A few months ago I wrote about my very first foray into tofu. And…that was pretty much the last one. Asian cuisine is one genre in which I’m not particularly confident. Part of it’s just familiarity: I grew up in a smallish town, and I didn’t have regular access to anything other than ultra-Americanized Chinese food until I left for college, which led to several situations like this:
Cosmopolitan Friend: “Hey, I heard this place has the best pad thai—want to check it out? I have been craving pad thai for weeks!”
What I said: “Definitely! Pad thai, yum!”
What I thought: “Oh my god I hope I like pad thai.”
Turns out I do like pad thai and all other sorts of things I ordered blindly during my first months at school. I never really got around to making Asian food at home though, aside from a few half-hearted attempts at tossing diced chicken with hoisin sauce and calling it a day. I was put off partly by the sheer number of ingredients I’d have to start stocking in my pantry and partly by the fact that I can’t walk in any direction for more than five minutes without hitting a Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, or Chinese restaurant. At one point my husband and I were such regulars at a Korean takeout place that the owners would ring up our order the second we walked in the door.
Then, after weeks and weeks of record-setting, tomato-killing heat, Chicago got a wet, gloomy, chilly day. I was so thrown off by the absence of sun and warmth that I started thinking I had a summer cold, or a headache, or some other ailment that meant I needed to go back to bed. Incidentally, another thing that happened when I moved away was that I started hearing people talk about pho the way I would have talked about chicken soup as the cure for what ails you. I also heard people describing the innumerable varieties of pho: apparently the more unusual the cut of meat in the soup (tripe, anyone?) the better. The consensus seemed to be that the pho adapted for “western” tastes (white meat chicken, even vegetarian) wasn’t particularly good, even sort of an afterthought at the best pho places. But it was cold and wet and I was afraid the sun would never shine again and I wanted hot, spicy soup. So I consulted my new kitchen oracle. Success! And the addition of tofu croutons replaced the protein sacrificed for a vegetarian version.
Anyway, the sun did shine the next day, but now I’m prepared should it try any of that funny business again.
Vegetarian Pho with Tofu Croutons
Adapted from Mark Bittman’s Faux Pho
for the croutons
- 1 pound firm tofu, patted dry and cut into ½-inch cubes
- 1-2 tablespoons coconut oil or similar
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment.
Gently toss the tofu cubes with the oil until well coated. Season with salt, pepper, or other spice blends if you like. (I left mine plain just to see how well they’d go with the pho.)
Bake for 1 hour. The cubes will shrink and become a nice golden brown. Use immediately or cover tightly and refrigerate for up to 3 days.
for the soup
- 12 ounces rice noodles
- 2 tablespoons coconut oil or similar
- 2 tablespoons minced garlic
- 2 tablespoon minced ginger
- ½ teaspoon ground anise or coriander
- ½ teaspoon ground cloves, cinnamon, or nutmeg
- -or- ¼ teaspoon each cinnamon, clove, cumin, and cardamom (for those of us without coriander, like me)
- ½ teaspoon red chile flakes
- 6 cups water or low-sodium vegetable stock (perhaps reduce the soy sauce if you use stock)
- ½ cup soy sauce
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 pound mixed fresh vegetables: I used a combination of bok choy, shitake mushrooms, and snow peas, along with a bit of kelp and dulse (prepared according to package directions). Carrots, cabbage, onions, and other greens also make regular pho appearances.
for the garnish
- fresh basil leaves
- fresh chile slices
- red chile flakes
- lime wedges
- sliced scallions
- bean sprouts
- tofu croutons
Prepare the noodles according to package directions. Rinse well in cold water and set aside.
In a deep saucepan or dutch oven, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and ginger and cook until soft, about one minute. Add the spices and stir until fragrant, about another minute. Add the water, soy sauce, and bay leaves. Bring to a boil, then cover and reduce to a simmer while you prepare the vegetables and garnishes.
When you have all the garnishes prepared and set aside, add the pound of mixed vegetables to the broth and simmer until just tender. Remove from heat and stir in the noodles.
Serve in big bowls and let everyone garnish as they like.