My family had only one complaint about Szechuan Tofu with Garlic Sauce: there wasn’t enough of it.
I’d been looking for fresh water chestnuts ever since I saw the recipe for Chicken with Garlic Sauce on the food blog that has taught me the most about Chinese cooking, Barbara Fisher’s Tigers and Strawberries. According to Barbara, the recipe benefits from using fresh rather than canned water chestnuts, so I went off looking for them right after she posted the recipe. Unfortunately, if the small Asian grocery store near me has them, I couldn’t find them, so I pushed the recipe to the back of my mind until last weekend when I happened to find fresh water chestnuts on my visit to the huge Hong Kong Market in Terrytown, Louisiana.
I’d never bought or cooked with fresh water chestnuts before, so I didn’t know what to expect. After peeling off the dark outer layer, I cut off a thin slice to taste and was amazed at how much sweeter it was than the canned ones, which have always seemed to me to be all crunch and no flavor.
If you can find them, it’s worth the time it takes to peel and slice them, but a word of caution: check them carefully to make sure they have no soft spots or indentations. A couple of the ones I bought in haste turned out to be unusable, and a few others had to be radically trimmed; it’s probably best to buy a few more than you need. If you can’t find them, Barbara suggests substituting fresh jicama root, though in such a flavorful sauce as this, I think the canned variety would be okay, though not optimum.
The real star of this Sichuan (or Szechuan) dish isn’t the water chestnuts; it’s the incredible sweet and spicy sauce. My vegan version is less spicy than the original (I’m feeding a spice-intolerant 10-year-old) but it’s still bursting with the flavors of garlic, green onion, and ginger. Besides using tofu instead of chicken, I made very few changes other than reducing the amounts of black pepper and chili sauce and modifying the marinade to account for the fact that tofu absorbs marinade more readily than chicken. I did have to leave out the black cloud ear fungus because I just didn’t have it, but all in all, I think I remained true to the original recipe.
But the next time I make Szechuan tofu, I plan to double the sauce and add broccoli or another vegetable, just to make it stretch further. I served it with some steamed brown rice and stir-fried tiny bok choy, but we’re all big eaters so it fed the three of us with no leftovers. And this is one of those times when we’d have loved to have leftovers to enjoy the next day.
Sichuan (or Szechuan) Tofu with Garlic Sauce
The delicious sweet-spicy sauce is the star of this recipe. To make it "stretch" farther, double the sauce and add steamed broccoli or other vegetables.
- 1 pound firm or extra-firm tofu
- 1/4 cup warm vegetable broth
- 1 tbsp. Shao Hsing wine or dry sherry
- 1 tablespoon reduced-sodium soy sauce
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper up to one tablespoon
- 2 tablespoons rice vinegar
- 2 tablespoons black rice vinegar
- 2 tablespoons reduced-sodium soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon Shao Hsing wine or dry sherry
- 2 tablespoons agave nectar or sugar
- 1 teaspoon chili garlic paste up to 2 teaspoons
- 1/4 teaspoon sesame oil (optional, see note)
- 6 large cloves garlic minced (up to 1 head)
- 2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
- 1 bunch green onions
- 8 fresh water chestnuts (use 1/2 cup of canned, slivered water chestnuts, if necessary)
- 2 teaspoons cornstarch dissolved into 2 tsp. water
Cut the tofu widthwise into 1/2-inch slices. Then cut each slice widthwise into 1/2-inch by 1 1/2-inch sticks. Put the pieces in a ziplock bag and add the vegetable broth, 1 tbsp. wine, 1 tbsp. soy sauce, and black pepper. Let it marinate, turning the bag every few minutes, while you prepare the vegetables and sauce.
In a small bowl or measuring cup, mix together the vinegars, 2 tbsp. soy sauce, 1 tbsp. wine, agave nectar or sugar, chili garlic paste, and sesame oil. Set aside.
Peel and slice the water chestnuts and cut each slice into shreds, about three pieces per slice. Slice the green onions thinly, separating the dark green tops from the light green and white parts.
Heat a large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the light-colored scallion slices, the garlic, and the ginger, and stir-fry for 1-2 minutes. Remove from the skillet and set aside.
Add the tofu and its marinade to the pan, making sure the tofu is in a single layer. When the marinade has evaporated, carefully turn the tofu (which should be light brown on the bottom) and cook the other side until brown. Add the green onion mixture back to the pan and cook, stirring for another minute.
Add the water chestnuts and sauce and bring to a boil. Add cornstarch and water and simmer until thickened and glossy. Remove from heat and garnish with green onion tops.
The little bit of sesame oil adds a rich flavor; omit it only if you have to.
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