Summer grilling tends to be all about the meat. Burgers, dogs, sauce-slathered chicken and ribs. I’ve often found the usual suspects when it comes to vegetarian options is a plate of frozen veggie burgers or meatless sausages (which I love, but also can get sick of eating every weekend!). Look, if you’re feeding a big crowd, I’m not about to tell you to get caught up in a Formal Recipe, vegetarian or otherwise. But if you’re interested in changing up the usual 6-pack of meatless burgers or faux-meat brats for something a bit more exciting—and the same level of budget-friendliness, to boot—you’re in the right place. Because today, we’re talking about grilled tofu. In cabbage cups, specifically. With garlicky yogurt and a tomato-cucumber salad to pile in.
You’re probably familiar with lettuce cups stuffed with a chopped meat filling, like the Chinese variation often romanized as san choy bow, Korean ssam, or even some iterations of Laotian or Thai larb. And then there are also cabbage rolls, made by numerous European countries from Sweden to Ukraine, which are cooked cabbage leaves wrapped around filling. These cabbage cups are inspired by both styles of dish, though the flavor profile slants more Levantine. While a head of cabbage and a head of green leaf lettuce are often comparably priced, the former is a bit heartier, and left raw it adds extra crunch to the soft tofu filling.
Grilled tofu may sound like the sad vegetarian option at a salad bar in 2012, but don’t lose hope! Yes, grilled tofu can taste like a charred shoe, but it can also be deeply flavorful and tender, if you know what you’re doing. First things first: To serve four, you’ll need two 14-ounce packages of extra-firm tofu, which will run you about $6 (pretty good, considering a pack of frozen veggie burgers is about the same, and beef patties or a pack of chicken thighs are several dollars more). Press out all the water from those tofu blocks, and while they’re drying, prep everything else.
Whisk together a simple sauce of thinned Greek yogurt (less than $1) and a couple fat cloves of garlic; then toss together a juicy-crunchy salad with multicolored cherry tomatoes, thinly sliced cucumbers, and red onion ($1.65) with red wine vinegar. Slice the biggest head of green cabbage you can find into quarters. Plunk one quarter front and center on the cutting board ($0.75—save the rest in the fridge for something else; it’ll last basically forever) and halve it. Separate the leaves of the little cabbage wedges into triangular cups. Cut the drained tofu into planks and toss it with a smoky spice mixture and plenty of salt and pepper. These brick-red planks are ready for the grill (or grill pan, if you don’t have outdoor space). I prefer to serve all the fixin’s for these cabbage cups in separate bowls, and let everyone make their own at the table.
Test Kitchen Notes
Nickel & Dine is a budget column by Rebecca Firkser, assigning editor at Food52 and tofu enthusiast. Each month, Rebecca will share an easy, flavor-packed recipe that feeds four (or just you, four times)—all for $10 or less. —The Editors
- Prep time 35 minutes
- Cook time 5 minutes
- Serves 4
(14-ounce) packages extra-firm tofu, drained
full-fat Greek yogurt
large garlic cloves, grated
Freshly ground black pepper
large head green cabbage, core removed
extra-virgin olive oil
hot smoked paprika
Vegetable oil, or another high-heat neutral oil, such as peanut or canola
small red onion, halved through the root and thinly sliced
mixed cherry tomatoes (any color will do!), quartered
English cucumber, halved lengthwise and very thinly sliced
red wine vinegar
- Place the drained tofu blocks on a kitchen-towel-lined cutting board. Wrap the towel around the tofu and place a heavy pan on top. This will help the tofu get very dry. Let sit for at least 10 minutes, or up to overnight. Once dry, working from the longer end, slice each block into 6½-inch-thick slabs.
- While the tofu is drying, in a small bowl, whisk together the yogurt, garlic, and 3 tablespoons of water. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.
- Halve the cabbage quarter crosswise (you should have 2 large triangular wedges). Separate the leaves and set aside.
- In a shallow bowl or on a small sheet pan, whisk together the olive oil, cumin, paprika, and 1½ teaspoons salt. Add the tofu and gently flip to combine.
- If using a gas or charcoal grill: Tofu is very quick to stick to grills, so heat the grill on high for 10 minutes, then give it a good scrub with a grill brush. Oil the grill grates with neutral oil, then lay the tofu planks over direct heat and grill for 1 to 2 minutes per side. Alternatively, heat a grill pan on the stove over medium-high. Brush the grill pan with a tablespoon or so of neutral oil, then cook the tofu planks for 2 to 3 minutes per side. Remove the tofu to a plate or cutting board. Once cooled slightly, tear into smaller bite-size pieces and transfer to a shallow serving bowl.
- In a medium bowl, combine the onion, tomatoes, cucumber, and vinegar. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Set up a large platter with cabbage and bowls of tofu, tomato salad, and yogurt. Make cabbage cups by spooning tofu into the cabbage leaves and topping with tomato salad and a dollop of yogurt.