#2 Black Pepper Tofu

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I am a sucker for intensely flavored foods: bleu cheese, anything with garlic and red pepper flakes, bitter greens, and spicy salsas and curries. And besides I’m always on the lookout for new ways to use tofu, which I am pretty sure I should eat more frequently. So it was no surprise that this particular recipe caught my attention. Not only does it call for nearly two pounds (!) of tofu, but it also includes TWELVE cloves of garlic! TWELVE shallots! THREE tablespoons of finely chopped ginger! EIGHT thinly sliced red peppers! FIVE tablespoons of crushed black pepper!!!

For me, this had the effect of the French foreign exchange student who showed up in my art class during my junior year, all rumpled hair, sweet brown eyes, and wicked smile: it promised something exotic, plenty of drama, just enough seduction, and a bit of a dare. Naturally, I found it irresistible.

And just as naturally, it came with one or two challenges.

For starters, there were the three kinds of soy sauce called for in the recipe — light soy, sweet soy (kecap manis), and dark soy sauce — which required some research. Light soy sauce, I learned, is a saltier, lighter-colored soy sauce that is emphatically NOT “lite” or low-sodium soy sauce; for this, I used my usual tamari. Dark soy sauce, on the other hand, refers to a Chinese-style soy sauce that is thicker and darker, with perhaps a hint of molasses to it. This round, I used a bottle of Japanese-style dark soy sauce by Sushi Chef that I found on the shelves at the local Meijer. And, finally, the sweet soy sauce, also known as  kecap manis, turned out to be an Indonesian style of soy sauce sweetened with palm sugar and seasoned with garlic and star anise. I made mine by combining equal amounts of soy sauce and light molasses, and then I skipped the garlic (figuring there was enough in the rest of the recipe to compensate) and added a pinch of Chinese Five Spice mix.

There’s also some significant prep work involved in this project. Given the twelve cloves of garlic, twelve shallots, three tablespoons of ginger, eight chile peppers, and sixteen green onions, this is probably no surprise. Made me glad for holiday break… and every pair of extra hands I could commandeer into the kitchen.  That said, once the chopping is done, though, this is indeed easy to pull together: just fry the tofu, drain the oil, heat the butter, sautee the vegetables, add the soy sauce and, voila, you are done! Takes barely half an hour. And it looks spectacular.

Yes, there is dredging and frying involved. If you hate cleaning a greasy cooktop, save this recipe for a day when someone else will volunteer for clean-up.

And then, after all the dredging and frying, there are still eleven tablespoons of butter to be added to the pan … in a recipe allegedly calculated to serve four. Even to me, a huge fan of butter,  this seemed excessive. Instead, borrowing from a tip gleaned from a comment on the recipe at Saveur, I sautéed the vegetables in just 5 tablespoons of butter and then enriched the sauce with a half cup of homemade chicken broth. I don’t think anybody noticed the difference.

And the eight red chiles? Ottalenghi does not suggest a particular type of chile, but to perk up the look of the fried tofu and sautéed green onions in this dish, you will want red ones, trust me. And, as he emphasizes, they need to have some heat: that is the point of the dish. Eight chiles, however, is a LOT of chiles, even if you manage to find ones that are relatively mild, which I did not. Following the adaptation from Saveur, I attempted to find red serranos (which I suspect would be plenty hot), but failing that, picked up something from an unlabeled bin at Whole Foods, which proved, upon testing, to be nearly lethal: only four of them made it into the final recipe. Even so, some of us suffered.

But was it worth the effort? Well…. imagine crisp tofu in a slightly sweet, richly flavored soy sauce spiked with ginger, crushed garlic, plenty of chiles, and the lush richness of sautéed shallots. The crushed black pepper in this quantity contributed a complexity like chocolate or coffee and added an easy-going heat that somehow gentled even the harsh chiles I had used. The flavor was fabulous, appetite-stirring, downright exciting. Definitely spicy, though, even with the reduction in peppers. Even served with lots of steamed rice. I loved it; my daughter adored it and ate nearly half the pan; and my husband admitted that the flavor was excellent but he couldn’t eat it. We all would have preferred it with a gin & tonic.

So, yes, I’d say that this one was worth the effort. Maybe not one to try out on company, and maybe not a recipe to make without first testing your chiles. But on a brutally cold day when you’ve been snowbound for nearly a week, this is a dish to counter the chill, awaken your senses, and help you believe in a world beyond your own four walls. Yes, it’s a bit of an adventure, but the thrilling comfort it offers makes it worth a try.

Next week, something savory, maybe even less complicated: Mushroom ragout with poached duck egg (Plenty, p. 50); (originally published in The Guardian, with metric measurements).

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One thought on “#2 Black Pepper Tofu

  1. Love this recipe! After you’ve made it a few times you get comfortable with throwing anything in it. It’s a dish I make when I have random veg and ginger root lying around the kitchen! I don’t use that many chiles I usually only use one or two and add lots of ground pepper. It’s not as spicy but I love it all the same!

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