Friday, November 09, 2012

Ma Po Tofu

Mr. Minx here. It's been awhile since I've reported on one of my weekday dinner adventures, so Ms. Minx thought this would be a good time for me to attempt a recipe she found in Fushia Dunlop's book, Land of Plenty. It's a Sichuan dish called ma po dou fu, or ma po tofu for us uncultured sorts. A spicy concoction using tofu and ground beef, the dish looked like it would fulfill our desires to have something healthy and flavorful. To add to the healthy nature of the dish, we replaced the ground beef with ground chicken.

At this point, I think it is important to bring up an issue that has daunted me since I started preparing our evening meals Monday through Friday. That issue is timing. Minxy takes the bus home from work, and the bus system is notoriously unreliable. Just when I get used to my beloved walking through the door at a certain time for several days in a row, she will unexpectedly be 15 minutes late. Although not necessarily a big deal in the vast scheme of things, it can be lethal for the taste and quality of a stir-fry or pasta dish. Therefore, I've taken to getting as much prep work done as possible before she arrives home, and then starting the final assembly after I've kissed her hello.

When I looked at the recipe for ma po tofu, it was clear there was a lot of quick sauteeing with the overall cooking time amounting to a scant 10 minutes or so. I decided to be clever and do all my chopping and measuring of ingredients first, and then wait to do the actual cooking. Setting about the prep work about a half hour before the expected cooking time, I ran into my first snag. The recipe called for leeks and, as anyone who's cooked leeks knows, they have to be thoroughly washed because they can often be filled with sand. Sometimes I get lucky and the leeks are pretty clean. This was not one of those times. I chopped the leeks into rings and soaked them in a bowl of cold water. Once the sand settled to the bottom of the bowl, I drained the water and washed them again. And again. And again. I had just started, and I was already falling behind.

I started assembling the other ingredients. The recipe called for fermented black beans. After scouring the pantry, I came up empty. Then I remembered that I had purchased a container of Korean fermented black bean paste a while back which I was going to use for some undetermined experimentation at a later date. This seemed like as good a time as any, so I guesstimated how much paste might equal the required quantity of black beans. Another crisis averted.

Next step was to cook the ground chicken. This is when I realized that I hadn't thoroughly defrosted the meat, which had lingered in the freezer waiting for some good use. I decided to start cooking the meat right away and hope for the best. The meat is supposed to be crisped up over a high flame, but a chicken popsicle doesn't exactly crisp up; it stews in its own moisture and becomes a crumbly soup. I tried not to panic. I figured I still had just enough time to cook it. Then I hear the Minx walk through the front door 15 minutes early.

Seeing that I was clearly in the weeds, she jumped in to help, but I could sense her disappointment in my lack of planning. Anyway, we forged ahead. Although the recipe is not exactly complicated, there are several steps, adding each ingredient separately and allowing them to cook for short, but specific amounts of time. Chili bean paste, black bean paste, ground chiles, tofu, and leeks are all added to the meat and cooked for short intervals. Fine if you know what you're doing, but a little crazy for me as I ran back and forth to the cookbook, fumbling with my reading glasses, trying to make sure each step was properly executed.

In the end, the ma po tofu turned out to be a wonderful dinner choice. The tofu, ground meat, and black beans provided sufficient heartiness, while the clean spiciness so prevalent in Sichuan cooking made it seem somehow light. I'm sure the use of ground beef would've given it a more savory flavor, but the ground chicken worked just fine for my palate, and I could feel better that is was less fatty. It's a dish I would like to attempt again when I have more time and properly thawed ground meat.

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