If anybody knows tofu, it's Andrea Nguyen. Her book "Asian Tofu" made the case, beautifully, that the wide variety of styles is worth exploring - and that the homemade article is worth trying, for the freshness if nothing else. She's not vegetarian, but by helping crack the code of such a misunderstood staple of the vegetarian pantry, she's become an honorary member of the club.
Because of her expertise, I was confident when I picked up Nguyen's latest, "The Banh Mi Handbook" (Ten Speed Press, 2014), that she would include vegetarian versions of the standout Vietnamese sandwich, and that some would feature tofu. Sure enough, she devotes a chapter to traditional meatless preparations. I had a difficult time deciding between one that calls for the tofu to be simmered in a coconut curry and one that has you marinate it in a ginger-heavy concoction before stacking it into little sliders.
The latter won out. I read up on Nguyen's building-block suggestions for assembling the perfect banh mi (or the miniature version in a slider) and interpreted it my own way. The result: kimchi, avocado, pickled jalapeno and gingery tofu layered on soft rolls for a punchy variety of flavors and textures.
I made the sliders for a photo shoot. I served them to coworkers. I made them again for dinner. And I added them to the menu for an upcoming party. Only one of the other guests is vegetarian, but given the reaction so far, I'm confident they'll be a hit with everybody.
Gingery Tofu Sliders
4 servings (makes 12 sliders)
These delightful little sandwiches are stacked with flavorful pan-fried tofu, avocado, kimchi and more, in the style of Vietnamese banh mi. The tofu is the centerpiece, and non-negotiable, but consider the other elements flexible: To keep in the spirit, make sure to include something pickled (carrots, cucumbers, green beans, beets), something spicy (other sliced chili peppers, Sriracha, chipotle), a smear of fat (butter, Greek yogurt) and seasoning (soy sauce, hoisin, Maggi, salt/pepper), all adjusted to your taste depending on the other ingredients. The secret to making banh mi easy to eat — and this includes sliders like these — is to lightly toast the bread and to partially hollow out the top bun to make more room for the fillings. (If desired, to cut down on the carbs, you can serve these as open-faced sliders instead; place the cucumber slices on top for easy handling.)
MAKE AHEAD: The tofu needs to marinate for at least 30 minutes at room temperature or up to overnight in the refrigerator. The pan-fried tofu can be refrigerated for up to 5 days; rewarm in a low-heat oven before making the sandwiches, if desired. Adapted from "The Banh Mi Handbook," by Andrea Nguyen (Ten Speed Press, 2014).
1-pound block firm or super-firm tofu
Pinch freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons honey
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh ginger juice (see NOTE)
2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon canola oil, plus more as needed
12 soft dinner rolls or mini hamburger buns, split and lightly toasted
1 ripe avocado
Fine sea salt
1/2 small cucumber, cut into 12 thin slices
1/2 cup kimchi, drained of excess liquid
24 slices pickled jalapeno peppers
1/4 cup loosely packed cilantro sprigs
1/4 cup mayonnaise (optional)
Line a baking sheet or large plate with a double layer of paper towels. Cut the tofu lengthwise into 1/2-inch-thick slabs. Then cut each slab crosswise to form 12 squarish pieces, about the size of your slider buns or rolls. Arrange the tofu slabs on the paper towels to partially drain while you make the marinade.
Stir together the pepper, honey, ginger juice, soy sauce, toasted sesame oil and canola oil in a 9-by-13-inch baking dish or other pan large enough to hold the slabs in a single layer. Add the tofu, turning each piece to coat well. Marinate for 30 to 45 minutes or as long as 2 hours, turning every 15 minutes or so. (If desired, cover and refrigerate overnight.)
Remove the tofu from the marinade. (The remaining marinade can be used as the basis of a salad dressing, if desired.)
Heat a heavy nonstick or cast-iron skillet or grill pan over medium-high heat. (If you're not using nonstick, first brush a little canola oil in the pan.) Water flicked into the pan should evaporate in seconds. Working in batches to avoid crowding, sear the tofu for 1 to 2 minutes per side (a little longer if using a grill pan), turning with one or two thin spatulas, until the tofu has some dark chestnut browning. Transfer to a wire rack to cool for a few minutes.
To assemble the sliders, use a fork or your fingers to gently pull out/discard much of the bread from underside of the bun tops. Halve and pit the avocado; scoop out the flesh, spreading about a tablespoon's worth on each bottom bun. Sprinkle lightly with sea salt. Top each with a piece of the seared tofu, a cucumber slice, about 2 teaspoons of kimchi, 2 jalapeno slices and a sprig or two of cilantro. Smear a teaspoon of mayonnaise on the underside of each bun top, if using; cap all of the sliders and serve.
NOTE: Extract ginger juice by grating unpeeled fresh ginger root with a Microplane or Japanese grater, then pressing the solids through a fine-mesh strainer to obtain the liquid. A chubby, 1 1/2-inch knob of ginger yields about 1 1/2 teaspoons of juice.
Ingredients are too variable for a meaningful analysis.