There's the most fantastic Sichuan restaurant near work, and although the rumor is that they have an extremely shady ownership, they make really, really good food. In particular, they make a version of Mapo tofu that is sublime. I like tofu anyway, but this dish would convert the most ardent soy-haters. The sauce is a piquant mix of chili, ginger, and fermented black beans, coupled with silky tofu and toothsome ground meat. I could eat it by the bucket. It is that good.
Anything that good, I want to know how to make it. I looked up recipes for Mapo tofu and discovered that it ain't rocket science, and in fact looks like a relatively simple affair. As well it should, for Mapo tofu is named, so the legend goes, for a pock-marked old lady who served the dish to travelers who passed by her home in Chengdu. (Yes, it is far more appetizing than the name would have you believe.)
I researched the recipe and gathered my ingredients. By a stroke of luck, I found some chili bean paste in a little bodega around the corner from me, saving me a trip to Chinatown for this vital ingredient. Fairway supplied the Sichuan peppercorns, and the local Associated supermarket carries 10 varieties of tofu (I [heart] NY!).
My first attempt was tasty, but with the wrong proportions. I had too much meat and not nearly enough sauce. It was a sort of Sichuan inspired bolognese. Good, but not Mapo standard. My second attempt was much more successful. I decreased the amount of meat, increased the liquid, and got it almost perfect. At least I think so; it may be completely alien to the chefs at my favorite Sichuan restaurant, or to Mapo herself, but it's pretty good to me.
1/2 cup chicken broth or water
2 Tbs. hot bean paste
2 Tbs. soy sauce
1 lb soft tofu, drained and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/2 lb. ground pork shoulder
1 1/2 Tbs. finely minced garlic
1 1/2 Tbs. finely minced peeled fresh ginger
1 Tbs. cornstarch dissolved in 2 Tbs. water
1 1/2 tsp. Japanese sesame oil
1/2 to 1 tsp. toasted Sichuan-peppercorn powder
3 Tbs. thinly sliced scallion
Stir together broth, bean paste, soy sauce, and set aside.
Heat a wok or large heavy skillet over high heat until hot and add 1 1/2 tablespoons corn oil, swirling to coat. Add pork and stir-fry, breaking up lumps and adding remaining 1/2 tablespoon corn oil if meat sticks, until no longer pink. Add garlic and ginger and stir-fry over moderate heat until very fragrant, about 2 minutes. Stir reserved sauce, then add to pork and bring to a simmer.
Stir cornstarch mixture and add to stir-fry. Bring to a boil, stirring gently, and cook until thickened and glossy, about 15 seconds.
Turn off heat and sprinkle with sesame oil, Sichuan-peppercorn powder to taste, and 2 tablespoons scallion. Stir once or twice, then serve sprinkled with remaining tablespoon scallion.
Serve over rice.