Many years ago, I took a break from studying chemistry in Gainesville, Florida to hang out with my brother who was teaching maths in Athens, Georgia. It was the late-ish 2000s, Dottie Alexander was still in of Montreal, and Michael Stipe’s vegetarian restaurant, The Grit, was very popular.
We went to The Grit for supper one night, and I don’t remember what I ordered, but I remember what Aaron got with the utmost clarity, because it was startlingly good: The Golden Bowl didn’t sound particularly enticing, but Aaron insisted the combination of brown rice, tofu, and vegan gravy was just that.
The tofu, to put it mildly, was outstanding. It was crispy on the outside and soft and chewy on the inside. It was seasoned with soy sauce and coated in nutritional yeast. It was the first time I had tasted nutritional yeast, and I was very impressed with the savoury yellow flakes. I have thought about that tofu a lot over the last decade, and last night, I made it mine once more.
Crispy baked tofu is one of those things that’s perfectly suited for the air fryer. Though I have a full-sized oven with a convection setting, waiting 15 minutes for that thing to preheat, only to make six or so ounces of tofu (at the most) seems like a waste of both my time and energy (bill). My small tabletop oven gets hot in about four minutes, then takes another 10 to transform the tofu into savoury little cubes, which is the amount of time I have to make lunch during the week.
My seasoning is slightly different from The Grit’s. The nooch is still present (obviously), but I got a little sesame oil involved, and sprinkled the little cubes with salt and MSG. The result was a delicious one. The cubes have a McNugget quality, crispy but tender with a flavour that’s savoury, but not exactly meaty. (I know McNuggets are technically made with chicken, but you cannot tell me that they truly taste like a chicken.)
Prep-wise, you don’t have to do too much. I made these cubes with tofu that had been soaked in hot salt water, tofu that had been dried in the fridge overnight, and tofu straight from the package, and there was no real difference between batches. I assume this is due to the cube size (which was fairly small), and the air fryer’s hot, whipping winds.
You do not have to coat your tofu in nutritional yeast before air frying it. A little oil and salt will also render excellent results, but I urge you to try the nooch. Cut your tofu into cubes that are somewhere in the 0.5 – 1 cm range, toss them with enough toasted sesame oil to get them glistening, then season with a few pinches of salt and MSG.
For the almost 60 grams of tofu you see in the photo above, that translated to 1/2 a teaspoon of oil, a scant 1/4 teaspoon of sea salt (use less if you’re working with iodised), and about five shakes of MSG from my MSG shaker. Give that a stir, then toss with nutritional yeast until it’s got a substantial yellow coating (you’ll know you’re done when further additions of yeast refuse to stick).
Toss it in an air fryer set to 200 degrees Celsius for 10-15 minutes, until the yeast transforms into a crispy, almost breaded type of exterior. Eat with rice, beans, noodles, or straight from the air fryer basket.