One of the hardest techniques for an impatient person to master is frying tofu until it’s golden and very crisp.
Poke it and prod it too much, and it splits into a grainy mess. Try to turn the pieces too early, and the crust will glue itself to the pan in protest.
But if you can bear to leave the tofu alone, in a nonstick pan over medium heat for 3 to 4 minutes, the reward will be crunchy on the outside and wonderfully soft within.
It took me a long time to come to this truth, and even now I still have trouble with the hands-off thing. My trick is to set a timer, and go do something else in the kitchen. Usually I’ll make a salad or contemplate my condiments. But in the case of this crispy tofu with cherry tomatoes, olives and fried onions, preparing the other ingredients while the tofu browns makes the recipe extremely efficient.
You’ll need a container of firm or extra-firm tofu. Mine weighed 14 ounces, but a 12- or 16-ounce brick is fine, too, and will feed two to three people.
Cut the tofu into ¾-inch slices or triangles, and lay them down on a clean kitchen towel or double layer of paper towels. Cover with more towels, and put a plate over it. Top with a weight — like one of the many cans of beans in your pantry — and let the tofu drain while you fry the onions.
Thinly slice a small white or red onion, or a couple of large shallots, until you have approximately a cup.
Heat a nonstick or well-seasoned pan (or wok) for a minute or so, then add a generous drizzle of oil. I used olive oil, but any kind will work: safflower, canola, coconut oil.
When the oil gets hot, thin and runny, add the onion slices and fry them over high heat, stirring occasionally, until they are brown all over, 5 to 10 minutes. You’re looking for deeply bronzed, crisp-edged onions fried fast and furiously — not the slow-cooked caramelized kind. Lower the heat if they start to burn, or raise it, if they’re taking forever and you’re getting bored. Just don’t walk away. (Save that for the tofu.)
Scoop the fried onions onto a large plate and season with salt.
Drizzle a little more oil into the pan, let it heat up, then add the tofu pieces in one layer. Season tofu with salt and let it cook, undisturbed, for 3 to 4 minutes, until the bottoms are golden brown. Flip and cook without touching them for another 2 to 3 minutes.
While the tofu cooks, turn your attention elsewhere: Halve enough cherry tomatoes for ⅔ cup. Mince or grate a fat garlic clove. Chop enough pitted olives to yield 3 tablespoons. (If you don’t like olives, use chopped sun-dried tomatoes, or 1 tablespoon capers or pickled chiles like jalapeños, or, you know, 3 chopped anchovies.)
When the tofu is perfectly golden, push the fried onions to the side of the plate and transfer tofu next to them. Season tofu with salt and pepper.
If the pan looks dry, add a bit more oil, and toss in the cherry tomatoes, olives, garlic, 1 teaspoon fennel or cumin seeds, and 2 to 3 bushy sprigs oregano or rosemary (or a big pinch dried oregano or thyme, but not dried rosemary because it’s too sharp). Let cook, stirring occasionally, over high heat until the tomato skins wrinkle and the garlic is fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes longer.
Season tomatoes with salt and lime juice or rice vinegar to taste. Return the onions to the pan along with a handful of torn soft herbs, such as basil, mint, cilantro, dill or parsley. Give everything a stir, and season with more salt and lime juice or vinegar. Serve tofu immediately, topped with the onion-tomato mix, with rice and some sliced cucumbers on the side if you like. And be glad that your patience has paid off with such a lovely meal as this.