Baked tofu and vegetable egg rolls

Well. Seems like everything else this year, Christmas snuck up on me from behind, tapped me on the shoulder, and darted away. I was busy eating egg rolls. I hope that’s a good enough excuse.

To be honest, I needed these egg rolls. The past few days have been exhilarating, and overwhelming, and about three different kinds of emotional. Two of my dearest friends from college got married–to each other, no less–and so I spent the weekend in Virginia with our closest cadre of friends, drinking too much and staying up too late and feeling deeply, radiantly happy every time I looked into their faces. We’re all scattered across the country now, and when we all saw each other it was as if no time had passed. And yet. There are weddings now, and graduate degrees, and careers forming, and the slow realization that we’re settling into places and identities without each other. This process of cutting a path through the thicket of adulthood, knowing that I’m doing it so far away from many of the people I love, is starting to become very real.

So I came home and made egg rolls for Christmas. The recipe is an odd one, out of a stained and dog-eared old cookbook on my parents’ kitchen shelf, written by an American woman intent on introducing Chinese Buddhist vegetarian cooking to the masses. The filling is a cornstarch-thickened melange of carrot and celery and baked tofu, chunky and chewy and rather unlike any other egg roll I’ve ever had. My family has made these egg rolls, in one form or another, since I was a preteen, and so they taste familiar to me, and soothing, and comfortable. Now, on my own, I’ve adjusted the flavors in marginal ways, changing an ingredient or two to suit my tastes and compensating for errors in the original directions. But I haven’t strayed too far. In at least one aspect, I keep coming back to where I’ve been.

Belated Merry Christmas, everyone.


Baked Tofu and Vegetable Egg Rolls (makes about 30 rolls)

Adapted from Chinese Meatless Cooking, via my parents

Note: Baked tofu is not the same as the water-packed tofu sold in plastic tubs. It’s usually shrink-wrapped, firm and dense, often marinated in a vaguely Asian way. I buy my baked tofu at Trader Joe’s, but many supermarkets also sell pressed sprouted tofu, which is essentially the same thing. You can even make your own baked tofu, if you’re feeling extra-ambitious.

1 oz dried shiitake mushrooms

Boiling water for soaking the mushrooms

6 oz baked (pressed) tofu, shredded or finely diced (see note)

4 celery stalks, shredded or finely diced

1 medium carrot, shredded

1 (8 oz) can bamboo shoots, drained and finely diced

4 scallions, white and light green parts only, thinly sliced

2 tbsp peanut oil, plus more for frying or baking the egg rolls

2 tbsp hoisin sauce

1 tbsp soy sauce

1 tbsp unseasoned rice vinegar

1 tsp sesame oil

Salt to taste

Crushed red chili flake to taste

1 tbsp cornstarch

3 tbsp cold water

To finish the egg rolls:

About 30 egg roll wrappers

Water for sealing the rolls

Place mushrooms in a small heatproof bowl. Pour over enough boiling water to cover, and let soak for 15-30 minutes. Remove the mushrooms from the water and squeeze dry, then thinly slice. Reserve 1/2 cup of the mushroom soaking liquid.

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. When you start to see wisps of smoke, add tofu, celery, carrots, bamboo shoots, scallions, and a pinch of salt. Stir-fry for 3-5 minutes, or until the mixture is fragrant and the vegetables are beginning to soften. Add the mushrooms, reserved mushroom soaking liquid, hoisin sauce, soy sauce, vinegar, sesame oil, salt, and chili flake, and cook for another 1-2 minutes, or just until the liquid is bubbling. Whisk together the cornstarch and water to form a slurry, then stir the slurry into the filling mixture. Cook for another 30 seconds to a minute, or just until the sauce thickens and there is no more liquid left in the pan. Remove the filling from the heat and let cool completely.

When you’re ready to start rolling, remove the wrappers from their packaging and place under a clean kitchen towel. Drain off any excess liquid from the cooled filling. Working one at a time, remove a wrapper from under the towel, place about 2 tbsp of filling in the middle, and roll the wrapper around the filling, folding in the sides as you go. (See here for a photo tutorial.) Use your finger to dab a little bit of water on the pointed end of the wrapper before you finish rolling, to seal the egg roll closed. As you finish rolling the egg rolls, place them under plastic wrap or another clean kitchen towel to keep them from drying out.

To bake the egg rolls: Preheat the oven to 400º F, and lightly grease a baking sheet. Lay the egg rolls on the baking sheet, seam-side down, and brush the tops with peanut oil. Bake for 10-15 minutes, or until starting to brown on top; flip the rolls, brush the other side with peanut oil, and bake for another 10-15 minutes, or until golden and crisp on both sides. Remove from the oven and let cool for about 5 minutes before serving.

To pan-fry the egg rolls: In a large, heavy skillet, heat 3 tbsp of peanut oil over medium-high heat. Fry the egg rolls in batches, turning them once, until golden and crisp on both sides. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate to drain, and let cool for about 5 minutes before serving.

You can freeze the cooked, cooled egg rolls for up to a month. Just lay them out in a single layer on a baking sheet and place in the freezer until frozen solid, then transfer to a zip-top bag. Reheat the frozen egg rolls in a 350º F oven.

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