Sichuan Tofu with Vegetables

I can't remember when I've enjoyed a book quite as much as The Last Chinese Chef, by Nicole Mones. I had first read A Cup of Light by the author, and it was terrific, but this one, our Cook the Books selection for July/August,  is my favorite yet. The combination of suspense - who will win the competition - romance, explanation of fascinating Chinese culinary traditions, and her tempting food descriptions, is unbeatable. I so wanted to be at those meals and try all of that fantastic food. I was especially intrigued by the Chinese use of herbs and flavors to correct or modify each other and even to influence and heal something as deep as grief in the psyche of the diner, as Sam (the Chinese Chef she meets) did for Maggie with his chicken dish.

The story resonates with anyone who has gone through great loss and change in life, as it tells the story of a recent widow, trying to adjust.  In the novel, Maggie, our protagonist,  is able to shift from grief to a place beyond her past.  The trip to China is a kind of metaphor for going  forward, into a future of adventure and positive change, both physically and emotionally.

My first response was to contact an old family friend, I wanted to pick her brain as to restaurants in Honolulu and, possibly?? Hilo? Any that might have the sort of food described in our book. I remember having wonderful meals in Hong Kong eons ago, but figured with the large Chinese population here there should be something fabulous and authentic closer to home. Like the heroine in The Last Chinese Chef, I have been unimpressed with our local Chinese-American restaurants. And, Bob does not really like Chinese food. So, we've been in avoidance mode.  Still haven't found anything comparable to the book's fabulous standard.

I thought for the event, perhaps a dish using lotus leaves, since I had a few in my pond. I also have a Joyce Chen "Good Earth Steam Pot", which has been sitting on a shelf, for I'm ashamed to say how long. The perfect opportunity to use it, in a dish inspired by the Beggar's Chicken recipe and a popular Chinese and Southeast Asian fast food, lotus wrapped sticky rice.

First, I lined the pot with fresh lotus leaves, brushed with a bit of toasted sesame oil. I stir-fried some shitake mushrooms, green onions, diced red pepper, ginger and garlic in an old Chinese favorite - duck fat. Then, added a bit of chopped cooked chicken and 2 cups of cooked rice, stirred everything together, and piled it on top of the lotus leaves. After steaming the pot in a wok, half-filled with water for about 30 minutes, it was ready.
Good, but not quite up to our Last Chinese Chef standards. And, I couldn't honestly say the lotus taste was distinguishable. Maybe a more mature leaf is necessary. Further research is needed here. And, a shopping trip to Chinatown in Honolulu.

The Simple fried Shrimp described on Page 52, the marinated pork ribs steamed in lotus leaves on page 148, and the fabulous tofu, in a 30 crabs reduction sauce, which fell and missed its part in the competition, all sounded like recipes I would love to attempt. Could I possibly find crab shells, fat and roe? The challenge of it all.  I soon discovered that all the crab here is brought in from Japan or Vietnam, already shelled.  No luck there. And, I can't picture myself deep diving for 30 crabs.  Perhaps the tofu in another sort of sauce.

Researching the texture Sam discusses in his recipe,  Tofu in Crab Reduction Sauce, I found this from my old copy of The Book of Tofu:
Tofu can be safely retained on hand indefinitely by the simple expedient of freezing in your home freezer, or freezer compartment of the refrigerator. You may put one or two blocks of tofu in the freezer compartment and freeze overnight or until they become hard. When you wish to use the beancurd simply pour boiling water over and pat dry. The frozen tofu develops an unusual and interesting spongy texture which facilitates slicing into thin pieces, which may be used as ingredients in soups, stews, etc.
Okay, I can do that.  And did, experimenting over the past month or so, with pressing the water out, then freezing, pressing the water out and boiling and pressing again, etc. etc., but still not achieving the desired sponge effect.
Several of my tofu trials were very good, though lacking the element of texture described in the book.  Way too firm.  The one on the left had a traditional Chinese sauce with green beans, and the other featured peanut sauce and red pepper coulis for contrast.

Finally, yesterday I asked the Japanese owner of a local Health Foods store about this tofu sponge texture enigma.  He suggested freezing without pressing out any water, as it is the water which freezes and leaves behind the holes, creating a sponge like texture in the soy protein.   Also, I had been using firm tofu, so I decided to try his suggestion using the soft type. And, BINGO! to use an old expression.  It woiked.

                                    I added some sliced lotus root for the texture, nutty taste and unique visual appeal, along with some fresh yellow beans from the market.  The sauce was inspired by one of the suggestions on Ms. Mones' post for Cook the Books, Xiao Fan's Special Sauce, with some modifications of my own.  One of the other recipes she posted included lime juice and I wanted to use that slightly untraditional flavor in the sauce.

Tofu with Lotus and Yellow Beans in Sichuan Sauce


1 block soft tofu, halved lengthwise, frozen, then thawed  
1 cup green or yellow beans, cut in 1 inch pieces
1/2 cup sliced lotus root

1 1/2T peanut or vegetable oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 minced med. hot or hot (depending on your taste) chili pepper
1/2 C coarsely chopped cilantro
1 tablespoon soy sauce 
2 tablespoons peanut butter
juice of 1 lime
1/4 t salt
1 cup stock or meat juices (if you are cooking meat for this sauce)
Pour 2 quarts boiling water over the frozen tofu.  Let it defrost 10-15 min.  Gently lift onto clean towel and lightly press the excess water out.  Cut into 1 1/2 " cubes. Set aside.  Steam the beans (or other vegetables) and lotus.  Meanwhile in the wok, heat 2 tablespoons peanut or canola oil on medium, add garlic and saute several minutes, then add the chili pepper stirring another minute or so. Stir in remaining ingredients and simmer one minute Add in the tofu and let it simmer gently, turning to absorb sauce.  Finally stir in the steamed vegetables and serve, topping with the fresh cilantro.
I call it Sichuan because of the spicier ingredients in my sauce, typical of Northern Chinese or Mongolian style cooking. Served with a slice of tropical white pineapple on the side, and some brown rice, what a delicious meal this made.  Bob even likes tofu now.

Hosted this time by Deb of Kahakai Kitchen, the round-up for Cook the Books is now posted. Check it out for some great reviews and recipes.

Postscript - Winner announced!  Yes, my Sichuan Tofu recipe!!  I am so honored.


Sunny said...

Looks good, and for dad to say he likes tofu...wow!

Alicia Foodycat said...

It's a shame the sticky rice didn't meet your standards, because I love that pot! But well done for persevering with the tofu - I love the way it sponges up flavours.

Maria Verivaki said...

isnt lotus root beautiful! i have never seen it up close except in a can - this was a great read and a wonderful way to create some original dishes

Claudia said...

Yes, thanks it was good. The rice wasn't exactly sticky. More like fried rice in a pot. Just not very original.

Simona Carini said...

I should have read your post before starting my unsuccessful attempt at getting spongy tofu. I am glad you got it right in the end and I am going to freeze my leftover tofu right now. Thank you!

Claudia said...

Sunny - Right, Bob is definitely a meat and potatoes kind of guy.

Maria - Thanks, now I'm glad my lotus is still growing, even though it has yet to flower.

Simona - I'm glad I found out about freezing tofu. Sometimes it would sit in the fridge too long, and the water needs to be changed.

Heather S-G said...

Wow! This is a fabulous post! I love your tip about the tofu...and how awesome that you have lotus leaves right in your pond (would've come in handy for my dish). Great job :D

Rachel said...

Congratulations on this winning post! I have to try your tofu freezing trick soon.

Maria Verivaki said...

congratulations claudia - you did well!