Sunday, 3 March 2013

Kung Pao Tofu

Ah, week night dinners. How unpleasant you can be to prepare when one get back from work tired and grumpy, and yet that poor body still needs to be fed! That's why I love stir-fries: with the exception of pasta, nothing beats a stir-fry when you want a quick, healthy and filling meal that doesn't take too long and doesn't require too much effort and thinking. This dish is simple, delicious, with minimal chopping duties: exactly what one needs for a dull Wednesday evening!

Kung Pao is a traditional Sichuan recipe with the wonderful blend of sweet, salty and spicy tastes that make my taste buds very happy. I had wanted to try it for a while, but I was quite gung-ho on finding actual Sichuan peppers: not an easy feat! No grocery store near my apartment carried it; even my trusted exotic bulk store failed me! Lucky for me, my best friend shops in Chinatown all the time, and she got me a big bag... Woot-woot!

Many food writers specialized in Asian cooking swear by the little red peppercorns, and I was determined to use them in my Kung Pao! Their flavor is described as numbing hotness, and now that I have used them, I confirm that there is something that just makes your mouth feel... well, numbed! They are not spicy in the burning way some chiles (such as my dear scotch bonnets) are: it's really more of a building heat with a very exotic and peculiar flavor.

You gotta taste it to get it, really, but I think it might be an acquired taste for the palate used to Westernized Chinese food. It took a bit of experimenting with the recipe below until I found a way to infuse the dish with the very unusual Sichuan pepper taste, but make it subtle enough that it would not be completely off-putting. I found balancing it with the other more typical flavors of chile, ginger, garlic and scallion to be the best way to integrate it to the dish.

2 tablespoons peanut oil
2 fresh chiles, sliced in long, fine strips
1 tablespoon whole Sichuan peppercorns, or chili flakes
1 pound extra firm tofu, drained and pressed
2 to 3 gloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons finely chopped ginger
1 bunch scallions, roughly chopped, plus some thinly sliced scallions for optional garnish
1 red bell pepper, julienned
1 large handful raw peanuts or cashews
2 tablespoons dark rice vinegar
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons mirin
4 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
4 tablespoons soy sauce
6 tablespoons dark rice vinegar
2 tablespoons sesame oil
4 tablespoons water

Cube the tofu and mix in the marinade ingredients. Let stand while you prepare the other ingredients. In another bowl, mix together the ingredients for the sauce and set aside.

Heat a wok with oil over high heat. Before the wok begins to smoke, add the chiles and Sichuan peppercorn. Stir-fry briefly until the chiles are slightly blistered and oil is fragrant.

Add the tofu and stir-fry 5 to 7 minutes, until crispy.

Add garlic, ginger, scallions and bell pepper, and stir-fry until fragrant, about 2 minutes.

Pour in sauce and mix to coat the other ingredients. When the sauce is thickened and shiny, stir in peanuts or cashews.

Transfer to plates, garnish with thinly sliced scallions, and serve with jasmine rice.

Kung Pao generally is a vegetable-free stir-fry, and while I did not want to over-crowd my wok with veggies, I felt the dish needed a minimum of vitamin, and red bell peppers seemed just perfect with the other ingredients and flavor. If you want more veggies, I suggest steaming some carrots or broccoli to add a burst of color to the plate.

The mix of chewy tofu, crunchy peanuts and bell peppers is great, and while the Sichuan peppers might take a bit of getting used to, the spicy, sour and sweet taste of the dish is really delicious. The sauce is meant more as a coating than as something to drown your tofu in, but you can always double it if you want a saucier plate. Who am I to argue against saucy?

If you try the Sichuan peppers and can't get used to their funny sour-spicy taste, you can always substitute them with a tablespoon of good old chili flakes. You'll keep the heat in your dish without the funky aftertaste.

As a side note, I am finally getting more comfortable with Twitter and Instagram, so if you are curious to see what else I ramble about besides food, you can find me there as @punkygabz.

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