“Comfort food” means something different to everyone. Our youngest child (soon to leave the nest and graduate into adulthood) has always been our pickiest eater. I gave up long ago on trying to see the logic in what she likes and dislikes. But one thing is consistent: she hates bland food. She wants nothing to do with hot dogs, hamburgers (or any variation like meatballs/meatloaf), pizza, roast chicken/turkey, and ANYTHING in gravy or a tomato-based sauce. But she LOVES most ethnic foods that come packed with flavor and spiciness. She especially loves Mexican and Asian cuisine (Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Thai, Vietnamese), with a few un-explainable exceptions.
So to her, comfort foods DO NOT include soups, stews, pot pie, roast beef or chicken, or pretty much any American food. Mapo tofu, however, is one of her very favorite meals. It is packed full of mouth-tingling flavor! And tofu (which is the blandest thing ever, but provides a nice texture in the spicy sauce).
Mapo Tofu (also spelled mabodofu) is a Szechuan dish that we first came to love while living in Japan. It is made with ground pork, tofu, chili paste, onions, garlic, and other Asian seasonings. The best place we have ever eaten it is in a Szechuan restaurant in Beijing; it was so spicy it was hard to swallow, but soooo good. When we moved back to the US, I needed to find a way to make it from scratch.
In addition to other ingredients, I use a few tablespoons of this spicy bean sauce to flavor my mapo tofu. This requires a special trip to an Asian market for me, but that is one of my favorite outings, and the family loves it when I also come home with Aloe drinks, ramune, and senbei snacks.
Part of the flavor of this dish comes from ground Szechuan peppercorns, which are unique because they are not especially spicy (that quality comes from other ground peppers). But they cause a slightly numbing sensation to your tongue when you eat them.
So as our weekend forecast is for cold and snow, this is what our Little J hopes to see on the menu!
1 Tbs oil
2 lb ground pork or beef/pork mixture
1 large onion, finely chopped
6 cloves garlic, minced
4-6 Tbs spicy bean sauce**
3-4 Tbs ground chili paste** (use more if using garlic chili paste)
1 tsp fresh ground ginger
1 tsp ground Szechuan peppercorns**
1 ½ cups beef broth
¼ cup soy sauce
2 tsp rice vinegar
1 pkg firm tofu, cut into ½” cubes
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley (or 1 Tbs dried)
1 tsp cornstarch + 2 Tbs water to make a slurry; or ¼ tsp xanthan gum
1 Tbs sesame oil
Hot cooked rice
Sliced green onions, for garnish (optional)
Heat oil in a large saucepan/pot. Add ground meat and cook until browned; drain excess grease. Add onions, minced garlic, spicy bean sauce, chili paste, ginger, and ground peppercorns to the skillet. Cook until onions soften. Stir in beef broth, soy sauce, and vinegar. Bring to boiling point; reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes. Stir in tofu and parsley and cook, uncovered, for an additional 10 minutes. Add cornstarch slurry (or xanthan gum) and cook for 5 minutes, until thickened slightly. Stir in sesame oil just before serving.
Serve in bowls over rice and garnish with sliced green onions, if desired.
Makes 8 servings
- This is a spicy dish. Add smaller amounts of spicy bean sauce and chili paste when first making this. Taste mixture before serving and add additional seasonings if you want it spicier.
- Do not substitute regular black peppercorns for the Szechuan peppercorns. They are not the same thing.