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I wonder if Joy Division is the soundtrack for most carnivores attempting to eat vegetarian tacos.
My fondest memories of Joy Division are my record store clerk days in college. There was no greater joy during a busy holiday season than seeing the expressions on Midwest moms & dads shopping for Christmas gifts while Ian Curtis sang as only Ian Curtis could. I actually had one mom ask me if I liked what was playing. I said “yes” and she seemed nervous. It is truly sad we lost Curtis’ genius so early though, much like Kurt Cobain, I’m not sure I would have wanted to find out what a 50-year-old Ian Curtis would be like. (I’m looking at you, Morrissey!)
This recipe name has been in my To-Do list for over a year. I even discovered it was the name of a now-closed vegan joint in Scotland. Clearly, it had to be a tofu recipe. I’ve made more than a few tofu sandwiches and stir-frys but had never really made a tofu taco. My wife agreed a taco would be an excellent way to demonstrate the Unknown Pleasures of tofu and using a Korean bulgogi prep would bring it Closer to something that would satisfy both vegetarians and carnivores.
I have a long and somewhat disappointing history with tofu. For many years, I welcomed the concept of tofu as a protein substitute but always hated the final product. No matter what seasoning or cooking method, it always came out as mushy meh surrounded by whatever tasty vegetables finished the dish. To be fair, my experiments in tofu often occurred perhaps once a year and with marginal research. Just grab a recipe from the internet and make said recipe usually to disappointment.
Around the start of this project, I made the decision to start working on more plant-based recipes. I had spent my professional cooking career as a meat dealer. I still love meat in all its glorious forms but felt I needed to expand my skillset and recipe repertoire. This meant a deep dive into tofu in an effort to finally defeat my soy-based nemesis. It was during research for the Don’t You Forget A Banh Mi that I finally discovered what I had been doing wrong all these years. Sure, I had always pressed my tofu to drain it, but I had never PRESSED tofu. I now wrap the block in a paper towel and a dish towel and place between two plates with a cast-iron skillet on top for at least three hours. After pressing, I take the towel wrapped tofu and place in the refrigerator – uncovered but still wrapped – overnight. This acts as a second drying phase and removes basically all the excess moisture from the block. The result is dense tofu that is now ready to replace that expelled moisture with flavorful marinades and seasonings.
I usually make beef bulgogi a couple of times during the grilling season. The sweet-spicy marinade hitting the charcoal makes for an insane backyard sensory experience. I’ve tried beef bulgogi in cast iron in the kitchen, but honestly, it just wasn’t the same. When I decided to make a “Soy Division” recipe, I chose a bulgogi prep method for the tofu. As I have had great success with skillet-fried tofu, my bet was cast-iron tofu bulgogi would work well and in fact, it did. The tofu crisped up beautifully while the marinade and vegetables added an insane caramelization.
For toppings, I decided to play on the division theme and combine Korean and Mexican toppings. For the pickled crunch layer, I went with two kinds of kimchee from my friend Madeline’s company Kimchee Harvest – napa cabbage kimchee and red cabbage kimchee. For the Mexican side of the equation, I went elote – roasted corn, Cotija cheese, and a sour cream mayo taco sauce. Top it all with a few scallion greens and it’s Taco Time!
SOY DIVISION TACOS
Tofu bulgogi, Napa Cabbage Kimchee, Red Cabbage Kimchee, Taco sauce, roasted corn, Cotija cheese, and scallions on a toasted flour tortilla
Makes about 8 tacos
Tofu bulgogi (see recipe below)
Taco sauce (see recipe below)
1 1/2 cups frozen corn
2 tablespoon olive oil
Napa Cabbage Kimchee (I recommend Kimchee Harvest)
Red Cabbage Kimchee
8 Flour tortilla
Toast the tortillas in a skillet over medium heat until golden – or over an open gas flame if you like to live dangerously. Set aside.
Wipe the skillet out and add the olive oil. When the oil is hot, toss in the frozen corn. Cook the corn until lightly browned and heated through – stirring often. Set aside.
Cook the tofu bulgogi as per the recipe below. Work in batches if needed. Once all of the bulgogi is cooked, it’s time to assemble your tacos. Start by spreading about a half tablespoon of taco sauce on a tortilla. Put 2 tablespoons of bulgogi on the tortilla and top with kimchee, corn, a bit more taco sauce, cotija cheese and a sprinkle of scallion greens. Repeat for the remaining tacos.
1-pound extra firm tofu pressed and dry as possible in 1/8-inch slices
4 green onions, sliced fine – use both green and white parts
1/2 onion, sliced thin
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, grated
2/3 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup sesame oil
1/4 cup mirin
1/3 cup white sugar
2 tablespoons of rice wine vinegar
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon red pepper flake
1/4 cup pear, shredded with skin on
First, make sure your tofu is very well-drained. Wrap it up in a paper towel then a clean kitchen towel and press between two plates with something heavy on top to get all that water out. A cast-iron skillet or several large cans work well. I press mine for a couple of hours then leave it wrapped in the towels in the fridge to air-dry overnight.
Once tofu is as dry as possible, slice into 1/8-inch thick tofu strips. Arrange the strips in a container with a lid that is deep enough to allow them to be covered with the marinade.
Cover the tofu slices with your chopped onions, green onions, ginger, and garlic.
In a medium-sized bowl, combine the tamari, sesame oil, sugar, black pepper, mirin, rice vinegar, red pepper flakes, and shredded pear. Whisk to thoroughly combine. Pour over tofu and veggies. Cover and place into the refrigerator. Let marinate at least 8 hours but ideally overnight.
After 8 hours have passed, separate the tofu strips from the marinade. Reserve the veggies and sauce for cooking. Heat up a cast-iron skillet (or another handy dandy pan) over medium heat and drizzle with some sesame oil. When your skillet is nice and hot, place the strips into the pan in an even layer so that there is adequate room for them to fry up. When you place the tofu in the pan, it should sizzle. (I cooked my tofu in two batches)
Pour enough of the marinade onto the tofu just to cover and add some of the veggies. Let cook until most of the marinade has reduced, and the bottoms of the tofu slices are nice and caramelly brown. Flip over tofu strips and cook until the other side turns brown.
Makes about 1/2 cup
1/3 cup sour cream
1/4 cup mayo
2 tablespoons lime juice
1 tablespoon sambal
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon mirin
Combine all ingredients in a medium bowl. Whisk to thoroughly combine. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.