Anatomy of a Sandwich: Tomato and Balsamic Tofu


A simple idea can often be undone by its own simplicity. You figure, it seems so obvious, why isn’t it just assumed that this already works? And then you think, well, duh, cause of course it doesn’t work, and everyone already knows that.

When I was at the terrific Osteria 2350, I enjoyed a sandwich fairly common to Italian cafes and delis alike: The tomato and mozzarella with roasted red peppers and balsamic vinegar. This sandwich knows no one cuisine, because although its roots are clearly in Italian staples, its appeal is widespread and its basic form – a warm and possibly grilled cheese sandwich with added ingredients – is a well worn food item among any number of cultural heritages.

Osteria’s version was very delicious, so delicious that I had to lament the fact that, for my vegan partner, there is no accessible way for him to enjoy this sandwich. The tomato, red pepper, and vinegar portions, yes. The cheese? No. Vegan cheese can be tasty, but it has its limits, and there is not a vegan cheese on the planet that can imitate faux mozzarella.

Except that, as I considered the giant pillows of fresh mozzarella stuffed into the sandwich, I found that it bore a striking similarity to something most, if not all, vegans heartily enjoy: Tofu. Specifically extra-firm, uncooked tofu. Both are white and soft. Both have neutral, almost watery-fresh flavors. Tofu can’t melt like mozzarella, but in this sandwich, the mozzarella stayed perfectly solid, so melting wasn’t an issue.

So, I’ve had this dish in mind for a while. After a short stop into Lotus Foods on Saturday, I decided it was high time that I tried out my theory.

Success? Well, you be the judge. But would I write about it if it were a total failure?

A few tips for this very easy recipe:
– A pound of tofu should yield four sandwiches worth, unless you really want to get heavy on each sandwich.
– Soak the tofu in balsamic vinegar for extra flavor
– Press your tofu, but don’t get rid of all the moisture. A little dampness inside helps to mimic the mozzarella.
– Use good crusty bread for this. Jackie, my friend and most fantastic cooking partner, brought over some homemade sandwich bread that worked fantastic. Make sure to use thick slices and toast for extra support.
– We slightly cooked our tomato slices, but if you want to leave them firm and crispy, go right ahead.

Tomato and Balsamic Tofu Sandwich

Ingredients
– 1 pound of firm tofu, sliced widthwise into four big slabs
– 2 small tomatoes, sliced
– 1 red bell pepper, sliced into small strips
– Salt and pepper (to taste)
– Balsamic vinegar – we weren’t precise on the measurements, so use your judgment. About a 1/4 cup overall should be fine.
– Eight slices of thick, crusty bread, toasted
– 3 tbs olive oil or grapeseed oil (use more as needed)
– Fresh spinach (as desired)
– Vegan mayo (optional)

– Heat the oil in a pan, then add the red pepper slices. Saute until soft, adding salt and pepper as desired. Add the tomatoes, cooking for about a minute. Remove from the peppers and tomatoes from heat, but keep the pan hot.

– Put a slab of tofu in the pan. Add balsamic vinegar, cook for a minute, then flip, adding more vinegar. Once slab has soaked up some of the flavor – a touch-and-taste test works – remove from heat. Repeat with each slab.

– Assemble your sandwich. Toast the bread, then layer tofu, tomato, red peppers, and spinach. Add vegan mayo if using. Enjoy!

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