Spicy Braised Eggplant and Tofu
As with most cooks, either amateur or professional, I have my strengths and weaknesses. Actually, I have a lot more weaknesses than strengths. One of my cooking weaknesses was confronted in this dish: the Thai/Asian cuisine. I think I may not be alone in saying that sometimes these dishes are a bit intimidating because most of the ingredients are, well, foreign!
But also, they are delicious. So I’m hoping to double-up my efforts to learn more about Asian-style cuisines in the next year or so. For me this means starting with some of the sauces and ingredients pre-packaged which gives me instant confidence. Then I’m hoping to gradually branch into making my own chili pastes, curries, etc. It’s going to be a slow process, but I think it will pay off.
When tofu won the vote last week, I knew I wanted to make something spicy and with an Asian flare to it. After some searching, and a bit of inspiration from the last foodie fight battle, I settled on a braised eggplant and tofu dish. It really hit the spot!
This dish may look calm, but let me tell you it is far from calm. There’s a lot of spice going into this bowl!
Spicy Braised Eggplant and Tofu
Yield: Serves 4-6.
1 large eggplant or 2-3 smaller eggplants, salted and pressed
1 pound extra firm tofu, pressed and cubed
6 Tablespoons peanut oil
1 cup shiitake mushrooms (I actually used baby bellas)
1 Tablespoon garlic, chopped
1 Tablespoon ginger, minced
2 Tablespoons chili paste
1/2 Teaspoon red pepper flakes
2/3 Cup stock or water
2 Tablespoons soy sauce
1 Tablespoon sesame oil (optional)
1 Tablespoon toasted sesame seeds (optional)
Chopped cilantro (optional)
Chopped scallions (optional)
1) Prep the eggplant. If you use Japanese eggplant, which are much smaller than the large version, you can just cube them up. But if you want to use the larger version, you’ll want to salt and press them to remove some of the bitter liquid. Cube the eggplant into about 2 inch cubes (skin on is fine). Then coat all the cubes liberally in salt. I probably used about 4 Tablespoons of kosher salt.
2) Set all the eggplant in a colander over a bowl and weigh it down with an extra bowl filled with water.
3) Let this sit for about 30 minutes, stir the eggplant, re-apply the weight, and let it sit for 30 more minutes.
4) After you salt the eggplant, rinse it off and dry it.
5) Meanwhile, press out some of the liquid in the tofu. Slice the large block of tofu down the middle, horizontally. Then lay the halves between two layers of paper towels. Use 4 or 5 paper towels on top and bottom of the tofu. Then set a cutting board on top of the tofu and set something heavy on the cutting board, like a bottle of oil. Let this press for at least 30 minutes, but an hour wouldn’t hurt. Change the paper towels at least once.
6) Chop the mushrooms, scallions, garlic, and ginger. Get all the spices ready.
7) Start out by heating half of the oil in a large sauté pan (or a wok). Get the oil very hot over high heat.
8) Add the mushrooms first with a pinch of salt. Cook them for about 5 minutes until the turn slightly crispy. Remove them from the oil with a slotted spoon.
9) Add the rest of the oil along with the garlic and ginger. Stir together for just a few seconds.
10) Add the eggplant, chili sauce, red pepper flakes, and water or stock. Stir everything together and let it simmer for about 5-10 minutes.
11) Add in the tofu (cubed) along with the soy sauce. Cook this for about 5 or 10 minutes.
12) Cook the noodles according to directions on the package. Once they are cooked, rinse them with cold water to stop the cooking.
13) Add noodles right into the pan with eggplant and tofu and stir everything together.
14) Piled it high in a bowl and top it with chopped scallions!
Adapted from How to Cook Everything.
Prepping the Eggplant
You can really use any kind of eggplant that you want for this dish. If you use Japanese eggplant which are much smaller than the large version you might be used to seeing, you don’t need to do the below. You can just cube them up and go to town.
But if you want to use the larger version, you’ll want to salt and press them to remove some of the bitter liquid. Cube your eggplant into about 2 inch cubes (skin on is fine, but you can peel it if you want). Then coat all the cubes liberally in salt. I probably used about 4 Tablespoons of kosher salt.
Set all the eggplant in a colander over a bowl and weigh it down with something. For a weight, I used a second bowl that fit nicely into my colander. I filled it up with water to provide the weight. Worked like a charm. Let this sit for about 30 minutes, stir your eggplant, re-apply the weight, and let it sit for 30 more minutes.
Very Important Step
I only bold it to emphasize the fact that after you salt your eggplant, you need to rinse it off and dry it. I failed to do this once when making eggplant parm. The dish turned out closer to Salt-plant parm.
Tofu Tofu Tofu
I like to use the extra firm stuff for this so it stays together nicely. I think the secret to making really decent tofu is to make sure that you press out some of the liquid in it before you cook it. I swear tofu is like 90% water. Ok. Probably not 90%. But there’s a lot of liquid in that little white block and if you don’t get some of it out, the whole block will just turn to mush when you cook it.
Also, if you can pull a lot of the moisture out, then you can introduce new liquids (spicy things) that will get absorbed by the tofu. I think when people sometimes say tofu tastes bland it’s because it hasn’t been pressed. That means it is basically watered down chunks of soy curd. YUM.
Luckily, getting out the water is simple. Just slice your large block of tofu down the middle, horizontally. Then lay the halves between two layers of paper towels. I like to use about 4 or 5 paper towels on top and bottom of the tofu. Then set a cutting board on top of the tofu and set something heavy on the cutting board, like a bottle of oil.
Let this press for at least 30 minutes, but an hour wouldn’t hurt. Change the paper towels at least once. You’ll be amazed by the amount of hidden water in this stuff.
The other things you’ll need to get ready for this dish is your mushrooms, scallions, garlic, and ginger. Best to get it all ready before you start cooking as the dish cooks pretty quickly even though it is called a “braise” which implies a very long cooking time.
Also get all your spices ready. The spicy Thai chili sauce is my new favorite thing. Maybe someday I can make a better version on my own, but until that day, this stuff is really pretty good. I think Tamari makes the best soy sauce that you can easily find in the supermarket also.
Cooking the dish
Start out by heating half of your oil in a large saute pan (or a wok if you have one). Get the oil very hot over high heat. Then add your mushrooms first with a pinch of salt. Cook them for about 5 minutes until the turn slightly crispy. Remove them from the oil with a slotted spoon.
Then add the rest of your oil along with your garlic and ginger. Stir that together for just a few seconds. Don’t let the garlic and ginger cook too long by itself or it will just burn. Burned ginger is not a good flavor.
Add your eggplant, chili sauce, red pepper flakes, and water or stock. Stir everything together and let it simmer for about 5-10 minutes. Things will smell good. Sizzling will occur.
Next, add in your tofu (cubed), along with your soy sauce. The tofu will be much lighter than when you took it out of the package. It will be ready to absorb all of that delicious liquid.
Cook this for only about 5 or ten minutes. The tofu doesn’t really need to cook, but give it some time to warm up and also absorb a lot of that spicy liquid.
When you add your eggplant to the dish, you can also get your noodles started. I went with a very basic flat rice noodle. I know very little about the different varieties of Asian noodles. There are a lot, but these are very simple to prepare and taste great with a dish like this.
Cook them according to directions on the package. Once they are cooked, rinse them with cold water to stop the cooking.
Next I added my noodles right into the pan with my eggplant and tofu and stirred everything together. Then piled it high in a bowl and topped it with chopped scallions!
You could also add some toasted sesame seeds if you wanted.
I really think that even serious meat eaters wouldn’t mind a dish like this. The tofu has a really good texture and the dish is super-spicy and flavorful. If you forget about the sodium content in some of the sauces and stuff, it’s also a very healthy dinner!
If you’re looking to expand your horizons into the tofu world, this is a great starter dish.