Tofu for meatatarians

Tofu for meatatarians
Ari LeVaux - 10/25/2018

When a tofu-based vegetarian dish can make a bloodthirsty carnivore whimper with anticipation, it has my attention. Perhaps you know this type of guy. The kind who gets almost as much pleasure offending a vegan as chewing on a dead animal. One such person, whom I will call Bloody Brad, was my unlikely guide.

Brad is from Houston, and when I showed up in his hometown for a few days, I hit him up for restaurant recommendations. I expected him to steer me to a Texas rib joint or steakhouse.

What I got instead was a recommendation for the Van Loc Vietnamese restaurant, now shuttered after 28 years. Vietnamese cuisine can be heavy on red meat, and Van Loc offered an eight-course beef meal. But Bloody Brad had one specific recommendation: Clay Pot Tofu.

“I’m in so love with it, it’s all I ever order,” he sighed.

So I went to Van Loc and ordered Clay Pot Tofu. When it arrived, boiling at my table, I could see black pepper coating large pieces of celery, shitake mushrooms, and  crispy chunks of deep-fried tofu in the peppery broth. As I took a few sips, that black pepper jumped out. I don’t see too many spicy dishes powered by black pepper alone. But then, Vietnam produces and exports more black pepper than any other nation, so why not?

While the pepper was strong, the overall effect was still subtle, perhaps thanks to celery taking a rare post at center stage. The tofu absorbed the flavors but held its own. It’s a solid, intriguing and satisfying dish.

The Van Loc crew appeared confused when I asked how to make this amazing recipe. I left with a full belly and a hunger for that recipe that would not quit.

When I told Brad I’d replicated his beloved dish, his response, true to form, was “Great. Now, can you make that with pork?”

The short answer is yes. It may strike some as counterintuitive, but bacon and tofu is a great combination that’s popular in many Asian dishes. A shorter answer would be: fry the tofu in bacon grease or with ground pork instead. But honestly, you might want to save your bacon. I’m not sure this dish can get any better.

Peppery Celery Tofu

Serves 2 as a main course
12-ounces firm tofu, cut into 2 x 2-inch slabs, about a half-inch deep; pressed, drained or patted dry
Heat-tolerant oil, enough for deep-frying
3 cloves of garlic, sliced
1 medium onion, sliced into rings
10 shiitake mushrooms (if using dried, rehydrate) 2 celery stalks, sliced lengthwise into 1-inch slices 1⁄4 cup soy sauce (have more on hand to season)
2 tablespoons lime juice
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon white pepper (if you can’t find white pepper add a second teaspoon of black)
2 teaspoons fish sauce (omit if vegetarian)

Before you do anything, slice the tofu. Heat fry oil in awok or deep skillet to 365 degrees and deep-fry the tofu until it turns golden-brown and crisp – about five to 10 minutes. Alternatively, pan-fry the tofu in less oil on medium, flipping to get both sides crispy – about 25 mins.

Remove the tofu and drain on paper towels. Then move the fried tofu far, far away, so you won’t be tempted to eat it all before you serve the soup. In your clay pot, saucepan or other vessel, heat 3 tablespoons of oil on medium heat and briefly saute? the garlic. When it starts to brown and the smell peaks (about 1 minute), add the onion, mushrooms and celery.

Add soy sauce, lime juice and black and white pepper, and four cups water. Stir together and season with soy sauce, black pepper, lime and fish sauce. Add crispy tofu , so they are half-submerged in the sauce. Cover and cook 10 minutes on medium heat. Serve immediately and let that broth do its peppery magic.

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