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This tofu is smokin'

Monday, January 4, 2010

For the January 2010 issue of Don't Call Me Chef, our challenge was to make a dish using a cooking technique, ingredient or appliance we had never used before.

I had decided on cooking with smoke, but after doing the research, I wondered if I was perhaps taking on too much, especially being an apartment dweller. All the articles I had read pointed out quite clearly that there would be a lot of smoke, and if you can't do it outside, you need an industrial-strength extractor fan, or you should dismantle your smoke alarm before attempting this. 

I went ahead anyway and happily discovered that it wasn't as bad as those writers made it out to be. There was a little smoke in the beginning when the fire was on high to start the ball rolling ­­– it looked like like wisps from a mosquito coil ­­– but most of it was well-contained in my wok smoker. (During the process, a car siren went off, however, and I was jumpy for a moment!) If I had known all of this sooner, I wouldn't have waited so long to try this technique.

Smoking gives flavour ­­– and what flavour! ­­– to food and cooks it as well, but with the quantity of smoking mixture used here, the smoke will only last about 25 minutes. For foods that take longer to cook, such as chicken, duck or ribs, you can start off with a larger amount of tea, but the meats will probably still need to be cooked completely under the grill, in a frying pan, or in the oven. Even the salmon above can be seared briefly in hot oil to caramelise the skin after smoking, and the smoked tofu below can be used in stir-fries and even as a substitute for meats.

I was warned that I might ruin my wok in the smoking process, but since I used a double layer of foil to line the wok first, it survived. I like my cast iron wok and would have been very sad if I couldn't use it for anything but smoking after my first attempt at it.
A block of flavour
My recipe for the column was for tea-smoked salmon but I smoked a block of tofu with the salmon and that is the recipe that follows. This cooking method infuses a lot of flavour and for everyone who has complained about the blandness of tofu, this is the recipe for you. It develops a meaty texture, but it doesn't taste of any meat I've eaten. It's certainly not the tofu I'm used to.

The water in tofu needs to be removed before it is smoked. Freezing tofu will help remove more water than simply pressing it. This also makes it chewy, and it absorbs flavours better. Tthe freezing-thawing-water removal process takes about 36 hours, so plan ahead when smoking tofu. 

400g firm tofu (try to get the kind in large blocks) 

Smoking mixture (combined) 
2 tablespoons oolong tea (Jasmine is an alternative)
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons raw rice
2 star anise 

Wok smoker
Heavy-duty wok with lid
Aluminium foil
Round metal rack or trivet 

Spice rub (combined) 
You don't need to marinate the tofu before smoking, but this rub adds colour and flavour. Or use any dry rub you like.
1 teaspoon Szechuan peppercorns, toasted and crushed
½ teaspoon paprika 
½ teaspoon garlic powder
¼ teaspoon brown sugar 

Preparing the tofu for smoking 
  • First, wrap the tofu in cling wrap and place into a freezer bag, squeezing out as much air as possible. Place in the freezer overnight. The next day, remove from the freezer and place frozen tofu in the refrigerator to defrost completely, 12-24 hours.
  • Once thawed, remove cling film and place tofu between two tea towels. Gently set a small plate on top and a weight (canned food) in the plate, and let sit for 30 minutes or so until all the liquid has seeped out. It is now ready for smoking.
  • Press the spice rub on all sides of the block of tofu and let sit for 10 minutes. Get your smoker ready.
From left: The smoking mix; the marinated salmon and tofu; wrap the foil over the lip of the wok cover.
Preparing the smoker and cooking 
  • Line the inside of the wok with a double layer of foil so it comes at least 8cm up the sides of the wok. Place smoking mixture in base of wok. Grease baking rack and set on top of the mixture; place tofu on rack. Put on the lid and crimp the excess foil around it tightly.
  • Turn the heat to high. When smoke appears, turn heat down to low and smoke for 20 minutes, then turn off heat and leave undisturbed for 5 minutes. Open the lid outdoors if possible as there will be some residual smoke.
  • Remove tofu and let cool before slicing. Use as desired.

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