Archive for the 'Food' Category

The Best Mapo Tofu

I discovered Sichuan food a year and a half ago and, unexpectedly, gained a new hobby. Since then, I’ve cooked my way through much of Fuchsia Dunlop’s Land of Plenty and Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook. I’ve eaten Sichuan in New York, Seattle, Vancouver, Shanghai, and Beijing. I’ve spent hours trying figure out which of the myriad mysterious Chinese-labeled ingredients on the shelves at Uwajimaya were the ones I was looking for, and trying to interpret the inconsistent and often non-descriptive translations on Chinese menus. (Recently, to aid in my Chinese restaurant ordering, I copied the Chinese characters and phonetic transcriptions for my favorite dishes and many basic food terms onto a card that I carry in my wallet. I really did this.)

One of my favorite dishes is Mapo Tofu. When done well, it’s so delicious and comforting: warm, salty, spicy, and tingly with Sichuan peppercorn. I’ve tried it at many different restaurants and had some versions that were instantly forgettable and some that I still think about months later.

It’s also incredibly easy to make at home, once you have a few basic ingredients in the pantry. The recipe below–in which I combined elements of several different recipes I tried–is my current favorite. Since I first started cooking Chinese, for better or worse, I’ve become more comfortable using lashings of oil, so these days, I’m more apt to make this version–which is still less oily than many restaurant versions–than the modified version I was making last year. (Disclaimer: I definitely wouldn’t call myself an expert, and I make no claims about what is authentic. This is just what I like the best, after a fair amount of sampling and experimentation.)

Ingredients

Peanut or vegetable oil

Block of tofu, cut into bite-size squares (I like fresh, silken tofu the best, but firm will also do just fine)

About 6 oz. of ground pork

2-3 tablespoons Sichuan spicy bean paste

2-3 tablespoons chili oil

1-2 teaspoons Sichuan peppercorn powder (Sichuan peppercorns, toasted and ground to a powder)

1 tablespoon light soy sauce

1 teaspoon fermented black beans, chopped

3 green onions, chopped

2 gloves garlic, chopped

1 cup chicken stock

1.5 teaspoons cornstarch, mixed with a little water

Directions

Heat a little oil in a wok or skillet and add pork. Cook pork until almost done. Add Sichuan bean paste, chili oil, and garlic, and cook for a minute or two. Add soy sauce and fermented black beans and cook for another minute or two. When pork is cooked through, add stock and tofu. Stir gently to mix everything well, and bring to a simmer. Add cornstarch/water mixture and stir until glossy and thickened. Add green onions and Sichuan peppercorn and remove from heat. Serve with rice.

Cookies, and working from home.

Three Girls Bakery in the Pike Place Market has delicious cookies. They taste like they are 50 percent butter, and the texture is a perfect combination of softness, firmness, and chewiness. This is the third day in a row I’ve stopped there for an afternoon snack.

This is one of the reasons I love working at home so much: when I was ready for an afternoon break today I decided to walk through the market to pick up what I needed for dinner and look for stocking stuffers. I also found a good new source of Sichuan peppercorn for my Chinese cooking experiments, Market Spice. All in all, it was so much nicer than taking the elevator down to a Starbucks and back up to my office without going outside or seeing anything different on the way.

I also took a break this morning to try to make my cat ride the Roomba, which obviously is very important and would never happen in an office.

Now I’m just wasting time, and I should either go for a run or go back to work. I suppose this is the peril of working from home, along with never taking a shower or wearing anything but yoga clothes.

Ni hao—your duck! Adventures in eating in Beijing.

I just spent 10 days in Shanghai and Beijing. Second to visiting some good friends of my husband who live in Shanghai, eating lots of delicious Chinese food was my top priority for the trip.

There were a few bumps in the road—including an inadvertent trip to Subway and a run-in with some aptly named “chou doufu” (literally, “stinky tofu”) and otherwise forgettable street food on Wanfujing Snack Street—but we mostly succeeded.

Almost everything we ate was yummy, but here are the three most memorable things we sampled.

1. Peking Duck. We went to Beijing Da Dong Roast Duck, listed in Lonely Planet. It was big, bright, busy, and expensive compared to other restaurants we went to in Beijing (but not that expensive compared to restaurants at home). I have no idea if there are better places for Peking Duck in Beijing, but we were totally satisfied with our meal and the ambience.

We ordered a couple of soups and a whole roast duck.

our duck

After the soup, which was tasty, our duck arrived along with the chef who was carving it. A waitress popped up and pointed it out to us with an economical: “Ni hao. Your duck.”

We received a plate of sliced duck and two plates of condiments, some of which we didn’t recognize: sliced onion, plum sauce, thin pancakes, one hollow bun, something pink, something pickled, and so on, including a small amount of sugar.

A waitress popped up again to give us instructions on how to eat our duck. The most surprising part was dipping the skin in the sugar. I’m not a huge meat-eater, and I tend to shy away from things like skin and fat. But the crispy brown duck skin dipped in sugar was a revelation. It tasted like doughnuts, but richer, crispy and melting in my mouth. It was delicious, and unlike anything I’d ever eaten before.

the whole spread

The rest of the meal was also quite fine. I’m still not sure I’m a big fan of duck, but smothered in plum sauce and wrapped in a delicate pancake with fresh slices of onion it was inevitably tasty. The duck was followed with duck soup and fresh fruit.

2. Tofu with chili sauce at Xhang Ma Ma. This was a hole-in-the-wall restaurant with no English menu or pictures that our hotel sent us to, along with a printed-out order in Chinese characters that we dutifully handed to the waitress after a long wait for table on a Friday night. We tried four dishes and all were delicious, but the tofu dish was the most memorable. I don’t know whether it is a traditional dish or unique to the restaurant, or what the English translation of the Chinese characters on our printed-out order is, but it was slices of fresh, soft tofu served with a chili oil-based dipping sauce.

tofu prior to devouring

I eat a lot of tofu, and this was the best I’ve ever had. I usually think of tofu as an innocuous medium for whatever sauce I’m eating it with, but this had its own delicate, slightly salty flavor. I would have eaten it alone. But the dipping sauce, heavy with Sichuan peppercorn, chilis, and sesame seeds, was intoxicating.

yummy dark-red chili sauce

We inhaled it with tingling mouths and went back the next day to gulp down some more before hurrying to catch a taxi to the airport.

3. “Stir-fried Beef with Pepper.” Alas, I didn’t think to write down the Chinese characters for this vaguely translated dish and again, I don’t know whether it is traditional or created by the restaurant.

We had this at a restaurant called Club Camp, which (according to the internet) specializes in Yunnan food, in Chaoyang. We wandered into it the night we arrived in Beijing. It was late, we were hungry, and we were unsuccessfully looking for a different restaurant listed in our guidebook. Despite the unappealing name of the restaurant, the food was outstanding, and we went back for a second meal when we were in the area two days later.

This was our favorite dish of the several we tried. It was fiery, one of the spiciest things we ate in China, and incredibly flavorful. The second time we dined there, we played food detective and inspected it to try to figure out everything that was in it. Our list includes beef, fresh peppers of some sort, dried chilis, cumin, anise, peanuts, fermented black beans, sesame seeds, and scallions, but I’m sure I’m still missing some things. Suffice it to say, it was a flavor explosion and again unlike anything I’ve ever tasted.

In the week I’ve been home, I’ve purchased two Chinese cookbooks, been to the Asian grocery store twice, and cooked Chinese food four times (tonight, Dan Dan Noodles from Fuschia Dunlop’s Land of Plenty). Needless to say, Beijing made an impression.

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.

Street Donuts

My new food obsession is Street Donuts, a food truck serving mini-donuts at Second and Pike.

They sell miniature donuts–not donut holes–by the half-dozen ($3.25) or dozen ($4.75), with assorted toppings. They are crazy satisfying: golden, simultaneously crispy and soft, and not too sweet. A great snack when you’re walking around downtown.

So far, I’ve had them with a dusting of cardamom and ginger, and with chocolate sauce and a curry dusting. Both were delicious.

Making home-made Thai curry paste.

If you are like me, you often buy pre-made Thai curry paste in the store. I’ve been using it to make soups and curries for years, and I thought it was delicious when I discovered it. But the curries I made never turned out the same as you can get in a good Thai restaurant (or, of course, in Thailand). Last night was the first time I produced a curry that tasted every bit as good as anything I’ve had in a restaurant. The secret, it turns out, was making my own curry paste.

The recipe I used came from Baipai Thai Cooking School in Bangkok. In March, my husband and I found ourselves in Bangkok with a day to kill. Looking for an alternative to battling the noise and bustle of the city, we discovered many glowing reviews online for Baipai Thai and signed up for a half-day class.

The price was reasonable and the glowing reviews turned out to be entirely accurate: an air-conditioned shuttle van picked us up promptly in our hotel in the morning and took us to the cool, comfortable, and modern school facility. There, along with a pleasant group of like-minded travelers from around the world, we learned how to make four Thai dishes. For each dish, our cheerful and competent instructor first demonstrated how to make it, and we got to taste her handiwork. Then, we tried it ourselves at individual cooking stations. Between courses, an efficient troop of quiet helpers cleaned up and set out pre-chopped and measured ingredients. After lunch, when our bellies were full of delicious Thai food, the shuttle returned us to our hotel, recipes in hand so that we could replicate, at home, the dishes we had learned in class. It was a lovely way to spend half a day, and we learned something to boot.

Yesterday, I finally decided to attempt two of those recipes at home: Gan Ka-Ree Gai (yellow chicken curry) and Yam Woon Sen (a spicy glass noodle salad). Below are instructions for the curry, starting with the ingredients:

Yellow Curry Paste (makes about 3 tablespoons)

3 dried red jalapeno chilies (soaked in water until soft, with seeds removed)

¼ teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon ginger, roughly chopped

1 teaspoon galangal, roughly chopped

2 shallots, roughly chopped (this quantity seemed off to me, so I used about half of a large shallot. Perhaps the shallots in my grocery store are larger than the ones found in Thailand?)

2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped

2 tablespoons mild curry powder

2 teaspoons turmeric powder

Yellow Chicken Curry (about 2 servings)

1 cup coconut cream

1 cup coconut milk

2 tablespoons yellow curry paste

140 grams chicken thigh or boneless chicken breast, cut into bite-size pieces

60 grams potato, cut into bite-sized pieces and pre-cooked

80 grams onion, cut into bite-sized pieces

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

3 teaspoons palm sugar (or to taste)

3 teaspoons fish sauce (or to taste)

noodles at Uwajimaya

I knew I could find some of the more uncommon ingredients at Uwajimaya, an awesome Asian grocery store here in Seattle, so I wandered down to the Uwajimaya in the International District in the afternoon. The most challenging part of the trip was selecting the correct noodles from among the incredible variety on offer, most lacking English labels.

curry paste in progress

I was able to find almost everything. Although the recipe called for “dried red jalapeno chilies,” the only small dried red chilies I could find were “chiles de arbol” from Mexico. I’m not sure if they are the same thing, but they worked great. Because we like spicy food, I used five instead of three in the curry paste, resulting in a healthy but not overpowering kick of spice. I also bought a can of coconut cream and another of coconut milk, but when I opened them they had the same consistency. I remembered the teacher at Baipai explaining that if you let coconut milk sit in the refrigerator, it will separate into cream and milk. This didn’t work for me–the milk and cream remained the same consistency–but the curry turned out great nonetheless.

the finished curry paste

When I got home, I started by making the curry paste. I used a mortar and pestle, like we had done at the cooking school. It took about 15 minutes of vigorous pestle-ing, but I imagine it could be done with a food processor in a fraction of the time.

To make the paste, start by pounding the chilies with the salt until a paste is created. Then, add the ginger and galangal and pound until the paste is well-combined. Repeat with the shallot and garlic, and, finally, add the curry powder and turmeric.

Stir-fry the paste in a bit of vegetable oil over low heat until it is aromatic, about one minute.

finished chicken curry

To make the curry, stir fry the onion in vegetable oil until fragrant and transparent. Add the yellow curry paste (I used all of what I had made, about three tablespoons, instead of the two tablespoons called for the by the recipe) and coconut cream, a little at a time, until mixed well. Add the chicken, coconut milk, and potato, and stir well. Simmer until the chicken is cooked and the potato is tender. Add the palm sugar and fish sauce to taste, stir to combine well, and bring to a boil again. Remove from the heat and serve with rice.

It was delicious, rich and spicy. We both ate too much. But I’m thinking about trying a red curry paste this evening. Yum.


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