By Ezra Klein
I don’t know what Mark Bittman is making here — it may be delicious — but it’s not ma-po tofu. Which is a shame. Ma-po tofu is, probably, the most minimalist of all Sichuan dishes, and one of the easiest to make. 15 minutes from start to finish. It’s also perfect winter food: Spicy and hot and comforting. And it’s cheap. Good for a global deflationary spiral. You’ll need:
• 3 tablespoons peanut oil
• 1 block of tofu, 14 ounces to a pound. I use medium or firm, but others prefer soft. Don’t use silken.
• 3 tablespoons chili bean paste. You can find this at some supermarkets and all Asian markets. If you can’t find it, chili-garlic paste, which is more common, can be used as well, though you may need to use a bit less.
• 1 tablespoon fermented black beans, available at all Asian markets and very much worth having on hand.
• 1 cup chicken broth.
• 1 teaspoon sugar
• 2 teaspoons soy sauce
• 3 tablespoons scallions or leeks, diced with a steep diagonal cut.
• 2 tablespoons cornstarch mixed with four tablespoons cold water.
• Two dried red chilis, ground into paste in a mortar and pestle. (optional)
• 6 ounces of ground beef (optional also. I don’t tend to use it.)
• Roasted sichuan peppercorn, ground in a mortar and pestle (optional, but well worth using.)
Cut the tofu into 1-inch cubes and leave to steep in hot — but not boiling — water that you’ve gently salted.
Heat the peanut oil in a wok or large saute pan over high heat. If you’re using the ground beef, stir fry until crispy and brown. I don’t tend to use the beef because the dish doesn’t need it, but it’s traditional.
Turn the heat down to medium. Add three tablespoons of chili bean paste and stir-fry for 30 seconds or so. The oil should deepen into a rich red sauce. Add the fermented black beans and the ground chilis. Stir fry for another 30 seconds.
Pour in the stock. Stir everything to combine. Add the tofu. Mix it gently, being careful not to break it up as you cover it with the sauce. Add the sugar and soy sauce. Salt to taste. Simmer for five minutes. Try the tofu to make sure it’s absorbed the flavors.
Add the leeks or scallions and continue to simmer. When they’re slightly softened, add the corn starch mixture in stages, using a spoon. The point here is to slightly thicken your sauce. Do not add the corn starch quickly — you need to give it time to thicken — and don’t expect to use it all. It’s better to err on the side of a light sauce that tastes like ma-po than a heavy sauce that tastes like corn starch. Trust me on this.
Serve over rice and scattered with the toasted Sichuan pepper.
(Image courtesy of the 100-pound foodie.)