seed, eggs, tamari, cumin and chipotle powder. Pulse until the mixture comes together and most of the chunks are gone. Divide the mixture into 8 equal portions, then dampen your hands with a little water and use them to lightly press and form each portion into a patty about 4 inches wide and 1/2-inch thick.

Pour the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil into the skillet over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, add as many patties as you can fit without crowding. Cook until deeply browned on both sides and very hot in the middle yet still moist, about 7 to 8 minutes per side.

NOTE: If you use Twin Oaks brand extra-firm tofu, there’s no need to press out extra liquid, because it isn’t packed in water. For regular water-packed tofu, wrap in paper towels, set on a plate, top with another plate and put a can of tomatoes or beans or other weight on top; press for 30 minutes, then proceed with the recipe.

Per serving: 280 calories, 14 g protein, 8 g carbohydrates, 21 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 55 mg cholesterol, 380 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 2 g sugar