It’s embarrassing how often that I, a food writer, forget about the entire concept of dinner. At least once a week I’ll be completely blindsided by this around 6 PM, realizing that I not only need to cook but also figure out what in the hell I can even cook in the first place. There’s not enough time to thaw out any meat in the freezer, and it’s too late to drive to the supermarket for any emergency ingredients. Fortunately, I’m responsible enough to know that I am frequently an irresponsible mess of a human being, and as I have children to feed I can’t always resort to my preferred Plan B: microwaved frozen White Castles and a jar of stuffed hot cherry peppers. (Yes, the food writer life is even more glamorous than you’ve always dreamed it was.) So I always keep my kitchen stocked with items with long shelf-lives that can be quickly turned into crazy delicious dinners that my children will actually eat with barely any effort.
That brings us to tofu, the remarkably versatile protein that you can buy in shelf-stable packages or refrigerated containers that last a lot longer than any sort of meat. And, I’ve found, that once you know what you’re doing, it’s endlessly customizable. Here’s a little thing my kids like to call “Tofu Popcorn,” because it’s compulsively poppable and, if you cook it long enough, it kinda tastes like popcorn. Oh, and it’s so easy to make that you can, no matter your skill level, master this in no time flat. And you’ll be able to do all of this without a stovetop or lots of scalding oil.
The key to getting tofu extra crisp is to squeeze as much water out of it as you can, which improves its texture both inside and out. I used to do this by laying out the tofu between thick sheets of paper towels, then putting a sheet pan on top with a bit of weight to slowly press out the moisture over the course of an hour. But, like I said, I don’t have the foresight for things like this, nor, as I learned, was it the most effective method. The best way to squeeze out your tofu: the microwave. It makes the tofu scrunch up like a sponge, pushing all the extra water out, leaving you with cubes of bean curd with the texture of the deep fried tofu puffs you get at your favorite takeout joint.
You can cut your tofu in any shape or size you want, but for “tofu popcorn”, start with a one-pound block. First slice it in half crosswise, then, keeping both halves together, cut it into a 4 x 3 grid. This will leave you with 24 perfectly poppable cubes. Then make a thick bed of paper towels on a plate (at least four layers), lay out your tofu, cover with another paper towel, microwave for four minutes, stand back, and be amazed.
Once the tofu cubes are drained, toss them in about 3 tablespoons of oil—either sesame, chili, or canola—with a hefty pinch of salt. Line a baking sheet with foil, grease it up with another spoonful of oil, then spread out the tofu cubes. Put them into a 450-degree oven, and leave them alone for at least 15 minutes.
When the timer goes off, check to see if they’re ready to be flipped—if they easily release from the foil with tongs or a fish spatula, they’re good. If not, throw them back in the oven for another couple of minutes, and trust they’ll release themselves from the foil when they’re damn well ready to. If you force them any earlier, the tofu will just rip in half and it won’t be as good.
When they’re ready, flip them. As you can see from the picture, the bottoms are now amber and crispy, the rest a taut honey brown. Bake them for another ten minutes, and out they come.
Now you have a blank canvas to do whatever you will with. You can toss them with spices or grated cheese, Glaze them with a sauce like barbecue, Buffalo, or perhaps your favorite Asian variety. You can use them in stir fries or serve them with an easy salad or some simple roasted vegetables. Personally I enjoy dipping them in some homemade Sichuan chili oil with fancy toothpicks, because fancy toothpicks guarantee a good time, every time.