Wednesday, August 08, 2007
Some things begin with a plan, and others happen at random. This time it started with a packet of tofu that was getting close to its expiration date. Tofu and I share a strange relation. When I see it in the store or in some recipe I feel very inspired but then it languishes in the fridge for a while before I start reminding myself to use it up in the intended recipe. Usually it lands up in a Thai curry with some other vegetables of choice, but this time, I had eaten Thai for lunch just the day before, so I wasn't feeling enthused about it.
While searching through my collection of favorites I decided on this 'Tofu stir-fried with basil' which I hadn't made in a long time and which I know is fantastic. On a whim, I thought I'd check if anything else catches my fancy on that site, which, by the way, has several really good Southeast Asian style recipes. When I saw the 'Ma Po Tofu', that was it. That gorgeous color in the photo of the dish caught my attention, and the recipe sounded so unbelievably simple that I had to try it. Plan changed, for the better. This recipe is just awesome, an absolute winner.
You could use the original recipe just as it is, with the chef's witty add-ons and informative notes. Sichuan pepper is called as tirphaL in Konkani and Marathi, and is not in any way related to the churna of the same name. If you have it, use it. This is what I did, following the recipe as closely as I could, which is why I have kept most of the instructions as they are.
Firm Tofu - 270 gm, about half of a standard block
3 Tablespoons oil
1.5 Tablespoons chili bean paste
2 teaspoons fermented (preserved) black beans
5-10 dried or fresh red chilies
(I used 5 fresh red Thai chilies, and that was decently spicy enough for me)
1/2 cup water or stock
pinch of sugar
1 teaspoon light soy sauce
2 teaspoons cornstarch mixed with a Tablespoon of water
white pepper to taste
1 or 2 spring onions (scallions), to yield about 2 Tablespoons
Heat the oil in a non-stick skillet or wok.
Cut off about a fifth of the tofu, and crumble with fingers or fork. Add this to the oil and let it fry until golden brown in color.
In the meanwhile cut the remaining tofu into 1/2 to 1 inch pieces. Chop the scallion into rings, using the white and green portion.
Move the fried tofu to one side of the pan, so the oil can drain back into the middle of the wok. Turn the heat down to medium. Add the chili bean paste and stir-fry for 30 seconds. The oil should turn red. Add the fermented black beans and red chillies and stir-fry for another 30 seconds. Add the water or stock and stir it in.
As it starts to form a sauce, gently add the cut tofu to the liquid. Don't stir-fry this too much or the tofu could break apart. Try to hold the pan by its long handle and gently shake it back and forth.
Add the sugar and light soy sauce. Turn the heat down and simmer the mixture for about 5 minutes.
Depending on how thick the sauce is at this stage, stir in some of the cornstarch-water mixture and turn up the heat to medium. The sauce should start to thicken. Add more of the mixture and cook till the sauce has the consistency slightly more runny than tomato ketchup. It should cling to the tofu.
Stop the cooking at this stage, add some of the spring onions and white pepper. Serve with the remaining spring onions garnished on top.
The perfect accompaniment to this would be plain white or brown rice, and any type of sauteed greens, to add a vegetable component to the meal.
For that, here is a bonus recipe:
Sauteed Green Beans and Cashews
Stack together some tender green beans and trim off the ends. Heat oil in a wide skillet, add a couple of cloves of minced garlic, a broken dried red chili or two, a handful of cashews, the beans, salt, and cook for a few minutes. Add some soy sauce and toss together for another two minutes.
This dish might sound simple, but it tastes absolutely fabulous.
About Express Cooking
If I have to cook while time is at a premium, I am most likely to turn to something that does not need a precise recipe, like pasta with whatever-is-in-the-fridge, or eggs, or something that I have made so many times that I know exactly what it involves. Trying out a new recipe for which I have to refer to something is best left for when there is plenty of time.
This Mapo tofu scores some more points because this was the first time I made it, I had to refer to the printout, and yet it took less than 20 minutes. As if that wasn't enough, it is made without using anything frozen, leftover, or canned. Just the tofu itself and the couple of sauces are ready-made.
By using multiple burners, all three components of this meal can be cooked together to create a healthy balanced meal for the Express Cooking event.