For the first time in seven years, Jeff Wolovitz and his family aren’t working at the fairgrounds in Unity today, the final day of the Common Ground Country Fair. Instead, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association fairgrounds are deserted, since the fair – like so much planned for 2020 – is all-virtual.

This means fans of the Common Ground’s food have to get creative if we want to experience its flavors.

To make it easier to taste one of the fair’s beloved organic treats at home, I called Wolovitz, who owns Heiwa Tofu in Rockport, and asked him about his popular tofu fries; the only place he sells them is the Common Ground Fair. Wolovitz also talked me through the recipe for his tofu-seaweed salad and supplied the recipe for the company’s sesame-garlic dipping sauce.

The tofu fries, which won the fair’s Best in Show ribbon in 2018, aren’t hard to make: Slice the tofu (Heiwa crinkle cuts them at the fair), soak the fries in brine, drain, deep fry, dip, and savor their crispy exterior and custardy interior.

Wolovitz says the brine “should be less salty than seawater. Pleasantly salty.” Heiwa uses a ratio of 2 tablespoons of salt per quart of water.

“At the fair, we brine it for up to 24 hours, sometimes a little more,” Wolovitz said. “It draws out some of the moisture and it makes the salt permeate in. If you’re going to do a shorter brine, use more salt.”

Heiwa cuts its fries a little larger than ½-inch-thick before placing them in the brine, then drains them after a day.

“You can drain it in a colander or on a plate for a few minutes, then drop it carefully into the oil,” Wolovitz said. “The oil temperature should be 350 to 375. You don’t want the oil smoking.”

The only place you can buy Heiwa Tofu fries with sesame-garlic dipping sauce is at the Common Ground Country Fair in Unity, This year, you’ll have to make them yourself. Photo courtesy of Heiwa Tofu

Heat the oil in a deep fryer or a large cooking pot on the stove. While the tofu is frying, use a fork or perforated spoon to keep the fries separated and stop them from sticking.

“They’ll start to float, and the floating is a good sign that they’re getting done,” Wolovitz said. “When they look and feel nice and crispy and they have a nice golden brown, they’re good.”

The Heiwa team first used organic canola oil to fry the tofu at the fair, but switched to expeller-pressed safflower oil for its better flavor.

But the flavor of the tofu fries really depends on the dipping sauce, with the brining providing added depth. At the fair, Heiwa offers fries with sesame-garlic sauce, cranberry ketchup from Maine-based Cheryl Wixson’s Kitchen, or tossed with a mixture of cinnamon and maple sugar.

The fair’s Heiwa Tofu booth also sells tofu seaweed salad. Wolovitiz, who’d like to own a seaweed farm some day, simmers alaria in water for 15 minutes before removing it from the heat and covering the pot with the lid until the seaweed is tender. He drains the sea vegetables, chops them, and mixes them with chopped daikon radish and scallions. He tosses all the vegetables in a dressing made from one part toasted sesame seed oil to three parts apple cider vinegar with “a pinch of salt and a dash of maple syrup.”

At the fair, the seaweed and vegetable mixture is plated, sprinkled with sesame seeds and more chopped scallions, topped with fried tofu cubes, and, finally, drizzled with sesame-garlic sauce.

Like just about all owners of a food business, Wolovitz has spent the past six months responding to a changed market landscape. He says the virtual fair has its upsides, considering how exhausting 2020 has been.

Last March, when the pandemic arrived, Heiwa’s restaurant and food service accounts plummeted from 30 percent of his sales to less than 3 percent, and have stayed there. Yet overall, sales have boomed and continue to be up about 15 percent overall from where they were at this time last year.

“The first 10 weeks were pretty crazy,” Wolovitz said, recalling the first months after the lockdown orders went into effect. “But things are still fluctuating. Distributors still haven’t figured it out. Ordering is still fluctuating a lot more than it used to.”

Wolovitiz said one of the first results of the pandemic was that Heiwa became “the only tofu at 180 Hannaford stores” in New England due to significant “supply chain disruptions.” Heiwa was also picked up by the New Hampshire-based Three River Farm Alliance, which offers its Veggie-Go local food delivery service to towns and cities in three states, including a few in southern Maine.

The purple Heiwa packages with a silhouette of Maine became one of the few tofu brands local shoppers could find at a time when people have been buying more tofu than ever before. In July, Bloomberg reported a nationwide spike in tofu sales, which it attributed to the pandemic.

“We were at capacity for a good, long time,” Wolovitz said, adding that he and his team can use the break from slinging tofu fries this year. “We’ll be back,” he promised. “That’s for sure. I would hope by a year from now we’ll be ready for events like this again.”

It’s a hope we all share.

Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at 

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila

The vegan baked beans from Sagadahoc MOFGA chapter are legendary. Someday when you can have a very big crowd over, you can use their recipe to make them yourself. Photo by Avery Yale Kamila

Heiwa’s Sesame-Garlic Sauce

At the Heiwa Tofu booth at the Common Ground Country Fair, this dipping sauce is offered with the fried tofu and is also drizzled on the seaweed salad. Store the sauce in the refrigerator.

1 teaspoon minced garlic

¼ cup chopped scallions

2 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds

3 tablespoons tamari or soy sauce

1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil

1 teaspoon chili flakes (optional)

1 teaspoon maple syrup

½ cup unsweetened applesauce

Combine all the ingredients in a small dish and serve.

Sagadahoc MOFGA Baked Beans

When it’s safe to feed a crowd again, this recipe is the ticket. The Sagadahoc MOFGA chapter has been selling vegan baked beans at its booth for at least 25 years, and as of this writing, the virtual fair was scheduled to air a video of longtime volunteer George Sergeant and other members of the chapter making the signature beans in Sergeant’s backyard in Brunswick. Slow cooking beans in an oven can take up to 8 hours; the Sagadahoc team uses a slow cooker. The group serves about 1,000 bowls of beans at each fair, using the funds its raises to pay for community service projects.

9 pounds dry beans, such as Marafax or Jacob’s cattle

4 cups maple syrup

1 ½ pounds chopped onions (3 to 5 medium-sized onions)

¾ cup canola oil

½ cup dry mustard

¼ cup sea salt

2½ tablespoons ground pepper

Rinse and clean the beans, then soak them in water overnight. If you forget to soak the beans, you can parboil them in the morning. Drain the beans. In an 18-quart slow cooker, combine all the ingredients and cover with boiling water. Depending on the type of bean and its age, cooking time may vary. Most varieties need at least 4 hours in a slow cooker. Keep adding water so the surface of the beans stays covered during cooking. The beans are ready when they are fork tender.

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