Tofu scrambles are pretty weird. I’m just gonna be up front about that. Another thing that we need to get out of the way is the word scramble…. I didn’t name this dish, and if I did, I wouldn’t have used the word scramble because immediately people think of eggs when they hear scramble. Granted, it looks a little like scrambled eggs, and it’s good for breakfast, and it’s good with ketchup, but that’s where the similarities end. (whether or not ketchup is good with scrambled eggs is not up for debate, nor is it “regional”, it’s just true.) Lots of times when people first try a tofu scramble, their reaction is something like “this doesn’t really taste like eggs”. Recently I even got a “this would be great with eggs in it”. Ok. This is a weird dish whose cooking method and flavor have nothing to do with scrambled eggs. Disclaimers sorted, moving on!
I love how popular this dish has become! The vegan community discovered nutritional yeast and suddenly everywhere there are tofu scrambles. I’ve had it from nice restaurants, quick buffets, frozen food, “just add tofu” mix from a box, plus a few dozen varieties from my own kitchen. As you might expect, the ones I’ve been cooking lately are a mix of theories from all the strange iterations I’ve had. Most of the time this dish ends up being a really casual, slow cooked affair. This is the first of many different takes that I’ll eventually blog about, and my primary motivation this time was just to cook a lot of hearty food. The nutritional yeast matches well with basic American staple flavors, so I used corn and pasta this time to get a bunch of food without too much fuss. Spinach isn’t exactly necessary in this dish, but at the same time I can’t ever recall having it without it. Also I just love spinach. : )
Since there’s so much variety and flexibility in the way this is prepared all over the place, I’ll code the ingredients list a bit so you have an idea of what’s essential and what’s extra. Bold will be the stuff that actually makes this recipe a tofu scramble… in a pinch this is all you really need. Italic will be stuff that I’ve seen used, and have used myself over and over again, because it just works so well. And everything else will be choices that I made just for this version. Just remember that as you add stuff and leave stuff out, the balance changes. The spice quantities I’ve listed work for the veggies I’ve used. 16oz tofu + 10oz spinach + 8oz corn + 8oz pasta + 4 oz tomato = ~46oz or something? You can estimate how much you’ll end up with in your version and adjust the spices accordingly. The salt is just a base level, and gets adjusted toward the end of the cooking anyway. I actually started with a bunch this time because the spinach and tomato both like salt. If you’re going to be messing around it’s probably safest to start with much less than you think you’ll need, because it’s really the only thing you can easily have too much of.
1lb extra firm tofu, broken by hand into bite size chunks
1 medium onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
10oz spinach (fresh or frozen), chopped
~1 cup frozen sweet corn, defrosted (you can use fresh corn, just boil it and remove the kernels from the cob with a knife)
~1.5 cups dry pasta, cooked as the package suggests (I used quinoa pasta for the first time cooking this and it was great)
1 tomato, cut into chunks, seeds removed
3 tbsp nutritional yeast
1 tbsp paprika
1 tsp chilli powder
1 tsp turmeric
3/4 tsp salt, (to start with)
I do the standard tofu drying process here that I always do when I cook tofu. First thing, before you prep any other part of the recipe, spread your broken tofu out on a paper towel. Cover it with another paper towel and then wrap the whole business in a nice clean kitchen towel. In a lot of recipes the tofu gets cubed, or cut into some other fragile shape, so you’ve got to be careful about evenly distributing weight and not weighing it down too much. The crumbles in this recipe are much easier, and you can just walk over to them every couple minutes and give them a good squish with your palms. Getting the tofu dry helps it to pick up more interesting flavors, and in this recipe also makes it easier to get the color and texture you want when you sautee it. If you’re really ambitious you can swap out the kitchen towel for a fresh one when it gets soaked. Ideally you want no less than half an hour of drying.
You’ll need a big frying pan, nonstick is really helpful when working with tofu, because it likes to stick to everything, including itself! As I mentioned earlier, this recipe cooks at a leisurely pace, so set your burner to medium/medium-lowish. You’re looking for the slow side of sautee, almost to the point that your onions go completely see-through before they start browning. Almost.
Once your pan is hot, toss your onions in with a little veggie oil and let them acquire some color. The way I think of the timing in this recipe is to let each ingredient get half cooked before you add the next. So when the onions are half as colored as you’d like them, move on to the tofu.
Stir the tofu around thoroughly at first, to make sure it gets evenly covered in oil, but take care not to beat it up too much. Add a little oil if it looks like it wants it. Essentially it’s impossible to get the tofu evenly browned in this dish without it either falling apart or getting tough. Instead I try to selectively brown a few surfaces so I end up with contrasting tofu textures. Cooked enough that there are brown chewy bits, but not cooked so much that the lovely bite sized pieces have turned to crumbles. This balance is easy to achieve by allowing the tofu to sit and cook on one side until it gets color, and then stirring it around again. If you listen closely to the way it sizzles, you can get a feel for when it will want to be shaken up, but until you’re familiar with the sounds, picking up a piece and checking out the color is easy enough. Usually I end up stirring like 3 or 4 times before I’ve reached half cooked. By this time the onions should be about 3/4 cooked.
You can add the garlic and corn at the same time, because they both need very little cooking, but still have to make it into the pan before the powders. Again, when your garlic is half colored, move on.
Scatter the spice powders around the pan as evenly as you can, and begin to stir them in. If you’ve read my Saag Aloo post, the behavior of these spices will already be familiar. Basically when you first add them they put up quite the fuss about being combined. It looks like there’s not enough oil, it looks like they might burn, it looks like they’re drying out the tofu…. but it’s fine! Don’t worry. Just keep stirring slowly, make sure no single area stays in contact with the pan for too long, and eventually it’ll all come back together. The salt will pull moisture out of everything and help the powders dissolve, the oil will run back to where it belongs, and the spices will just start cooking and toasting up nicely. The trick to making nutritional yeast taste really good is to make sure it has time to mingle with everything around it. You’ll notice as everything is cooking that the tofu takes on more of the yeast than the other ingredients, and that actually helps it to finish getting the texture that you half started earlier. The spinach is a very water laden ingredient, so when you add it to the pan you’ll effectively stop the sautee. Make sure your tofu and garlic and onions and yeast are all cooked enough now because this is the last time they’ll be able to color.
Stir the spinach in, and when it has come up to temperature, add a little bit of water to help it out. The spinach will need like 3-5 minutes of cooking. Because this is being cooked on a fairly low heat, I don’t add water with the expectation that much will reduce out. The spinach will also give up some water to the sauce as it cooks, so you can add a little at a time to keep it moist. Ideally you want enough moisture in the pan so that at the end of your 3-5 minutes, you have just enough sauce to coat the pasta. Now is probably a good time to taste test for salt as well.
Toss the pasta in and stir it around until it’s picked up the sauce pretty evenly.
Take the pan off the heat, and stir in most of the tomatoes. Use what’s left, along with a squirt of ketchup to garnish the plate. Enjoy!