Back around Christmas I fell in love with the cookbook Plenty at my favorite local beautiful-things store, Hey Jhonny. (Yes, it’s meant to be spelled that way.) I was desperate to own the beautiful, pillowy-covered, extravagantly photographed object. But I didn’t know if it was a good cookbook, and besides, I was supposed to be shopping for other people. So I tore my eyes away, and I put the book back.
Months later I did some research. Plenty was lovingly reviewed, and its vegetarian focus on gorgeous vegetable dishes was irresistible. So I got a copy and feasted my eyes on page after page of mostly Mediterranean-inspired dishes like eggplant in yogurt sauce with pomegranate seeds, poached baby vegetables with caper mayonnaise, and caramelized fennel with goat cheese.
Perhaps it shows my contrary nature that the first recipe I chose to try was an Asian recipe that featured no vegetables. Or perhaps the dish just looked mouth-wateringly delicious and simple to put together.
A quick detour regarding tofu. I love tofu, but soy seems to have become one of those things that everyone has an opinion on. It’s been thrown from the lofty heights of superfood-dom to the abyss of dangerous cancer-causer and back several times, and now it’s hovering between. My reading? Like most things, it has pros and cons. To my mind the pros outweigh the cons – but again, as with most things, I think moderation is key. Should you eat tofu for every meal? No. There’s probably nothing you should eat for every meal. Is soy protein a few times a week going to hurt you? I seriously doubt it, and it might even be beneficial. Concerns about soy chemicals mimicking estrogen don’t seem to be borne out as a danger in human studies, whereas protection against certain cancers does.
So I’m going to eat tofu when I want to eat tofu. And with this recipe in my hand, that may be rather more often.
The original recipe calls for you to fry your own tofu. Though you can do that if you want to, I recommend either buying quality fried tofu from a specialty store or making it with unfried tofu. The pristine white tofu would look very dramatic against the black pepper sauce. Just stir it in gently so it doesn’t break up too much.
If you live in Albuquerque and haven’t tried the tofu from Banh Mi Coda yet, get yourself over there! They make their own tofu from soy milk they squeeze in-house. It’s a revelation: custardy and smooth, with a delicate, delicious flavor that is worlds apart from the packaged stuff. They display the fried kind (which I used for this recipe) on the counter; if you want the unfried kind, you have to ask for it so they can get it from the back – which they always do graciously, sometimes with a curious question about how you plan to cook it. It’s 50 cents a square, about $2.50 a pound, and worth double that.
This recipe goes together fast and yields a gorgeous bowlful that’s sweetly fiery from chiles as well as the coarsely ground pepper. I think the combination of sweet and hot is unbeatable, and it’s in full flower in this dramatic, sticky sauce. A side of plain rice, white or brown, is a must to catch every drop.
I changed a few ingredients and dramatically decreased the oil in this dish – it originally called for 11 tablespoons of butter!
Sweet-Hot Black Pepper Tofu
Serves: 4 Time: 25-30 minutes
5 tablespoons black peppercorns
4 to 8 dried Chinese “Tien Tsin” chilies or 4 mild fresh red chilies
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons vegetable or peanut oil
4 shallots, chopped, or 1/2 cup chopped onion
8 large garlic cloves, crushed in a press or minced
3 tablespoons chopped fresh ginger
4 tablespoons soy sauce
6 tablespoons dark sweet soy sauce, such as kecap manis
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon rice vinegar
24 ounces firm tofu, fresh or fried, cut in bite-size pieces
1/2 bunch green onions, chopped
Grind the peppercorns coarsely in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle and set aside. Bend dried chiles just to crack and release their heat; slice fresh chilies thinly. Set aside.
Heat the butter and oil together in a frying pan or wok. Add the shallot or onion, chile, garlic, and ginger. Saute on medium-low heat about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onion is totally soft. Add the soy sauces, sugar, and vinegar; stir to dissolve the sugar, then add the pepper. Bring to a simmer.
Stir the tofu in gently. Cook, stirring to coat with sauce, just until the tofu is hot through (2 or 3 minutes). Don’t overcook; if the sauce dries out, it turns to a sticky brittle that is delicious but not quite what you’re looking for. If it looks like this is happening, add a tablespoon or two of water to smooth it out. If it happens anyway, don’t worry, the dish will still be fabulous.
Remove from the heat and scatter the green onions on top. Serve with plenty of rice.