Spicy Pork and Tofu Stir-Fry (Or, Almost Mapo Tofu)

Last year, I spent the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve in New York. One highlight of the trip was the blizzard that struck the day after we arrived. Snowflakes started falling during our morning run through Chinatown, and the storm gathered in earnest while we wandered in the Museum of Natural History in the afternoon. By the time we left the museum, eight inches of snow lay on the ground and we had to fight our way uptown through Arctic blasts to meet friends for dinner. The next morning was clear and cold, and the city was blanketed in snow. Buses lay abandoned in the streets, and there was a holiday feel in the air.

Another highlight was my discovery of Sichuan food. After a long flight, we arrived at our hotel at 8:00 p.m. on Christmas day and struck out through the frigid temperatures to find an open restaurant. Without a map or a plan, we settled on a nondescript Sichuan restaurant. The flame of love in my heart for spicy food, dimmed after five years of disappointment in Seattle, was re-kindled.

When I got home, I started experimenting with a traditional Sichuan dish known as Mapo Tofu. I made my version several times before trying it in a Sichuan restaurant. The restaurant version, while tasty, was oilier and heavier, and I’ve continued to make my version at home. The most significant tweaks I’ve made to my recipe from the traditional version are including vegetables; using firm tofu instead of soft; and substituting sambal oelek for spicy bean paste. In addition to being easy and fairly healthy, it’s packed with flavor and satisfying texture. This recipe serves 3-4.

Ingredients:

1 cup chicken broth

2 tablespoons sambal oelek or Sichuan bean paste (I’ve used both, but I tend to have sambal oelek in my refrigerator and I have to make a special trip to Uwajimaya to get the bean paste. I think the bean paste makes the dish oilier without significantly changing the flavor).

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 lb firm tofu, drained and cut into ½-inch cubes

½ lb ground pork

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon finely minced garlic

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon finely minced peeled ginger

½ to 1 teaspoon toasted Sichuan-peppercorn powder (don’t skip this! If you’ve never tried Sichuan peppercorn, do; it’s unique and addicting)

3 scallions, sliced

About 2 cups green beans, sliced into 1-2 inch pieces (I have also used baby bok choy and sugar snap peas)

1 tablespoon cornstarch dissolved in 2 tablespoons water

Directions:

To make the sauce, stir together broth, sabal oelek or bean paste, and soy sauce, and set aside.

Heat a wok or large skillet and stir-fry green beans in a small amount of oil until just tender. Remove beans and add pork to skillet, using just as much oil as necessary to keep pork from sticking. (Drain any excess fat; I find this is sometimes necessary and sometimes not, depending on how lean the ground pork is.)  Add garlic and ginger and stir-fry until fragrant, about two minutes. Add beans back into skillet.

Stir sauce and add to skillet, bringing to a simmer. Add tofu and stir to combine. Stir cornstarch mixture and add to stir-fry. Bring to a boil, stirring gently, and cook until thickened and glossy. Turn off heat and add scallions and Sichuan peppercorn powder to taste.

Serve with rice.

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