Black Vinegar: and no, I’m not talking about people sourly, uselessly complaining about the Obama administration.

I went back to the Asian grocery yesterday, which is still like Disneyland, if Disneyland smelled like old fish and sold candied eel and red bean ice cream. I needed to pick up a couple of things for Kung Pao tofu, and God only knows that our regular grocery stores won’t have the items I need unless the regular items I need are a)soy sauce and b)whatever that Asian food is that comes in a really tall, divided can and has meat and sauce in the top can and vegetables and noodles in the bottom can. Ew. Ewewewewew.

Besides, I’ll find any reason I can to go to the Asian grocery. I always leave with some awesomely bizarre foods and the tab has never been more than $30, even when I get multiple bags full of booty.

Anyway, yesterday some of my haul included: coconut soda, whole water chestnuts, mung bean threads (essential in spring rolls), rice paper wrappers, sambal oelek (spicy chili paste), black vinegar, and sichuan peppercorns. There were some other items that I’ve already forgotten, but will remember when I clean my pantry and am like “wtf is this?” but can’t remember what the English title was on the shelf, and all the writing on the jar is in Korean, so I end up giving it to the local food bank (because everyone knows that poor people have infinite uses for lemongrass jelly!).

I also stopped at Wal-Mart (booo! hissss!) to see if they had candied cherries yet. I’ve been checking once a week, since they’re usually the first ones to get them whenever the seasons start vaguely changing in the direction of “holiday time.” Little shards of my soul break off every time I have to enter a Wal-Mart, but I really, really need candied cherries so I can make chocolate covered cherries soon. It takes a month or so for the fondant to melt inside of them, and I’d like to have them appropriately aged by Thanksgiving.

But back to my original story…I wanted to make Kung Pao tofu for one of our two meatless days this week. We’ve been eating meatless twice a week for a while now, and it’s been great. One day of eating vegetarian per week has the same effect on carbon footprint as eating only local foods. Two days just increases the environmental benefit to compensate for both Chris and myself occasionally eating imported food (like, oh, Asian grocery). Give it a shot sometime, I challenge you. Once a week is all it really takes to make a difference.

Kung Pao is a favorite in my family, mostly because my mom would always order it when we had Chinese food. She’d look away and you could spear 3-4 pieces of chicken off of her plate without her noticing, because the vegetables, meat, and nuts are all pretty much the same size. That’s the key in Kung Pao–cut all of your pieces the exact same size. Here’s a simple recipe for Kung Pao (Gong Bao), be it tofu, chicken, beef, pork, or shrimp. You decide the protein, then follow some basic steps and it’s almost indistinguishable from good Chinese takeout.

Simple, healthy, authentic Kung Pao tofu (serves 3-4):

1 lb tofu (or protein of your choice)
1/2 medium onion
2 small or 1 medium zucchini
1 large carrot
1 stick celery
2 scallions (white and light green part only)
1 T ginger, minced
1 T garlic, minced
10 oriental chiles (seeds removed if you like a milder spiciness)
2 T peanut oil (roasted peanut oil if you’ve got it)
1/2 C peanuts or cashews

2 T light soy sauce
2 T dark soy sauce (has a deep molasses undertone–found at Asian grocery)
3 T black vinegar (can substitute red wine vinegar if necessary)
1.5 T cornstarch
5 T water
1.5 T sugar
1 T sesame oil

Preparation: Dice all of your vegetables and protein to roughly the same size (1/2″ by 1/2″). Combine all sauce ingredients, stir, and set aside. Season protein with salt and pepper. Heat 1 T oil in a medium-sized pan til almost smoking. Add ginger and garlic and saute quickly, careful not to burn. Immediately after it becomes aromatic (10 seconds?) add the protein and saute until cooked through, but not overcooked. This should take no more than 1-2 minutes.

In a large pan, heat remaining 1 T oil. When shimmering, add carrots and chiles and saute for 1 minute. Then add onions and celery, and saute for 2 minutes. Finally, add zucchini and saute for 1 additional minute. When the pan appears dry (no oil or vegetable juices visible), add the sauce all in one dump. Have water nearby in case the sauce thickens too quickly–you don’t want it to dry up and burn. Add water as necessary. Stir the sauce and vegetables together to coat, then add protein and stir gently to coat.

Top with nuts and scallions, and serve over white rice.

This is a really healthy option, given the number of vegetables and the lean protein found in tofu. And its pungent, sweet/sour/spicy tang is a powerful punch of flavor. You can amp up or tone down the spiciness as you wish by reducing peppers, or just removing their seeds. A teaspoon of whole sichuan peppercorns wouldn’t go amiss in this recipe either. And you can change the vegetables for whatever is in season or on hand. And honestly? This comes together so quickly, you could easily do it on a Sunday afternoon before settling in for a football game. And it’d probably do wonders for your hangover.

22 thoughts on “Black Vinegar: and no, I’m not talking about people sourly, uselessly complaining about the Obama administration.”

  1. You mean grass jelly, don't you? The beverage that you chew! It's not lemongrass in there. It's the main complaint I have with Asians – their beverages have too much shit that you have to chew.

    Anonymous, you fucking pussy. Obama hasn't gotten our asses attacked by terrorists, and actually has more than a high school education. Go nibble on chode somewhere else.

  2. Heather, you're fantastic. One of my favorites. I hope your baby comes out as sarcastic and beautiful as you are.

    And yeah, I saw that grass jelly. Creeptacular. Plus I saw some other whack food like puffed eel skin and shrimp head soup in frozen balls. Weird. I'd be a terrible Asian.

  3. I would love to learn to cook with the tofu, but it feels like it is probably harder than it looks. I feel like it would be quite the stretch to say Bush got us attacked by terrorists… I guess I can ask the Taliban when I get to A-stan with my closest 40,000 friends.

  4. Ah, Anonymous wuss. Thank you for your anonymous douchebaggery. Always fun.

    I always feel dirty and confused in our asian grocery, which causes me to rush through the shopping experience, and therefore I never end up with as much cool stuff. I think I need a list next time. But cheap yes, and weird for sure.

  5. Wow, do I relate to your story. I love my Asian grocery store, although the smell isn't exactly roses.
    I'm so intrigued with all the jars of pastes and potions and am forever picking up something, just for fun.
    I've never had Kung Pao anything, but I think I'm starting with this recipe.

  6. Awesome, a food blog where people are arguing about politics. I'm going to head over to Little Green Footballs and Crooks and Liars and post me up some recipes!

    The Asian markets near me all have such different personalities. One of them has awesomely huge bunches of herbs for cheap, but smells like fish ass, another is sparking with a French bakery and has every vegetable you can imagine except the herbs, and the biggest one is just like the Mexican grocery I like, minus the tortilla chips.

    Oh, and I'm definitely making this soon.

  7. thanks to tastespotting, i stumbled upon your MARVELOUS blog. from here on out, i will be obsessively checking for new posts. seriously, this is great stuff. all of it.


  8. When my teenager was 2 yrs old we lived across the street from an Asian grocery and bought a lot of cheap veggies there. However, we had to stop taking him there after the day he wouldn't stop shrieking, ' Mommy! No! Not the stinky store!'

  9. Anonymous should take a long walk off a flat Earth.

    Bravo for the meatless days… since I started eating meat again, I've made a point of keeping at least a couple days without (though stock from the freezer has been known to make an appearance).

  10. Look on the bright side – your anonymous was a smarmy and pedantic f'er. My anonymousers like to threaten bodily harm and call me all sorts of creative names…because apparently phrases like "War on Tomatoes" requires personal vindication over the internet? I'd almost be flattered if I had just a BIT more faith in the security of our neighborhood.

    Your kung pao looks awesome, and I love that it's so much healthier than the deep fried nuggets in "red sauce" that I grew up with!

  11. I too ran across this posting via tastespotting (the great thing about tastespotting is that I never know what I'm looking for until I find it there). I made the dish Wednesday evening. While it was still in preparation, I told my daughter about it, who asked me for your link. I forwarded that to her, along with my comments about the vegetables I had used, what type and amounts of chiles I had used etc. My daughter and her husband made it Thursday evening, replacing the celery and zucchini with spinach, mushrooms and red bell pepper. Our leftovers made lunch for the following day; our daughter's leftovers will be dinner again tonight. This is a delightful dish. It also demonstrates that if you keep some basic ingredients in the pantry, you can throw together a reliable yet ever-changing Asian dish. Thanks very much

  12. I'm so glad it worked out well for you guys! I'm virtual-blushing.

    And Tina–I got your black-up right here. Tell your stalkers to bring it. I haven't been in a bar fight since college, but I was a solid lil' scrapper back in the day

  13. I found this blog via tastespotting. I must say, I was disappointed to see your insensitive comment about food banks… even 'poor people' can desire ~exotic foodstuffs~ and care about what they eat. And what of the poor 'Asians' who frequent the foodbank? Your further remark about how you'd make a terrible 'Asian' in the comment section struck me as incredibly insensitive and reductive. Not all people from the continent of Asia have the same cultural traditions; hell, we don't even have similar culinary traditions in a lot of cases. Additionally, speaking about a broader racial category as though it were something to pick up and put down at will really bothered me.

    The recipe looks great– I just wish you had been more sensitive :/

  14. Wha? Really?? This post is offensive to Asians? I read and re-read it and I totally fail to see how that's possible.

    A) Poor people need nutrition, not lemongrass jelly.

    B) I'd be a terrible Asian because I'm weird about food.

    I have to disagree with you, as I don't think either of these are insensitive at all to anybody. But I guess I'll have to ask my friend Asian Doug if he's offended.

    I think this is probably the wrong blog for the easily offended, especially if it's still offending people AFTER I cleaned it up to appeal to a more diverse group of people.

  15. Hello there, I made this for my girlfriend and she now insists I make it at least once a week. I wish i hadn't told her I got it off this blog though because I could have kept up the idea that it was my own recipe and made myself look cool. But all the cool-points go to you (rightly so though!)

    Fantastic recipe and wonderful blog, nice work!!

  16. I am making this tonight – if you happen to receive this comment today sometime I am hoping you can answer my question?

    Maybe this is silly – but the peanuts you use – do you use dry roasted, just regular salted or plain unsalted? LOL. If I don't hear from you I will go with regular salted or or raw cashews as that is what I do have at home. :o) I can't wait to try!

  17. I didn't get to make this the night I left the comment but I did make it tonight and it is AWESOME! I'll be posting about it on my blog and sending people your way for your recipe! Thank you so much!

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