Greetings from Ontario, Canada’s Variety Vacationland!
(I just bought this awesome postcard a few days ago, one of several good ones by Canadian Culture Thing)
Things in Vacationland are strikingly similar to RealLifeLand, and primarily consist of reading (A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth), visiting family, swimming, cooking and knitting. I just wrote up this recipe for one of my favourite dishes and figured I might as well share it. I have been known to eat massive amounts of this sort of dish in a good Chinese restaurant, so I’ve been trying to perfect it for several years. This last attempt was particularly good, if I do say so myself, so here it is:
Bronwen’s Sweet and Spicy Szechwan Style Eggplant with Tofu
3 asian eggplants (long and skinny, pale purple)
1 block firm or extra firm tofu
1 red bell pepper
2 inches long piece of fresh ginger
2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup peanut or canola oil, or enough to fill your pan to 1 inch
For sauce (adjust to taste)
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 tbsp sesame oil
4 drops Tabasco or to taste
1/2 cup water, or to taste
1 tbsp rice vinegar (I used Chinkiang black rice vinegar)
about 10 leaves fresh basil, finely slices (roll it up and slice it)
Cut the tofu into slices about 1/2 inch thick, then cut the slices into triangles: stack all the slices up, then make four cuts into the stack – one slice across, one slice up and down, and two diagonals. Hard to explain. I don’t know why the triangles are better, but they are.
Lay the tofu out in one layer on a clean tea-towel (which I used), or paper towel. It fries better when it’s dry.
Cut the eggplants lengthways in half, then lengthways again into quarters. I’ve found that the long pieces give you the best texture, because the insides get yummy and soft without the edges getting dried out. Put them on a tea-towel too, for the same reason.
Fry the tofu (if you’re feeling virtuous, you can skip this step and just add plain tofu to the sauce and eggplant at the end, but this way is yummier). Pour the oil into your pan to a depth of 1 inch. I normally use a wok, but this time I used a cast iron frying pan – I think it makes the flavour better because there is more charring on the eggplant, but it’s a bit more of a pain. Stick a piece of tofu in the oil to test the temperature. Turn the heat on high and keep it there – I was always squeamish about hot frying oil, but if you turn the heat down the oil will soak into the food. High heat is key. Watch it like a hawk and ventilate – have your husband standing by to turn off the smoke alarm! Once the test piece of tofu starts to bubble around the edges, add the tofu to the pan. Try to keep it in a single layer. Fry it, at high heat and without moving it around, for at least five minutes, or until it starts to become visibly golden brown on the bottom. Flip it and repeat (takes a little less time on the second side). Remove the tofu with a slotted spoon and drain it on a clean rag (yes, I’m a hippie), or paper towel.
Fry the eggplant. Drain off some of the oil in the pan if necessary until you have about 1/2 inch left. Keeping the heat on high, place the oblong pieces of eggplant into the pan with one of the the cut (non-skin), side down. Fry (about 5 min?), until the cut side is lightly browned. Turn it so the other cut side hits the pan, and repeat. By this point, the eggplant should be mushy and it should smell sweet. Mushiness is key. Keep the eggplant always in one layer – with a standard cast-iron frying pan I had to do the eggplant in two batches. Remove the cooked eggplant to your absorbent draining surface of choice.
Turn the heat down slightly, and add the red peppers, chopped in one inch squares, and the garlic and ginger, finely chopped, to the pan. It’s important to add the garlic along with everything else, not before, or it will burn. Stir-fry this mixture until the peppers are fairly soft and smell sweet. Add the sauce ingredients, including 1/2 cup water, to the pan. You want there to be an excess of sauciness, because some will be soaked up by the tofu and eggplant when you add it. Wait until the sauce is boiling and cook until slightly thickened – about one minute. Taste the sauce and adjust seasonings, especially spiciness.
Add the fried eggplant pieces and tofu to the pan and cook in the sauce with the peppers until everything is heated through and soaked in sauce. Add the rice vinegar, tasting to adjust seasoning, and the chopped basil, and mix everything up. Serve over rice.