New year, new you. OK, that’s not really true, but January at least feels like a good time to reset your life or improve yourself. Sure, you can attempt to exercise more or promise yourself that you’ll save money, but those goals (while worthy) aren’t especially fun. Luckily, there’s one new year’s resolution that is good for you and a good time: Expanding your culinary horizons.
There are tons of new year’s resolutions perfect for home cooks: cooking outside your own culture, learning to work with new proteins, eating more plant-based meals or figuring out how to cook a favorite restaurant dish. And there’s one recipe that ticks all of those boxes (and more): mapo tofu.
If tofu has a reputation for being bland, this spicy fragrant recipe, which also uses plenty of ginger, garlic and black bean garlic sauce for extra flavor, dismisses that notion. Frequently found at some of the best Chinese spots in America, mapo tofu is a popular Szechuan dish, which means it packs plenty of heat courtesy of Lao Gan Ma, a classic Chinese chili sauce.
Variations on this dish will use minced beef or pork, but this one swaps that out for mushrooms, making it vegetarian-friendly.
To make it, start by rehydrating an ounce of dried mushrooms, and be sure to save the water. Then heat a wok over high heat and add your aromatics. After those are fragrant, add in the mushrooms and soy sauce for about 5 minutes. Then, deglaze the pan and create a sauce base using the black bean garlic sauce and mushroom-garlic mixture. Next, add the mushroom water and tofu and thicken the sauce using cornstarch. Serve the mapo tofu with rice, green onions and a side of Lao Gan Ma, so people at the table can adjust the dish to their preferred level of spiciness.
Once you master this dish, you’ll realize that there is a lot you can do with tofu, and you’ll never think of this popular protein as tired and bland again. And hey, who knows, you can then take the meatless skills you learn by making mapo tofu and apply it to these other vegetarian dinner dishes.
1 ounce dried mushrooms (preferably half shiitake and half wood ear)
1 bunch green onions
2 tablespoons peanut or coconut oil
2 cloves garlic, smashed to a paste
2 thumb-size pieces of ginger, peeled, thickly sliced
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon dry vermouth
1 tablespoon black bean garlic sauce
1 package (about 1 pound, sizes vary) soft tofu, cubed into about pingpong-ball-size pieces
2 tablespoons cornstarch
Toasted sesame seed oil
Cooked rice (preferably jasmine)
Roasted sesame seed oil
Lao Gan Ma
Roasted soybeans, peanuts or Marcona almonds, optional
Cover mushrooms in a small bowl with hot water by about 1 inch; add more if needed to just keep covered.
Allow to soak until mushrooms are soft, about 20 minutes.
Drain, straining and reserving the soaking water.
Squeeze mushrooms dry; chop roughly.
Slice whites of the green onions in half lengthwise. Slice greens crosswise into rings as thin as possible; reserve for garnish.
Heat wok or saute pan over medium heat; add peanut oil, garlic, ginger and whites of onions; cook until fragrant but not burned, 1-2 minutes.
Add mushrooms and soy sauce.
Cook over high heat until mushrooms are golden brown and liquid mostly evaporates, about 5 minutes.
Pour mixture into a bowl; reserve.
Return pan to medium heat; deglaze by carefully adding about 1 tablespoon each mushroom water and the vermouth and scraping up all browned bits.
Add black bean garlic sauce and reserved mushroom-garlic mixture; heat on high until bubbling.
Carefully add 1/2 cup mushroom soaking water and tofu, keeping cubes intact.
Spoon sauce over tofu, then turn heat to low; cook, 5 minutes.
Taste and add soy sauce as desired, then keep bubbling.
Pour about 2 tablespoons mushroom soaking water into a small bowl; whisk in the cornstarch until you have a milky consistency. (Add more cold water, if needed.)
Drizzle slurry around edges of sauce as needed to thicken as desired, stir well to incorporate.
Remove from heat, then drizzle sparingly with sesame oil.
Serve with rice, reserved greens of the green onions, lemon, soy sauce, Lao Gan Ma and soybeans or nuts to taste.
This recipe by Louisa Chu originally appeared in The Chicago Tribune.