Lynda Balslev: Sunday night Ma Po Tofu
This recipe is not entirely authentic. I prefer to call it an improvised Ma Po Tofu, because when the craving strikes for this spicy, satisfying Asian soup, but it happens to be a Sunday night in the dead of winter and you happen to be in your P.J.’s, it’s time to dig deep and improvise.
This happened to me recently, when I turned to a David Tanis recipe in The New York Times as a template. I didn’t have all of the ingredients, so I winged it with what I happened to have stashed in my refrigerator, plus extra smidges of this and that to ramp up the flavor and spice to my taste.
You can do this, too, if you are properly prepared. So, with this in mind — and in preparation for any future pajama-clad cravings you may experience — I am here to suggest investing in a few Asian staples to add to your pantry. These are the critical “this and that” condiments that will tip a dish to crave-sating deliciousness, the obscure secret ingredients that add lip-smacking flavor to many spicy and savory dishes, Asian or otherwise. They also have a conveniently long shelf life, so you can tuck them into the back of your cabinet or fridge and forget about them until the need arises or craving strikes.
The first condiment I recommend purchasing is gojuchang. It’s a Korean fermented hot chili paste, which adds a smoky kick of heat, mild glutinous-rice sweetness, and that elusive umami flavor to sauces, marinades and soups, making them positively addicting. The next condiment is fermented black bean and garlic sauce, which has a murky, almost meaty quality that adds depth and savory flavor to stir-fries and marinades.
And, while we are on the subject of must-haves, another ingredient I highly recommend (that is not needed in this recipe, but you’re going to the store anyway) is miso paste. A dab of this fermented soybean paste adds salty, savory, umami flavor to broths, sauces, marinades, even sweets — think miso-salted caramel. All of these staples can be found in the international section of many well-stocked supermarkets or in Asian specialty stores and can be stored in your refrigerator for up to one year.
And since we are talking about cravings, I will add that once all of the ingredients are assembled for this soup recipe, you can whip it up in a matter of minutes, which is a boon to instant gratification.
Ma Po Tofu
Active Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 25 minutes
Yield: Serves 2 to 4
1 ounce dried Porcini mushrooms
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 large red jalapeno chile, seeded, chopped
2 tablespoons fermented hot chili paste, such as gojuchang
1 tablespoon fermented black bean and garlic sauce
2 tablespoons grated fresh peeled ginger
1 large garlic clove, minced
1 cup plus 3 tablespoons chicken or mushroom stock
2 tablespoons soy sauce or tamari
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
15 ounces semi-firm tofu, patted dry, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 to 2 teaspoons sugar, optional
4 scallions, white and green parts thinly sliced
Bring 1 1/2 cups water to a simmer in a small saucepan. Turn off the heat, add the mushrooms, and let steep for 15 minutes.
Heat the oil in a skillet or wok over medium-high heat. Add the chile, chili paste and black bean sauce and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the ginger and garlic and saute until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the mushrooms and cooking water to the wok. Stir in 1 cup stock, soy sauce and sesame oil.
Slide the tofu into the soup and reduce the heat to medium. Whisk the 1 tablespoon cornstarch with the 3 tablespoons stock and add to the soup, and cook until the soup is hot. Taste for seasoning, and add sugar if desired. Stir in the scallions. Serve hot.
Lynda Balslev is a cookbook author, food and travel writer, and recipe developer based in the San Francisco Bay area.
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