Making this dish over the weekend reminded me of the soup scene from Ratatouille. I love how Remy waves around his tiny rat paws to inhale the aromas and adjust the flavors in the soup, and uses his entire body weight to manipulate the stovetop settings and human-sized utensils. Although I did neither of those things while I was making this sauce, I did spend a good amount of time uncapping sauces and smelling spices I had on hand to develop a fragrant and umami-laden sauce for tofu.
I’ve used black bean sauce and Chinese 5-spice powder before in other dishes, but never together in one dish. However, it works here: the supremely salty and almost musky quality of black bean sauce is balanced out nicely with the sweet, sour, bitter and savory qualities from the blend of star anise, cloves, cassia, Szechuan peppercorn and fennel in the 5-spice powder. This sauce complements the tofu and noodles perfectly, and is also flexible enough to use with seitan, other vegetables and rice.
PEPPERY TOFU WITH CHINESE 5-SPICE POWDER AND BLACK BEAN SAUCE
Yield 2 servings
for the sauce
- 1 TB Earth Balance
- 1/2 TB grated or finely minced ginger
- 1/2 TB grated or finely minced garlic
- 4 scallions, chopped
- 6 TB sherry, divided
- 4 shallots, halved and sliced
- 1/2 tsp Chinese 5-spice powder
- 2 TB prepared Chinese black bean garlic sauce
- 2 cups prepared or homemade vegetable broth
- 1 TB cornstarch, dissolved in 2-3 TB cold water
for the tofu
- 1 TB canola or vegetable oil
- 1 block firm tofu, sliced into slabs then halved to make 8 squares or 16 triangles (no need to press)
- fresh cracked black pepper
- 1-2 shallots, halved and sliced
- 2-3 scallions, chopped
- shiitake or bella mushrooms, sliced or left whole
- kale, broccoli or collard greens
- soba noodles or rice
To make the black bean sauce
- Melt the vegan butter in a medium cast iron pan over medium-low heat, then add in the ginger and garlic and saute for about 2 minutes. Add in the chopped scallions and saute for 4-5 minutes, stirring frequently to ensure the garlic and ginger do not brown.
- Turn the heat up to medium. After a minute or two, deglaze the pan with 3 tablespoons of sherry. Allow to simmer for a few minutes more or until most of the liquid has reduced, then throw in the shallots and saute until soft, just a minute or two. Sprinkle with the Chinese 5-spice powder, stir, and allow to mingle for a minute or two, then deglaze the pan again with the remaining 3 tablespoons of sherry.
- Allow to simmer until most of liquid has been absorbed, then add in the black bean sauce and stir to combine. Add in the broth, stir, and allow to reduce in the pan for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the cornstarch/water slurry and stir until thickened. Remove from the heat and set aside.
The sauce can also be made ahead of time, and stored in the refrigerator until ready to use.
To make the tofu
- Place a large circular non-stick, flat bottomed pan over medium-high heat. Drizzle the oil into the pan, then fan the tofu around the edges of the pan in a single layer (like the petals on a daisy), leaving the center area open. Place a lid over the top and allow the tofu to caramelize for about 10 minutes, undisturbed. It will pop and sputter due to the high heat and moisture in the tofu.
- After the initial 10 minute caramelization is complete, lift the lid straight up carefully (if you tilt the lid, the collected condensation in the lip will drip into the pan, causing more sputtering, so use caution.) Sprinkle each piece of tofu evenly with a pinch of pepper over each, then carefully flip the tofu (it will pop and sizzle), cover and allow to caramelize on the other side undisturbed for about 3 minutes. Remove the lid again by pulling it straight up. By this time, most of the water should be expressed/absorbed, so you can now leave the lid off. Reduce the heat to medium and continue to monitor the tofu and remove it from the pan once the level of caramelization is achieved on both sides.
To finish the dish
- Maintain the medium heat level, pouring about a cup or a cup and a half of the black bean sauce over the tofu, and gently stir to combine and coat. Sprinkle the extra sliced shallots and scallions over the top, adding any chopped greens and mushrooms as desired. Do not stir, just allow it to sit on the top and slightly wilt and mingle into the pan.
- After 3-5 minutes, you can gently move everything around in the pan. Use a spatula to lift up the tofu to ensure it doesn’t stick to the bottom. At this point, there should be a thick, caramelized ring around the edge of the pan and everything should be mingled together nicely.
- Serve immediately spooned over rice or soba noodles, with some extra sauce on the side if desired.