Flash in the Pan: Red Meat Brad goes gaga for tofu
Vail CO, Colorado
VAIL, Colorado ” “Try Van Loc,” Red Meat Brad suggested in an e-mail. “Although I can’t make any recommendations other than the Tofu in Clay Pot, because I’m in so love with it, with mushrooms in a peppery broth. That’s all I ever order.”
Red Meat Brad, aka Brad Tyer, is my editor. He fears no grease, and has been known to sneer at vegans, mock vegetables, and relish the low-grade pleasures of mystery meat. I’d sooner expect the Pope to make a porn movie than hear Red Meat Brad whispering sweet nothings about tofu.
This startling revelation came while I was in Houston, Brad’s hometown, last week for a conference. I had e-mailed him (in Austin, where he’s an editor at The Texas Observer), for advice on good Vietnamese food ” of which Houston’s offerings are known to be world-class.
He recommended several restaurants, but I couldn’t shake the novelty, or the image, of Brad going ga-ga for tofu. I knew it was a story, and a meal, worth pursuing.
At Van Loc, the contents of my clay pot were still boiling when it arrived at my table.
Black pepper was visible to the naked eye, coating large pieces of celery, whole shitake mushrooms and golden chunks of deep-fried tofu, which had no trouble holding their crisp within the hot peppery broth that Brad is in love with.
The menu had warned that this was a spicy dish, and as I took a few tiny sips of the broth I determined that all of the spice came from the black pepper, none from chili peppers. At first this struck me as odd, but then Vietnam is the world’s largest producer (and exporter) of black pepper, so this hardly jeopardized the authenticity of the dish.
The pepper was strong, but the overall affect was subtle, with celery taking a rare turn at center stage, balanced artfully with the mushrooms in the soy sauce based broth. The tofu absorbed the flavors around it, but held its own. Altogether it’s a solid, intriguing and satisfying dish.
The folks at Van Loc were understandably tight-lipped about their amazing recipe, which I too had fallen for. But I was determined to figure it out. After much work in the lab, testing and combining several recipes for similar dishes that I’d found online, I finally got my peppery tofu. And here is the recipe for:
First of all, you don’t need a clay pot to follow this recipe. Having prepared it in both a clay pot and metal cookware, the flavor difference isn’t noticeable. But the clay pot is a nice touch, offering aesthetic as well as comfort points, especially as the weather turns cold. The clay pot holds and radiates heat, like a little fireplace at your table.
For two generous servings, cut a 14-ounce brick of firm tofu into inch by a half-inch chunks. In a pot or wok, heat enough oil (safflower or grapeseed, ideally, or another such heat-tolerant oil) to submerge the tofu. Deep-fry the tofu until it has a golden-brown crisp. Remove, drain, and set aside the crispy tofu chunks.
In your clay pot (or cast-iron skillet, which also holds heat and can be used as a charismatic serving dish), heat a tablespoon of oil and fry 3-6 cloves (depending on their size) of sliced garlic. When the garlic starts to brown and you can smell it, add a medium onion, sliced into rings, a loosely packed cup of shitake mushrooms, and a cup of celery, with the stalks sliced lengthwise and then cut into inch-long sections (two large stalks make about a cup).
While it cooks on medium heat, make a mixture of 1/4 cup soy sauce, 1/4 cup water, two tablespoons rice vinegar, and two tablespoons sugar. Add this sauce to the clay pot or pan, followed by a teaspoon of black pepper. (That’s for normal palates. If you want a stronger, nose-runny version, add two teaspoons black pepper.) Stir, and then add the crispy tofu chunks, so they’re half-submerged in the saucy stir-fry. Put a lid on your pot and cook 10 minutes over medium heat. Serve immediately, placing the still-simmering clay pot or pan on a heat pad on the table.
When I told Red Meat Brad I’d replicated his beloved tofu, his response, true to form, was “Now, can you make that with pork?”
Interestingly enough, as I pieced together various recipes I’d gleaned from the Internet, I did see a version of Clay Pot Tofu that started with browning ground pork.
This is interesting to me because by combining meat and tofu, it removes tofu from the role of meat substitute, and gives it status as a bona fide first-class ingredient.
Other somewhat similar recipes called for oyster sauce, carrots, and chili pepper instead of black pepper. I did not find any others that used celery. That twist is between the folks at Van Loc, you, me, and Red Meat Brad.
As the autumn wears on and I find myself pulling closer and closer to that hot clay pot, I’ll try various combinations of some of these other ingredients. Maybe I’ll substitute bacon for ground pork. Maybe I’ll finish with a green onion garnish. There’s so much work to do.
Ari LeVaux writes a weekly food column for the Vail Daily. E-mail comments about this column to email@example.com.
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