Zucchini is the bane of many gardeners — it grows fast, seemingly doubling every time you turn around, quickly turning from flavorful to bland pulp — and so it has a slightly bad reputation. I have memories of huge home-grown zucchini and the struggles to use them. These days, though, my source of zucchini is the farmers market, where the vegetable is far more petite, and sometimes even the tiny “baby” kind, so I actually look forward to zucchini season, which means zucchini fritters, ratatouille, and various Mexican dishes (like this stew of zucchini, tomatillos and corn). This summer, I added another tasty vegetarian stew with Mexican flavors: seared zucchini in a spicy tomato sauce, with frozen tofu for texture and protein.
My favorite zucchini dish includes a rare deviation from vegetarianism: Mexican chorizo sausage. The recipe is from Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen, and it combines zucchini, tomato, onion, chorizo, and other ingredients to make a spicy, deeply flavored main dish. It’s delicious, but a logistical pain in the neck: my favorite chorizo supplier (Marin Sun Farms) is quite out of the way, I’m not crazy about other self-approved butchers’ chorizo, and the pre-packaged varieties in the grocery store are unacceptable to me because they use industrial meat. And I’m not so well organized to freeze recipe-sized packets.
With chorizo being a challenge, I wondered: could I recreate a vegetarian version? Could I find the right mix of spices, herbs and plant-based protein to get a similarly delicious flavor and pleasing texture? Of course, I could have grabbed a package of Soyrizo from the local natural foods store, but that’s not how things work in my kitchen — I enjoy tinkering.
My first attempt was with seitan, with inspiration from Gena Hamshaw’s seitan tacos recipe at Food52 and a Diana Kennedy recipe for chorizo (in My Mexican Kitchen). It was complicated and not great: I made a red chile sauce — rehydrating chiles, blending them, straining out the chile fiber, cooking the sauce, etc. — which was messy, time consuming, and bitter.
My next idea was inspired by an old vegetarian cookbook by an old vegetarian recipe for a tomato sauce that used frozen tofu for texture (it might have been the Goldbecks’ American Wholefoods Cuisine). I’d use frozen tofu as the replacement for chorizo’s texture, and Mexican oregano, smoked paprika, and red chile powder as the flavorings. It would be far simpler than the red chile sauce: no blending, no strainers, no bubbling pot of volcanic chile sauce, just measuring dry spices and planning ahead a little bit to have frozen tofu on hand. I tried it a few times and it worked great. The tofu soaked up part of the liquid, which boosted its flavor; the zucchini tasted great; the tomato, herbs and spices brought some zing.
Tofu undergoes an amazing transition when you freeze and thaw it: it becomes spongy and resilient. Here’s why that happens: tofu is a network of protein and water. Normally that is a tight network, with the water tightly held. But when you freeze a block of tofu, the water expands, stretching the network and creating much larger pores (and a completely different structure). The network mostly survives freezing, so when you press out the water, you get a springy flavor absorber. (This phenomenon might even be useful for ultra-high-tech science. While looking for pieces on the science of frozen tofu, I ran across an article called Frozen “Tofu” Effect: Engineered Pores of Hydrophilic Nanoporous Materials. The authors say that the freeze and expand mechanism “is promising for the development of smart materials/devices for applications ranging from oil/water membrane separations, health monitoring, and medical diagnostics to environmental monitoring, anticounterfeiting, and smart windows.”)
There are many ways you could vary this recipe to suit your preferences and cooking equipment. Instead of pan searing the zucchini, you could grill it to add even more smokiness to the dish. Or, if you love heat, you could use pureed canned chipotle chiles in adobo sauce instead of the red chile powder and smoked paprika. Or, like the original recipe that inspired me, you could broil the tomatoes until their skin turns black, then peel them before dicing, for extra richness. Any way you vary it, the combination of zucchini, tomatoes and Mexican herbs and spices is a great celebration of summer.
Zucchini, Tomatoes, and Tofu with Mexican Spices
A versatile way to use zucchini: cook it with tomatoes and Mexican spices. Previously frozen tofu brings some interesting texture and protein. Great as a taco or quesadilla filling, or served with rice and beans.
To have frozen tofu ready, you need to start this a few days ahead of time. See notes for instructions.
- 1 tsp smoked paprika
- 1 tsp red chile powder
- 1/2 tsp Mexican oregano
- 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
- 1 t salt
- Vegetable oil
- 500 g zucchini 3 that are each 6" x 1 1/2" diameter
- 300 g tomato 3 medium
- 100 g onion 1 small
- 3 cloves garlic
- 250 g tofu that has been frozen and thawed
- Cilantro for garnish
- Toasted pumpkin seeds for garnish
- Mexican aged cheese (queso anejo) for garnish
Roast the garlic
Place unpeeled garlic cloves in a dry skillet over medium heat. Cook, turning occasionally, until the garlic is soft, about 10-15 minutes. After they cool, peel the garlic, and mince. Set aside.
Prepare the vegetables and tofu
Slice the zucchini lengthwise in half or in quarters, depending on how large you want the pieces. Slice into 1/4" to 1/2" pieces, and put into a bowl.
Cut the onion into small to medium-sized pieces, put into a bowl.
Dice the tomatoes into medium-sized pieces, and put into a bowl. Add the spices, oregano, salt and combine.
Press the thawed tofu to remove excess water. Either dice the tofu, or pull it apart for a more random appearance.
Prepare the dish
Place a large skillet (preferably non-stick or well-seasoned cast iron or carbon steel) over high heat. When hot, add vegetable oil, swirl the pan, and add the zucchini. Sprinkle some salt over the zucchini (about 1 tsp). Cook, turning occasionally, until the zucchini starts turning golden brown (in my experience, even browning is unlikely). Remove from the pan, leaving as much oil behind as possible.
Reduce the heat to medium
Add a little more oil, then the onion. Cook until the onion has softened (or, if you like crispier onions, less time).
Add minced roasted garlic, cook for about 10 seconds.
Add zucchini, chopped tomatoes, spices and tofu.
Simmer for 5 minutes.
(Optional) Garnish with chopped cilantro, toasted pumpkin seeds, or Mexican aged cheese (queso anejo).
Based on a recipe in Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen ("Seared Zucchini with Roasted Tomato, Chipotle, and Chorizo")
To have frozen tofu ready, you need to start this a few days ahead of time: drain the tofu, wrap in plastic, and place in freezer. Freeze until solid. To thaw, unwrap and place in water, changing the water now and then.
"Mexican oregano" is a different species than the oregano found in most spice sections (i.e., Greek or Italian oregano) and has a different flavor profile. I have an old post about why this Mexican herb is called oregano. Mexican oregano is available at many Latin American groceries and from specialty stores (like Rancho Gordo: Mexican Oregano, or Oregano Indio)
Smoked paprika can be found in many grocery and specialty stores.
The red chile powder called for in the recipe is not "chili powder," which is a blend of herbs and spices for chili. That mix might work OK, but is not what I have tested. I use Rancho Gordo's New Mexican Red Chile Powder. You can also make your own by grinding dried chilies (after removing the stem, and the membrane if you are sensitive to heat).