Howdy, strangers. I'm alive!! I really don't have a good excuse for not blogging in over 2 months, but I'll offer up some mediocre ones. First, my camera broke a few months ago. I've been taking pictures with my phone and as you may have noticed, they suck. A phone camera, even one with 8 mp, doesn't compare to a real one. I'm still using a point-and-shoot, mind you, but it's still better than the phone. We finally got a new camera a few weeks ago. Second, work has been really busy. Third, we're moving! We fell in love with a house in Howard County in February, and have been working with the seller (sans agents) since to finalize everything. In the meantime, we're also trying to find renters for our current house. We close in a few weeks, and move in June! So excited. Oh yeah, and we're also going on a cruise in the Mediterranean for 2 weeks at the end of May (!!!). Between packing the house, getting ready for the cruise, and showing the house, it's been crazy around these parts.
Anyway, my inaugural spring post is my favorite Szechuan dish: MaPo Tofu. We have a great Szechuan restaurant near my work and I order it every time. Szechuan peppercorns are essential in this style of cooking; they are spicy but in a totally unique, mouth-numbing way that you can only understand by trying them. Most Americanized Chinese restaurants with "Szechuan" dishes aren't using Szechuan peppercorns, so you need to go to a more authentic place to get the real deal. Don't make this dish without 'em. Some of the ingredients must be bought at an Asian market, but once you have them, this dish comes together in a jiffy.
modified from Serious Eats
2 tbsp Szechuan peppercorns, divided*
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 tsp cornstarch
2 tsp cold water
1.5 lb silken tofu (medium to firm), cut into 1/2" cubes
1/4 lb ground beef (I used chicken because that's what I had)
generous handful of chopped kale (~1/2 bunch)
2 tbsp grated fresh ginger
2 tbsp fermented chili bean paste*
2 tbsp Xiaoxing wine (I used Mirin)
1 tbsp dark soy sauce (Tamari)
1/4 cup low sodium chicken broth
1/4 cup roasted chili oil (I used garlic chilis in oil)*
1/4 cup scallions, greens and whites separated, chopped
*1/2 of the peppercorns can stay as is. The other half must be seeded and the seeds tossed. Only the husks are used of these peppercorns.
The chili bean paste (or you can buy MaPo Sauce) can be found at Asian markets
You can make you own roasted chili oil by placing 1/2 cup thai chilis in a pan over medium heat and roasting until fragrant, then covering with 3/4 cup vegetable oil. Heat until chilis start to bubble, then remove and let cool. The oil will stay for a few months in the refrigerator. (I would have loved to do this but, umm, as I heated up the chilis I bought 6 months ago, bugs started crawling out of them. Awesome).
Heat the seeded peppercorns in a pan over high heat until lightly smoking. Transfer to a mortar and pestle and grind finely. Set aside.
Bring a saucepan full of water to a boil and add the tofu. Cook for 2 minutes then drain well, being careful not to break tofu. Meanwhile, mix together cornstarch and water until homogenous. Set aside.
Add remaining peppercorns and vegetable oil to a wok. Heat over medium hight heat until sizzling. Remove peppercorns with a skimmer and discard.
Add chicken to the hot oil and cook until no longer pink. Add the kale and scallion whites and cook for 30 seconds. Add ginger and cook for 30 seconds. Add chili-bean paste, wine, soy sauce, and chicken broth and bring to a boil. Pour in corn starch mixture and cook until thickened. Carefully fold in tofu, chili oil, and scallion greens, bring back to a simmer and cook for another minute or so until heated through. Sprinkle with ground peppercorns and stir to combine well. Serve immediately with rice.