Meatless Monday – Lettuce Wraps

I remember my first bite of tofu, round-about late 1970’s. The gelatinous cube looked like a small brick of ice cream suspended in water; it sat for days on the top shelf of the fridge, confusing me each time I came looking for a snack. Finally my dad, world traveler and epicurean, decided it was time to give me a taste test.

Why did no one tell him that tofu needs at least a little something? My dad could BBQ a mean burger, but tofu was clearly beyond him. He stabbed off a corner and made me try it just like that, still dripping water from its container.


Suffice it to say I felt no eagerness to try tofu again even after becoming a vegetarian. And, to be honest, when we first went veggie we had no idea how to eat healthy; we thought vegetarian simply meant no meat so we ate salads with our pasta. Eventually we tried a few processed soy products, veggie burgers and what not. And only many years later, once I realized that being a healthy vegetarian means actually eating veggies and got serious about diversifying our diet, did I once again try tofu.

In my experience, tofu freaks people out. Maybe they simply don’t know what to do with it, or they’ve heard about estrogen concerns, or they use estrogen concerns as an excuse because they don’t know what to do with it, or they simply don’t want anything to do with it. Or, like me, they had a bad experience with it, likely caused by someone who (see above) didn’t know what to do with it.

I don’t eat a lot of tofu. I get protein through veggies, beans, and nuts, and occasionally tofu. So I don’t worry about the estrogen thing because tofu isn’t a diet staple. Besides, it is processed and I try to eat/serve mostly clean foods.

But, believe me, tofu can be delicious. The following recipe(s) belongs in that category – a few steps but not difficult and so, so tasty. And when you put this meal on the table, eating becomes family-friendly fun!

Note: if the tofu scares you off, try the dressing on salads or veggies and then come back for the tofu when you feel a little braver. I promise, it’s good. For the kids, maybe just don’t tell them it’s tofu until they’ve tried it. My kids adore eating salad with their hands.

1 medium onion, diced (1 1/2 c)
1 Tbsp minced fresh ginger
2 cloves garlic, minced (2 tsp)
1 lb. extra-firm tofu, drained, pressed and chopped*
1 8-oz can water chestnuts, drained and diced
4 Tbsp low-sodium soy sauce
4 Tbsp hoisin sauce
1-2 tsp chile sauce, such as sriracha
1 head of iceberg lettuce, cored and sliced in half to form cups

*Tofu: Drain liquid from container. Wrap tofu block in a clean kitchen towel, or several layers of paper towel, and put on a plate; cover with another plate and put a small weight on top, something like 3 cans of beans. Let sit for at least 10 minutes while you chop garnish ingredients. While the onion cooks, chop the tofu before adding to the pan.

Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and cook, stirring often. After 3-4 minutes, add ginger and garlic. As you begin to see brown bits sticking to the pan, add hot water by the teaspoonful and stir – you don’t want to boil the veggies but you do want to catch the released sugars from the onion; cook another 3-4 minutes, adding teaspoons of water as needed. Add tofu and water chestnuts, breaking tofu into small crumbles with a wooden spoon or potato masher; cook 4 minutes. Stir in soy, hoisin, and chile sauces. Transfer to serving bowl.

Garnishes (all suggestions):
shredded carrot
chopped green onions
chopped bell peppers
toasted shredded coconut
chopped fresh mint
chopped fresh cilantro
chopped fresh ginger
chopped peanuts
bean sprouts
sliced lime

In a bowl, whisk together the following:
1/4 c store-bought plum sauce
2 Tbsp hoisin
1 tsp sesame oil
pinch crushed red peper
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1 Tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp orange juice
1 green onion, sliced

Place lettuce leaves on platter and set out garnishes and sauce in small serving bowls. Invite guests to wrap tofu in lettuce leaves and top with their choice of garnishes and a drizzle of dressing.

lettuce wraps 1

While the cooking is fun, this is where the real fun begins. You’ve set a beautiful table, because what’s not to like about the fresh diversity of color and flavor on this table? And as Tween says, from here everyone “styles” their own!

lettuce wraps 2You betcha, there is some tofu under those toppings…

Personally, I can forgo the lettuce cup as I chop a whole buncha lettuce into my bowl and top freely from there. My guys seriously dig the lettuce cups – as they should.

Leftover toppings make for easy salad toppings the next day; you could also stir them into a soup or stir fry. Since I always seem to wish there were more, next time I might just dice and chop and shred more of everything in advance. Enjoy!

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