Crispy tofu

Like bacon, tofu bits can go on anything.

ARI LEVAUX, for Lee Montana Newspapers

In Billings last week, police pulled people over for traffic violations like usual. But, in what has become a popular stunt in many cities, the traffic violators instead were given turkeys, thanks to a local businessman who donated a flock of frozen birds.

The animal rights group PETA has caught onto this routine, and has taken to contacting cities like Billings that are willing to assign law enforcement the task of rewarding law breakers with holiday giveaways. Would Billings police consider handing out Tofurkys as well?

Why yes, wouldn’t you know it. Invitation accepted. Yet another reason to love Billings.

Tofurky is a wheat- and soy-based material that was engineered to resemble a baked, stuffed turkey with gravy. It would look and taste exactly like that, if a stuffed turkey looked and tasted something like a giant, plant-based cheese combo.

Most vegetarians I know are confident enough in their vegetarianism that they don’t feel the need to go through the motions of ritually eating the roast beast in order to fit in. They not only know how to take care of themselves, but the vegetarians and vegans often are the best cooks in the room.

After all, if the cook is allowed to use bacon, butter, cream and all that yummy stuff, anything can taste good. But to satisfy an omnivorous body with herbivorous cooking is a much more difficult feat.

That the meal resembles a dead animal is not a goal my vegetarian friends tend to share. I personally have not tasted the aforementioned Tofurky, but one vegetarian of impeccable taste, Uncle Gene, reports Tofurky is “horrible tasting and acts like rubber.” Uncle Gene does, however, extol the virtues of the Hood River, Oregon-based Tofurky Company’s mushroom gravy.

The Tofurky Company, at 37 years of age, has expanded its product line to include the likes of “Hasselback Baked Ham,” fake deli meats, vegan breakfast sausage, and all sorts of wannabe meats, sides and condiments. Some of them, like Uncle Gene’s gravy, apparently hit the spot.

There are so many other products, apparently, that the Tofurky itself is hard to find. It’s buried in the in the website’s “Holiday” category. And the word Tofurky is kind of scarce, in favor of holiday and vegan roasts. It kind of makes a guy wonder who actually purchases Tofurky.

My guess is a lot of those sales are to holiday hosts who don’t know what to feed their vegetarian guests. By serving Tofurky on Thanksgiving, and fake ham on Christmas, all the guests can go through the ritualized motions of Thanksgiving, from carving to stuffing.

And of course, PETA purchases Tofurky so it can send them to police departments, so they can be given away (as punishment in lieu of revenue-generating fines).

In my experience, what vegetarians really want is vegetables, and you won’t impress them by whipping out a Tofurky. Cook them vegetables that look and taste like what they are, rather than like a part of a dead animal. Don’t worry about your guests’ protein levels. Any successful vegetarian knows how to manage that on their own.

With that being said, I actually will show you how to make tofu taste like bacon. After all, vegetarians miss turkey once or twice a year, but they miss bacon every day. And, on a vegetable-centric note that’s as old as autumn, how to roast roots.

My roasted roots technique is based upon the potato, but more roots can be added, like carrots, celeriac, parsnip or yellow beets (red beets will make the whole batch look like it’s drenched in blood, and we decided we don’t want fake blood). They all add diversity, but potatoes are all you truly need. Fingerling potatoes, dense and greasy, are my favorite for roasted roots.

Cut all the roots into to similar sized chunks so they cook at the same pace, and toss them in olive oil, salt, pepper and garlic powder. Add herbs, like thyme, rosemary, sage if you want. Spread the roots on a baking tray and bake at 350 degrees until they are done, about an hour depending on how thinly they are sliced, stirring every 15 minutes or so. When the roots are done, add grated or pressed garlic while still piping hot, stir one final time, and allow to cool.

And what about making tofu taste like bacon?

Cook it with bacon. Then remove the bacon bits. That’s it. After all, the FDA allows up to three maggots per 28 ounce can of tomatoes. This way, at least those acceptable animal parts add some flavor. Your vegetarian friends will understand.

But if that is too edgy for you, here is a way to get tofu close enough to bacon that your guests will insist they just need to take another bite, and another, before they can decide if it really does taste like bacon. That’s close enough for me.

Cut a brick of extra-firm tofu into half-inch cubes. I like to do it sloppily, so that the pieces are uneven, with thick and thin parts, but exact cubes are cool too. Add them to a pan with olive oil on low heat, starting with about two tablespoons olive oil per pound of tofu. Cook as slowly as possible, stirring on occasion as the water cooks off, but not so often as to prevent a layer of brown from building on the flat sides of the increasingly dense, crisping pieces of bean curd.

At this point you realize you should have made at least double the amount, because the tofu is shrinking, and every hand in the kitchen, from the kids to grandma, will be reaching into the pan for those crispy bits. Swat all hands with the flat part of a wooden spoon.

If and when the olive oil disappears, add more. And again, until a thin layer of oil remains on the pan surface and the cubes are saturated. This is, after all, bacon we are going for. Add a few sheets of onion, that is, large chunks from a single onion layer, to the pan, along with a clove of garlic, cut in half. These can be fished out later and disposed of — in the chef’s mouth.

As the brown on all sides approaches irresistible, sprinkle in light amounts of salt, pepper, garlic powder and a whiff of paprika. At the tail, tail end of cooking, add a teaspoon of honey per pound of tofu — or more, to taste — and soy sauce to taste.

Don’t worry about what to serve it with. Like bacon, these tofu bits can go on anything, from roasted roots to salad to vegetable side dish. If they beg for your secret, tell them it’s bacon grease.

Ari LeVaux writes Flash in the Pan, a syndicated weekly food column carried in more than 60 newspapers nationwide. Though his audience is national, he says he "always writes about Montana. Usually."

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