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Tofu - seriously

At Perennial 1800 N. Lincoln chef Ryan Poli's sesame-crusted tofu sometimes outsells beef menu.<br>

At Perennial, 1800 N. Lincoln, chef Ryan Poli's sesame-crusted tofu sometimes outsells the beef on the menu.

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Recently, many common shopping basket items have been upgraded from commodity to premium status. Grocery store eggs are now being passed over for a fresh dozen from the farmers market. Pork from small, heritage breeds is gaining preference over meat raised in corporate feed lots. Anything "local" gets star treatment on restaurant menus. Now, it's tofu's time.

Fresh, hand-crafted soybean curd from local producers is gaining the attention of Chicago chefs who are discovering that tofu is so much more than a punchline.

This may prove an uphill struggle, however. For many of us, tofu still is a joke of a foodstuff, a hippie trend - like wearing fringed jackets or smoking pot - that simply will not go away.Beyond Tofurky

The smirking attitude toward tofu might be traceable to novelty products like Tofurky, a soybean loaf shaped into something resembling a small, legless, wingless turkey.

Tofurkey is actually a kind of encased tofu sausage that comes in a roundish ball. When ready for the oven, it looks like Al Capp's imaginary schmoo, the fictional spherical animal that loved to be eaten.

Dan Tucker, chef de cuisine at SushiSamba in River North, feels that diners dis tofu, in part, because of "our culture's tendency to marginalize vegetarians" and "the food industry's tendency to take something and turn it into a pale reflection of what it is not, rather than celebrating it for what it is."

Tofurky seems to appeal not to those who dislike meat, but rather to those who sadly yearn for it. Trying to make tofu emulate meat may yield less than happy results.

Why not let tofu shine for what it is: a low-fat, high-protein, zero-cholesterol vegetable product offering intriguing textural variation and the ability to absorb flavors like a sponge (and bringing to table about the same amount of flavor)-

Chef Alex Cheswick of May Street Market in West Town considers tofu analogous to fish.

"You have to treat it carefully," Cheswick cautions.

His creation: Silky-soft tofu wrapped in eggplant and drizzled with a glaze made from Mexican tamarind candy, a sweet balance to the potential bitterness of the eggplant.

A veteran of Le Francais and Tru, Cheswick prefers the smoother, "fine-dining feel" of soft tofu from Chicago's Phoenix Bean.Small-batch producers

Phoenix Bean, 5438 N. Broadway in Andersonville, is headed by Jenny Yang, who bought the nearly 30-year-old company after she'd been a customer for some years. She discovered it, she says, while walking by and realizing, "This place smells really good."

Yang delivers fresh tofu seven days a week to many Chinatown restaurants, including Lao Sze Chuan and Phoenix, where chefs understand that there is a significant taste advantage with fresh tofu.

Tofu "is a vegetable product, so it has to be fresh because the flavors get dull over time," Yang says.

When shopping for tofu, she recommends avoiding tubs of tofu that contain clouded water - a sure sign of old tofu.

While Phoenix Bean is a relatively small producer of tofu, Tiny Greens is even smaller, a fact that owner Bill Bagby feels is a definite advantage.

In his small-batch operation, "You have the opportunity to see, smell and taste every single block of tofu and catch anything that's the slightest bit off," Bagby says.

Of course, there's a price attached to that kind of quality control: Tiny Greens tofu sells at Green City Market and other farmers markets for more than twice as much as more commercially available tofu.Tofu bacon- Not so much

Ryan Poli, chef at Perennial in Lincoln Park, says the relatively high cost of Tiny Greens tofu is worth it because it has "good texture and hand-crafted quality."

Poli also has an excellent working relationship with Bagby, who Poli says provides "education for Perennial's servers, who in turn provide education to guests."

"Not in a pretentious way, but when people ask, we can tell them it's local, it's organic, it's sustainable," Poli says.

The challenge of cooking with tofu, according to Poli, is that "it doesn't really taste like anything," but he has made it his personal goal "to make it taste like something."

Perennial currently offers sesame-crusted tofu served with a pickled carrot and cucumber salad, edamame puree, basil seeds and yuzu, a dish that plays off the firm exterior and creamy interior of the Tiny Greens tofu.

Still, there are limits. Poli says he tried making a smoky bacon-type of tofu, but it just didn't work; the tofu became tough and rubbery.

"Tofu," Poli concludes, "wanted nothing to do with becoming bacon."

David Hammond is an Oak Park free-lance writer.

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