Wingin' it: tofu, Buffalo-style
On a recent episode of 30 Rock, Gavin Volure, a reclusive business tycoon played by Steve Martin, describes Toronto as "just like New York, but without all the stuff."
Ouch! Our fragile Toronto egos insist we live in a world class metropolis -- the New York of the north, you know -- but our heads say, "No way!" That's why it's a shot to our collective inferiority complex to hear hogtown sarcastically cut down to size.
So how do we soothe our bruised egos? Simple, we look down on our noses at our perceived inferiors, and no city makes us feel more smug than Buffalo. The mistake on the lake.
Ask a born and bred Torontonian what comes to mind when they ponder the Queen City, and the answer is likely to be one of three things: urban poverty and crime; those ridiculous, nasal accents with their whiny vowels; and fire, fire, everywhere fire (I'm looking at you Tonawanda, Lackawanna and Cheektowaga). Seriously, Buffalo, do your local newscasts feature stories about something other than homicide and house fires?
Buffalo is not without its charms, however, none greater than its glorious contribution to gastronomy: the buffalo wing. And though there is some dispute as to which Buffalo landmark can properly lay claim to having invented it -- most accounts cite the Anchor Bar -- no one doubts the city of origin.
As a teen, my family used to make frequent shopping trips to Lewiston, New York, a small border town just down the road from Buffalo. Every trip concluded with a hundred wings at the same watering hole. I miss those wings, partially because I enjoyed those trips, but also because there are few foods I enjoy more.
Despite its bar roots, the humble chicken wing has a lot going for it. Texturally, it offers a disproportionate level of deep fried crispiness relative to its size. Most importantly, traditional Buffalo-style wing sauce is quite acidic, which cuts the heavy qualities of fried food with a perfect spicy zip.
As a wing traditionalist, I feel compelled to add that under no circumstances can I endorse wings smothered in barbecue sauce. They are an affront to gastronomy. A thick, sweet sauce is perfect for many grilled and smoked meats, but it has no place on a tender morsel of deep fried chicken. Likewise, batter on chicken wings must be condemned as needless frippery.
Sadly, there are other emerging threats in the world of the chicken wing. Supplies of perhaps the world's greatest bar munchie are woefully low after the bankruptcy of North America's largest wing producer, Pilgrim's Pride, while demand is way up because of Super Bowl weekend. The situation is so dire, Stephen Colbert has been reduced to warning of the coming "Wing-ageddon" (sorry fellow Canucks, click here and fast forward to 2:48 to see the video):
That got me thinking about chicken wing alternatives. During my wayward youth, I frittered away two long years as the world's worst vegetarian. My virtuous experiment ended during my second year of university when a three month stint of eating nothing but Mr. Noodles no doubt contributed to a ten day hospital stay that included surgery, urethral swabs, catheters, and six-a-day Demerol injections (okay, the Demerol was actually kinda fun). Some vegetarian.
The lingering impact of the "Time of the Great Meatlessness" is a profound love of tofu, especially when deep fried. Done properly, deep fried tofu, much like chicken wings, has a crispy exterior and a meaty interior. That got me thinking: Wouldn't deep fried tofu make an awesome chicken wing substitute?
So I tried it, and it does.
Now, you can deep fry and smother pretty much anything in a sauce of butter, garlic, hot sauce (I use Frank's) and salt and it'll taste pretty good, but I was surprised by just how much I enjoyed this dish. Good tofu has a firmness that conveys a certain meatiness, but the crowning touch is crumbled blue cheese. Though I prefer ranch dressing with my chicken wings, a sprinkling of gorgonzola adds a little funk and a necessary hint of umami to the finished product when made with tofu.
Perhaps I'm being too harsh. There must surely be reasons to live in the Queen City beyond chicken wings. A recent scientific study suggests that improvements in air quality over the past few decades have led to increases in life expectancy in many North American cities, with Buffalonians (Buffaloes?) enjoying a greater benefit than almost anyone else -- up to ten extra months according to researchers.
I felt a little jealous upon hearing that news, but not for long. After all, who wants to spend ten extra months in Buffalo?
In a pinch, steps 3-5 can probably be skipped (though I've not tried). I boil my tofu before cooking it after reading a note in Sichuan Cookery, by Fuchsia Dunlop, that this step removes any lingering flavour of the coagulant used to make it. The time in a low oven is done merely to dry out the tofu before frying. It can probably be replaced by slicing the tofu and leaving it to rest for a few hours or even overnight, uncovered, in the fridge, or by pressing the tofu to remove as much moisture as possible.
300g firm tofu
1L vegetable oil
30g blue cheese (Gorgonzola)
Half recipe, Alton Brown's buffalo wing sauce
1. Preheat oven to 80C (175F).
2. Thoroughly rinse the tofu and slice into rectangles 1cm (0.4") thick and approximately 3.5cm long x 3.5cm thick (1.5" x 1.5").
3. In a large wok, bring 1 litre of water to a boil, add the tofu slices, and simmer for 5 minutes.
4. Remove tofu from the water and drain on paper towel.
5. Place the tofu slices on a rack atop a cookie sheet and let dry out in the oven for 30 minutes, flipping the tofu after 15 minutes.
6. Remove from the oven and store, refrigerated, in an airtight container until ready to cook.
7. In a large wok, heat the vegetable oil over medium-high heat until it reaches 190C (375F). Add the tofu and increase the heat to high. Maintain the temperature of the oil as close to 190C (375F) as possible, adjusting the heat as necessary. Fry the tofu, flipping occasionally, until golden brown and slightly puffy, approximately six minutes.
8. While heating the vegetable oil, prepare the buffalo wing sauce and set aside in a large bowl.
9. Drain the tofu briefly on a double layer of paper towel, add to the bowl of wing sauce, stir to combine. Crumble the blue cheese on top of the sauced tofu. Serve immediately.