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.