Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Tofu With Ground Pork and Chinese Eggplant in Black Bean Sauce


Now that winter is in full effect in Chicago, I’ve become a bit lethargic and the things I’ve been cooking lately reflect that.   Recently, I’ve been sticking to things that are quick and easy or make use of the crockpot.  Tofu with ground pork in black bean sauce is one such quick and easy dish that my dad prepared often for the family.  After doing a little research on the dish, I’m pretty sure it’s his version of mapo tofu.

My favorite thing about the dish, other than how easy it is to make, is how the strong flavor of the black bean sauce plays off of the subtle taste of tofu.  For anyone that’s never had black bean sauce, the flavor is really hard to describe.  Although the beans are fermented, the taste isn’t very fermenty at all.  It’s very salty, though, and is a little sweet on the finish.  Overall, I find the taste fairly deep and complex.


One thing that I did differently from my dad’s preparation this time was to marinate the ground pork in some black bean sauce before browning it.  I found it wasn’t really necessary and kind of goes against the “quick” part of the “quick and easy” description of this dish.


However, one thing that I definitely did the same as my dad was to cut the tofu in its plastic case: a little trick he taught me to cut silken tofu uniformly and quickly without have it flop around all over the place.  Bonus easiness points for not needing a separate mise en place bowl for chopped tofu.  Also, I feel that silken tofu is the only tofu firmness worth using in this dish.  It has a richer and deeper flavor than firmer tofu, and the silky texture plays nicely with the crumbliness of ground pork.

On a side note, I don’t buy it when I hear people say that tofu is tasteless.  I never understood that, and I want to know what kind of crappy tofu they are eating.  Tofu tastes like tofu, I enjoy eating it, and I don’t need it to be reconstituted into looking like some type of pseudo-meat in order to eat it.

Another thing that I did differently from my dad’s preparation was to add some roasted Chinese eggplant.  I’ve had stir fried Chinese eggplant with ground pork many times, and I figured it was only natural that Chinese eggplant could be added to this dish.  I arbitrarily chose roasting the eggplant rather than stir frying it.  About 20 minutes with oil, salt, and pepper did the job nicely.

Anyways, putting the dish together is really simple:

  • Stir fry or roast the Chinese eggplant until soft and set aside
  • Saute the aromatics; I like a ton of garlic and a little bit of onion
  • Brown and drain the meat, but don’t drain too much fat
  • Add the Chinese eggplant if desired
  • Add the tofu and simmer until the tofu and pork are cooked through
  • Add the black bean sauce to taste
  • Optionally, add some soy sauce and/or oyster sauce to taste if you’re into that; oyster sauce will sweeten things a tad
  • Finish with a slurry to thicken; usually 1 tablespoon of cornstarch mixed with 1 tablespoon of water will do the trick
  • Top with green onion and basil


The light crispness of green onion helps cut the pungency of the black bean sauce.  As for the basil garnish, that’s yet another deviation I made from my dad’s recipe.  The thought process behind the basil stemmed from clams in black bean sauce, a staple at any reputable Cantonese seafood restaurant.  In that dish, clams are topped with black bean sauce, hot peppers, and basil.  The combination of black bean sauce and basil is nice in that dish as the basil, like the green onion, helps cut the pungency of the black bean sauce by adding vibrancy.  Another connection I made with the basil came from a typical Thai curry that contains both eggplant and basil.  I felt that not only would the basil work with the black bean sauce, but it would work with the eggplant as well; a twofer.


Recently, my family discovered the pictured brand of chili sauce.  We’ve come to adore it and call it “Old Man Sauce” because we have no idea what the label says in Chinese.  It does say “hot & spicy sauce” in English, but that’s too generic and tells us nothing about the brand.  There have been arguments over whether the person on the label is in fact a man as well as whether he/she is young or old.  I’ve always contended that he is a young man, but the mob has spoken and “Old Man Sauce” has been in use for the past few years.  Whether it should be called “Young Man Sauce” or “Old Woman Sauce,” one thing for sure is that it tastes great with the tofu dish and most any other Chinese dish that could use a kick of heat.  It tastes similar to the chili sauce with the thick layer of oil on the top that you find at dim sum places and most Chinese restaurants, only better.  I find myself using it more than the ubiquitous Sriracha sauce nowadays.

One last thing to mention is that this dish can easily be made vegetarian/vegan.  Simply substitute the ground pork with Morningstar Griller Crumblers and you’re done.  I’ve done this a couple times and it’s turned out pretty good.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

My Own Candy Bar: beng-beng


I recently purchased a Playstation 3 in order to play Modern Warfare 2 with some of my coworkers.  One of my coworkers suggested my online name should be KissKissBengBeng, which I thought was golden.  To my chagrin, KissKissBengBeng was already taken as was BengBeng, beng-beng, and beng--beng.  I ended up settling for beng---beng (that’s with 3 hyphens).

Then, a couple weeks ago I randomly googled “beng-beng” and came across what may be the most awesomely named candy ever.  From the description on the website that I ordered from, “Beng Beng is Indonesian famous chocolate covered wafer snack with delicious caramel and cream filling.  Crispy and delightful snack bar with Double Chocolate & Double Caramel.”  How could I not buy some considering the name and broken English (borderline Engrish) in the description? 

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Tootsie Rolls

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The Tootsie Rolls always intrigued me as a kid.  I always pondered whether it was a chocolate that was somehow made into a taffy-like chew or whether it was a taffy-like chew that had chocolate flavoring.  Also, I could never quite put my finger on what it was that gave it that classic Tootsie Roll zing in the flavor.

Now I enjoy chocolate as much as the next person, but sometimes I really hate having that chocolatey bitterness linger on my palate for a long time.  If I were to be captured by terrorists, one of the worst forms of torture they could put me through would be to feed me a bunch of dark chocolate and not allow me to drink a glass of milk after.  It’s not quite as bad as feeding me raw celery, though.

But this is where Tootsie Rolls appeal to me so well.  The chocolate flavor isn’t very intense at all and the zinginess helps balance things out, which explains why at times I thought it was a taffy-like chew that had chocolate flavoring.

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Well recently I got the answer to both what a Tootsie Roll is and what gives it its zing.  Turns out a Tootsie Roll is indeed chocolate but mixed with corn syrup.  That zing?  Orange extract.  The process of making them was relatively easy: melt chocolate, mix in corn syrup and orange extract, spread out to harden (by the way, parchment paper is my new secret crush), cut, and roll.  One peculiar note about the recipe I found was that it called for the chocolate to be cooled overnight at room temperature.  I’m not sure if speeding up the cooling process by putting the chocolate in the fridge would have altered the final product.

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Rolling the chocolate was a tad annoying.  The chocolate had stiffened up pretty good overnight, and squishing the blocks I cut length-wise to get the roll started proved to be harder than I thought.  Sometimes it felt like trying to fold a piece of paper in half more than seven times.  Not to mention that the heat of my hands would make the chocolate slippery while folding the block or shaping the roll and the roll would fly out of my hands from time to time.

I did have some lemons laying around, and I thought it might be nice to incorporate some fresh zest into a batch of the rolls to compliment the orange extract and make it extra zingy.  Unfortunately time was not on my side as I rolled the rolls in the morning on a weekday and I didn’t want to miss my train to work.  The next time I make Tootsie Rolls, I definitely want to incorporate some fresh ingredients.