June 14, 2008

Cooking with Science: Ma-Po Tofu

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

— Robert A. Heinlein
Time Enough for Love, 1973

It's Saturday and I'm being domestic today.

I've written before about LL and my approaches to cooking. LL is an artist; she never really measures anything and uses recipes as a vague guide at most. I, on the other hand, am a scientist. I experiment, make observations, and when I've hit on the perfect combination of ingredients I reproduce the result by repeating the process the same time, every time. I don't follow recipes so much as protocols.

In this vein, I have been conducting experiments these past couple of months to produce the perfect ma-po tofu. I am pleased to say that I feel that I have done it, and I'm going to place my protocol directly into the public domain. I would consider publishing in a refereed journal, but this is far too important a milestone to be locked away in some limited-access publication that would be read only by specialist ma-po tofuologists.

Ground pork (4 oz.)
Firm tofu (12 oz., cut into .5" cubes)
Frozen peas (1 cup) don't use canned; they can turn into green mush!
Oyster mushrooms, fresh (8 oz., chopped coarsely)
Chicken broth (1/2 cup)
Green onions (3, sliced) do not substitute regular onions!
Garlic (3 cloves, minced)
Ginger, fresh (3/4 tsp., minced) do not substitute dried ginger!
Rice vinegar (2 tbsp.)
Soy sauce (2 tbsp.)
Black bean sauce (3/4 tbsp.)
Chili paste (3/8 tbsp.)
Ground red pepper (1 tsp.)
Cornstarch (1 tsp., dry)
Cornstarch (1 tbsp. dissolved in 1.5 tbsp. water)

Combine ground pork, rice vinegar and dry corn starch in a bowl. Cover and set aside.

Mix soy sauce, black bean sauce, chili paste, ground red pepper, ginger, and garlic in another bowl.

In a wok, heat 1 tbsp. of canola oil over medium-high heat. Add ground pork mixture and stir-fry for 3-4 minutes. Add green onions and cook for an additional 2-3 minutes until the pork is evenly cooked.

Add ingredients from the second bowl. Continue cooking for another 2 minutes.

Add tofu, peas and oyster mushrooms. Stir and cook for 2 minutes taking care not to mash the tofu, then add chicken broth.

When the mixture comes to a constant boil (e.g., when you stir it, it comes back to a boil immediately) add the cornstarch dissolved in water. Stir thoroughly but don't mash the tofu (best way: insert a wooden spoon at the edge of the mixture, then flip it over again and again). Continue cooking for 5 minutes; sauce will thicken appreciably.

Remove from heat and allow to stand for 10 minutes to cool. Put it into a bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

When ready to serve over rice, heat until piping hot (NOT IN A MICROWAVE OVEN). The time in the refrigerator allows the flavors to blend.

Yield: 4-6 servings, depending on how much you eat. Best served over rice.

If you reproduce this protocol exactly, you'll have the best ma-po tofu ever. It's science. Well, almost. Damned fine dinner, though.

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