The Tofu Scramble. It is becoming ubiquitous. Always a welcome sight on an omni-menu, I’ve had the dish all over the place–as many vegans have. From Anchorage, Alaska to Yellowstone National Park, I’ve appreciated the dish. (My favorite? Probably Wayward Cafe in Seattle, Washington?) But even with lackluster execution, I’m endeared and grateful that so many cafes are giving it a try. An attempt becomes almost “cute” in its intention. But there are many ways to make a bad tofu scramble, especially if you’re new to the game. I plan to detail some of those pitfalls here while reporting on two scramble options in Port Jefferson, New York.
Starting at Local’s Cafe in downtown Port Jefferson. With views of the Long Island Sound and the hullabaloo of the Connecticut ferry terminal, Port Jeff’s downtown is a model of what Long Island “best case scenario”: small shops that aren’t box stores, scenic views, eateries, artsy stuff, a place to walk, a friendly down-home feel… a feeling of a community. There is even a communal fire for free marshmallow roasting in a central parking lot, complete with sticks of jumbo marshmallows. It’s place where Local’s Cafe can thrive. And they are. When we arrived on a Saturday afternoon, the tables were completely full of patrons on their laptops.
We ordered the Scramble Our Way–tofu, onions, tomatoes, peppers, and arugula on pita bread. But first a few vegan mini cupcakes which had great frostings but whose cakes were inedibly dry unfortunately. It’s a shame to think of how many open-minded omnivores impulsively tried one of these only to have their prejudices validated. Vegan baked goods are weird; I knew it.
Onward. You can often judge a tofu scramble “by its cover.” Tofu still white and glistening? You know it didn’t absorb much flavor. Or it wasn’t pressed enough to extract the water that renders a marinate useless. This is probably the most common offense committed by tofu scramble attempts. Local’s scramble was pleasant thanks to the accompanying vegetables’ flavor, but the tofu was just, well, wet and flavorless. Tofu can offer flavor and texture, but only under knowing hands.
Like most animal flesh, tofu needs you to impart flavor into it. It is your blank canvas. But it’s a canvas that is soaked and stored in water. So first, dry it off! Pressing the tofu is always step one. Once you get rid of a bunch of that water, you can marinade it with a flavorful concoction of your choosing. But abide by the rules of making a good marinade, please. You’re not just throwing some Bragg’s on it. You need saltiness, acidity, spices, sweetness, pungency, a fat. And you need time to let it absorb. Like how folks marinade meats for days and even weeks. Marinating tofu is time well spent. Getting the water out will not only improve flavor but it will improve the texture too. It will be less wet and sponge-like. And, especially if you crumble the tofu after pressing and before marinading, it won’t be white anymore.
This brings up “cubed” tofu scrambles. The crumbled tofu scramble is a strong preference for me. It’s about texture. It you cube tofu uniformly for a scramble you get less of an opportunity to offer coveted texture variance, the cornerstone of delicious scrambles. The center of your tofu cubes remain spongey, wettish, and often white. A crumbled tofu will cook out even more moisture. And will be even more flavorful because of it! Some little scramble pieces will brown really well; larger scramble bites with offer some chew. There will just be a heck of a lot more surface area to spend time on the pan and brown up. A marinade will also absorb into these smaller crumbles more thoroughly. These are the things that make a great tofu scramble. And the cubed scramble is not really a “scramble,” if you want to get technical.
Next scramble was a Corner Copia Cafe, a homey space in Port Jefferson Station. It is one of those places where you wonder where the vegan tie-in comes from. Like why is there a vegan breakfast platter offered here? Nowadays, with shifts in food awareness and healthy eating, vegan is simply easier to find. I guess one of the owners previous being a former Kosher caterer contributes.
Corner Copia’s scramble presented more as a more traditional scramble. Its yellow hue, potatoes, toast… like a diner. But beyond first glances, attention to detail falls a bit short here. It’s pretty bare bones. And flavor-wise, the scramble was over-seasoned. One really strong note: salt! Like time, you can’t get it back. So use it wisely.
Though sometimes a tofu scramble is flavorful enough to be on its own, a pile of tofu can get boring. Just like many piles of just one thing can. This brings me to the next tip, accompanying vegetables within the scramble pile. A great scramble is scrambled with other vegetables–for texture variance, for aesthetic pleasure, for more and varied flavor. Charred broccoli pieces of varying sizes, asparagus, wilted greens, and finely chopped good quality mushrooms are my favorites. Then afterwards, great scrambles are garnished: avocado, herbs, green onion, a drizzle of sauce, etc. Unless they’re roasted or flavored assertively in some way (pico de gallo?), loose the tomatoes or vegetables that only offer moisture. Not a fan. Think it through and complement flavors.
I look forward to more scrambles sprouting up far and wide! And I look forward to offering constructive criticism for the propagation of better and more thoughtful plant-based options. Just one of the things worth fighting for in a time where the whole world’s standards seem to be declining.
As a recap, here are the rules of good tofu scrambles:
- Press the tofu. And not just for 5 minutes.
- Crumble the tofu.
- Also not for just 5 minutes, marinade the tofu. Marinade should be be complex in flavor.
- Pan-fry it with other vegetables, perhaps themed with your marinade. Attain browning and slight charring.
- Garnish it.
- Serve with a separate pile of some form of well-seasoned crispy potatoes and greens.