Thursday, January 2, 2014

Spicy Tofu with Beef and Szechuan Peppercorns

Magic beans. I think that's what I thought of Szechuan (also spelled Sichuan) peppercorns. They were mythical spices from faraway lands that only food magazines and fancy food bloggers somehow managed to acquire. I pictured having to secret some of them through customs. Which of course, first requires a trip to China, which I have been lucky enough to visit, but am still paying my bank account back a year and a half later. So yes, magic beans, something in my fantasies but out of my depth.

Enter 37 Cooks, which has been a fun community with which to be engaged from the start, and this recent Spice House challenge. A chance to cook with upscale, quality spices of my choice? Intriguing. Wait, the Spice House carries SZECHUAN PEPPERCORNS? Sign me up NOW!

These peppercorns are a wonderful way to bring the exotic -- and indeed, the mysterious and exciting -- to your home kitchen. The peppercorns cause a mild tingling or popping on your tongue and the roof of your mouth, while at the same time adding a delicious umami. Certainly, this yummy dish is worth making with regular peppercorns. It's that good, and the other quality ingredients, some found only at Asian markets, make it feel fresher and more authentic than almost all American takeout.

But it's the tingle that tickles my fancy, I admit, and makes me and the dinner I cook feel downright magical. Magic beans, for sure, though sadly, no beanstalk is included.

Spicy Tofu with Beef and Szechuan Peppercorns
by Kate
adapted from Martha Stewart Living 

1 1/3 cups hot water
1 teaspoon Spice House Szechuan peppercorns
3 Tablespoons vegetable oil
6 ounces ground beef
1 teaspoon peeled, minced ginger
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 Tablespoon fermented black beans (available at Asian markets)
1/4 cup Szechuan chile bean sauce (available at Asian markets)
1 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons low-sodium soy sauce
16 ounces medium or firm tofu, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
Salt to taste
2 green onions, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
1 1/2 Tablespoons cornstarch, dissolved in 3 Tablespoons water
Steamed rice

Bring a kettle with at least 1 1/3 cups water to a boil and set aside, keeping the water warm until needed.

Bring your wok to a medium heat and add the Szechuan peppercorns. Toast the peppercorns for about 3 minutes, or until slightly darkened, tossing them constantly to prevent scorching. Remove them to plate to cool, then either use a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder to grind the toasted spice.

Bring the heat up on the wok to high. Add vegetable oil, then the ground beef, using a spoon to break up the meat into small pieces.

When the beef is cooked through (about 2-3 minutes), add the ginger, red pepper flakes, fermented beans and chile bean sauce. Continue cooking on high for another 2-3 minutes. The meat and oil should both take on a red color.

Stir in sugar, soy sauce and tofu. Stir gently and shake the wok to mix in the tofu without breaking it up.

Pour in the 1 1/3 cup of hot water, and bring the mixture to a boil. Continue cooking over high heat, stirring and gently shaking, until the tofu absorbs most of the flavorful liquid.

Taste the sauce and add salt or more sugar, if desired. Throw in the green onions and stir. Next, stir in the cornstarch slurry to thicken the sauce, which will be on the thinner side, more like a soup than a gravy.

Lastly, stir in the ground, toasted peppercorns. Serve immediately atop rice.

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