Tofu or not tofu? That was the question for several Ohio food grade soybean growers on a recent trip to House Foods in New Jersey where they were invited to taste the fruits of their labor.
Several of the farmers in attendance circled a couple of times and warily eyed the tofu offerings — a plain silky (or extra soft) tofu and a cabbage salad with seasoned tofu cubes — served along with a diverse lunch spread in the tidy meeting room at House Foods.
When thinking about traditional Ohio farm foods, tofu does not typically make the list. But, in many ways, I learned on this trip that tofu is as much of a genuine farm food as sweet corn, meat, or fresh garden tomatoes that serve as more traditional Ohio farm meal fare.
This group of northeast Ohio farmers produces the high quality food grade soybeans that are trucked to the House Foods plant in New Jersey where they are processed into tofu. House Foods offers six types of tofu based on the firmness of the product: extra soft, soft, medium firm, firm, extra firm and super firm blocks. House Foods also offers tofu in pre-cubed, grilled, and seasoned versions.
Along with most of the others on the trip, I have not ever eaten much tofu. I tried both offerings. The silky tofu didn’t taste like much of anything and it had a texture much like custard. In fact, with some custard flavor it would have been quite delicious in a pie.
My general opinion, after eating the tofu, was that it was in no way disagreeable or unpleasant, though it was not particularly noteworthy, either. But, when considering the nutritional benefits and low cost of tofu, it begins to become much more appealing. Tofu has long been highly valued in many cultures for its health benefits and valuable role as a plant-based protein source. The soybean-based product contains isoflavones known to help reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, and breast cancer, as well as osteoporosis and post-menopausal symptoms. Tofu contains almost no cholesterol and less than one gram of unsaturated fat per ounce.
In making tofu-purchasing decisions, the House Foods folks said the proper level of firmness for tofu depends on the dish it’s going into. Soft tofu, which is creamy, is best used in dips, smoothies, desserts, and salad dressings. Medium firm tofu works well in casseroles, soups and salads. Firm and extra firm tofu are used as meat substitutes and ideal for stir-frying, deep-frying or crumbled in chili. My wife, in her catering business, has done some cooking with tofu and uses it just like she would meat — marinating it or seasoning accordingly. Tofu recipes from House Foods are available at http://www.house-foods.com/recipes/.
Tofu comes packaged in water to maintain its freshness. With the exception of extra soft silky tofu, the water should be drained off and excess water should be wiped off with a paper towel before cooking. Tofu can also be eaten raw because it is pasteurized during manufacturing.
After trying the tofu, we had the chance to tour the impressive plant and see the process — soymilk extraction from the soybeans, soymilk coagulation, pressing the tofu, and the packaging of the products. We were able to watch as the tireless employees ran the equipment and sorted with skill every step of the way until the packages of tofu were sent out, zipping around overhead tracks like race cars.
From House Foods, the group got to go to a giant Japanese market that features a huge array of Japanese-food items and multiple restaurants. The market also had a display with House Foods products so the farmers got to see how their soybeans were ultimately marketed in the retail store before being purchased by consumers.
This massive Mitsuwa Marketplace attracts thousands of visitors a day on the weekends. And, for anyone who thought tofu was exotic, the countless offerings at the market are head spinning and fascinating for the even most sophisticated of Ohio farm foodies. If you ever get a chance to go to this, or a similar market, be sure to check out the unusual desserts and the heavily marbled and ultra pricy Wagyu beef. And, don’t forget to sample some House Foods tofu — an Ohio-grown farm food worth considering.