I don’t often cook other people’s recipes, at least not exactly as written. I like to get inspiration from cookbooks and other people’s blogs and then go off and do my own thing, incorporating the techniques that have worked well for me in the past. But when I saw the recipe for Peng’s Home-Style Bean Curd on Barbara Fisher’s Tigers and Strawberries, I just knew I had to make it exactly—well, almost—as written.
Barbara is a blogger and cook who inspires confidence; she has attended culinary school, worked in restaurants, and taught cooking classes. Her particular love and specialty is Chinese cooking, and she writes about it in clear, evocative language that somehow summons up the taste of the food as she guides you through the steps in preparing it. Reading the recipe for Home-Style Bean Curd, I could imagine exactly how it would taste, full of the pungency and saltiness of fermented black beans.
And I wasn’t disappointed. One bite of this dish transported me back to a little Chinese restaurant back in South Carolina that D and I loved, instantly conjuring up its dark, candle-lit booths and strange door chime that chirped “Thanks for coming” whenever the door opened.
From the outside, it looked like nothing special, one Asian restaurant among the many that graced the strip malls of that neighborhood, but once inside, visitors were greeted with tantalizing aromas and a diverse menu that included a whole host of vegetarian dishes. It’s amazing how many memories a taste can bring back; I didn’t realize how much I missed that place until this tofu dish reminded me.
Of course I made a few changes to the recipe, but Barbara had already suggested the main one, that vegetarians replace the pork with dried shiitake mushrooms. And though I trust Barbara when she asserts that it’s best with deep-fried tofu, I hope you’ll trust me when I say that baked tofu worked wonderfully for me. (I’m sorry, Barbara; I just can’t bring myself to fry anything!)
Finally, I didn’t have fresh red chiles, so I substituted dried red pepper flakes (heresy, I’m sure). Next time I make this—which will be soon because I’ve been craving it ever since we ate it—I’ll make sure I have fresh peppers on-hand. Thanks, Barbara, for a wonderful dish!
Home-Style Tofu with Shiitake Mushrooms
Fermented black beans add a unique umami flavor and saltiness to this traditional Hunan dish made vegan.
- 16 ounces extra firm tofu drained
- soy sauce
- 1 cup dried, sliced shiitake mushrooms (about 1 ounce)
- 1 1/2 cups boiling water
- 1/4-1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1 tablespoon fresh finely minced garlic about 3 cloves
- 3 tablespoons fermented black beans (Douchi) (see notes)
- 1/2 red bell pepper cut into thin strips
- 1/4 teaspoon soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch mixed with 1 tablespoon cold water
- 3 scallions green parts only, thinly sliced
- 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil (optional but important for flavor)
Preheat oven to 425F. Cut the block of tofu in half lengthwise and then slice each half into approximately 8 slices about 1/2-inch thick. Brush each slice with soy sauce on both sides and place on a baking sheet. Bake until light brown, about 15 minutes, and then turn over and cook for another 10 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside.
While the tofu is baking, pour the hot water over the sliced shiitake mushrooms. (If you don’t have sliced mushrooms, use whole ones and slice after rehydrating.) Allow them to soak until soft. Leave the mushrooms in the soaking liquid and set aside until needed.
Spray a wok or large non-stick skillet with a little canola oil and place over medium-high heat. Add the garlic, black beans, and red pepper, and stir-fry for about 1 minute. (See note below.) Add the red pepper strips and cook for another minute. Stir in the mushrooms, along with their soaking liquid, and add the tofu and soy sauce. Let simmer for about 10 minutes to allow the tofu to absorb the flavors. Then stir in the cornstarch mixture and stir until thickened. Add the sliced green onions and sesame oil and serve immediately over rice. Makes 4 servings.