BERKELEY, Calif. -- In a jolt of culinary cognitive dissonance, John Scharffenberger is charting an unlikely course from cocoa to tofu.
The co-founder of the premium Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker initially wasn't especially fond of tofu. Then he tried a fresh, premium variety from Oakland's Hodo Soy Beanery at the Berkeley Farmer's Market.
It was "just absolutely delicious," says Scharffenberger, who was such a fan he began working with the beanery and now is CEO of Hodo Soy.
Scharffenberger, who still consults for his old chocolate company (now owned by Hershey's), may seem an unusual player in the artisanal tofu movement, but he's hardly alone.
In the San Francisco Bay area alone, a number of chefs are making their own tofu, including at Ozumo San Francisco, where tofu is made tableside as part of the chef's tasting menu or by special request, adding a little gastronomic theater to the meal.
"We get a lot of requests for tofu and tofu-derived dishes," says Ozumo Restaurants corporate chef Michael Yakura. "Customers are becoming more savvy about it."
And while most consumers still encounter tofu mostly as that mass market "white, rubbery stuff that your vegetarian friend ate in college," says Scharffenberger, the reality is that higher-end varieties can be a world apart from in terms of taste and quality. And the truth is you don't have to be a vegetarian to enjoy it, he says.
Bruce Cost, author of "Asian Ingredients," remembers coming to California in the 1980s and finding, despite the state's significant Asian population, that tofu was largely looked on in non-Asian communities as being a meat substitute.
Tofu does make a good vegetarian dish, but it's also good with small amounts of meat. Cost likes a Szechuan dish that uses pork, chili peppers, garlic and ginger to make a spicy, savory sauce for the tofu.
Cost, who has tried Hodo Soy tofu and likes it, says tofu should be viewed as "a tasty food unto itself, rather than something you eat because you don't eat meat."
That seems to be happening, with increasing interest in premium tofu that's meant to be eaten fresh.
Unlike sausage, or legislation, there are no horrors in watching tofu being made.
In Hodo Soy's 12,000-square-foot factory, organically grown soy beans are soaked, ground and boiled, creating a rich soy milk to which the natural coagulant calcium sulfate is added. Hodo Soy, whose products are carried by Whole Foods Markets, also makes noodles out of yuba, thin sheets that rise to the top of fresh soy milk.
Scharffenberger, who made high-end wine before he got into chocolate, sees his interest in tofu as a continuation of his pursuit of good food.
He grows much of his own produce on his property in Mendocino County, is working with Mac Macgruder of Macgruder Ranch in Northern California to produce premium Iberico ham and also is making sauerkraut.
After discovering Hodo Soy, Scharffenberger became an investor, then an adviser on the Hodo board before accepting founder Minh Tsai and CFO John Notz's offer to become CEO in June.
Tofu and chocolate, not to mention ham, might not seem to have much in common, but the approach -- creating simple, but delicious products from premium ingredients -- is the same, he says. "It's fun to work with people that are making things that are so exquisite."
His goal now is to introduce more people to tofu in its many incarnations. Hodo Soy products range from silken, custardy tofus that eat like panna cotta to lightly fried cubes infused with curry spices.
What's it like making tofu vs. chocolate?
It can be an advantage.
Recently, Scharffenberger picked up a couple of Hodo Soy products to give to someone he was meeting at a private fundraiser in San Francisco.
Chocolate might have been a problem, but natural tofu was an appropriate gift for someone who famously has been streamlining his diet -- Bill Clinton.
Visit Hodo Soy on the web at www.hodosoy.com.
Tofu is a great flavor sponge. And because it readily soaks up seasonings, it's a wonderful choice for marinating.
We used the flavors of Jamaican jerk chicken -- slightly sweet, slightly spicy -- to enhance an easy baked tofu. Served with pineapple salsa, this dish can be served as an appetizer or as a main dish. Try it with rice or in a sandwich.
Be sure to buy extra-firm water-packed tofu for this recipe. The vacuum-packed varieties are too tender. If you have extra time, the best way to squeeze the water from tofu is to place it between multiple sheets of paper towels in a shallow bowl. Place a small plate over it and weigh it down slightly. Refrigerate it for several hours, draining periodically.
For the tofu:
14-ounce package extra-firm tofu
1/2 cup orange juice
2 tablespoons lime juice
3 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon garlic powder
2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
For the salsa:
1 cup fresh pineapple, diced
2 Roma tomatoes, diced
1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
Drain the tofu and slice into 1/2-inch-thick slabs. One at a time, press each slice between paper towels to remove any excess water. Place the tofu in a large zip-top plastic bag.
In a small bowl, whisk together the orange juice, lime juice, soy sauce, brown sugar, allspice, garlic powder, ginger, black pepper, cayenne, cinnamon and thyme.
Pour the mixture over the tofu in the bag, then slosh around to evenly coat. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour. Meanwhile, to make the salsa, in a medium bowl toss together the pineapple, tomatoes, cilantro, chives, garlic and salt. Set aside. Once the tofu has marinated, heat the oven to 375 degrees. Coat a rimmed baking sheet with cooking spray.
Arrange the tofu slices on the prepared baking sheet. Bake for 15 minutes, then flip the slices and bake for another 15 minutes. Turn on the broiler and broil the tofu until the tops brown lightly, 1 to 2 minutes. Serve topped with pineapple salsa.
Nutrition information per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 107 calories; 32 calories from fat (30 percent of total calories); 4g fat (0g saturated; 0g trans fats); 0mg cholesterol; 13g carbohydrates; 7g protein; 1g fiber; 819mg sodium.