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.