A couple of weeks ago, the April issue of Gourmet arrived, and not only did Ruth Reichl’s letter from the editor announce a new monthly vegetarian column, but there was a whole feature on vegetarian recipes. While Gourmet always has some vegetarian recipes (or at least ones that suit my pseudo-vegetarian seafood and chicken eating self), I was delighted at the thought of having a whole section devoted to such recipes every month. A number of the recipes in this month’s vegetarian feature caught my eye. For a recent soup swap and tea party, I tried out the Venetian-style bean and pasta soup which was good, if not earth-shattering. The other recipe that I was particularly interested in trying was the panfried tofu with Asian caramel sauce. I’m a novice at making caramel- my first experience several weeks ago left me a bit intimidated- but this time it was a breeze.
This recipe can be a quick weeknight dinner if you make the sauce and saute the shallots ahead of time, but if you try to do it all together, as I did, it will take a good hour, most of which is active cooking time. All in all, it was good, but not fantastic. The sauce had a nice flavor, but ended up needing a little more salt (soy sauce, in this case) to balance out its sweetness. I vastly reduced the amount of oil called for in the recipe (1 cup, reduced down to 1/4, or even less) and didn’t have nearly enough shallots, though I don’t know that that mattered. I liked it in that it was a little different than most of the tofu dishes I’ve made in the past, with its sweet sauce and fresh herbs, but it wasn’t so outstanding that I’d rank it among my favorites.
Panfried tofu with Asian caramel sauce (serves 4)
1 block (14-oz) firm or extra-firm tofu
1/2 lb shallots (4-5 large)
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup sugar
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1/2 tbsp fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
3 tbsp soy sauce
3 tbsp rice vinegar
1 1/3 cups plus 2 tbsp water
2 tbsp cornstarch
1/3 cup loosely packed fresh basil leaves, chopped
1/3 cup loosely packed fresh mint leaves
optional accompaniments: cooked jasmine rice, steamed baby bok choy, lime wedges
1. Halve tofu crosswise, then cut lengthwise into fourths to form 8 slices. Put tofu between several layers of paper towels to drain and place plate on top for weight until ready to use.
2. Finely chop 1/2 cup of shallots and reserve. Cut remaining shallots crosswise into 1/8-inch thick slices and separate into rings. Heat 1 tbsp oil in a 10-inch heavy skillet over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking, then fry shallots, stirring occasionally until golden brown, 1-3 minutes (watch closely as they burn easily). Remove shallots from pan and put aside.
3. To make the sauce: cook sugar in a dry 1-1 1/2 quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat, undisturbed, until it mels around edges and continue to cook, stirring, until all sugar has melted and turns a golden caramel. Add reserved, chopped shallots and cook, stirring, until the shallots shrink and are fragrant, about 45 seconds. Add ginger and garlic and cook, stirring 30 seconds. Stir in soy sauce, vinegar, and 1 1/3 cups water and simmer, stirring, until any hardened caramel is dissolved, about 1 minute.
4. Stir together cornstarch and remaining 2 tbsp water until smooth, then stir into sauce and simmer, stirring occasionally, 2 minutes. Remove from heat and keep warm, covered.
5. To panfry tofu: heat remaining oil in skillet over high heat until hot, but not smoking. Meanwhile, blot any excess moisture on tofu with paper towels, then add to hot oil in skillet in one layer. Fry tofu, turning over once, until golden and crisp, about 7-10 minutes total. Transfer to clean paper towels to drain briefly.
6. If necessary, reheat sauce, the serve tofu topped with sauce, cilantro, mint, and fried shallots.
Cook’s note: sauce can be made 1 day ahead and chilled, uncovered, until completely cooked, then covered. Reheat sauce over moderately low heat, thinning it with additional water if necessary. Shallots can be fried one day ahead, as well, and cooled completely, uncovered, then kept at room temperature in an airtight container lined with paper towels.