Hello and Welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophes, the last refuge you’ll find this holiday season from any and all forms of Christmas music. I’m your host and strictly literary liaison, Jon O’Guin. Today’s recipe comes with a caveat I’ve never given a meal before on this site: Don’t make Black Pepper Tofu. Or, rather, don’t make it ALONE. While a perfectly fine meal (being good enough to be endorsed by my father, who has disliked anything Tofu-based for roughly 20 years as “pretty good, actually”), it is just complicated enough that having a second set of hands would cut cooking time in half. So let’s go through my solo struggle to make this dish, and show you where to avoid my mistakes.
Tofu, More like “No-fu”, amiright?
A quick primer for those who’ve either never heard of tofu, or never cooked with it. Tofu is coagulated soy milk. If you read last week’s post on Cheese, then you may recall that this, essentially, makes Tofu a soy cheese. And, while not technically wrong, Tofu is seen more as a meat substitute, due to having a better Protein-to-Fat ratio. Most cheeses sit somewhere near a 1-to-1 ratio, while say, a beef steak has a 4 to 1 ratio. Tofu sits around a 2-to-1, putting it in the same territory as pork loin.
There are competing theories on who invented it and where, but the fact remains it’s a popular dish in Asia, and has been steadily growing in representation in the West, especially since the 60’s, with the uptick in interest in Vegetarianism of that time. Which is not to say that Tofu is new to America. The first American Tofu company was founded in 1878, and the food itself was known to several of the founding fathers. Benjamin Franklin, in fact, sent several soybeans back to Pennsylvania during a trip to London, and noted he’d recently encountered a ‘cheese’ made from them, in 1770. So Tofu’s been known in America since before it was actually America.
Don't call it a comeback, I been here for years, Rocking my peers and puttin suckas in fear.
But these historical oddities are not why I chose to try cooking this dish. No, I did that because of a simple fact of the season: Winter is a time for fat. Yes, as many of us know, this is a very easy time to gain weight, because our bodies’ natural response to cold is to try and get more fuel. Combine that with at least 2 holidays associated with big meals, and it’s not hard to see why people gain weight (though, as a point of order, the often touted “7-10 pounds” figure is inaccurate. Studies show you’re more likely to gain around 1-2 pounds. Because, as it turns out, yeah, you’re still burning more to stay warm.) So if I wanted something filling and hot but not fattening, I turned to Tofu. Because Tofu, while having the same RATIO of Protein to fat as pork, does it with Half the calories. A third of the calories of that beef steak. And roughly 20% fewer than the Cheese.
But enough context, let’s talk shop.
Many Hands Make Light Work. Therefore, Few Hands Make Shit Hard
I went into this dish with high hopes. As you know if you’ve read the site enough, I am terrible at the technique of mise en place, AKA “Getting your shit ready before you start cooking.” And this recipe had a fair amount of it.
- 3 tbsps finely chopped fresh ginger
- 12 cloves of garlic, crushed
- 12 shallots, thinly sliced (I didn’t have this, so I used half an onion)
- 8 thinly sliced red chiles
- 16 green onions sliced 1” long on the bias (meaning diagonal cuts)
- ¼ CUP coarsely crushed black peppercorns.
I know it looks innocent now, but screw this shit. Slicing aliums all day ain't my idea of a good time.
Now, I had assumed this meal would take about 30-40 minutes to make, given the numbers provided in the Genius Recipes cookbook I was using. But it took me at least 20 minutes just to sort all of this out. And this is where I first thought, “Dang, I wish I had some help here.” Because all of this is used in the SECOND or THIRD steps of the recipe. So, if I had help, I could have been handling the first step while someone cut this all up. Or vice versa.
Eventually you’ve got everything cut up and organized, ready to go into the pan when it needs to. Now, you’ve got the first step of actual cooking: the mildly deep fry. See, in order to make this tofu more broadly appealing to your friends and loved one’s carnivorous preconceptions, the Tofu gets a light coat of cornstarch, and is fried, giving a nice crisp outer shell, and an amazingly soft inside. The tofu ony fries for about 3-5 minutes, so it’s not like it’s going to take too long, right?
To build "Bean Block Mountain"? No, should be pretty quick.
Yeah, see, this recipe use 1.75 pounds of tofu, which I cut into about 48 1” cubes. You can only fry about 10 of them at a time, using the biggest pan I had in my house. Include a bit of a wait between batches to let the oil come back up to temp, and this was ANOTHER 30 minute step. So, working alone, I was already at 1 hour of effort. And then I made a really bad choice.
If you’ve never worked with large quantities of hot oil, you may be unaware of this, but oil takes FOREVER to cool down. Meaning that, having poured a fair bit of oil into this pan, I had two choices: use a different pan, or wait for the oil to cool and try and use the same pan. I chose the latter. And let me tell you: don’t.
The sooner you get to this sexy sauce, the better.
After waiting 15 minutes, I attempted to move the oil to a jar using a baster, and apparently melted it. I say “Apparently” because it wasn’t until a week later that one of my family members said “Hey, this baster looks messed up”, and I said “Weird, it looked like that when I used it last.” It melted the plastic so fast I didn’t NOTICE IT. Or maybe that’s a slow thing?
I also, in my hurry to get my pan usable again, ended up spilling a lot of hot oil on my stove. So save yourself some grief, use a different pan, and sort out the oil situation later. Just like (INSERT REFERENCE TO RECENT OIL SPILL HERE.)
Hey, this actually looks surprisingly edible.
Once you’ve got the free pan, it’s all pretty straight-forward. You melt down your (frankly mildly obscene amount of) butter, then sauté your shallots (or onion), peppers, garlic and ginger. Add the liquid ingredients, cook a bit, and then hit it with ALL THE PEPPER. Then, toss the tofu in the sauce for about a minute to warm it back up, and take it all off the heat. Toss in the green onions, and serve.
So, in the end, this dish took me over 2 hours. But, with a second set of hands, this job could easily be done in around 30-45. My dad thought it was great, but that it needed to be served over rice, so that the intensely flavored pepper sauce had something to spread over. So, in terms of cooking, this was a great success. In terms of emotional and physical damage? A complete catastrophe. And, for me at least, that's the best of both worlds.
NEXT TIME: JON TALKS ABOUT…LOOK, HE HASN’T PLANNED ANYTHING. MAYBE LIKE, WARM HOLIDAY DRINKS. THAT SOUNDS NICE. WHATEVER.
Black Pepper Tofu Serves 4-5
Vegetable oil, for frying
1-3/4 lb. firm tofu
Cornstarch, to dust
11 Tbsp. butter
12 small shallots, thinly sliced
8 fresh red chiles, thinly sliced (I used 3 red jalapenos, seeds discarded)
12 cloves garlic, crushed
3 Tbsp. finely chopped fresh ginger
3 Tbsp. sweet soy sauce (kecap manis), 3 Tbs. light soy sauce and 4 tsp. dark soy sauce
7 tbsp Soy sauce
2 Tbsp. sugar
1/4 cup coarsely crushed black peppercorns
16green onions, cut into 1-inch segments on the bias
- Pour oil into a large frying pan or wok to come ¼” up the sides and heat over medium-high. Cut the tofu into large cubes, about 1 inch (2.5cm) square.
- Toss tofu in cornstarch, shake off the excess, and then add to the hot oil. (Fry in batches to avoid stewing in the pan.) Fry, turning them around as you go, until they are golden all over and have a thin crust. Transfer them onto paper towels.
- Empty and clear pan, or, if wise, use a second pan: melt the butter over medium-low to medium heat. Add the shallots, chiles, garlic, and ginger. Sauté for about 15 minutes,until soft.
- Next, add the soy sauces and sugar and stir, then add the crushed black pepper.
- Add the tofu to warm it up in the sauce for about a minute. Finally, stir in the green onions. Serve hot.