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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Put tofu into regular rotation with this spicy mix

Sweet chile grain bowl with tofu. A simple to make, complex in flavor sauce anchors this adaptable grain bowl. Food styled by Hadas Smirnoff. (David Malosh/The New York Times)

By Melissa Clark

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from years of New Year’s resolutions, it’s that it’s a whole lot easier to do something than to avoid something.

Since I instinctively chafe at limits, I treat my heart like a toddler, highlighting the “yes” rather than the “no.” The idea of giving up steak, manhattans or Instagram would make me crabby. But frame it as: Let’s eat more vegetables! Or explore nonalcoholic aperitifs! Or read more books! And I’m delighted to comply.

For me, this year is going to be all about saying yes to more plant-based cooking. I want to become as fluent in tofu as I am in chicken thighs.

I’m already finding that there’s a lot of overlap in cooking methods. Each does well with a stint on a hot rimmed sheet pan. Drizzle them with oil, crank your oven, and they will emerge crisp at the edges, golden on top and tender in the center.

In terms of flavor, tofu and chicken thighs may taste completely different, but they love a pungent, salty slather with some kind of marinade or sauce.

For this tofu grain bowl, I made an easy yet complex sauce by combining garlic, soy sauce and chile crisp with a big dollop of ketchup. The ketchup serves two purposes. It sweetens everything and acts as a binder, thickening the mixture so it can cling to the tofu pieces and season them as they roast.

What makes this sauce truly special is its chameleonlike nature: It changes depending on how you use it. Brushed onto the tofu before roasting, it caramelizes, forming a savory-sweet crust. Tossed with some sliced cabbage that’s spread on the pan next to the tofu, the sauce helps the thinner cabbage pieces singe and blacken appealingly. And drizzled onto the grain bowl at the end, it stays bright and snappy, adding a spicy tang that is mellowed by its fruity tomato pieces.

As for the grain part of the grain bowl, it’s the cook’s choice. Use whatever you have and love — cooked or leftover rice (brown or white), barley, quinoa, farro, millet. If you’ve sworn off carbs, or, let’s say, you’re increasing your salad intake, pile everything onto a mound of greens.

Framed any which way, it’s easy to say yes to this delightful, adaptable recipe.

Sweet chile grain bowl with tofu

You can use any kind of cooked grain as the base of this colorful, deeply flavored tofu and cabbage bowl. The grains, vegetables and tofu add texture, heft and protein, but the real star is the pungent sauce, a mix of chile crisp, garlic and soy sauce sweetened with ketchup. Brushed onto the tofu and cabbage before roasting, the sauce caramelizes and mellows. Drizzled on top of the bowl right at the end, it stays bright and snappy. Fresh cherry tomatoes tossed with more chile crisp make a juicy, spicy garnish, but you can leave them out if you don’t have any on hand.

Yield: 4 servings

Total time: 50 minutes


1 (14- to 16-ounce) package firm or extra-firm tofu

1/4 cup neutral oil, such as grapeseed

2 garlic cloves, grated or minced

1/4 cup ketchup

1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce (or substitute an umami seasoning, such as Yondu or coconut amino acids, or more soy sauce)

1 tablespoon chile crisp, more to taste

1 teaspoon rice vinegar

1 1/2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved

1/2 teaspoon fine sea or table salt, more to taste

1 1/2 pounds napa cabbage, halved lengthwise, cored and sliced crosswise ½ inch thick

1 bunch scallions, thinly sliced

1 lime, cut into wedges (or use more rice wine vinegar)

4 cups cooked grains (rice, farro, barley, millet or whatever else you have on hand) or salad greens

Chopped cilantro, for serving


1. Heat oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

2. Cut the tofu into 1-inch-thick slabs. Cut each slab in half to make squares. Line a plate or baking sheet with paper towels and place tofu on top. Place another layer of paper towels on the tofu and weigh down with a skillet or cans. Let sit for at least 15 minutes.

3. While the tofu is draining, make the sauce: Heat the oil in a small pot or skillet over medium-high. Stir in the garlic and let cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Whisk in ketchup, soy sauce, fish sauce, 1/2 tablespoon of the chile crisp and the rice vinegar. Set aside to cool for a few minutes.

4. In a small bowl, mix together the tomatoes, the remaining 1/2 tablespoon chile crisp and a pinch of salt. Set aside.

5. Place tofu on one side of the prepared baking sheet and generously brush both sides of the pieces with the sauce.

6. Add the cabbage to a bowl, sprinkle lightly with salt and toss with 1/4 cup sauce. (Reserve remaining sauce for serving.) Spread cabbage on the other side of the baking sheet in an even layer.

7. Roast tofu and cabbage for about 30 minutes, tossing the cabbage after 15 minutes. The tofu should be lightly golden at the edges and the cabbage tender and bronzed. Toss about half of the scallions into the cabbage and squeeze lime wedges over everything (or drizzle with a little rice vinegar). Taste cabbage and add more salt or sauce, if needed.

8. To serve, put 1 cup grains in each of 4 bowls. Drizzle the grains with a little of the sauce. Top with tofu, cabbage and spicy tomatoes. Garnish with cilantro and remaining scallions, and drizzle with remaining sauce. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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