You don't have to tell me, I already know what you are thinking. "Tofu?" You may even be making the same squished up face Jim made when I said to him what I had planned for dinner.
If you can get past the soft texture of the tofu in this stew, and the scavenger hunt it takes to find a few ingredients, you will be rewarded with bold flavor, balanced spiciness and an adventurous meal that reheats well the next day for lunch.
This fiery Sichuan classic was not hard to replicate in my kitchen. The most challenging part was finding the broad-bean chili paste, fermented black beans, and Sichuan peppercorns, you know the ones that make your mouth numb? If you live close to a large Asian Supermarket, then you are golden. I could not find the ingredients on my own, but a helpful employee took me straight to all three items on my list.
1 tablespoon Sichuan whole peppercorns
32 ounces soft tofu
2 cups chicken broth (I like Better than Bouillon mixed with water or homemade)
9 garlic cloves
1 3-inch piece ginger, peeled and rough chopped
1/3 cup Asian broad-bean chili paste
1 tablespoon fermented black beans
6 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 pound ground beef
1/2 pound ground pork
2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
2 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon cornstarch
Feel free to change up the ground meat and quantity to your liking. It is okay if you want just 1/2 pound of beef or 1 pound of pork. I liked this with the soft tofu, but reviews proved firm tofu works fine in this dish as well, it is all a matter of what your family prefers.
Place peppercorns in small bowl and microwave for 20 seconds. Let cool completely, then grind in spice grinder or by hand in a mortar and pestle.
Drain tofu and gently place on a stack of paper towels or dishtowel to absorb excess moisture. Soft, extra-soft or "silken" tofu, has quite a lot of moisture content but you have to be very gentle with it, or it will fall apart. It's too delicate to "press" as you world firm tofu. I carefully fold a few towels and set on top of the soft tofu for 15-20 minutes on the counter.
While tofu rests, trim the roots off of scallions and crush the white ends using the flat side of your chef’s knife. Cut scallions into small 1/2-inch pieces.
Slice tofu into 1/2-inch cubes and place in a large bowl. Top with scallions and pour over the chicken broth. Cover with plastic wrap and microwave until steaming, 5 to 7 minutes. Let stand while preparing remaining ingredients.
Blending the paste
Process garlic, ginger, chili paste, and black beans in food processor until coarse paste forms, scraping down sides of bowl as needed. Add 1/4 cup vegetable oil, and 1 teaspoon of the ground peppercorns and continue to process until smooth paste forms.
Brown the meat
Heat 1 tablespoon vegetable oil and ground meat in a large Dutch oven over medium heat; cook, breaking up meat with wooden spoon, until it just begins to brown, drain fat and transfer to a bowl.
Sear paste and bring it all together
Without wiping out the Dutch oven, add remaining 1 tablespoon vegetable oil and spice paste from the food processor and cook, frequently stirring, until paste darkens and oil begins to separate from the paste, about 2 to 3 minutes.
Gently pour tofu with broth and scallions into the Dutch oven, followed by hoisin, sesame oil, and reserved ground meat. Cook, stirring gently and frequently, until dish comes to a low simmer, 2 to 3 minutes. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed.
Whisk water and cornstarch together in small bowl. Add cornstarch mixture to Dutch oven and continue to cook, frequently stirring, until thickened, 2 to 3 minutes longer.
Serve with rice.