Memories of Sichuan discovery inspire a comforting dinner
It's been a mighty long time since I had my first taste of Sichuanese cuisine - which, if I remember correctly, was also my first taste of tofu. This was sometime in the middle 1970s, I guess, when "ethnic" food options for a budding foodie in my home town of Louisville were pretty much limited to chop suey, pizza and "chile con carne" ladled over spaghetti, no less. I'd read about spicy, bold flavors of Chinese regions like Sichuan (then often rendered "Szechwan?) and Hunan, but you had to travel to NewYork, Chicago or the West Coast to taste these adventurous goodies.
To this day I remember - at least in general terms - my first Sichuan experience, a spicy green-pepper and tofu stir-fry in a fiery red sauce, enjoyed in a New York City storefront somewhere within sight of the north end of Washington Square Park. I loved the dish, and loved the tofu; and without ever having the formal recipe, I've been making something like it ever since. So it was tonight: Nostalgia in a bowl of spicy-hot, healthy Sichuanese-style comfort foot.
Recipe? What's a recipe? Julienne a green bell pepper, a sweet onion and, because I had it, a stick of celery. Mince plenty of garlic and ginger, and flavor them with red and black pepper and a little salt. Make a seasoning mix by chopping a tomato with its juices (I used Red Gold canned whole tomatoes as my preferred option to fresh in an Eastern February) and flavoring it with a little soy sauce, a squirt of lemon juice, a dash of brown sugar, a tablespoon of Heinz Chili Sauce (a "secret ingredient" for umami, a teaspoon (more or less according to taste) of fiery sambal oelek; and enough water to bring it up to one cup. Cut one-half of a block of firm or extra firm tofu into 1/2-inch dice. For thickening, dissolve 1/2 tablespoon cornstarch in a little water.
Stir-fry the onions in a wok in a little coconut oil, then add the green pepper and celery, and stir-fry until they're bright and starting to brown. Add the ginger and garlic mix, stir briefly, then reduce heat and add the tomato-and-spice mix. Bring back to a simmer, add the tofu dice, stir and cook for a moment or two until the flavors blend. Thicken to taste with some of the cornstarch (use a little at a time and don't overdo), and serve with steaming white rice.