After over four weeks of relative physical inactivity, I haven't been feeling particularly healthy, and I'm starting to feel like what little weight I lost on my vacation to Japan and Korea has come back. I thought it would be a good idea to eat a little less oily food for a while, so I went to buy some oborodoufu at a local tofu manufacturer. Of course I went home with that, but then I saw a beautiful block of deep-fried tofu, and couldn't help but take it home. (Is that weird? I go out and I pick up pretty... groceries. I am not a normal guy).
Of course, that might well have undermined my intention to reduce the fat in my diet this week, but big atsuage aren't all that bad... since they're fairly large, most of the oil is in the outer layer, and there's not nearly as much surface area on a large block of tofu as, say, the smaller cubes more likely for agedashi-doufu.
Contrary to popular belief, tofu doesn't really absorb flavors very much; unless it's freeze-dried or frozen, it's just not that porous, which is why it's important to get very fresh tofu. You really want the tofu to taste good on its own. However, fried tofu does have little nooks and crannies on the surface that make it easier for flavors to attach to the tofu.
Even so, Japanese cuisine is more about tasting the ingredients, not covering them up. Accordingly, this dish really highlights the tofu and the fresh ingredients it's made with.
This dish is pretty simple, but it looks elegant and has some nice fresh ingredients. It just requires a little attention to detail.
I slice the tofu block in half, make a hidden incision parallel to the white tofu near the bottom of the block, and cut a rectangle in the interior. It's important to have a fairly substantial border of flesh to keep the block from collapsing... probably in the 3/8-1/2 inch range (1.5cm) I gently work the inner cube out of the block.
I season some dashijiru with mirin, Japanese soy sauce, salt and sugar to nimono strength, neither very salty nor incredibly bland. I cook shimeji (a kind of mushroom) for a few minutes in the seasoned dashi, and I blanch some matchstick-cut carrots and some snow peas. Once those have been shocked with cold water, I give them a little time with the dashi, as well as the tofu itself. The tofu can only handle a few minutes before it wants to disintegrate, so I pull it out with a slotted spoon and stuff it with the seasoned shimeji, the carrots, and some kaiware-daikon, or radish sprouts.
The snow peas are placed in the serving dish, I plate the atsuage, and I pour enough of the seasoned broth into the bowl.
It's just one of several side dishes, and like most Japanese dishes, it's assari, or just lightly seasoned. It's mostly about having very fresh tofu, very fresh vegetables, and good quality mushrooms. It can be assembled before everything else is plated, because this type of dish can be presented lukewarm.
It could be served with a little fresh ginger, but that kind of intensity isn't really necessary for this kind of dish. The kaiware provide just a hint of sharpness that balances out the relatively muted flavors of the dish. The contrast between this and other dishes in the same meal make having really big, bold flavors here unnecessary: my umeboshi, sunomono, an aemono, and a spicy nagaimo dish I served with it provide balance.
Since it looks a bit like a forest in the middle of the tofu, we could call it atsuage no mori, or tofu forest.