How to Get from Broiled Fish to Sweet & Sour Tofu by Way of Tom Yom Soup

Returning once again to “cooking without a net” and “how to make great food out of what is around the house”, over the last few weeks a series of meals happened which, at least for me, illustrated this wonderfully.

I recently discovered that my not-so-premium local super market has a far better (and cheaper) fish monger than any of the Whole Foods or the HEB Central Market. They frequently have gorgeous, not chemical soaked, sea scallops for less than $15 a pound. They often have 21-25 count shrimp for under $10 a pound. They have the best looking salmon I’ve seen anywhere in Houston. They even have cod loin for what my spoiled New England years thinks of as a reasonable price. They’re also located basically across the street from my church, where I find myself several times a week.

What this means is that I’ve begun to stop in almost every occasion just to see what they have, and even if I don’t need it right away, I buy it. Which means my freezer is now frequently full of fish and shell fish.

Many moons ago, my go-to wow the crowd dish for dinner parties was a poached cod loin served with a mango habanero sauce — which I’d make my simmering fruit and peppers until they dissolved. With the move out of New England in ’07, my access to cheap, high quality cod dried up, and I never found another plump, mild fish that fit into this dish as nicely as the cod.

Then a month ago, I discovered barramundi. Which, if you’ve never had, you should find.

The other week, I also found ripe mangos and some epic Hungarian wax peppers (the latter at the local farmer’s market). This fish is a bit thinner, without being what I’d call a “flat fish”, so rather than poaching I broiled it. I broiled it with the fruit and peppers on top and all around. Once it was all cooked, the oils, fruit and peppers went into the food processor to become a sauce.

There was lots of left over sauce.

A week or so later, I boiled a pound of fresh water 21-25 count shrimp, in their shells, with a little fish sauce. I retained that boiled water, removed the shrimp to an ice water bath and shelled them. The left over sauce went into that broth and got reduced significantly. It was then served with fresh cilantro, rice wine vinegar, the shrimp and glass noodles. It made for an excellent tom yom soup.

After all the shrimp and glass noodles were eaten, there was left over broth.

Two nights ago I put a bag of Trader Joe’s “stir fry veggies” onto a silpat under a 375 degree broiler until they were thawed and dry. I also cubed a block of spongy tofu from CostCo (seriously, this is the best non-silken tofu I’ve ever worked with and you can get three packs very cheaply) and turned it golden in a wide sauté pan of canola and toasted sesame oil. Once golden, the veggies went in and got a little color.

Then the broth went in and the whole thing got dusted with sifted flour and simmered until thickened. This was also served over glass noodles.

Sadly, this is where the left overs gravy train reached its final stop.

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Bubbling Cauldron of Reviving Potion

An example of how to use this physical component in a full blown spell:

Cut two blocks of firm tofu into three sheets each. Lay out flat and press with as much weight as you can get onto them for at least 30 minutes. Uncover and cube each sheet into sixteen.

While your tofu is pressing, get one can of black beans (with the goo) into a food processor or blender along with a generous portion of roasted garlic, vegetable broth and Chinese five spice. Don’t render completely smooth, but try to be sure nearly all the beans are broken up.

Get your wok (or a huge, non-stick skillet, or a huge cast iron skillet you trust to be not sticky) rocket hot and give it a very generous portion of the fire and ice potion. Once hot, augment with more unflavored high heat oil (like safflower) and possibly toasted sesame oil for flavor. Drop the tofu cubes in and keep them moving vigorously until they begin to brown up (in addition to the red oil stain, don’t mistake the one for the other). Splash some soy sauce and cook off the moisture. Splash a big sum of “rooster sauce” and do the same. If the season and your habits allow, do the same with fish sauce. Put the tofu aside in a serving dish.

Add the black bean mixture along with a second can of un-processed beans into the hot wok. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, stir often. Depending on how much broth you added, this may take some time. If you get bored, impatient, or simply want a lot of sauce, use corn starch to thicken before the liquid reduces too far.

Slice a batch of snap peas on the bias and put them on top of the tofu. Pour on the sauce, stir to combine, and serve with rice or noodles.

Have a lot of beverages near to hand — and handkerchiefs.

Dragon’s Breath Stew

What to do with all that napalm sauce I made?

Yet another spicy tofu dish, of course.

Slice a carton of extra firm tofu into 1/2 inch thick sheets and press between two plastic cutting boards with heavy weight for at least an hour.

Put your noodle cooking pot on to boil as you ordinarily would.

In your blender combine two ladles of your napalm with a generous spoonful of dashi miso paste, a handful of garlic cloves, a tablespoon of Chinese five spice, a quarter cup of sugar and two tablespoons of corn starch with two cups of vegetable broth. Obliterate into a smooth liquid.

Remove press and slice tofu into 1/2 inch cubes.

Fire up your wok on your hottest flame. Coat with safflower oil and toasted sesame oil. Brown the tofu cubes.

Open a carton of silken tofu and dump into the wok. Toss vigorously to break up into curdles. As all the water cooks out and pools, transfer to a sieve and back to the heat, repeating until no more water pools out.

Pour the spicy liquid over the tofu and stir occasionally to prevent burning on the bottom and to encourage thickening and evaporation.

Cook a generous portion of rice noodles in your boiling water and drain, do not rinse but immediately portion out — leaving starches on the outside of the noodles helps the sauce to stick, rinsing them makes it slide off into the bottom of your bowl.

When the sauce is quite thick, kill the heat and serve.

Do not breathe near anything flammable for some time.

Szechuan Tofu

John has been shaming me on the recipe posts, so I’ll sneak in two weeks worth of Lenten pot luck dinner recipes and redeem myself, somewhat. Both are vegan (for Lent). I’ll start with tonight’s and work backwards. The first week of Lent’s dish was already posted here.

I LOVE spicy tofu dishes. While I’m not one of those people who wrinkles their nose at tofu, in fact I like it quite a lot, I do kind of insist that frankly, by itself, it tastes like nothing at all. BUT, this just means that it is all the more perfectly prepared to be the canvas for a universe of sauces and preparations. Thick, sticky, dark, sweet and blow your head off spicy just happens to be my favorite. As with any genuine culinary tradition, I have no idea what I’m doing, but like any good wizard or cleric, I know how to put on a good show and fake it.

Keep in mind, these are preparations for a communal meal where a few hundred people show up, so if the quantities seem big, they are — adjust down as you see fit.

Two tubs of firm (not extra firm, too crumbly) tofu, drained. I have seen this dish done with silken tofu, but it requires more finesse than I have. Slice in half such that you have to fairly flat, big rectangles — like a stack of 3×5 note cards. Lay the four rectangles out on something very flat, either plastic cutting boards or the bottom of cookie sheets. Place a second cutting board (or cookie sheet bottom) on top, and then pile on as much weight as you can find. I stack my #8 and #10 cast iron skillets and my #8 Dutch oven (with #8 lid) and that’s just about the minimum I’d use. Press and drain (this is why the cookie sheets have to be upside down, if you use the normal surface the liquid can’t drain off) the tofu for at least 30 minutes. Longer is better. Undo your press and then slide the rectangles into large squares. I usually cut the long way into four strips and then six pieces the short way for a total of 24*4=96 chunks of tofu. This is not actually as much as it seems.

Coarsely chop one good size stalk of lemon grass into pieces you’ll be able to remove easily later.

Put your wok (or other very large vessel that can take big heat) over your hottest heat source (dragon’s abdomens are just about hot enough), add a liberal amount of a high heat oil like canola or peanut and augment with toasted sesame oil (for flavor). When the pan (not the oil) begins to smoke, throw in the tofu and lemon grass. Boil the tofu in the oil, moving frequently, until the tofu just start to shrink, then scoop them out into a sieve of some kind to drain. Pick out all the lemon grass which is probably now rock hard and flavorless. Pour out the excess oil but do not wipe down the wok.

Dice a red onion. Split six Serrano peppers in half the long way. Remove seeds and membranes according to how hot you want your end result to be. The less you remove, the hotter the dish. I took out all of the membrane and seeds and the end result still wasn’t exactly tame. If you are unaccustomed to cooking with hot peppers, maybe try just one pepper the first time, left intact, and ramp up on subsequent occasions if you find you enjoy more heat. Take the long halves and make thin crescents.

In the blender or food processor place four to six big chunks of fresh ginger, peeled, along with dozen or more cloves of roasted garlic, soy sauce, honey, molasses, Chinese five spice, liquid smoke (or smoked spice alternative) and vegetable broth — enough broth so that the result is too thin to be a sticky sauce, but not so thin it will take too long to drive out the water to make it a sticky sauce. Now take a good measuring cup’s worth of tamarind paste and rehydrate it with boiling water. Once soft, push through a screen into the blender (or food processor). Alternatively, have the good sense to buy tamarind paste in a jar that you can just spoon out rather than a block of mashed tamarind with all the seeds and pulp still in it, like I did.

Put the wok back on the dragon’s belly and begin to saute the onion and peppers. Open one can of bamboo shoots and one can of sliced water chestnuts, drain both. Once the onion and pepper begins to make you sneeze violently, I mean, brown up, add the bamboo and water chestnuts. Once the extra water is off the canned veggies, put the tofu back in and pour on the liquid. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Stir or fold occasionally to prevent sticking down at the bottom center of the wok.

Meanwhile prep about half a pound of snow peas and a half dozen green onions. I like to leave the peas whole, with just the tips cut off, and slice the green onion into very thin rings. Get both the white and green from the onion, because both the flavor and texture are quite different.

After the sauce looks like it will be quite thick when cooled, taste it and make any adjustments. If you need more cooking time, add more veggie broth so that it doesn’t get too thick and start to burn. Once the sauce meets your requirements, add the peas and green onions, fold in and immediately remove from the heat source as well as the wok itself into a serving dish. Steamed rice, brown or white, is the obvious accompaniment.