Esther Williams Vegan Tofu Milanese

vegan tofu

My Tofu Milanese is inspired by Classic Hollywood’s aqua musical star, Esther Williams. Like Esther’s veal Milanese, my take on this classic is loaded with fresh garlic and rosemary.

If you follow my podcast or writings on my other obsession, Classic Hollywood, then you may already know that last month, I highlighted Hollywood’s million dollar mermaid, Esther Williams.

Esther Williams caught Hollywood’s attention with her great beauty and Olympic-level swimming.  In 1944, young Esther found herself a star at the grandest of movie studios, MGM, with whole films—known as aqua musicals—based around her unique ability to “swim pretty.”

Click to listen to my Classic Hollywood podcast, Vanguard of Hollywood.
You can read my tributes to Esther here, or listen to me talk about Esther on my podcast!  Click here to listen to my podcast, Vanguard of Hollywood.  Episodes 21-24 are all about Esther and the fascinating behind-the-scenes intricacies that went into creating her spectacular aqua musicals.

Esther's Other Talents

But Esther Williams was so much more than a beautiful movie star who created a new film genre and an Olympic sport—she is the godmother of synchronized swimming, after all.

Two of my absolute favorite things about Esther are: 

  1. She was an excellent cook
  2. She was sassy!!!!!!

Truly a winning combination.

Today, I’m paying tribute to Esther through my tofu Milanese recipe, and sharing a sassy Esther anecdote that involves her veal Milanese recipe.  

And bribing a cop.

Esther's autobiography is SO FUN. No doubt one of my favorite star autobiographies. Esther is one of those rare stars whose personality literally jumps off the page at you! Click to view or purchase on Amazon! [aff. link]

Esther's Veal Milanese

During her third marriage to Fernando Lamas (m. 1969-1982), Esther found herself preparing dinner for two households: her current home with Fernando, and the home of her second husband, Ben Gage.  So Esther was frequently carting meals across Los Angeles.  Esther joked in her autobiography [aff. link] that hers must have been the only station wagon in town that smelled like gravy.  

One evening, Esther, excellent cook that she was, prepared veal Milanese.  While driving the meal over to her children at the home of husband number 2, Esther’s self-described “erratic driving” as she adjusted the foil on the roasting pan, caught the attention of a policeman.  He instructed Esther to pull over. 

The policeman asked to see Esther’s license, but was quickly distracted by the delicious smells of garlic and rosemary emanating from the car.  He asked Esther what it was:

vegan tofu

“‘It’s veal Milanese.  The foil was slipping and I didn’t want the gravy to spill.’”

Esther replied.  The policeman complimented Esther, and then asked if he could taste the veal Milanese!

Esther’s response?

“‘Sure, you can taste; you can even have one.  But then you can’t give me a ticket.  You can only give me a warning.’  I wondered whether this could be considered bribing a policeman.”

You’ve got to love Esther’s confidence, sass, and daring.  

Thanks to Esther’s quick thinking, everyone, including this lucky policeman, enjoyed veal Milanese that night.

vegan tofu

Vegan Tofu Inspired by Esther

My vegan tofu Milanese recipe combines Esther’s garlic and rosemary flavors with a traditional Milanese breadcrumb coating.  But rather than make a gravy as Esther’s recipe entailed, I’ve created an olive oil sauce infused with rosemary and garlic that also doubles as a pasta sauce.  My tofu Milanese is even more delicious when served over a bed of spaghetti that’s been tossed in this elegant sauce.

Veal Milanese is often traditionally served with arugula, so I’ve untraditionally incorporated arugula by adding it to the warm pasta and rosemary garlic sauce.  The arugula wilts into the pasta, and its sharp flavor compliments the rosemary and garlic beautifully.

Every time I make my vegan tofu Milanese, and smell that delicious rosemary and garlic combination, I think of Esther and what one of her fabulous meals must have tasted like.  I don’t know that anyone but Esther could get out of a traffic ticket with a Milanese cutlet, but I like to think that my tofu Milanese is an elegant vegan meal worthy of Esther herself.

vegan tofu

A Few Things!

Cutting the Tofu

I prefer to slice each pound of tofu into 9 thin slabs/cutlets for this recipe.  The photos below show my favorite cutting method:

vegan tofu
Start by holding the tofu up vertically. Then make two evenly spaced slices through the tofu at one-third intervals. At this point, you will have three, thin tofu slabs/cutlets.
vegan tofu
Now, keeping the tofu slices on top of each other, flip the tofu over on its side. At one-third intervals, make two more slices through the tofu. You will now have 9 thin tofu slabs/cutlets.
vegan tofu
The tofu slabs/cutlets will look like this!

Bragg Aminos: The Secret Flavor Ingredient for Vegan Tofu

Tofu, like meat, needs to be well-seasoned to have awesome flavor.  A great way to add flavor to tofu is with Bragg Liquid Aminos.  The smoky-saltiness of Bragg Liquid Aminos will take the flavor waaaay up in just about any tofu marinade, and it’s a necessary component of my tofu Milanese recipe.  Simply mix a few Tbsps of Bragg Liquid Aminos into the milk you dredge each tofu cutlet in, and you’ve increased the flavor of each cutlet ten fold.  

If you can’t find Bragg Aminos at the grocery store, you can find it here on Amazon [aff. link].

Bragg Liquid Aminos is packed with flavor. Click to view or purchase on Amazon! [aff. link]

My Favorite Spatula For Pan Frying

If you choose to pan fry the tofu cutlets, here is my favorite spatula for flipping [aff. link]. Intended for getting cookies off the baking sheet, I’ve found that the thin profile and small size of this spatula means I am more in control of whatever I am flipping, and where it lands.  This is literally the only spatula I use, for everything from flipping tofu or pancakes, getting cookies off the baking sheet, to sautéing veggies. 

My favorite spatula. It's the only one I use now. The smaller size gives you more control over what you flip, and where it lands...! Click to view on Amazon [aff. link]

My Favorite Fryer Skimmer

And if you decide to deep fry the tofu, definitely use a fryer skimmer.  A good fryer skimmer will help you to lower the tofu into the hot oil, and get the tofu out of the hot oil, without getting burned.  Here is my favorite on Amazon [aff. link].

My favorite three piece fryer skimmer set. Click to view or purchase on Amazon [aff. link].

Visit Esther's Site!

And for the absolute cutest and most stylish retro swimwear, head on over to Esther’s website.  With designs based on Esther’s years as the most stylish swimmer around, Esther’s swimsuits, sunglasses, and bags are an absolute must for any Classic Hollywood fan. (I wear my Esther sunglasses and use my Esther tote bag everyday.)

Click to visit Esther's website! Her swimwear line is my absolute favorite!
vegan tofu
5 from 1 vote

Esther Williams Tofu Milanese

My Tofu Milanese is inspired by Classic Hollywood’s aqua musical star, Esther Williams. Like Esther’s veal Milanese, my take on this classic is loaded with fresh garlic and rosemary.
Prep Time15 mins
Cook Time1 hr
Total Time1 hr 15 mins
Servings: 6
Print Recipe


For the breadcrumbs:

  • 2 cups breadcrumbs
  • 2 tsp sea salt
  • ¼ tsp pepper
  • 2 Tbsp garlic, minced (about 7-8 cloves)
  • 2 Tbsp fresh rosemary, minced

Everything else for the tofu:

  • 1 ½ cups flour
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 Tbsp Bragg Liquid Aminos
  • 3 pounds extra firm tofu, thinly sliced (I like to do 9 thin slices/cutlets per pound of tofu for this recipe. See photos above for my favorite cutting method.)
  • Sea salt, for sprinkling
  • Oil, for frying (48 oz canola oil if deep frying, or a few Tbsp of olive oil for pan frying)

For the sauce:

  • 1 cup olive oil
  • 2 Tbsp garlic, minced (about 7-8 cloves)
  • 2 Tbsp fresh rosemary, minced
  • 1 tsp sea salt
  • ½ tsp lemon zest

For the pasta:

  • 1 pound spaghetti
  • ½ tsp sea salt
  • Lemon juice, freshly squeezed
  • 4-6 cups arugula


Prepare the breadcrumbs

  • To a shallow dish, add the breadcrumbs, garlic, rosemary, sea salt, and pepper. Whisk together with a fork until everything is evenly distributed. (I like to use a 9x9 or 8x8 inch baking dish here.)

Prepare the flour

  • To another shallow dish, add the flour.

Prepare the milk

  • To yet another shallow dish, add the flour and Bragg Liquid Aminos. Whisk together with a fork until the aminos are evenly distributed.

Salt the tofu

  • Very important step here! Lay the tofu cutlets out, and with your fingers, just sprinkle a little sea salt over the top of all the cutlets. A little goes a long way! I usually use between ¼-½ tsp. (This is not per cutlet, this is the total amount of salt I use to salt all the cutlets on one side.) Now flip each tofu cutlet over, and sprinkle the other side of each cutlet with salt, about another ¼-½ tsp sea salt total.

Dredge the tofu

  • Since we’re not using eggs, I find the breadcrumbs and flour stick best to the tofu cutlets if you dredge the cutlets in this order:
  • Start by dredging a tofu cutlet in the flour.
  • Now dip the floured tofu cutlet in the milk. (Trust me, the flour will stay on the tofu!)
  • Now dredge the tofu cutlet in the breadcrumbs.
  • Note: I recommend dredging no more that two tofu cutlets at a time. Then, while those two cutlets are frying, I dredge another two cutlets. I repeat this process until all the tofu is fried. I find this method ensures that more of the breadcrumb coating stays on each tofu cutlet—breadcrumbs are more likely to fall off the longer the tofu sits before frying.

Fry the tofu

  • At this point, you can either deep fry, or pan fry, the tofu cutlets.

Pan fry the tofu

  • If you prefer to pan fry the tofu, heat a few Tbsp of olive oil in a skillet, preferably nonstick, over medium heat.
  • Now add two tofu cutlets to the pan. Let fry until the side of the tofu that’s face down in the pan turns golden brown, about 3-4 minutes.
  • Flip the tofu cutlet, and fry until the other side turns golden brown, about another 3-4 minutes.
  • Remove the tofu from the pan, and place on a plate lined with a paper towel to remove excess oil.
  • Repeat the process with the rest of the breaded tofu cutlets.

Deep fry the tofu

  • Alternately, you can deep fry the tofu. Unless I’m trying to be really healthy, this is my preferred method!
  • In a large pot, heat 48 oz of canola oil over medium-high heat, until it looks like the oil is separating in the pot, about five minutes.
  • Turn the heat down to medium, and using a fryer skimmer, gently lower a tofu cutlet into the oil. Now use your fryer skimmer to lower one more tofu cutlet into the oil. (I prefer to fry two pieces at a time.)
  • Fry until the breadcrumbs turn golden brown, about 2-3 minutes. (If the oil gets too hot and the breadcrumbs are turning golden brown more quickly than this, turn the heat down a bit. If the oil is not hot enough and the breadcrumbs are taking too long to brown, then turn the heat back up. You’ll get the hang of it as you go!)
  • Use your fryer skimmer to remove the tofu from the pot, and place on a plate lined with a paper towel to remove excess oil. Repeat this process with the rest of the tofu slices.

Make the spaghetti

  • You can prepare the spaghetti and sauce while the tofu Milanese fries if you’re a good multitasker, but I like to focus completely on the frying, then move on to the spaghetti and sauce after I’ve finished frying the tofu.
  • Cook the spaghetti according to package instructions.

Make the sauce

  • While the spaghetti cooks, you can make the sauce.
  • Add the olive oil, garlic, rosemary, sea salt, and lemon zest to a small sauce pan.
  • Bring the mixture to a boil, and let boil for one minute. The olive oil will become infused with the flavors of the garlic, rosemary, and lemon zest.
  • Sauce is done!

Finish the spaghetti

  • Once the spaghetti is done cooking, drain it, and add the spaghetti back to the pot you cooked it in. Now add about ½ of the sauce, followed by ½ tsp sea salt, 1 tsp freshly squeezed lemon juice, and the arugula. Stir until everything is incorporated and the arugula starts to wilt.
  • Taste, and add an additional 1 tsp lemon juice, a dash more salt, or a little more of the sauce if desired.

Serve and enjoy!

  • To each plate, add the spaghetti, and place a few tofu Milanese cutlets on top. Drizzle a bit more sauce, if desired, and serve!


This dish is vegan.
This dish is vegetarian.

© Copyright 2021 Vanguard of Hollywood

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Ron

    5 stars
    Shannon, wow, I didn’t know you have a podcast. I just found it on Spotify and I’m now following you. Indeed, I’m listening to your Dorothy Dandridge episode as I type.
    You know, I will now always think of Ester Williams every time I see, cook, or eat a Milanese dish. We have veggie night once a week, so as soon as I find extra firm tofu I’ll rotate this one in. We love arugula (or rucola as we call it) with and in pasta. Thanks for a very informative post and I bet that policeman didn’t think he was bribed.

    1. Shannon

      Awww thank you so so much for listening Ron! Seriously you just made my day! Haha and I bet you’re right about the policeman too. Isn’t that an awesome story?? Gotta love Esther! Hope you enjoy the recipe, it’s definitely a favorite in our house. And I definite think of Esther every time we enjoy this dish!

  2. David @ Spiced

    5 stars
    This is such a fun recipe, Shannon! For starters, the story is hilarious. I’d definitely say that goes down as one of the more unique ways to bribe a cop – hah. And what a good job channeling the flavors into a vegan version. I do love arugula, so the idea of pasta stirred with wilted arugula is really calling to me!

    1. Shannon

      Thanks David! Isn’t it a fun story?? Makes me smile every time. 😄 Oh, for sure, you’ll love the arugula and pasta combo, it’s addicting!

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