Only recently legally available in the United States after an almost 40-year banishment (something to do with a citrus canker they could potentially carry and spread), Szechuan, or Sichuan, peppercorns are floral, vibrantly aromatic, and capable of inflicting a distinctly unpleasant numbing effect on the tongue when used in excess. I'm not talking painful numb like chiles. Just numb, like Novocaine. Weird, right?
But these zesty little fruits, so exotic to our American palates, have long been used in traditional Chinese cooking. And perhaps I was a bit starry-eyed at the whole mystique they have about them, being (formerly) forbidden and all, but when I saw them for sale at the Penzeys in Grand Central Station, I of course bought a jar.
Regular readers of this blog know my feelings about tofu, and mapo dofu may be my very favorite way to eat it. Our go-to Chinese take-out place does a respectable version—using Szechuan peppercorns, in fact—but awhile ago I came up with my own recipe, which I hoped to be just as flavorful, but less greasy. Brian and I loved it. Much bowl-licking ensued.
My first attempt to integrate Szechuan peppercorns into the dish was a little, er, bumpy, culminating in anguished cries of "Aahhh! My tongue is numb! Aahhh!" (That was me—Brian, to his credit, was much more restrained in his criticism: "Um, maybe you should use fewer Szechuan peppercorns next time.")
So remember: practice restraint with this distinctive spice. And then you'll come to appreciate its bright peppery zing without feeling like you've just gotten a cavity filled.
1/2 pound ground pork
1 1-pound tub "regular" tofu
2 tablespoons dried fermented Chinese black beans, rinsed and chopped
6 dried hot chiles, 1 crumbled and 5 left intact
4 scallions, 2 finely minced and 2 sliced
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 tablespoon grated ginger
1 cup chicken stock
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 cube Chinese fermented tofu (funyu) with chile
1 teaspoon cornstarch mixed with a little water
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
1/4-1/2 teaspoon Szechuan peppercorns, lightly toasted in a dry skillet and crushed
Combine stock, sugar, salt, soy sauce, and funyu in a bowl; stir to mix. Heat pan until smoking hot (I use a large cast-iron skillet for all my stir-frying). Swirl a tablespoon of oil around pan, spread out pork, let sit a minute, then stir-fry, breaking it up, a minute or two longer. Add chiles and beans, fry another minute. Add 2 minced scallions, ginger, and garlic; fry 30 seconds to a minute. Add stock mixture and tofu; simmer gently about five minutes. Add cornstarch mixture, stirring until sauce is thickened. Sprinkle crushed Szechuan peppercorns over tofu and stir to combine. Garnish with cilantro and sliced scallions.
For more Weekend Herb Blogging, be sure to visit Kalyn's Kitchen and this week's roundup at Cook (almost)Anything . . . At Least Once!
Technorati Tags: szechuan peppercorns, mapo dofu, tofu, weekend herb blogging
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