BBQ Tofu Burgers + Cabbage Salad

In this solo cooking adventure, Kate puts a vegetarian spin on a classic summer barbecue favorite.

Tofu burgers cooking in barbecue sauce.

It’s spring. Which means that there are days that feel practically like summer. And summer means barbecue.

A couple weekends ago when we were blessed with the gorgeous tease of summer weather, I found myself looping around Prospect Park for a jog in the late afternoon. As I plodded happily along,  I caught of whiff of that unmistakable smokey smell of hamburgers and hot dogs from people’s grills. It smelled like summer. I wanted in.

Being an ethical vegetarian (meaning one who likes the taste of meat but doesn’t want to kill the animals for various reasons) has its rewarding moments, and it’s more difficult ones. People who don’t eat meat simply for health reasons probably think of heart attacks and visualize their squeeky clean artieries when they smell burgers. I think of the good old days putting away burgers at Corner Bistro with nostalgia. Although it’s been three years of not eating flesh and my palate has adjusted, there are still times i miss meat. More often I miss the old cultural traditions of getting together, and marinating, grilling, turning and roasting with friends. I sometimes feel  how my pregnant friends describe feeling when they couldn’t drink for nine months. It’s not so much that you want to do it, it’s that you feel left out.

BF has recently jumped on the ethical veggie bandwagon with me (please put your pussy whipped jokes aside until you’ve met him and had a conversation with him about it– this was not my idea), and I’m watching him go through a sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes exciting phase of change. As he enters his third month of not eating meat, he has constant realizations of things that he will miss.

“Aw man!” he exclaimed the other day walking by a street hot dog vendor, “I can’t have a hot dog at a Yankee game anymore!” He was genuinely bummed out, and I don’t blame him. Eating is spiritual, it is communal, it is deeply ingrained in who we are and giving up something that you’ve eaten your whole life can come with some feelings of loss.

So when this month’s Eating Well Magazine arrived with a recipe for Barbecue Tofu Sandwiches in their easy meals section, I knew that BF would appreciate it. Who am I kidding? I knew that I would too. Yes, they were a far cry from barbecued chicken or the southern style pulled pork sandwiches that cut “that” they’re fashioning themselves after, but something about a protein slathered with barbecue sauce and piled high with cole slaw and onions nestled in fresh bun is classic. They were delicious. And laughably fast and easy.

There is a certain argument that it isn’t the meat people enjoy so much anyway, but the sauces, marinades, and things we do to the meat that makes it truly delicious. Although there are exceptions to this idea for me (prosciutto, although even that meat is cured and smoked), I do find it to be true. This sandwich is a great example of that. The tofu is drained and grilled to give it a nice firm texture. The barbecue sauce coats it and thickens as it cooks, and especially with a little extra sauce spread on the bun is all the flavor I needed to make me think that I was participating in America’s favorite pastime– the barbecue.

Putting the salad together.

The recipe calls for a little cabbage slaw on the sandwiches, which gave an awesome crunch and a lovely vinegary and creamy counterpoint to the barbeque sauce and the tofu. And since I was already cooking with cabbage, I decided to kill two birds with one stone and try another recipe that had been calling my name– Mark Bittman’s Cabbage salad from Food Matters.

Mark has you chop the cabbage and then put it in a colindar with a few teaspoons of salt. This makes the cabbage release some liquid and takes much of the hard, tough crunch out of it. I made some changes to the salad based on what sounded good to me (added chopped apples, omitted the bell pepper), and it was a lovely, crunchy side, basically a big salad with cabbage as the base instead of greens. I couldn’t resist adding some fresh stinky crumbled blue cheese to the cabbage salad as a compliment to the sweetness of the barbeque sauce. It worked.

A plate with the tofu burger and a side of cabbage salad.

BBQ Tofu Sandwich
(Adapted From Eating Well)

4 servings

Active Time: 25 minutes Total Time: 25 minutes


  • ¼ cup thinly sliced onion
  • 1 14-ounce package extra-firm or firm water-packed tofu, drained
  • ⅛ teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon canola oil
  • ½ cup prepared barbecue sauce
  • 1-½ cups coleslaw mix or finely shredded cabbage
  • 2 tbsp low-fat mayonnaise
  • 2 tsp red-wine vinegar
  • ¼ tsp garlic powder
  • Freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 4 whole-wheat hamburger buns, toasted
  • 4 dill pickle sandwich slices
  • Fresh blue cheese to crumble on top (optional)


  1. Place onion in a small bowl, cover with cold water and set aside. Stand tofu on its long narrow side. Cut lengthwise into 4 rectangular slabs, each about ½-inch thick, and pat dry. Sprinkle with salt.
  2. Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the tofu slabs (depending on the size of your pan, the tofu may slope up the sides a little). Cook until browned on both sides, about 4 minutes per side. Reduce heat to low. Add barbecue sauce and carefully turn the tofu to coat with the sauce. Cover and cook for 3 minutes more.
  3. Meanwhile, combine coleslaw (or cabbage), mayonnaise, vinegar, garlic powder and pepper in a medium bowl. Drain the onion.
  4. To assemble sandwiches, place about ⅓-cup of the coleslaw (or cabbage) mixture on each bun and top with a tofu slab, a pickle slice and a few onion slices. Spread any sauce remaining in the pan on the top buns

Chopped Cabbage Salad
(Adapted from Mark Bittman’s Food Matters)

Note: The entire meal can be made vegan by using vegan mayonnaise in the slaw, and omitting the blue cheese in the cabbage salad.

4-6 servings

Time: 15 minutes, plus 1 to 2 hours for salting


  • 2 small heads of cabbage, about 1-½ pound each, I used napa and regular, or one large head of a single kind
  • Salt as needed
  • 2 carrots, peeled
  • 1 small to medium red oinion, finely minced
  • 1 head of fennel sliced, plus some fronds for the salad to taste
  • 2 small or 1 very large apple, mostly chopped, with about ¼ cut into matchsticks and reserved for garnish
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • 2 tbsp lemon juice, sherry, or white wine vinegar, plus 1 tbsp lemon juice for squeezing over the apples to prevent browning
  • 3 to 4 oz fresh blue cheese (don’t buy the kind already crumbled and in a plastic tub from the grocery store– it doesn’t taste like anything), or goat cheese or feta
  • Freshly ground pepper


  1. Core the cabbage and roughly chop it. Place it in a colandar and toss with three teaspoons of salt. Check after 10 minutes or so to see if the leaves are exuding mostuire. If not, add a little more salt and toss again. Let it sit an hour or two, pressing the moisture out with your hands once or twice.
  2. Grate the carrott and chop the vegetabables. Toss the chopped apple with lemon juice. Combine everything in a bowl with the cabbage; sprinkle lightly with pepper (and salt if you didn’t salt the cabbage), add the olive oil and lemon juice or vinegar and toss. Taste, adjust seasonings.
  3. Serve salad with a crumble of cheese on top and pile of apple matchsticks.


  1. Kate — Nice job. As I mentioned in Gary’s “Corner Bistro” post,
    nostalgia always brings its own unique favor. I think the arguement that it’s the sauce that makes the BBQ is a strong one. Granted it’s
    the “low & slow” cooking method & smoke that gets the attention, but
    it’s the dry-rub or wet slather that screams ‘Que. Seems to me that the only thing missing were the grill marks. Good touch salting &
    draining the cabbage. Try a little fennel or caraway seed next time.
    High marks for BF and his vegetarian efforts. I say “well done sir, well done. Thanks. See ya.

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