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Flash in the Pan

Embracing clay pot tofu

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“Try Van Loc. It’s been a long time since I’ve had anything there but the Tofu in Clay Pot. I’m in love with it, with mushrooms in a peppery broth.”

The above was written in an e-mail from former Indy editor Brad Tyer. Coming from him, this is an extraordinary statement.

Brad is a red meat kind of guy. He fears no grease and not only revels in all manner of low-grade mystery meat, but also seems to enjoy holding these predilections in the faces of food snobs.

Brad is the anti-food snob. He believes that the highest quality Mexican food is made of the lowest-grade ingredients. I’ve seen him sneer at vegans, mock vegetables and generally relish his contrast to my healthy, elitist culinary views. I’d have thought the Pope would sooner make a porn movie before Brad would eat tofu, much less gush about it with such touchy-feely nostalgia.

His e-mailed revelation came while I was in Houston, Brad’s former hometown, for a conference last week. I’d asked him for some advice on where to get Vietnamese food since Houston is known to offer a world-class selection. From his current base in Austin, where he serves as managing editor of the Texas Observer, Brad recommended several restaurants, including the above-mentioned Van Loc, and they all sounded interesting. But as I considered my options I couldn’t shake the novelty, or the image, of Brad going ga-ga for tofu. It was a story I had to pursue. After all, this had to be some amazing tofu.

Following an appetizer of roast pork spring rolls and spicy peanut sauce, my clay pot arrived, still boiling. Black pepper was visible to the naked eye. As it cooled, I poked around and noted celery strips, shitake mushrooms, onions and, of course, the tofu. The deep-fried chunks appeared to have no trouble holding their crisp within the broth.

The menu had warned that this was a spicy dish, and as I took a few tiny sips of the hot peppery broth, I determined that all of the spice came from the black pepper, none from chili peppers. At first this struck me as odd, but then again, Vietnam is the world’s biggest producer (and exporter) of black pepper, so this hardly jeopardized its authenticity. 

The folks at Van Loc were understandably tight-lipped about their amazing recipe, which I found deserving of Brad’s praise. But I was determined to figure it out.  After much work in the lab, testing and combining several recipes for similar dishes that I’d found online, I finally got my peppery tofu. And so I present the recipe for “Touchy-Feely-Peppery Clay Pot Tofu,” a la Red Meat Brad.

First of all, you don’t need a clay pot in order to follow this recipe. Having prepared it in both a clay pot and a cast-iron skillet, the flavor difference isn’t noticeable. But the clay pot is a nice touch, offering aesthetic as well as comfort points—with the weather turning colder and the clay pot holding heat like it does, it acts like a little fireplace at your table.

For two generous servings, cut a regular 14-ounce brick of firm tofu into chunks about an inch-square and a half-inch deep. In a pot or wok, heat enough oil (safflower or grapeseed, ideally, or another such heat-tolerant oil) to submerge the tofu. Deep-fry the tofu until it has a golden-brown crisp. Remove, drain and set aside the crispy tofu chunks.

In your clay pot (or cast-iron skillet, which also holds heat and can be used as a charismatic serving dish), heat a tablespoon of oil and fry 3–6 cloves (depending on their size) of sliced garlic. When the garlic starts to brown and you can smell it, add a medium onion, sliced into rings, a loosely-packed cup of shitake mushrooms and a cup of celery, with the stalks sliced lengthwise and then cut into inch-long sections (two large stalks makes about a cup).

While it cooks on medium heat, make a mixture of 1/4 cup soy sauce, 1/4 cup water, 2 tablespoons vinegar and 2 tablespoons sugar. Add the sauce, and a teaspoon of black pepper. (That’s for normal palates. If you want a stronger, nose-runny version, add 2 teaspoons black pepper.) Stir it together and add the crispy tofu chunks, so that they are half-submerged in the saucy stir-fry. Put a lid on your clay pot or pan, and cook 10 minutes on medium heat. Serve immediately, still simmering, by placing the hot clay pot or pan on a heat pad on the table.

The use of celery as the dominant vegetable in this dish is interesting, as is the use of black pepper for spice rather than mere chili pepper. Carrots can also be added—it changes the simple landscape a bit, but tastes pretty good. Meanwhile, I found a somewhat similar recipe online that uses oyster sauce.

When I told Red Meat Brad that I’d replicated his beloved tofu, his response, true to form, was, “Now, can you make that with pork?”


Ask Ari: Need neck help

Q: Dear Flash,

I’ve been online and looked high and low for an old article of yours about cooking elk neck, but can’t find it. (I’m looking to cook Antelope neck.) Help!

—Necked


A: The recipe comes from Eat our Words: Montana Writers' Cookbook (Montana Committee for the Humanities, 2005), which I had the dignity to review even though they snubbed me by not asking for a contribution. Sniff.

Anyway, here’s the awesome recipe, contributed by Missoula’s own Richard Manning.

Put the neck in a big pan and brown it in oil on medium heat. Don’t short the browning, it adds flavor. Just don’t burn it. Keep turning it until it’s perfect all the way around.

At this point, in Manning’s words, “add and sauté more chopped garlic cloves than you think necessary and onion.”

Then he instructs to add a cup of ground cumin. (Seriously. I balked at this too, but it works).

Then add dried chili peppers and salt and pepper to taste.

Then “Pour beer over the whole business, enough to almost submerge the neck, and simmer very slowly, making sure to add water whenever it threatens to go dry.”

I went with a dark, sweet porter. Mmmmm.

When the meat has simmered for hours and is almost off the bones, use a fork to strip the last strings of meat and remove the bones.

Continue cooking until enough liquid has cooked off to work the meat into burritos with avocado, cheese, cilantro and salsa, and whatever else you like.

A final note: Nowadays there is some concern over the possibility that the nervous tissue of big game animals can spread a human-version of chronic wasting disease. Thus, I take the precaution of pushing the spinal cord out of the spine with a wooden dowel, and then running hot water through the hollow tube to clean out all nervous tissue material.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net.

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