The joy of soy: fusing East, west Bean: With infinite culinary potential, the nation's third largest crop has been transformed into myriad superb ingredients.

August 05, 1998|By Lorna J. Sass | Lorna J. Sass,LOS ANGELES TIMES SYNDICATE

Benjamin Franklin and I share a passion for soybeans.

During a visit to France in the late 18th century, Franklin was so excited when he learned about tofu - "a cheese made of soybeans in China" - that he arranged for soy seedlings from the Botanical Gardens in Paris to be shipped to eight Pennsylvania farmers. Thus the seeds were sown - literally and figuratively - for the American soybean industry.

Soy is now the nation's third largest crop. Each year more than 20 million bushels of beans are processed into soy foods, double the amount used for this purpose less than a decade ago.

Although soy foods have been a staple of the Asian diet for millenniums, few Americans took much interest in cooking them until recently. Word is now out, however, that this "miracle bean" may help to prevent cancer, lower cholesterol, reduce heart disease, relieve menopausal symptoms and prevent osteoporosis.

That's quite a roster for a humble legume, but soybeans are an extremely rich source of phytochemicals - those mysterious, non-nutritious compounds that appear to help the body defend itself against illness. In what is being hailed as the Second Golden Age of Nutrition, researchers are currently hard at work documenting phytochemicals' beneficial effects.

It's exciting to discover that the Japanese, who have been eating soy for eons, have no word in their language for hot flashes. As a cook, however, I am fascinated by soy for other reasons: I am in awe of its infinite culinary potential. What starts out as a simple bean has been transformed by human ingenuity into myriad superb ingredients.

Over the past 10 years, I've experimented with four traditional soy foods: soybeans, tofu, tempeh and soy milk - and two condiments: miso and shoyu (soy sauce). I've been intrigued and delighted with the results. Although I've consulted Asian cookbooks off and on during this time, I've made no concerted attempt to prepare these ingredients in traditional ways. Rather, I've allowed my own culinary muse to prevail. Consequently, the recipes reflect a delicious fusion of East and West simmered over time.

Mesclun With Maple-Mustard Tofu Points, an unusual salad, is made with tasty triangles of piquant, golden-crusted tofu set atop a bed of mesclun that has been lightly sprinkled with seasoned rice vinegar. To give it an appealing chewiness, the tofu is first frozen, then defrosted and pressed. To freeze, set the unopened tub of tofu in the freezer until it is rock-hard, a minimum of 36 hours. (It can be frozen for up to three months.) For a quick defrost, puncture the plastic top with a paring knife in about 10 places, set the tub on a plate and defrost in a microwave on high (100 percent power) for 5 to 7 minutes.

The sliced tofu is dipped into a tangy sauce and quickly broiled. To achieve the best texture, make this recipe with extra-firm tofu.

Although this salad makes a lovely starter, you can double each portion to create a light luncheon entree for two. For a pleasant change, try a nest of thinly shredded red and green cabbage instead of the mesclun.

The Chocolate-Grand Marnier Sauce, a rich, velvety topping, has a lovely sheen and makes an elegant dessert when spooned over small whole strawberries. Or you can create a pool of the sauce on a dessert plate and fan out perfectly ripe sliced peaches on top. The sauce is also nice drizzled decoratively over individual portions of poundcake.

Mesclun With Maple-Mustard Tofu Points

Makes 4 servings

2 tablespoons shoyu (soy sauce)

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon sweet white miso

1 tablespoon maple syrup

1 tablespoon water

1 tablespoon toasted Asian sesame oil

few drops chili oil or hot pepper sesame oil, optional

1 pound block extra-firm tofu, frozen, defrosted and drained

3/4 pound mesclun or mixed salad greens

seasoned rice vinegar

16 strips roasted red bell pepper, about 2 inches long and 1/2 inch wide

Line broiling pan or baking sheet with aluminum foil. Set aside. Place top oven rack 5 to 6 inches from broiling element and turn on broiler.

In pie plate or shallow bowl, use fork to mash and mix shoyu, mustard, miso, maple syrup, water, sesame oil and chili oil until thoroughly blended. Set shoyu mixture aside.

Set block of defrosted tofu between 2 plates and, pressing plates firmly together, tip them over sink as tofu releases water. Release pressure slightly, then press plates firmly together again 4 or 5 more times until no more water is released.

Set block of tofu on cutting board with longer end facing you. With serrated knife, cut tofu crosswise into 8 slices, each about 1/2 inch thick. Cut each slice on diagonal into 2 triangles. Dip triangles in shoyu mixture to coat all sides. Arrange triangles on prepared broiling pan as you work.

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