Savory Tofu Larb over Little Gem Lettuce Leaves

Happy Saturday, lovelies! We need to talk about tofu today, because I have yet another recipe for you all that revolves around tofu.

As I’ve mentioned before, we’ve been both vegetarian and vegan. We started out vegetarian, following that diet for about two years before we became fully vegan. We were vegan for nearly three years, and I consider this segment of our gastronomical adventure to be one of the most fun we’ve tried. It changed the way we cook, and the way we look at protein sources and flavor profiles. It totally expanded our horizons, and made us feel like we were doing something proactive for the planet. That’s why it was a particularly fraught moment when Ryan and I made the decision to bring select animal products back into our diet for health reasons on my end.

Despite that, we still eat primarily vegan and have continued our explorations of vegan cuisine in the year or so since we’ve been back to a more varied diet. An unexpected result of being plant-based for a long time, though, was that I totally developed a culinary crutch: TOFU.

I mean, look at that block of soy majesty! What’s not to love?! Okay, I realize that a lot of people just don’t get tofu, and I understand that. I like to think of it as a big protein sponge that you can do almost anything with. If you know how to work with it properly, you can imbibe it with any flavor and texture you want. I seriously love it like some people love chocolate ice cream or cheese. For the record, I also love chocolate ice cream and cheese, but maybe not as much as I love tofu ;).

On today’s Tofu Creativity Roster, let’s make larb! Well, kind of. What’s larb, you ask? Larb is a flavorful Laotian meat salad usually made with pork, duck, or beef, toasted rice, and raw vegetables. Typically, it also contains mint and chili peppers. Larb is a great example of how lots of different flavor profiles can be combined to create a dish that’s simultaneously savory, sweet, spicy, tangy, and positively fragrant with herbs.

We wanted to create a variation on the dish that’s totally vegan, is quick and easy to whip together on a weeknight, combines plenty of ingredients from the garden, and is lightened up a bit for the impending summer season.

Ready to cook? Let’s go!

First thing’s first! Remember what I said about tofu being like a sponge? Rule #1: PRESS YOUR TOFU! Tofu is very porous (just like a sponge), and it comes packed in water, so if you’re going to be using a sauce on your tofu that you want it to absorb, you have to get rid of all that water to make room for the sauce. So, wrap your tofu block evenly in a few layers of paper towel or a clean dish towel. Place that on a wooden cutting board and then place a cast iron skillet, Dutch oven, or other flat-bottomed, heavy object on top of the wrapped tofu. This will help squeeze most of the water out and let in all that delicious, sweet/savory/spicy sauce!

Let the tofu hang out for about half an hour or more depending on how dried out it feels when you check it. The surface should no longer be slippery and the paper towel should have absorbed quite a bit of water.

While that’s pressing, you can start the mise en place (or laying out of things) for your veggies and sauce ingredients. Getting everything prepared before you start cooking is particularly important for this recipe since the cook time is quite short.

There’s nothing like a nice marriage of lovely herbs and veggies! For this dish, I wanted to hit as many complementary flavors as possible. Thus, we’re using fresh garlic, bright and spicy Fresno peppers, delicate shallots, zesty lemongrass, and cool mint (which is traditional to larb). We also use shiitake mushrooms to provide some umami as a counter to all those brighter flavors.

Now, let’s turn our attention back to the tofu for a few minutes. Traditionally, Laotian larb is made with ground meat, so how do we give our tofu a similar consistency? We us a little something I call “the Fork Trick” Behold!

Use a fork to mash and shred your tofu, as shown above. You can break tofu apart with your hands, which is the most common method. But in my opinion, the fork yields better results by producing consistent pieces that will cook easily and evenly once you get them into the wok or skillet.

On to the sauce! Quick question, though: are you a sweet person or a savory person? I’d have to say that I’m more of a savory person. I can’t turn away a nice, salty pad see eew or pungent parmesan (seriously, ask Ryan). Ryan, on the other hand, loves sweeter Asian dishes, like pineapple fried rice. Therefore, I wanted to create something that would appeal to us both, but also lend some zing to the dish by incorporating one of my favorite condiments: chili oil.

Therefore, I added a nice dose of gluten-free soy sauce, a squeeze of really fresh lime juice, brown sugar, chili oil, and sesame seeds (for some extra crunch), and vigorously whisked them in a bowl. Make sure that the brown sugar is fully dissolved into the liquid before you add the sauce to the rest of the ingredients, and note that it might take a minute of whisking before it’s fully amalgamated. Taste as you go. You can also adjust the amounts of the sauce components depending on whether you prefer more sweetness or spice.

Let’s get all this in the wok now! A quick note: You absolutely do not have to have a wok in order to make this recipe successfully. Any nonstick skillet, including a cast iron, will do the trick. However, make sure that it’s one that conducts heat consistently since this will help produce the lovely, even browning that makes this dish’s texture so satisfying.

Have you ever had Thai food that has a lovely smoky-sweet flavor and is very consistently stir-fried on all surfaces? The secret to this is high heat! When I first started cooking stir-fried dishes like this one, I was really terrified to turn the heat way up when working with a skillet full of shimmering oil, so it’s very normal if this is intimidating to you. If you get a lot of splashes while cooking, make sure to wear an apron, cover the skillet with a lid as the ingredients fry, and wear oven mitts when you need to stir if it’s really bad. But, do try to push through, because your results will be much better.

Start out by putting the skillet on your stove over medium to high heat, depending on how powerful your range is. If you have a gas range, you may need to back off to medium heat if things start to cook too quickly. However, I have a glass-top range, so I have to turn mine on full blast to get the effect that I like.

Add your canola oil, and wait until you can see that the oil is shimmering before you begin adding your ingredients.

Once you see the oil shimmering, you can add your lemongrass. If you’ve ever worked with lemongrass before, you know that it is a hearty little dude. Chopping it feels almost like you’re cutting through a small bamboo stem. This is why it’s very important to chop it as finely as possible and begin cooking it first so that it softens up a bit during the short cook time.

Then you can start adding the rest of your ingredients, beginning with the shallots, then moving to the mushrooms, Fresno peppers, and garlic. Then add the tofu once the shallots have softened and browned a bit and the peppers are getting slightly soft.

Sauce time! Pour the sauce over the tofu mixture, and immediately begin tossing so that it coats all the ingredients evenly.

Keep everything cooking over high heat until you can see the sauce caramelizing. Off the heat, remove the skillet from the range eye, and throw in your chopped scallions and mint. Toss again to combine. Note: don’t let them cook too much because you will still want the flavors to be as strong and fresh as possible.

Get ready to plate. Lay out a few lettuce leaves as a nice, comfy bed for your tofu mixture. Little gem lettuce is my favorite to use in this recipe. It’s crunchy and sweet, and is a nice little crop to put in the garden. Check out Ryan’s earlier post for some truly crazy pictures of little gems growing in our hydroponic system.

Top the lettuce with your desired amount of larb, and then garnish with white pepper, lime wedges, a drizzle of chili oil (if desired), and some more sesame seeds.

I love this recipe because it’s quick, easy, light, colorful, and utterly delicious. We hope you’ll love it as much as we do!

One quick note before I go: I do my best to mention any substitutions within these blog posts, particularly because some of these ingredients might be new to you, or you might not be able to find them at your local store. If I forget to mention something within the post, or you have further questions, don’t hesitate to reach out via the contact page or via our Facebook and Instagram, and I’ll be happy to talk through a solution.

Savory Tofu Larb over Little Gem Lettuce Leaves

Prep Time: 30 minutes

Cook Time: 15 minutes

Difficulty Level: Easy

Serves: 2

Ingredients:

For the larb:

  • 1 14. oz block extra firm tofu
  • 8-10 medium leaves of little gem lettuce
  • 5 scallions, finely sliced, white and pale green parts only
  • 1.5 cups shiitake mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 small Fresno pepper, finely minced
  • 2 small lemongrass stalks, very finely sliced*
  • 1 medium shallot, finely minced
  • 1/2 cup mint, roughly chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
  • 3 tbsp. canola oil

For the sauce:

  • 1/2 cup soy sauce**
  • Juice of one lime
  • 2 tbsp. brown sugar, packed
  • 2 tsp. fresh ginger, finely minced
  • 1/2 tbsp. chili oil
  • 1/2 tbsp. sesame seeds

For garnish:

  • White pepper
  • Lime wedges
  • Chili garlic oil
  • Sesame seeds

To assemble: Press tofu for 30 minutes to remove excess liquid. In the meantime, assemble the sauce. Combine all sauce ingredients in a small mixing bowl. Whisk vigorously until brown sugar is completely dissolved and all ingredients are thoroughly mixed. Set aside.

Shred tofu into small, even pieces using a fork. The consistency should resemble ground meat.

Add canola oil to a wok or nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. When oil is shimmering, add lemongrass and sauté until it is just beginning to brown and soften. Add the shallots and cook until they are just beginning to brown and soften. Then, add mushrooms, cooking until they release liquid and begin to soften. Next, add the Fresno peppers and garlic, cooking for about three more minutes until the peppers are soft and the mushrooms are tender and beginning to brown.

Next, add the shredded tofu and toss to combine all ingredients. Continue cooking, tossing and then letting mixture rest for 30 seconds to 1 minute until you begin to see tofu crisping and browning on all sides. Add sauce and continue tossing until sauce coats evenly. Allow to caramelize until mixture turns a deep, golden brown. Remove from heat and add scallions and mint, stirring to combine.

Arrange lettuce leaves on a plate, top with desired amount of larb, and garnish with lime wedges, chili oil, white pepper, and sesame seeds.

Notes:

*Lemongrass should be readily available in your grocery store. If you can’t find it in stalks, there are sometimes tubes of pre-chopped lemongrass paste available. When using that, adjust measurement to 1 tbsp. lemongrass paste.

**To make this recipe GF, use tamari instead of regular soy sauce.

Note: If you do not want to make this recipe vegan, you can use any ground meat in place of tofu.

Stay cozy, ya’ll.

-Ryan, LM, and Karl

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