Tofu Feature Month: Mapo Tofu

Mapo Tofu

I FINALLY found silken tofu in St. John’s.  I’ve been looking for it for what feels like forever.  In celebration of my recent discovery, and the Pie’s insistence that he needs to slim down in time for Kristopf’s wedding next July, I have decided to honour the long-standing request of my friend Danger K and start finding new ways to cook with tofu.  You might know Danger K: she recently got married (on our wedding anniversary, no less), and she and her husband planned a big fancy wedding by begging, bartering, and borrowing everything they could.  Their expenses out of pocket?  About two hundred bucks.  You can read about the process on their blog, Project Priceless.  So they’re a little bit famous back in Ottawa.  And I can say that I knew her when.  We went to high school together.  In fact, she had a huge crush on one of my brothers (DON’T DENY IT DANGER K I HAVE PROOF).  Not that I’m going to hold that against her or anything.

Mapo Tofu

So.  Cooking with tofu.

My previous experiences cooking with tofu (not in eating it, just cooking it) focused mainly on tossing cubes of it into Broccofu, Peanut Butter Spaghetti, or the occasional stir-fry.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but’s not using tofu in all its myriad manifestations.  This fall, the Pie and I aim to change our ways, and this recipe is the beginning.  September will be a sort of Tofu Feature Month.

Mapo doufu (mapo tofu) is a traditional spicy dish from the Sichuan province of China and involves sautéing tofu pieces in a suspension of a paste made of beans and chilis.  What I found particularly interesting about this dish is that I normally think of tofu as a protein-replacement for meat, but this recipe calls for a combination of tofu AND beef or pork.  Very unique (for me, at least).

Mapo Tofu

A note on substitutions:  this recipe calls for chili bean paste, a spicy gooey mixture of fermented soy beans and chilis (I’m thinking like a super-hot miso).  I didn’t have such a thing, so I used black bean paste instead with the chilis, which is why my sauce isn’t that signature reddish colour.  The recipe also requires the use of rice wine, which, not being a wine-drinker, I also don’t have, so we used rice wine vinegar instead.  Finally, the recipe I used made little sense and required some serious moderation, so I haven’t linked you to it.   I wasn’t a huge fan.

Start by making up enough rice for two people.

Mapo Tofu

Drain and pat dry one block soft tofu (I used extra-firm silken tofu because I wanted to see what it was like).  Cut it into 1″ cubes.

Mapo Tofu

Slice up 4-5 green onions and save about 1/4 of the green tips (sliced) for garnish.

Mapo Tofu

In a skillet or wok over medium heat, heat 2 tablespoons vegetable oil and sauté 4oz ground beef or pork until cooked.  Drain and set aside.

In the same pan, heat 1 tablespoon vegetable oil.  Add 1 teaspoon minced ginger, the green onion that isn’t what you saved for garnish, 2 whole dried chilis, and 1 teaspoon ground peppercorns (Sichuan if you’ve got ’em).  Cook that for about a minute.

Mapo Tofu

Add the ground meat back in, as well as 3 tablespoons chili bean paste, 2 teaspoons minced garlic, 1 tablespoon soy sauce, 1 tablespoon rice wine, and 2 teaspoons brown sugar.  Cook that for another minute or so, just so everything can get acquainted.

Mapo Tofu

Add in the cubed tofu as well as 1/4 cup vegetable stock (or beef, or pork) and let that simmer for 15 minutes.   Stir occasionally, but don’t let the tofu fall apart.

Mapo Tofu

When it’s nearing done, dissolve 1 tablespoon corn starch in a little bit of water and pour that in as well.  Stir gently until it thickens.

Mapo Tofu

Serve over rice and garnish with the remaining green onions.  SPICY!

Mapo Tofu

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Stir-Fry at Cait and iPM’s

Hang in there, those of you facing Hurricane Igor!

The main trick in food photography, I have learned, is to always, always, always use natural light in your photographs.

The problem with living in Canada is that half the year, the sun sets really early and your good afternoon light turns blue.  Unless you want to start cooking your dinner at two in the afternoon, you have to put up with a lot of noise in your now blue-tinged shots.  I apologize in advance.

A downside to cooking in other people’s kitchens is that friends my age often live in quirky apartment buildings and so don’t have the enormous picture window with which I have been blessed in my own kitchen back in St. John’s.  The light quality in these places, therefore, isn’t all that great.  I should really start using my low ISO feature.  Some kitchens don’t even HAVE windows, which is a real shame, both for the sake of my pictures, and for the cooks themselves.  How can you enjoy cooking if you don’t like being in the room where cooking takes place? 

Anyway, tonight I went over to visit Cait and iPM.  You may remember them from their visit to St. John’s in June. Cait is a computer guru and she is in the process of making my laptop able to survive the extra two or three years of service I need it to give me before I can afford to replace it.  Their kitchen is fortunately roomy enough for my purposes, but as it was late in the evening, the light’s not all that great.

In the middle of the produce section of Loblaws, Cait and I decided on a stir-fry, so I picked up some broccoli, mushrooms, green onions, snow peas, and fresh garlic.  Cait already had chicken, carrots, soy sauce, vinegar, and brown sugar, so it was a simple matter of adding hoisin, black bean, and teriyaki to the basket and off we went.

At home, Cait set to haranguing my computer and making it do her bidding and I set to chopping.  Cait owns neither a cutting board nor a non-serrated knife so it was an adventure trying to julienne the carrots and broccoli stalks.  But I did it.

I also sliced up three boneless, skinless chicken breasts as well.  Nice and thin.

Ruby, who is only a puppy, tried to convince me that chicken was the best thing for her and that what we thought was her proper dog food was actually poison.  She failed.  But she’s cute.

In a small bowl, mix together about two tablespoons each of brown sugar, vinegar (I prefer rice vinegar but Cait only had balsamic), hoisin, teriyaki, black bean, and soy sauce.

Slice up about three cloves of garlic and plop them in a pan with olive oil.  Heat that sucker up.

Add the chicken, and stir until just cooked through, between 5 and 10 minutes.

Add the sauce mixture and stir to coat all the chicken.

Plop in your vegetables and stir to get them all coated, too.I ran out of room in the pan and therefore had to transfer half my cooking to a nearby pot.

Let the vegetables cook a little bit, but not too much.  You want them still crisp, but brightly coloured.  Probably you want to cook them for about seven minutes or so.

Serve over rice, and if you have lovely Fiestaware to do it on, all the better. 

iPM went back for seconds so I know it was good.

Broccomeat/Broccofu

Did I mention that we are broke students who live in Newfoundland, a rock in the middle of the north Pacific Atlantic Ocean?

This recipe arose out of necessity, when the only vegetable we could get in the winter that was half decent was broccoli, and the only protein we could afford was a block of tofu or a thin frying steak that cost two dollars.

Fortunately, we take after our respective parents, and do not lack for condiments.

This is a Pie recipe, and until the night he let me photograph it, I never knew the secret.  Of course, as he says, improvisation is quintessential, and the recipe is not exactly the same every night.  Accordingly, I have provided you with alternative ingredient options: the tofu option (“broccofu”), the steak option (“broccomeat”), the teriyaki version (sweeter), and the black bean version (more sour).

Separate two small heads of broccoli into individual florets, and slice up the tender part of the stem, while you’re at it.

Cube a block of firm tofu — the firmer the better, because it will disintegrate on you.  I love cutting tofu.  It’s like extra hard Jello.

Alternatively, slice a thin uncooked steak into strips.

In a large pan or wok, heat up two tablespoons of peanut or other frying oil with a tablespoon each of minced garlic and ginger from a jar.  If you are doing the teriyaki version, omit the ginger.

When your oil is sizzling with your minced herbs, add your tofu or your steak and allow to brown for a few minutes.  While it’s doing its thing, mix together, in a small bowl, a tablespoon of each of the following (2 if you’re feeling saucy):

black bean sauce (it’s more of a paste) / alternatively / teriyaki sauce

garlic black bean sauce (it’s more of a liquid) / alternatively / sweet and sour sauce

peanut oil

soy sauce

hoi sin sauce

garlic chili sauce

plum sauce

I know.  Everything seems to have garlic in it.  Trust me.  It works out.  Don’t be afraid to improvise with what you have and experiment to cater to your own tastes.  Stir fries are meant to be made up.

Pour the sauce into the pan and stir the tofu/steak until coated.  The Pie wishes to point out that the reason he adds the sauce before the broccoli is because he finds that the florets act like sponges and suck all the sauce away unless it has a chance to coat the other ingredients first.

After mixing in the sauce, drop in your broccoli florets and stems, and heat until the broccoli is bright green.

Serves 2 over rice.  With the rice, the whole thing costs you less than $4.  My cheap brother Kristopf would be proud.