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ON A BUSY EVENING, A TASTE FOR TOFU

Ifirst encountered tofu as a college freshman at a quaint vegetarian restaurant just down the street from my dorm. It appeared as a regular ingredient on pizza.

Vegetarian dinners growing up meant fresh vegetable plates, cooked Southern style, during the peak of our summer garden, or in winter, macaroni and cheese. I was ignorant on the wonders of vegetarian proteins. I thought the tofu was some kind of cheese.

It is, in a way. Separating soy milk (the liquid left over from cooked, ground soybeans) into curds and whey makes tofu. The curds are pressed together, in a process that resembles cheese-making, into a cake. The different textures of tofu -- soft, firm, extra-firm, etc. -- are a result of how much whey has been pressed out of the tofu cake.

Tofu is easy to use. It's lightning-fast, which makes it ideal for meals on the busiest of weeknights. It's also good for you. Recent studies have shown that eating soy products regularly can lower cholesterol, balance hormones and help prevent many forms of cancer.

Tofu is a chameleon, taking on the flavors of the ingredients with which it is cooked, as it does in today's simple stir-fry. What's not to like, except maybe the name? Tell the kids it's cheese.

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Midweek Tofu Stir-Fry with Orange Ginger Sauce

Steamed rice

Fortune cookies

MIDWEEK TOFU STIR-FRY WITH ORANGE GINGER SAUCE

1 cup long-grain rice

1/2 cup orange juice

1/4 cup reduced-sodium soy sauce

2 teaspoons minced ginger

2 teaspoons bottled minced garlic

1 package (12 ounces) extra-firm tofu

1 tablespoon peanut oil or vegetable oil

1 large onion (for 1 cup slices)

10 already-peeled baby carrots

1 medium red bell pepper (for 1 cup strips)

1 bag (8 ounces) frozen snow peas
Bring 2 cups of water to a boil in a 2-quart saucepan. When the water boils, add the rice, cover the pan, reduce the heat to low and cook 17 minutes.

Make a marinade by pouring the orange juice, soy sauce, ginger and garlic into a 2-cup measure. Whisk well to combine. Drain the tofu, cut it into bite-size cubes and place it in a 1-quart or larger bowl. Pour the marinade over the tofu. Set aside.

Heat the oil on medium in an extra-deep, non-stick skillet. Peel the onion and cut it in half. Cut each half into crescent-shaped slices, adding them to the skillet as you cut. Stir from time to time. Cut the carrots at a 45-degree angle into quill-shaped slices about 1/4 -inch thick. Add them to the skillet and raise the heat to medium-high.

Rinse and seed the bell pepper. Cut it into 1/4 -inch-wide strips. Add them to the pan. Stir and cook 2 minutes or until the onions are soft. Add the snow peas. Stir and toss until they are hot, about 2 minutes. Add the tofu and the marinade to the skillet. Stir gently to mix well and to heat the tofu through. (Do not overmix or the tofu will begin to fall apart.) Remove from the heat. Serve at once over hot rice. Pass additional soy sauce at the table, if desired. Serves 4.

Note: Extra-firm tofu is preferred for this recipe. Firm can be used but will not hold its shape as well.

Approximate values per serving: 364 calories (20 percent from fat), 8 grams fat (1 gram saturated), 0 milligram cholesterol, 15 gram protein, 59 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams dietary fiber, 625 milligrams sodium.

Send us desperate tales of woe or everyday success stories and your favorite quick recipes to Desperation Dinners, c/o United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016; or e-mail: ddinners@aol.com.

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