Tuesday, December 21, 2010
Let's face it, when you hear the word 'tofu', you probably don't think 'erotica'... yet. This dish is complex in taste and texture and just so luscious that it has earned its name.
Before I tell you how to make it, I want to tell you the story of how this dish came to be. For me, it's a highly personal story that reflects many phases of my life.
Many years ago, I checked out a book from the library called Mrs. Chiang's Szechwan Cookbook. This book has been tremendously influential on my cooking for two reasons: 1) it taught me many of the secrets of Chinese cooking, and 2) it was a library book so I had to take it back and that gave me the freedom to improvise on what I had learned rather than continuing to reproduce Mrs. Chiang's food. One of the dishes in the book that I loved was Anise Chicken, which became the seed of what over about 20 years eventually evolved into something entirely different, Tofu Erotica.
Each time I made Anise Chicken, I changed it a little. I added more mushrooms and more hot peppers. I added different kinds of mushrooms. It became one of my favorites.
One year, after I had recently come out, my life was in a lot of turmoil and I found myself living in a new town and alone at Christmastime. On Christmas eve, I knew that rather than feeling sorry for myself I needed to do something special. I went to the store and found all the ingredients, went back home and made Anise Chicken, just for me. After a lifetime of cooking for a family and always thinking about the tastes of others, it was a revelation that I could take the same care and cook something special just for me. It wasn't a traditional holiday food, but I wasn't having a traditional holiday experience - or rather, without realizing it then, I was creating one for myself.
For the next several years, even though I had more and more people around me in an extended, chosen family, I would make Anise Chicken sometime near Christmas to remind me to take care of myself. One time, I had some friends, John Nanci and Penny Jacobs over and they tasted it and I think it was Penny who said, "This is so good you should call it Chicken Erotica."
The next year, I was hosting a large gathering of family, friends, lovers, and lovers of lovers for a holiday we made up called "Winter Warmth Day". I believe in starting one's own traditions. Winter Warmth Day falls somewhere between the winter solstice and Christmas. The food ritual is to make and eat what you like without regard to other traditions. For me, at the time, that meant Chicken Erotica. One of the guests was vegan and I wondered if I could make a vegan version of the dish. I tried using tofu instead of chicken. Not only did it work, it was so much better! The tofu picked up the subtle flavors of the sauce better than the chicken and the texture in the mouth contrasted with the mushrooms in a way that was, well - best described as erotic. I've been making it with tofu ever since, not as a substitute for chicken, but an improvement. Tofu Erotica was born!
I still make this every year for my personal Winter Warmth Day.
When you first read this 'recipe' it will seem like it's full of exotic ingredients. While many of them can be found in the bigger, urban grocery stores, a trip to your local Asian market will be a fun outing and you will find everything in this recipe much cheaper there. You will find that you'll have more of some ingredients than you need. The star anise and peppers will keep for a long time in the freezer and you can also share with friends.
How to Make It
Begin by rinsing about 10 whole dried shitake mushrooms and soaking them in 3 cups of boiling water. It's important to rinse them first, because the tea-like liquid that results from the soaking will also go into the dish. In a separate vessel, soak about 1/4 cup of dried tree ear fungus in about 3 cups of boiling water.
Next, do a bit of preparation at the cutting board before starting to cook. Rinse and slice a 2 inch piece of fresh ginger cross-wise into pieces about 1/4 inch thick (no need to peel). Rinse and trim a bunch of scallions (a/k/a green onions - about 12) and cut both the white and green parts into 1 inch long pieces. Slice 1 pound of fresh mushrooms. These could be portabella, baby bellas, garden-variety button mushrooms, or a mixture. It's ok to buy them already sliced to save yourself a bit of work. Cut up a 14 - 16 oz block of extra firm tofu into 1/2 inch squares x 1/4 inch thick. Precision is not necessary, it's just tofu and will break up a bit as it cooks.
It's time to start cooking. Heat a couple of tablespoons of good high-temp oil, such as peanut, in a wok over high temp, then add the sliced ginger, 10-12 whole dried red hot peppers, and 8-10 whole (or equivalent pieces) star anise. It's helpful to count the number of each that you use - you'll see why later. Keep everything moving with a cooking paddle and pay attention! These ingredients are mostly dry, so they don't have water in them to bring down the temp of the oil and can scorch easily. If you scorch it, throw it away and start over. What you are doing is extracting the aromatic molecules from these ingredients and infusing them into the oil.
After 30 sec to 1 min, throw in the green onions and keep everything moving.
When the green onions begin to wilt, throw in the fresh mushrooms. You can breath a little now, because the mushrooms have enough water in them to moderate the temp of the wok, but don't leave your post. Stir-fry the mushrooms until they've released much of their water and reduced in volume.
Add the tofu and stir everything together. You can relax a little now, because there are enough watery things in the wok to bring the temp down to 212F. Let this cook for about 10 minutes, stirring gently occasionally.
Remove the shitake mushrooms from their soaking water and pour the liquid into the wok. Add 4 Tbs soy sauce. Add 1/4 cup of Chinese shao shing wine. If you can't find this kind of wine, dry sherry will do or you can leave it out.
Slice the shitakes into strips. If they have tough stems, cut them off and discard them. Put the strips into the wok and stir it all together.
Reduce heat and let it simmer, uncovered for about 40 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Employing a great deal of patience, pick out the peppers, star anise, and ginger slices. This is why it was helpful to count the number of pieces you put in earlier.
Drain and rinse the tree ear fungus. Pick or cut out any woody bits, then slice into strips and add to the wok.
Stir in 1 tsp sugar.
Dissolve 1 Tbs corn starch in 1/4 cup of cold water. Drizzle half the corn starch mixture into the wok and stir well. It should make a sauce the consistency of a thick gravy. If necessary, stir in the 2nd half.
Finish the dish by stirring 1 Tbs of sesame oil.
Serve with rice or rice noodles and garnish with sliced green onions, if you like.
This dish is even better the next day. It's best served warm rather than piping hot.