Martha Stewart Living (February 2012)
Ever since we first ate Sichuan peppercorns in China last fall, we've been wanting to try them in a dish in our own kitchen. (The American spelling, by the way, is "Szechuan," which we totally don't understand, considering it's pronounced "SESH-wahn." To us, the British/Chinese-English spelling of "Sichuan" makes a lot more sense.)
Whether you spell it "Szechuan," "Sichuan" or, most accurately, "四川," it's a central Chinese province with a great culinary history and lots of spicy cuisine. The Sichuan peppercorns are a special treat -- lemony, sour and peppery, they have a sublte numbing effect on the tongue. We couldn't get enough of them while we were in China.
So we were excited to see this Spicy Tofu with Beef and Szechuan Peppercorns in last month's Martha Stewart Living. We ordered some peppercorns from the Internet and got to cooking.
Like many stir-fry recipes, this one is very quick. Once you've got all your ingredients in place (and after you've steeped the tofu in hot water for 15 minutes), the whole thing comes together in no time. Plus, it's one-pan cooking, so what's not to love?
In addition to ordering the peppercorns online, we had a little bit of trouble sourcing a couple of the ingredients. We couldn't find fermented black beans anywhere, even at Hana Mart, the Asian foods store in our neighbohood (which, admittedly, is Japanese, but they do have ingredients from China, India and Thailand, too). We ended up using black bean sauce that we found in the international aisle of our supermarket. It's mostly fermented black beans anyway, and since the recipe only calls for a tablespoon, we figured it wouldn't make a dramatic difference. We did find some Szechuan chile bean paste, but only at the Asian foods store.
How'd it taste? Really, really great. It's a savory, spicy mix of flavors that is really marvelous.
The one thing we didn't really taste, though, was the teaspoon of pulverized Sichuan peppercorns. We were hesitant to go overboard, unsure of how strong the flavor would be. But it got a little lost in all the other bold tastes.
The mouth-numbing sensation of Sichuan peppercorns can be really off-putting to some people. We happen to love it, so we could have stood some more in this dish. Next time, we'll add more.
Regardless, we're huge fans of this particular stir-fry.
As we'd spell it in the U.S., it's "szenszational."
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes
Yield: Serves 4 with 2 or 3 other dishes
1 block (about 16 ounces) medium or medium–firm tofu
1 generous teaspoon Szechuan peppercorns
3 tablespoons canola oil
6 ounces ground beef or pork (not lean), roughly chopped to loosen
1 teaspoon minced peeled fresh ginger
1/2 teaspoon dried chile flakes (optional)
1 tablespoon fermented black beans
2 to 3 tablespoons Szechuan chile bean sauce
1 generous teaspoon sugar, plus more to taste
2 teaspoons light soy sauce
2 large green onions, cut on diagonal into 1 1/2-inch-long pieces
1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch dissolved in 3 tablespoons water
Bring a kettle of water to a rolling boil. Meanwhile, cut tofu into 1/2-inch cubes, and put into a bowl. Remove kettle from heat; when boiling subsides, pour water over tofu to cover. Let stand for 15 minutes, then drain in a sieve or colander. Transfer tofu to a bowl; set near stove. Measure out 1 1/3 cups water from kettle for sauce, and set next to tofu.
In a large wok or skillet, toast peppercorns over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes, until richly fragrant and slightly darkened (you may see a wisp of smoke). Let cool, then pound with a mortar and pestle or grind in a spice grinder. Set aside.
Heat oil in wok or skillet over high heat. Add ground meat, stirring and mashing into small pieces, until crumbly and cooked through, about 2 minutes. Add ginger, chile flakes, black beans, and chile bean sauce. Cook for about 2 minutes, stirring constantly, until beef is reddish brown and oil is slightly red. Add sugar and soy sauce, stir to combine, and add tofu. Gently stir or give wok a shake to combine without breaking up tofu too much.
Pour in reserved water, and bring to a vigorous simmer. Cook until tofu absorbs flavors of sauce, about 3 minutes.
Taste sauce, and add a pinch of salt and a pinch of sugar, if needed. Add green onions; stir to combine. Stir in cornstarch, then add enough to mixture to thicken sauce. (Traditionally, the sauce should be more soupy than gravy-like.) Sprinkle in the ground peppercorns, give mixture one last stir, and transfer to a serving bowl. Serve immediately with rice.