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.


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


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.


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.

Pad Thai

I have travel envy. My sister Grace is on an island in Thailand. She met a friend in Bangkok, arriving just in time for things to heat up politically, and they migrated south to Kho Chang where it’s a little more chill, in temperament if not temperature. She says it is really hot and the food is hotter. Apparently, when she’s not island hopping to find good snorkeling spots or lounging on the beach overlooking the Sea of Siam, she’s eating food on sticks from hawker stalls, fish cakes, fiery green curry, and sweet strong Thai coffee.

I guess if I can’t go to Thailand, then Thailand must come to me. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you

Pad Thai

Don’t be intimidated by the length of the ingredient list; some items may be a little exotic, but they keep well and I use fish sauce and mirin in enough recipes not to begrudge the space it takes in my pantry.


1/2 package of dry rice noodles, soaked and drained

The sauce:

4 teaspoons fish sauce

2 teaspoons mirin

2 teaspoons rice vinegar

1 minced red chili

½ grated piloncillo or 2 teaspoons palm or brown sugar

2 tablespoons tamarind sauce

Everything else:

1/3 cup finely ground roast cashews or peanuts


large handfuls of mung bean sprouts

3 scallions, sliced

3-4 garlic cloves, minced

1 medium hot red chili

1/3 block firm tofu (sliced into strips and pressed between paper towels to remove water)

6 ounces peeled and tailed shrimp

1 egg

handful cilantro leaves, chilis, and coarsely chopped cashews or peanuts

The sauce, I mixed up earlier in the day. I have used a couple of different types of tamarind paste- one the blocks of tamarind that still have all of the seeds and fiber that you have to soak and strain to a ketchup consistency, and TamiCon, a little pot of what looks like tar but is actually  Tamarind Concentrate. Clever name, no? I got it at an Indian grocery store and it will stay good practically forever in my pantry. The pulpy stuff had the nicest sharp tangy molassesy flavor, but made me feel like I was squelching my hands around in the bottom of a swamp. TamiCon is convenient and easy to keep on hand, but with a flatter  more cooked flavor and less texture. So, I’m still looking for my happy tamarind medium.

My brother Israel gave me a great wok for Christmas. The only other wok I’ve owned was basically like cooking in aluminum foil in the shape of a wok which resulted in many bitter tears being shed on my part over scorched food at the bottom and raw food up the sides.  I’m enjoying the process of learning how to really use this great piece of equipment. This recipe is perfect for wok cooking because the vessel’s shape helps keep everything moving and cooking evenly. I’m also discovering what happens when you don’t get the wrist flip right. Fortunately, I keep a lot of paper towels handy.


Before you heat the oil in your wok or pan, make sure you have everything rinsed, diced, chopped, ready to go. The cooking moves quickly once you get started so best not to have to stop midway through to rummage through the fridge for something.  Sauté the  scallions, chili, and garlic in hot oil over medium-high heat for a few seconds until their fragrance is released. Then add a handful of mung bean sprouts and about 4 ounces of firm tofu . A big spoonful of the sauce goes in now to infuse the tofu, then add the shrimp and more of the sauce. Stir or flip (if you dare) to keep everything moving so that it is cooking evenly. Add the noodles. After a couple of seconds, test a noodle for lightly chewy doneness and add a little water if they feel too firm. Pour in any remaining sauce. Rice noodles can get really gummy if they are overcooked, so stay vigilant. Make a little empty space in the bottom of the pan and  crack the egg into the empty spot, quickly scrambling it and then stirring it into the rest of the ingredients. Sprinkle the finely ground cashews or peanuts over and toss to coat. Take the pan off the heat and tumble on the cilantro, remaining sprouts, and dust with chopped nuts.