Thursday, January 11, 2007

Home Style Bean Curd

Tofu - bean curd - is made in much the same way that cheese is made. Soy milk, made by soaking, grinding, boiling, and straining dried soybeans, is curdled by the addition of a coagulant - either acid or salt that leave no perceivable trace of taste - and the resulting curds are then pressed to form blocks. Though it is known that tofu originated in China, anything more exact about its origins than that is, like the origins of cheese, lost in the mists of time.

Rich in protein, and also calcium if produced traditionally using calcium sulfate, it is hugely versatile. It can be eaten raw, simply dipped in something flavourful like soy and chilli flakes or with a little pale pink pickled ginger. It can be shredded into soup or firmed up with a brief meeting with heat then stir fried with intense or fragrant sauces. Deep fried, it puffs up into light gold crusted clouds that will take up the juices of stocks and perfumes of spices. There is little to taste with tofu on its own - in fact bland is a good word - making it ideal to partner with both strong and subtle flavours. If it seems sour or the water it is packed in is cloudy then it has gone off and will be unpleasant.

The first few times I attempted to cook with it were disastrous. I bought what I know now to be silken tofu - which has the highest water content and is like a fine set custard - and it simply disintegrated whenever I went near it and dinner ended up as sandwiches. Not entirely defeated but definitely wary I still ate it often in restaurants and wondered at what alchemy they used to stuff it or stir fry it in lovely chunks. Then, after I spent some time reading the detailed information in Fuchsia Dunlop's book, I decided it could be time to try again. And finally, armed with a little more knowledge, it worked.

The very first time I cooked an edible meal that included a tofu dish I was thrilled - it was like unlocking a secret code. Having made a few different tofu dishes occasionally over the last few months, I feel like I have made tangible progress in the kitchen. I have a new ingredient that I can use well. This time I was even confident enough to make a few changes to the original recipe and still it worked.

Home Style Bean Curd

2 dried shiitake mushrooms
1 block of firm bean curd, drained, about 550g/1 1/4 lb
2 thick rashers of smoked bacon, cut into fine slices
1 tsp shaoxing wine
1 tbspn chilli sauce with fermented black beans
1 tbspn finely chopped garlic
1 tspn dried chilli flakes
200ml/7 fl oz light chicken stock
1/4 tsp dark soy sauce
3/4 tsp potato flour mixed with 1 tbspn water
3 spring onions, green parts only sliced
1 tsp sesame oil
6 tbsp groundnut oil

Put the dried mushrooms in a bowl, pout over enough boiling water to cover and leave to soak for 30 minutes. Drain, squeeze dry, cut out and discard the stalks and slice the caps thinly. Set aside.

Put the bacon slivers into a bowl and mix with the Shaoxing wine.

Cut the bean curd into large squares and then cut these into triangular slices about 1cm/1/2 inch thick. Heat the wok over a high flame until smoke rises then add 3 tablespoons of the oil. Lay the bean curd on to the surface of the wok and fry, turning over once, until golden on both sides. Drain on kitchen paper and set aside. You may need to do this in a couple of batches.

Clean the wok if necessary and re-heat over a high flame then add the other 3 tablespoons of oil and swirl it around. Add the bacon and stir fry until the slivers separate. Add the chilli paste and stir fry till fragrant. Throw in the garlic and mushrooms and continue stir-frying until it smells divine. Finally add the chilli flakes, stir briefly then pour in the stock.

Return the bean curd to the wok with the dark soy sauce and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for several minutes to allow the flavours to penetrate the bean curd, seasoning with salt to taste.

Add the potato flour mixture and stir to thicken the sauce, then add the spring onions. Finally, off the heat, stir in the sesame oil and serve.

We had this with steamed basmati rice and pounded aubergine and green peppers. Don't be put off by the length of the instructions - it is straightforward and pretty quick and definitely a great dinner. For a vegetarian version, omit the bacon and use vegetable stock - but I'd still throw in the little bit of wine.

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