There's tofu, there's silken tofu, there's firm tofu, and then there's tofu gan. The latter denotes "dry" in Mandarin, and being so expelled of water content, it has a pliant, rubbery texture that makes it easy to slice up and stir-fry. Don't think of it as a meat substitute—this ingredient is often prepared alongside meat for its textural contrast. But at the height of summer's harvest, slender green beans and slivers of ginger and scallions can combine for a quick and tasty stir-fry to satisfy any diet.
I haven't met anyone who didn't love tofu gan upon first trying it; my own first memories of the stuff were stealing slices from the refrigerator to eat cold, like cheese. Since I haven't been able to find any sold outside the Asian grocery, I set out to try to make my own using the firmest tofu I could find in a conventional store. Tofu gan is often steeped in a five spice and soy sauce-based broth, casting it a reddish-brown while infusing it with flavor. (Look for it labeled "five spice tofu.") I made a suitable marinating broth using dark soy sauce and water infused with five spice powder, ginger slices, chunks of scallion, Sichuan peppercorns, and a star anise clove. After simmering the tofu in this bath for two to three hours, the tofu turned reddish-brown, but it didn't slice cleanly, like the real thing. It wasn't pressed enough to begin with.
My failed experiment over, I grabbed some green beans from the Greenmarket to lend a snappy, colorful complement. The great thing about cooking tofu-gan is that you need very little time or skill to pull off a well-rounded meal. Just a hot pan or wok slicked with oil and a few seasonings, like ginger and scallions, and if you like, a stray chili for heat. If you don't have fresh chilis, you can just douse the stir-fry with chili sauce toward the end; I like using sambal olek for its bright and fresh chili taste.
When stir-frying, if you have cubes of something, make all your components cube-like; if you have long strips of something, make them all long strips. So it was the latter theme to play off the natural shape of the green beans. This carried into the cutting of the tofu gan, ginger matchsticks, and lean, bias cuts of scallion. I like to cook my scallions just a bit in this dish, softening them in the high heat. The bits of frizzled ginger and scallion are delightful to eat throughout the finished dish.
Now, if you're really at a loss with the elusive tofu gan or hesitant about tofu to begin with, the same procedure sans bean curd will turn out a lovely green bean side dish. They're full of protein and in season, anyway.
About the author: Cathy Erway is the author of The Art of Eating In: How I Learned to Stop Spending and Love the Stove. She blogs at Not Eating Out In New York and hosts the weekly podcast, "Eat Your Words" on Heritage Radio Network.