Aromatic Chili Tofu; or microwave steaming is a real, legitimate thing…

field of chilis

I have to admit I haven’t spent much time cooking outside of work lately. I keep trying to get around to perfecting my potato-and-flour gnocchi recipe, but that will just have to wait a few more days. But I saw this on the modernist cuisine blog and it‘s really good and quick.  Cooking tofu correctly can often be very similar to cooking white fleshed fish like tilapia or cod correctly.  It’s not just about heating it up. In this case, it’s about achieving a silky texture in the middle with a slight chew on the outside and infusing it with flavor. Chinese steamed fish dishes have always intrigued me but steaming can be a pain in the ass.  So the people in the modernist lab did some testing and came up with a pretty damn good recipe.  Even with good tofu, I think we need a little more strong aromatics in there than they do for the fish, so I looked at some other Chinese steamed fish recipes and came up with something I really liked. This takes about 15 minutes to prep and 6 to cook.  If your plan isn’t to eat it like a midnight snack (which I highly suggest), I would suggest serving it with a heartier grain like farro or a good brown rice cooked sticky style like they do at Chinese restaurants.  Beyond the fact that microwave steaming seems ridiculous, the idea of steamed tofu is not particularly appetizing, so i can’t really figure out a good name for this, but it’s awesome.

Microwaved tofu, in the style of a chinese steamed fish (seriously):

  • 1/2 block firm tofu, drained and cut into 2 filets
  • 5 scallions
  • 1 Tablespoons chopped salted chiles (recipe below) or 1 teaspoon Chinese chile paste
  • 1/2 inch piece of ginger, peeled and grated
  • Zest of half of an orange
  • 1/2 teaspoon fermented black beans, rinsed
  • 1 teaspoon black rice vinegar
  • Salt and pepper
  • 3 tablespoons peanut oil
  • ½ teaspoon sesame oil
  • 2 tablespoons good soy sauce

Lightly score the surface of the tofu with the tip of a sharp knife. Lay the tofu in a single layer on a microwaveable plate, and season lightly with salt and coarsely ground black pepper.  Crush 3 of the scallions with the back of a knife.  Spread the ginger, orange, chile, vinegar and fermented black beans on top of the tofu. Lay the scallions over top of everything   Wrap the whole plate very tight with plastic wrap.  Microwave on  medium power for 6 minutes.  While it’s microwaving, slice the rest of the scallion greens.  When it is done cooking, unwrap it carefully and discard the scallions.  Then cover it with the sliced scallions greens.  Heat the peanut oil to until it’s just smoking and pour over the tofu.  Mix the toasted sesame oil and soy sauce and drizzle evenly over the dish.  

Chopped salted chiles: 

These are wonderful to have on hand at all times, but they do take a while to if your in a rush, just use some Chinese chile paste, whichever you can find that has the least number of ingredients.  You can even just leave this out of the steamed tofu and just add some chile flakes for spicyness  This recipe is from the Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook by Fuchsia Dunlop:

  • 1 lb very fresh red chiles (I really like using long hots)
  • ¼ cup salt

Cut off the stems and tips and chop coarsely.  In a bowl, mix the chiles with 3 ½ tablespoons of the salt.  Place in a glass jar and cover with the rest of the salt.  Seal with a tight-fitting lid.  Leave in a cool place for a couple of weeks and then refrigerate after opening.

Cured Tofu in Hunan Chile Sauce over Noodles

There’s been a whole wave of books focused solely and explicitly on meat lately.  Because obviously meat cookery is an under-represented part of most cookbooks and the cookbook industry as a whole.  That said, people always talk about how their meat is cooked, how they like it cooked, whether it’s chewy, tough, tender, flavorful or bland.  But then if something like tofu is involved, it’s all about the platonic essence of tofu and whether one likes tofu or not - forgetting that the techniques used to prepare it, cook it, season it, let alone to make it fresh are all essential.  Sadly, this cuts both ways where people who don’t know what good food is but are trying be healthy or vegan or whatever swoon over flavorless water-logged tofu or tempeh that feels like braided cardboard or on the other hand people reject these products out of hand.  Anyway, there are about a bajillion ways to prepare legit vegan proteins well, and each one deserves a whole book on its own.  I digress. I do plan on starting to take good pictures soon, but somehow recipes have existed for thousands of years without accompanying photos, so if you think this sounds good (which it does), please make it.  Here’s some Chinese food:  

1 block firm tofu

Chinese Wheat Noodles, preferably fresh (make sure they’re eggless), or thick rice noodles


½ cup salt

T cloves

T coriander seeds

3 pieces star anise

2 cinnamon sticks

T black peppercorns

3 bay leaves

2 slices ginger


1/4 cup dried chantarelles

2 tablespoons fermented black beans

2 pieces star anise

1 clove garlic

1 slice ginger


1 T grated ginger

1 T minced garlic

1 t dried chili flakes

2 t shaoxing wine

1 long fresh red chile

¼ t dark soy sauce or tamari

¼ cup fresh perilla, shiso or a mix of mint and basil

4 scallions, sliced

1 t sesame oil

Put all the cure ingredients in a small pot and heat, stirring, until the aroma of the spices fills the room.  Leave to cool.  

Cut the tofu into 4 blocks.  Arrange it on a cooling rack over a sheetpan.  Score each side with a knife, or just poke a few holes in it with a toothpick on all sides (this just enables the cure to get in deeper). When the salt is cool enough to handle,  rub it all over the tofu, gently but thoroughly.  Place another sheet pan or a cutting board on top of the tofu and put something heavy like a pot full of water on top, enough to press it down substantially, but not smooshing it through the cooling rack.  Leave this for a couple hours.  

Meanwhile make the stock by placing all the ingredients in a pot with 3 cups of water, bringing it to a boil, and then lowering it to simmer for an hour.  You should end up with about 1 cup of stock.  If you have less, add some water, if more, turn up the heat.  Strain.  

When the tofu is ready, rinse off the cure and pat it dry.  Heat enough oil to cover the bottom of a skillet over high heat.  When the oil starts to ripple, lay in the tofu carefully and turn the heat to medium.  Cook undisturbed until the bottom is well-browned, then flip and do the same to the other side.  Remove from the pan, and remove most of the oil, leaving just a thin film.  Add the ginger and garlic and cook till it loses it’s raw smell, about 30 seconds.  Add the chile flakes and cook for another 5 seconds, then  add the wine and stock.  Bring to a simmer and add the dark soy sauce and the tofu.  Turn the heat as low as it can go and simmer for 20 minutes, flipping it every five to make sure both sides get saturated.  If the sauce reduces too much, just add a little water or cover your skillet. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil.  Add your noodles to the boiling water and stir to make sure they don’t stick together.  Cook them as per the directions on the container, then scoop them out and place them in bowls.  Add the perilla and chili to your skillet of tofu and cook for 2-3 minutes longer.  Place the tofu on top of the noodles, and top it with the sauce, making sure to get some of the chunkiness on there.  Garnish the bowls with scallions and the sesame oil and serve.

Tahini-Braised Tofu with Cracked Wheat Salad

You could probably cook a doorknob in this extremely rich sauce and it would burst with flavor in your mouth.  I don’t much cook middle-eastern food and I don’t much cook tofu.  That said, this Lebanese cooking method is usually used on white-fleshed fish.  Here, it makes tofu shine in a very unique way. While the fat in the sauce brings the tahini and garlic and lemon into the tofu itself and radically transforms the texture, the taste of the tofu melds into the sauce, helping to marry all the strong flavors in this dish.  Recipes that call for cod or other meaty white fish are often the easiest to veganize using good-quality firm tofu.   The cracked wheat adds a good chew to this dish as well as some bright vegetable-ness.  Any more “mushroom-ey” mushroom will work from creminis to oyster, blue foots or honey caps but avoid any porcinis or black trumpets or anything like that; they may overpower the rest.  The tofu recipe is almost straight out of Daniel Boulud’s Braise.


1 block firm tofu, cut in half height-wise and lengthwise to form rectangles

2/3 cups tahini

2 cloves garlic

The zest and juice of 2 lemons

3 tablespoons olive oil

8 black olives, pitted

2 teaspoons ground coriander

Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 275.

In a blender, combine the tahini, garlic, lemon zest and juice, olive oil, and 1 cup water.  Puree until smooth.  Pour half the sauce into a dutch oven or high-sided skillet.  Season the tofu on all sides with salt, pepper, and ground coriander.  Place the tofu in a single layer in the pan and pour the rest of the sauce over.  Braise for approximately 40 minutes to an hour, making sure that the tahini never comes to a boil and gets greasy.  This is best served family style in the container it was cooked in, so make the pilaf while the tofu is cooking. When ready, sprinkle the olives around the tofu and serve.


6 true baby carrots, scrubbed

1 cup blue foot mushrooms, sliced

3 whole cloves garlic

1 golden beet, sliced into battonettes

1 cup cracked wheat

Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil.  

Blanch your carrots by dropping them into the pot, cooking until they’re half-tender (about a minute), then removing with a slotted spoon.

Then cook your cracked wheat by dropping it in, letting it cook for about 15-20 minutes until it’s cooked but still has some chew and draining it into a colander.  Run cold water over it to stop the cooking. 

Mix together the carrots, mushrooms, garlic, and beets.

Heat ¼ cup of olive oil in a large sautee pan and put in a single layer of the vegetable mix, and season with salt.  Cook for 5 minutes or so, only stirring as the bottoms get seared.  When well-caramelized, set aside and repeat until all your vegetable mixture is cooked.  Mix the vegetable mixture into the cracked wheat along with ¼ cup olive oil and the juice of 1 lemon.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.