Spicy Garlic Eggplant and Tofu

The weather has been a beast here this week. It has been as hot and humid as Satan’s armpit, the kind of weather where your window AC seems to churn the heavy air rather than  actually cool it. We’ve eaten a few of those cold olives and sliced tomatoes and bread and cheese suppers which I think are really lovely in the summer when tomatoes are sweet and juicy and raw or barely cooked vegetables are crisp and tender. Tacos of course required a little cooking, but not a lot. Salsa, slaw, and ice cream for dessert were fresh and light.

While the weather was still hot this weekend, I had worked a long day and  felt like something savory and substantial. I had picked up a handful of slim violet Asian eggplants at the farmers market earlier in the week without a plan for how to use them and decided to quickly wok cook them with a spicy garlicky sauce.  Eggplant can feel really savory and satisfying, soaking up whatever sauce they are cooked in.They are really one of my favorite things to eat. Combined with spicy sauce made with some Asain pantry staples, fresh soft tofu and fragrant Jasmine rice, the meal  was cooked and I was away from the stove in about 20 minutes.

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Spicy Garlic Eggplant and Tofu

1 tablespoon fish sauce*

2 tablespoons dark soy sauce

3 tablespoons gochujang (Korean red pepper paste)

1 tablespoon brown sugar

1 cup water

1 tablespoon corn starch

¼ cup water

oil

6 cloves garlic

4 scallions

4 Hungarian wax or Banana wax peppers

3 Asian eggplants

14 ounce package soft tofu

toasted sesame oil

Hot cooked rice

Mix the fish sauce, soy sauce, gochujang, sugar, and water and whisk together until everything is smooth.  Mix the cornstarch and water in another small bowl.

Thinly slice the garlic cloves. Chop the scallions into ½ inch pieces. Slice the peppers in half lengthwise, deseed, and slice them into thin slivers.

Remove the stem end from the eggplant, slice them in half lengthwise, and them chop the halves into 1 inch pieces. Remove the tofu from the package, drain, and cut into 1 inch cubes.

In a large wok or skillet, heat a couple of teaspoons of oil over medium heat until it shimmers. Add the garlic, scallions and peppers into the oil and stir constantly, cooking until they begin to soften. Add the eggplant and continue to stir. Cook the eggplant until the skin turns from purple to brown and the eggplant begins to soften, about 5-10 minutes. Take care not to burn the vegetables; if they begin to brown, lower the heat and add a small pinch of salt. The salt will help the eggplant release some of their water and help keep it from sticking. Gently stir the tofu cubes into the eggplant. Pour the sauce mixture in and stir. Cover and bring the sauce up to a simmer. Simmer for 2-3 minutes, just to infuse the eggplant and tofu with its flavor. Pour the cornstarch slurry over the sauce and stir. Bring it back to a simmer so that the cornstarch thickens the sauce. Drizzle with toasted sesame oil and stir. Serve over hot cooked long grain rice.

*For a completely vegetarian recipe, substitute another tablespoon of soy sauce for the fish sauce

*For and even spicier Sichuan-inspired version, substitute 1 tablespoon of Sichuan chili bean paste for 1 tablespoon of the gochujang and add a pinch of Sichuan peppercorns.

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Dark Chocolate Pots

Let’s just say, hypothetically, that you were invited to dinner at a friend’s house and you say “what can I bring?” and it ends up that you’re bringing dessert. And then let’s just say, for example, that you had bought a bag of lemons and were planning to make a lemon tart, but then the crumb crust that you put in the oven while your dear spouse is taking a nap on a Saturday afternoon starts leaking butter into the bottom of the oven and billowing smoke sending you running into the hallway with a towel to frantically wave under the fire alarm in the direction of the kitchen window that you flung open so that it doesn’t go off and wake everyone up. And then just say you are totally out of ingredients to make the crust again and your totally fed up with crusts anyway and are completely over pastry in general and don’t feel like going to the grocery store but are still on the hook for dessert in a couple of hours. What is one to do? Hypothetically, you know. Ahem.

Chocolate Cream Pots

serves 4

– 1 cup heavy cream

– 6 ounces dark chocolate (I used 72%)

– 2 egg yolks

– 2 tablespoons raw sugar

– 1 tablespoon strong coffee or espresso

– 1 tablespoon rum

– 1 1/2 tablespoons butter

– tiny pinch of cayenne pepper

– sweetened whipped cream*

Chop the chocolate into little bits. Heat the cream in a heavy bottomed pan until it comes to a simmer. Remove the pan from the heat and pour in the chocolate; let the chocolate sit in the cream for a minute or two and then whisk together until dark and smooth. Beat the two egg yolks together with the sugar and then pour a little of the hot cream into the eggs to heat them up. Put the pan back over low heat and whisk the egg mixture back in. Heat until the faintest wisps of steam begin to rise, stirring the whole time; it should only take a couple of minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the coffee, rum, butter, and cayenne, whisking to melt the butter and blend everything into a silky smooth custard.

Pour the hot custard into small bowls, espresso cups, or ramekins (I used little jam jars) and allow it to cool. Because this is such a rich dessert, it only takes a small amount to satisfy; and because of this richness, it’s best not served cold, but at a softer, silkier room temperature.

Top with a generous drift of sweetened whipped cream. *I whipped the cream with sugar and a splash of rum and vanilla extract. The contrast of airy vanilla scented cream and meltingly truffle-like chocolate is heavenly.

Hot and Sour Soup- a Visual Guide

After the last post I wrote about hot and sour soup, I realized that it might be helpful to do a little visual aid. I introduced three relatively unusual ingredients that are usually found in Asian markets, often in packaging that doesn’t have the English names prominently displayed. One of my friends said she hadn’t ever heard of the mushrooms or lily buds before and had no idea what they looked like. I know I have spent plenty of time staring blankly at a shelf full of unidentifiable brown oddly shaped vegetation next to more brown oddly shaped vegetation looking for that one thing I need for a recipe.

So, when stocking your pantry for hot and sour soup, here is the line up:

These dried mushrooms are the earthy flavor base for the soup. They are intensely, flavorful and add richness and depth to whatever you put them in. Rehydrate them in hot water for about twenty minutes to soften the caps. Snip the tough stems off before adding the mushrooms to soup. I always keep a bag of both  dried shiitake and porcini mushrooms; I use them in risotto, meatballs, winter stews and pasta sauces. They are indispensable in my pantry.

Lily buds, or golden needles as they are sometimes called, are the buds of Tiger lilies. They add a floral, musky flavor to the soup. They will need to be soaked in hot water for 20 to 30 minutes. After they have been soaked, check the stem end to see if it is still hard; if so, trim the very tip end off and throw it away.

Finally, there is the attractively named wood ear mushroom, sometimes called Chinese black fungus or cloud ear fungus. It grows in little frills on the trunks of trees. It is used less for its flavor than the crunch it adds to the mostly soft textures in the soup. I usually buy it dried already cut into strips, although I’ve also seen it sold whole.

As with all dried foods and spices, I keep them in an airtight container in a dark cabinet. Stored like this, they will keep for a long time.

Starve a fever, feed a cold, and Hot and Sour Soup allergies?

I don’t know if it’s because of the unusually mild winter we’ve had this year, but we have been just sucker-punched by allergies this year. It’s just been non-stop sneezing, sniffling, congestion, and dark circles under puffy eyes for the last several weeks. My most irritating symptom has been that my right eyelids have been constantly twitching unless I take allergy meds, and Scott’s has been a nagging sore throat.

Chicken soup is a lot of people’s idea of the perfect anodyne for illness, but when we’re under the weather we both crave fortifyingly spicy Asian soups like Thai tom yum with lemongrass, Vietnamese pho with sriracha and chiles, or Chinese hot and sour soup with vinegar and white pepper. Hot and sour is especially good in the winter; maybe because it’s a bit thicker than the clear broths of tom yum and pho, it seems to stick to your ribs on a cold night. I have always had hot and sour as a first course soup in restaurants, but this home-made version is a meal in and of itself. I recommend eating it in your comfiest and least flattering pajamas.

This recipe might be a little intimidating at first because of the exotic ingredients, but it is really just pantry cooking. I get the dried mushrooms and lily buds at an Asian market and keep them all together in a container (they keep indefinitely) like an emergency hot and sour soup kit for next time I’m in need. Since you only need a few each time, a package of dried mushrooms will be enough to make a year’s worth of soup. Vinegar, soy sauce, and canned bamboo shoots are all things you’ll have in your pantry if you ever cook Chinese food.  And I buy a few thin-sliced lean pork chops, use one for the soup, and freeze the rest individually for next time. I always have eggs and chicken broth around so tofu is usually the only thing I need to buy fresh.

The dried shiitake mushrooms can often be found in regular supermarkets, so if you have trouble finding the wood ears and lily buds, just add a few more shiitake to the soup and skip the harder to find ingredients until you happen run across them. I love all of the elements of this soup, but the earthy meaty richness of the shiitake is an essential element to me.

Hot and Sour Soup

– 3 ounces lean pork, diced small, or ground pork

– Vegetable oil to fry pork, about 1 teaspoon

– 5 dried shiitake mushrooms

– 2 tablespoons dried wood ear mushrooms (also called black Chinese fungus)

– 8-10 dried lily buds (also called golden needles)

– Boiling water to rehydrate mushrooms and lily buds (about 2 cups)

–  1/2 cup sliced bamboo shoots, drained and cut into strips

– 3 tablespoons rice vinegar

– 1 tablespoon cider vinegar

– 2 tablespoons soy sauce

– 4 ounces firm tofu, sliced into strips

– 2 tablespoons cornstarch

– 3 1/2 cups chicken broth

– 1 egg, beaten

– 1 teaspoon fresh ground white pepper (more or less, to taste)

– sliced scallions

Pour boiling water over the dried shiitake, wood ear mushrooms, and lily buds and allow them to rehydrate for 20 minutes. Drain, reserving about 1 cup of the water. Some shiitake mushrooms are a little gritty, so if you notice that sediment has settled to the bottom, strain it through a fine sieve or coffee filter.

Trim the tough stems from the shiitake mushrooms and then slice them into thin slivers. Cut the lily buds in half and pull them apart into long shreds. Set the mushrooms, lily buds, strips of bamboo shoots and tofu aside.

Measure and mix the vinegars and soy sauce into a small bowl or ramekin. Beat the egg in a small bowl too. Stir the cornstarch into the cooled reserved soaking water.

A note about the cornstarch: the thickness of the soup is a matter of personal preference. The thickness of the soup can adjusted but it’s a good idea to start small and work thicker a teaspoon at a time after the soup has simmered and thickened. I’ve given amounts for a lightly thickened soup. If you want to add more, mix a teaspoon of water at a time with a splash of cold water and stir it into the soup until it’s thick enough. If you have arrowroot, it is actually a better thickener for this application since it stands up to acid and heat better than cornstarch, but it’s less common, so I’ve called for cornstarch instead.


Once you have your mis-en-place in place (ha) fry the pork in about a teaspoon of oil in a wok or pot over medium high heat until it begins to brown. Lower the heat and add in the mushrooms, lily buds, tofu, bamboo shoots, and vinegar mixture. Stir in the chicken broth and bring everything to a simmer. Stir in the water and cornstarch mixture; as the soup returns to a simmer, the cornstarch will thicken it. Now is the time to decide if you want to thicken the soup a little more. If so, add the cornstarch slurry a teaspoon at a time, simmering between additions until it’s thick enough. Once you’re happy with the consistency, mix in the pungent white pepper.

With the soup at a low simmer, pour the egg in a thin stream into the soup while stirring everything in a circle. The egg will cook instantly, making white ribbons throughout the liquid (this is the same way you make an egg drop soup). Turn the heat off right away.

Ladle into big bowls and sprinkle thin slivers of scallions over the top.