February 13, 2012

a win-win



We're back from a short trip to San Diego, where Mark attended a conference. He is in the midst of a busy travel month -- he recently realized he will have slept in his own bed only 8 nights over a period of 4 weeks-- and so we decided I should join him. San Diego does sunsets and seafood taco trucks incredibly well, but we were more than ready to get home after 5 days in a hotel.

 shrimp and smoked marlin tacos, mariscos german taco truck
[Tacos so stuffed they need to be attacked by fork.]

So, back to real life, where we have to tackle stuff big and small, like life-altering decisions and this ma po tofu recipe in my drafts folder. Staring with the small, let's talk about tofu. Have we ever talked about tofu? I love it. There are very few ways I don't enjoy tofu -- please don't serve me a grilled slab of tofu covered in barbecue sauce, yeesh -- but Sichuan ma po tofu is one of my favorites. Top 3, at least. I love it for the fiery/tangy/savory sauce, the way the sauce clings to the wobbly tofu, and the varying textures: wobbly tofu, velvety sauce, nubby meat, and crisp scallions and peppercorns. It might not be everyone's cup of tea, but we think it's insanely good.


I do enjoy the authentic version of ma po tofu at Sichuan restaurants, but I have to say that I prefer my  homemade version. Hubris! No, actually, it's the oil factor. It's not that fat scares me (as I type this, there are 4 different kinds of animal fat in our fridge) but ma po tofu is traditionally slicked with copious amounts of chile oil. Of course, if you eat it properly, the way a Sichuanese person might -- using chopsticks to pluck individual cubest of tofu out, leaving the majority of the sauce behind -- the amount of oil should be irrelevant. But I love the flavor of the sauce over rice, so I realized that dialing down the oil would mean I could enjoy ma po tofu more often. Win-win, as they say.

Update: I made a fully vegetarian ma po tofu for a recent dinner party. The inspiration came from this blog, which recommends substituting chopped king mushrooms for the traditional ground meat. Further genius: the recipe has you marinate the chopped mushrooms in soy sauce and vinegar and then fry them. The result is crisp bits of mushroom that add wonderful texture and flavor. Highly recommend.   


Ma po tofu, adapted from Serious Eats and Jing Theory
The hardest thing about making ma po tofu is finding the special ingredients at a Chinese market, but once you have everything in your pantry, the dish comes together quickly. Some notes on ingredients: 
  • About the chile bean paste: Lee Kum Kee's brand of sauce (labeled "toban djan") is probably the easiest to find, but I prefer a product made by the Sichuan Gao Fu Ji Food Company. Check out this post for pictures and tasting notes. 
  • About the tofu: I love the wobbly texture of silken tofu here, but it has a tendency to fall apart, so handle gently. Soft or firm tofu will work also.
  • About the peppercorns: This recipe has you fry 2 tablespoons of Sichuan peppercorns for two reasons: to flavor the oil and to garnish at the end. Unless you are a true lover of Sichuan peppercorns (in which case, hi kindred!), add the garnish to taste. Start with 2 teaspoons and pass the rest at the table.
  • Finally, if you'd like to the final dish to be authentically spicy and oily, finish with a few tablespoons of roasted chile oil. You can buy this, or make it by toasting 1/2 cup dried red Chinese peppers in a wok until lightly browned. Add 3/4 cup peanut oil and cook until oil is bubbling. Allow to cool and transfer to a glass jar. Keeps in the fridge for 2-3 months and use in stirfries or  mix with soy for a dipping sauce for dumplings, scallion pancakes, etc. 
1-2 tablespoons peanut oil
2 tablespoons Sichuan peppercorns 
1/4 pound ground pork or beef (nothing too lean, e.g. 80/20 mix)
2 tablespoons Sichuan chile bean paste 
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, chopped
2 tablespoons Xiaoxing wine (substitute dry vermouth or water if you need to)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
3/4 cup water or unsalted chicken broth + a little more if necessary
14 oz. package silken or soft tofu, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 tablespoon cornstarch dissolved in 1 tablespoon cold water
generous handful of finely sliced scallion greens

1. You need steamed rice and a vegetable on the side, something like steamed gai lan or sauteed cabbage with Chinkiang vinegar. Start rice, at the very least, now. Prep the garlic/ginger/scallions/tofu, if you haven't already. You want 1/2" cubes of tofu, the size of the tofu in the second picture -- the more surface area, the better. 
2.  Combine 1 TB cornstarch/1 TB water in a small bowl and set aside. In a second bowl, combine the wine, soy sauce, and 3/4 cup water. Set aside.
3. Heat a wok or French oven to medium hot. Add oil and then add 2 tablespoons Sichuan peppercorns. Cook until fragrant about 30 seconds, stirring frequently so they don't burn, and remove peppercorns to the bowl of a mortar/pestle, reserving the oil in the wok. Pound peppercorns until finely ground and set aside. 
4. Without cleaning out the wok, add the ground meat and fry, breaking up the meat as much as you can, 1-2 minutes until cooked through. Add grated ginger and garlic and cook another 30-60 seconds. Next, add the 2 tablespoons of chile bean paste and stir, stirring well and cooking until you see some of the oil separating. Add the soy sauce/wine/water mixture and cook until mixture is heated throughout. Add 2 teaspoons of the ground peppercorns and the cornstarch slurry and stir until sauce comes to a boil and is thickened and glossy.
5. Gently slide cubes of tofu to the wok and swirl the vessel to coat the tofu. You can use a silicone spatula if you need to, but be gentle -- you want the cubes to stay intact. Let simmer 3 minutes or so to heat through. Taste; the saltiness will depend on your brand of chile bean paste and the type of soy sauce you used. If too salty, you may need to add another tablespoon or so of water. If not salty enough, add a pinch of salt or dash of soy. Garnish with scallions and pass the remaining ground peppercorns at the table.


Rachel said...

I love tofu as well. I always suspect that people who don't like tofu or find it tasteless haven't had it prepared well. Slabs of tofu baked with barbecue sauce are a perfect example of an inept way to prepare tofu. Or worse, green salad topped with raw cubes of tofu, ugh! My best friend swears by Fuschia Dunlop's recipe for ma po tofu, but I'll have to try this one to compare.

Jess said...

Looks awesome as always! I live down the street from a Chinese market so I'll definitely be checking their stock for toban djan and chile oil.
Do you think this would still be good if I leave out the meat?

Oh, and I made your pimento cheese last weekend for my friend's Superbowl party. It was gone by halftime! Good stuff.

Joshua said...

The only version of mabo tofu I've tasted was made with those flavoring packets, as prepared by my Japanese-American roommate. He likens it to Japanese hamburger helper, which is apt. It's pretty good, in that trashy processed msg-riffic way, but this sounds tastier. Probably more authentic, too.

Robin said...

I love the ma-po tofu at Mission Chinese Food, and had no idea it was so easy to make the dish at home. Thanks for breaking it down! I'm going to look for these ingredients so I can make it soon. We'll have to get on Jason/Jaska's case to have a little party once he moves into his new place, too.

Kim said...

Rachel - I've also heard that Dunlop's recipe is great. You'll have to let me know how it compares. And I tend to agree with your first point, though some people really take issue with the texture, no matter how well it's prepared. Something you have to get used to, maybe.

Jess - Aw, I'm happy you liked the pimento cheese. I do think you could leave out the meat in this, though I would miss the texture. It's not authentic, but you could try adding finely diced dried shiitake mushrooms to mimic it. Or not. Tell me how it turns out!

Joshua - Japanese hamburger helper, ha! I've heard they have a devoted following. It reminds me of my ex-coworker who claimed Kraft mac and cheese eclipsed all and any other version for her. Childhood nostalgia is a powerful thing.

Robin - I agree, we need to be on Jaska's case about this. Glad I could break down ma po tofu for you! Recreating dishes I like at restaurants is great, I agree.

Kirk said...

I've made this recipe (using Kenji's recipe from Serious Eats) and can vouch that it is awesomesauce. Also, I can't leave San Diego without scarfing down at least 4 fish tacos.

Amy said...

Hi Kim! We just got back from our vacation to Paris and we rented an apartment on your recommendations from your posts about spending the summer in Paris. It was the BEST thing we could have done! We stayed near rue Cler and really enjoyed shopping for food at all the nearby markets and specialty shops. Renting a place and being able to cook simple meals, instead of going out every night, was really enjoyable and also saved us a lot of money. Thanks for all your tips!

Kim said...

Amy, that's great to hear. I'm so glad you had a wonderful time :)