There’s an unassuming red-brick block of a building not too far from my house that used to be a pizza joint, then a family restaurant; it blurred into the scenery once we’d lived here for a while. A friend whose opinion I trust implicitly on matters of what to eat brought it back to my attention after the sign changed to neon red and fantastic-looking.
Now it’s a Chinese place, and our default choice to celebrate report cards or the last day of school, where we bring friends who are from out of town, or when it is a Wednesday and I’d rather not cook. The routine is set; always ask for chili sauce right away, and always order enough for leftovers.
It was a collection of those leftovers that got me hitched to the combination of tofu, greens and chilis. At home, when I do feel like cooking, I make two sauces – one my version of their aforementioned chili, spiked with both fresh and dried, and aromatic with garlic; the other a Cantonese scallion-ginger-garlic slurry that looks like a murky, muted tangle, but tastes brackish, green and electric.
The tofu and both the sauces benefit from an overnight rest in the fridge, so in a perfect scenario I prep everything the day before. More often, I make a decent batch of the sauces whenever impulse strikes, as they keep well and I am forever finding them useful. (The chili oil is fast friends with eggs, and the scallion sauce a classic partner to chicken, poached or roasted). Then, on a whim, I’ll pick up some tofu on the way home, give it 30 minutes of marinating on the counter alongside the sauces as they warm up, then blister the tofu and greens, and eat shortly thereafter.
After its bath and fry-up, the tofu is gilded and caramelized at its corners. Cut some in fat chunks and some in slices for a collection of textures on the plate. The two sauces bring suppleness, piquancy and a grassy sweetness, and the greens a watery crunch. Serve the dish with the tofu sizzling and the sauces cool for contrast. Or, leave everything to rest together so the curd absorbs the sauces as they mingle. Chilled and boxed up, it’s a sturdy candidate for picnics, which is to say, it’s ideal for right about now.
Seared tofu with two sauces
Serves 4 to 6
For the chili oil
- 20 cloves of garlic, about 2 heads, peeled
- 2 teaspoons medium-grained kosher salt, divided
- 1 1/2 cups neutral oil, divided
- 14 fresh red chilis
- A 2-inch piece of cinnamon stick
- 1 star anise
- 3 ounces dried red pepper flakes, Sichuan preferred
- 4 teaspoons tamari or coconut aminos
- 3/4 teaspoon cane sugar or brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons sesame oil, black preferred
- 1/4 cup sesame seeds
For the scallion sauce
- 2 1/2-inch piece of ginger, peeled
- 3 garlic cloves, peeled
- 1 large bunch scallions, trimmed, white and green parts sliced thinly, about 2 cups
- 3/4 cup neutral oil
- 2 teaspoons tamari or coconut aminos
- 1 tablespoon unseasoned rice vinegar
- Medium-grained kosher salt, as needed
For the tofu and to serve
- 2 14-ounce packages firm tofu
- 2 tablespoons cane sugar
- 2 teaspoons tamari or coconut aminos
- 2 tablespoons neutral oil, plus more for the pan
- A good pinch medium-grained kosher salt
- 8 baby bok choy or 2 cups snow pea sprouts or Chinese broccoli
Make the chili oil. In a mortar and pestle, pound the garlic cloves with 1 teaspoon salt to a coarse paste. (Alternatively, push the garlic through a press into a bowl or grate with a microplane. Sprinkle on salt. Smush garlic and salt against the side of the bowl with the back of a spoon until pulverized.) Scrape garlic into a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan, then cover with half the oil. Set pan over medium-low heat and gently fry, stirring periodically and adjusting the heat as necessary to warm the garlic until tender and golden, 20 to 25 minutes or so.
While the garlic is on the stove, stem the fresh chilis and slice thinly. Transfer the chilis to the mortar and pestle and grind with the remaining 1 teaspoon salt. (Or, mince with a knife and smudge with the back of a spoon as done before.)
Once the garlic is cooked, introduce the chilis to the pan, along with the cinnamon and anise. Stir and simmer until the chilis are cooked and translucent, 8 minutes or so. Pour in the remaining oil, along with the chili flakes. Let stand on heat for 1 minute, then pull off the stove and stir in the tamari, sugar, sesame oil and seeds. Let cool to room temperature. Discard the cinnamon and star anise. Check for seasoning, then transfer to a clean jar. Use right away, or cover and refrigerate until needed.
Move on to the scallion sauce. Using a microplane or similar rasp, finely grate the ginger and garlic into a medium, heat-safe bowl. Fold in the scallions. Heat the oil in a small, heavy bottom saucepan over medium heat until shimmering but not smoking. Carefully pour the heated oil over the scallions. Let stand 30 seconds, then stir in the tamari, rice vinegar, and a couple generous pinches of salt. You’ll need a surprising amount. Cool, taste for seasoning, then transfer to a jar. Cover and refrigerate until it’s time to eat.
For the tofu, drain each block and wrap in a double-thickness of lint-free kitchen towel or paper towel. Press tofu dry, then portion each block as you wish, in slices and cubes. In a shallow baking dish, stir together the sugar, tamari, oil and salt. Turn the tofu through the dressing, cover and refrigerate for 1 hour and up to overnight.
Once the tofu has marinated, heat a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet or nonstick pan over medium-high heat. Pour a thin film of oil across the base of the pan. Working in batches as necessary, fry the tofu on all sides until deeply golden, then transfer to a serving plate. Tip the bok choy or greens into the hot pan, along with any remaining marinade. Cook until tender, then add to the serving plate. Spoon the sauces around the tofu and greens, and serve.