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December 1999

Tofu, Anyone?

Tofu has been much maligned, but the simple truth is that it's tasty, nutritious, and an ideal trail food.

My pack was finally off, the view from Evans Notch was incredible, and Ben was putting the final touches on dinner. Could life get any better than this? I hungrily dug into the steaming bowl of pasta and almost had spoon to mouth when I spied something between the strands of fettuccine. Tofu. My tranquillity was shattered. A bad childhood experience with the white, squishy stuff

had me contemplating other dinner options, but the nearest food was probably some 7 miles down the valley. I closed my eyes and shoved it into my mouth. To my surprise, it was fantastic-no pasty taste or jiggly texture, just savory garlic and spicy ginger each time I bit into the crisp, meaty chunks.

That day in New Hampshire I discovered a new backpacking food that instantly became one of my trusty trail staples. Tofu (also known as soybean curd) is quick-cooking and convenient; you can even dehydrate it to save weight and space, then just add water in camp for dinner. It’s also incredibly nutritious.

But if it’s that good for you, it has to taste bad, right? Wrong. Select the right kind, prepare it properly, and tofu is downright scrumptious.

Ready to Eat

The easiest option is to buy baked or smoked tofu. These come sealed in plastic, so you can throw the package in your backpack and go. Look for two brands I like, Soy Boy or White Wave, in the refrigerated section at a local natural foods store. The tofu will last unrefrigerated for a day or two, so it’s best suited for short trips. Like most ready-made foods, both smoked and baked tofu cost more (about $2.75 per 6 ounces) than raw tofu, but they cut prep time to as fast as you can slice. Hint: Slice and eat the tofu with a bagel for lunch, throw it into soup, or add it to pasta during the last few minutes of boiling.

Raw, With Texture

Raw tofu is less expensive (a 12-ounce package costs about $1.75) and is available in several textures, from silken to extra firm. Extra-firm tofu contains less water and cooks faster than other textures, making it ideal for backpacking. Look for tofu that’s packed in aseptic cardboard containers-they look like juice boxes-because it requires no refrigeration prior to opening and isn’t as messy as the water-packed variety. Check your grocer’s health food section or look for it with the refrigerated specialty foods.

To make a dinner that’ll turn your meat-eating campmates into soy lovers, heat vegetable or olive oil in a skillet or pot, crumble tofu into the pan, and saut? it over high heat. Stir constantly, saut?ing until all liquid has cooked off and the tofu is slightly browned. Add whatever spices you like. Garlic, basil, and oregano is a classic combo, or use cumin instead of oregano for a Mexican twist. A mixture of fresh garlic, ginger, and a generous dose of soy sauce is my personal favorite.

You can also buy premixed spice combinations, such as Nasoya’s TofuMate, which comes in Mediterranean Herb, Mandarin Stirfry, Szechwan Stirfry, and Texas Taco flavors. Add rehydrated vegetables and cook for a few more minutes, so that the tofu absorbs the flavors. Once the tofu is cooked, splash on a bit of soy sauce, then combine the tofu with rice or pasta or enjoy it right out of the pan.

Take-out Tofu

You can save time in camp by cooking raw tofu at home before your trip. It lasts a day or two unrefrigerated and is good hot or cold. Use the water-packed tofu found in the refrigerated section of supermarkets and natural foods stores because it’s firmer and retains its shape better than the kind packaged in cardboard.

Here’s a favorite recipe of mine: Slice a 1-pound block of tofu into cubes or slabs. Heat 1 tablespoon vegetable oil in a wok or skillet on the highest heat, then add the tofu. Flip and rotate the tofu frequently. When the tofu is well browned, add 1 more tablespoon of oil, 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh garlic, and 3 tablespoons soy sauce. Stir well, and cook for a few more minutes. Experiment with other flavors, like a tablespoon of stone-ground mustard or grated gingerroot. Although you can carry tofu in a zipper-lock bag, a hard-sided container helps keep it fluffy longer.

Dehydrating Tofu

Extend the short pack life of tofu by using a method near and dear to backpackers’ hearts: dehydration. Cut the tofu into blocks or slabs, cook and season it as described previously, then dehydrate it for 24 hours. To avoid cooking the tofu, marinate it in soy sauce and put it right on the dehydrator.

On the trail, rehydrate it in a pot of water for a little softer consistency, eat it as-is like jerky, or add it right into soups or pasta or rice dishes. When it’s rehydrated, the tofu has a consistency that’s different from raw tofu. If stored in a cool, dry place, it will keep for a few weeks. Dehydrated unseasoned tofu, such as that made by Eden Foods, is available in Asian markets.

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