With its bold spicing, sparked with fresh green onions and creamy tofu, Ottolenghi’s Black Pepper Tofu, from his cookbook, Plenty, quickly made its way into our household rotation, and is an especially warming dish to have on these cool spring evenings. At first glance, the 150 grams of butter on the original list of ingredients (or 11 tablespoons in the US version) does give one pause. Ottolenghi is known for his way with combining flavors, however butter with tofu seemed, well, just strange. After mulling it over, the barbecued shrimp at Pascale’s Manale eventually came to mind. We’d had it once long ago in New Orleans — rather than barbecued, unshelled shrimp are cooked in a similar mix made up of copious amounts of black pepper, butter and garlic, the pleasure of it as much in the sauce as in the unpeeling of the butter drenched shrimp.
Still, the butter did seem extreme and many variations have appeared recently (here, here and here). Instead of butter, I use dry sherry or marsala, which lends a toasty, buttery note. Palm sugar instead of plain also helps to boost the flavor, and I simplify by using one soy sauce instead of three different ones. This really is one of those dishes that should be adjusted to your own tolerance of heat but, as Ottolenghi cautions, “…the whole point is spiciness so don’t go too far.” Though you may choose to pan-fry the tofu in its plain state, the bit of fuss of separately frying the cornstarch-coated tofu is worth the effort, contributing a more complex taste and texture to the final dish.
Black Pepper Tofu
1 3/4 pounds firm tofu
Vegetable oil for frying
Cornstarch to dust the tofu
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
12 small shallots (12 ounces in total), thinly sliced
8 fresh red chiles (fairly mild ones), thinly sliced
12 garlic cloves, crushed
3 tablespoons chopped fresh ginger
1 cup dry sherry or marsala wine
10 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons palm sugar
5 tablespoons coarsely crushed black peppercorns (use a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder)
16 small and thin green onions, cut into 1 1/4-inch segments
– For the tofu: Pour enough oil into a large frying pan or wok to come 1/4 inch up the sides and heat. Cut the tofu into large cubes, about 1 x 1 inch. Toss them in some cornstarch and shake off the excess, then add to the hot oil. (You’ll need to fry the tofu pieces in a few batches so they don’t stew in the pan.) Fry, turning them around as you go, until they are slightly golden all over and have a thin crust. As they are cooked, transfer them onto paper towels to drain.
– Remove the oil and any sediment from the pan, then put the 2 tablespoons of fresh oil inside and heat it. Add the shallots, chiles, garlic and ginger. Sauté on low to medium heat for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the ingredients have turned shiny and soft. Next, add the cooking wine to deglaze, and bring to a boil. Then add the soy sauce and palm sugar and stir, then add the crushed black pepper, and return to a simmer. Add the tofu to warm it up in the sauce for about a minute. Finally, stir in the green onions. Serve hot, with steamed rice.
Recipe adapted from “Plenty” by Yotam Ottolenghi.