Okay, this picture was taking a year or so ago–but it is a good illustration for what the world is looking like right about now. That is our outside cat, Pyewacket, framed by two trees in our woods. I bet he wishes he could come inside for some ma po.
Two days ago, it was sunny and sixty degrees out. This morning, the forecast said that we would have some snow flurries and there might be a sprinkling of snow in grassy areas. I just looked outside to see a totally white world with no visibility and at least an inch of snow coating the ground.
An inch is not a sprinkling. I wanted to call the weather people up and suggest that they look outside before they update the website, but well, I think they live in a windowless bunker anyway, so it would do no good. Suffice to say, our world has gone from a muddy, damp place where spring was thinking about tip-toeing into the picture back into a winter wonderland in the space of about an hour.
This is a good picture of what our ravine looks like now:
So, I was looking at an old (1998) back issue of Bon Appetit that I found at the bottom of a stack of Fine Cooking Magazines in my office closet while packing stuff yesterday. I was about to stick it in the “donate it to a deserving doctors’ office” pile when the cover story caught my eye. It declared, in what appears to be 28 point type (where is my type ruler these days?) that “Comfort Food Is Back!” The subhead is “Great New Recipes for Warming Up Winter.”
Serendipity is my friend, you understand, so I had to open up the magazine and check out what they had to say, since now at least three blogs have taken up talking about comfort food these days. So, I open up to page 57 to have even bigger type greet me with the following statement: Comfort Food at its Best: Dinners Like Mom Used to Make–Only Better.”
Okay, so the folks at BA agree with Alice May Brock (You remember Alice–she has a restaurant) and myself that comfort food is meant to remind us of Mamma’s cooking, but they take it one step further–it is Mamma’s cooking done better. I note that the author does not have an Italian surname, which is healthy for him; the Italian Mammas I knew growing up would have taken a wooden spoon to the backside of any kid who suggested they could top her cooking, even if it was just meant to sound good in a magazine.
Anyway, the text of the article opens with the question, “What in the world is comfort food?” Basically, the author’s notion is that comfort food is those dishes that evoke memories of good, safe happy times that make human beings feel wrapped up in a glowing blanket of love. That isn’t exactly what was said; that is a poetic paraphrase, but you get the idea. He also points out that comfort food is the perfect fit for the long, dull, cold days of February when all of us are so tired of winter that we just want to dive under a quilt and hibernate until April brings showers and May brings flowers.
So, I guess that it is only natural that we are all ruminating on this comfort food idea right about now. Winter is still here, the fickle sun had dashed back off to the tropics for the rest of her vacation and we are all still stuck here, hungry and cold and wanting love.
Lacking warmth, we head to the kitchen to create some.
Which is just what I did last night. I frolicked off to the kitchen, and cooked Zak and I up a nice mess of comfort food.
The only thing is–I realized something was flawed in my theory of comfort food. When I said it is essentially, the foods we grew up with that remind us of Mamma’s kitchen and her arms around us, I wasn’t thinking to clearly about what comforts me. Because I have a whole list of comfort foods that I crave on blustery days that have diddly squat to do with my childhood background. No one fed me real Chinese food until I was in high school, and I didn’t taste Chinese home cooking until I was in my mid-twenties. So, if that is the case, why the heck did I crave Ma Po Tofu like it was a lifeline last night and had to make it even though it was nine-thirty in the p.m. before I was hungry?
Before I answer that, let me tell you what Ma Po Tofu is, so you know what the heck I am talking about. From Sichuan province, Ma Po Tofu is essentially a hearty one dish meal of firm tofu braised in a spicy sauce with ground meat. I am told that traditionally, it is ground beef that is in the dish, though I wonder about that; beef is rarely used in China because cattle are beasts of burden. Pork tends to be the preferred red meat in most places in China, with lamb as the primary choice in areas with a heavy Muslim population, or in the extreme north, where Mongolian influence was strong.
The main flavorings are Sichuan chili bean paste–a paste made from fermented soy and broad beans and chili peppers ground together, salted fermented black (soy) beans and Sichuan peppercorns, which are the seeds and seed cases of an ash tree that are dried and which impart a flowery, tingling peppery essence to any dish they are added to. I always buy them whole and toast them before grinding them up and adding them in generous amounts to my cooking.
Anyway, the first time I ever tasted Ma Po was when I worked at Huy and Mei’s restaurant around fourteen years ago, when I was well out of childhood. I only had it once, but I loved it immediately and longed for its flavor until I learned to make it myself. No other restaurant I ever had it in satisfied me–I think it is was because they didn’t use the chili bean paste for the spiciness–lots of them used chili garlic paste which makes for a cleaner, less complex flavor and aroma. It is also less satisfying.
The ingredients for Ma Po Tofu. In the foreground is the cup to my mini food processor; inside it is minced garlic, fresh ginger and Sichuan preserved vegetable, which is a salty, spicy cabbage-like critter. Whatever it is, it is tasty. The stuff in the jar with the blue and red label is chili bean paste, and the jar with the yellow, red and white label contains salted, fermented black beans.
The name, “Ma Po Tofu” is often translated as “Pockmarked Woman’s Bean Curd,” which is one of those unappatizing names, but it is said that the woman who invented the dish an unspecified number of years ago, was marked with smallpox scars. It sounds really insulting to call a someone “pock-marked woman,” but that isn’t the way it is seen in China. Folks in China give each other nicknames based on physical characteristics all the time, and often these names are not flattering in the least, but no one minds it. It is teasing. For example, if someone is heavy in China, they often get called, “Fatty,” which is shocking to Westerners. But it is simply how it is. Sometimes the names are poetic sounding, but they still refer to a physical characteristic. For example, all of we American waitresses had Chinese nicknames so the kitchen guys could talk about us without us knowing. One of Mei and Huy’s daughters told me about it. One of the names they called me was “White Cloud,” which I found to be odd, until one day I was asked, “How did your bosom grow so big?” by Mei. “Did you drink a lot of milk growing up?” Her daughters were scandalized, but she went on and said, “They make me think of fluffy clouds in the sky.”
Then, suddenly, the name made perfect sense to me. I still giggle about it.
Anyway, that is why ma po tofu has such an odd name.
Ma Po Tofu
Serves 3 with rice for dinner, or 6 with rice and other dishes
1 block extra firm tofu (about a pound—I like White Wave Organic Brand)
medium saucepan of simmering water
1 small (about 3 inches square) piece dried cloud ear fungus (optional)
1 tbsp. peanut oil for stir frying
3 cloves garlic, minced
½ tsp. fresh ginger, minced
2 tbsp. Sichuan preserved vegetable, minced
6-8 ounces ground pork
4 fresh water chestnuts, peeled and minced (or use fresh jicama–don’t used canned water chestnuts)
2 ½ heaping tbsp. Sichuan chili bean paste (or to taste)
1 tsp. fermented black beans
¼ cup Shao Hsing wine
1 cup good chicken stock
1 tsp. sugar (optional)
2 tsp. light or thin soy sauce
4 tbsp. cornstarch dissolved with 6 tbsp. cold water
½ tsp. ground roasted Sichuan peppercorns
¼ cup thinly sliced scallion tops
handful of minced fresh cilantro (optional)
Cut the tofu into about 1/2” cubes. Put into saucepan of simmering water, and turn heat down so the tofu simply steeps. This will help keep the tofu firm, and preheats it before it is added to the sauce.
Soak the cloud ear in warm water until it rehydrates. Trim any woody parts, and then mince roughly.
Heat oil in wok until smoking. Add garlic, ginger and preserved vegetable. Stir fry 30 seconds. Add pork. Stir and fry until the pork is dry and somewhat crunchy, breaking up large clumps as you go. Add cloud ear and water chestnuts.
Add bean paste and fermented black beans, stir-fry a minute, until very fragrant. Add wine, and allow alcohol to boil off.
Add chicken stock, sugar, thin soy sauce, bring to boil. Turn down heat.
Drain tofu, and add to the sauce. Allow to simmer in sauce about two or three minutes to pick up the flavor of it. Stir gently, using the back of a ladle in order to not break up tofu cubes. If you stir vigorously, no matter how firm your tofu started out, it will crumble.
Pour about 1/3 of cornstarch mixture into sauce. Stir. If it thickens to desired consistency, remove from heat. If you want it a bit thicker, add a little more. Do not just add it all at once! You may not need it all. You want it to just be a nice, moderately thick sauce, not a gel-like gluey consistency. As soon as it is the desired thickness, remove from heat.
Add peppercorns, scallion tops and cilantro, and stir.
Serve in bowls, with spoons, over rice or with the rice on the side, as you wish.
Here is the finished Ma Po. No, green beans do not traditionally go in there; generally I make a batch of Sichuan style dry-fried green beans with minced pork to go with, but I only felt like making one dish with steamed rice last night. I wish you could smell it; a divine and delicious combination of aromas swirl from a well-made batch of ma po.
So why is Ma Po Tofu a comfort food to me?
Maybe because it reminds me of Mei and Huy and how good they were to me at a really hard time in my life. I worked there during my divorce, and in that time period, I felt very beset upon from all sides; very few in my family were being supportive to me and the custody battle was a long, horrible process. The folks at the restaurant took me in as family, and that place became a haven for me. I was treated with kindness and respect and love, something that was in short supply in my life right then. The foods of my childhood no longer filled me with joy, but sorrow, so it is no wonder that my psyche and tastebuds latched onto newer flavors as sources of comfort.
I have since made peace with that time, and with my family, and so the hillbilly cooking that I grew up on no longer makes my throat close up with unshed tears, but brings me back to the kitchens of my grandmothers, aunts and mother in a positive way. But the foods I learned to eat in those cold years when I essentially learned to make my own family, still call to me, and I will cook and eat them when I want to remember that love is the greatest power that human beings wield in this world, and there is no act more sacred than sharing food and love with a lonely person who hungers.
Fourteen years ago some people shared with me. And they saved my heart and soul by it. And so, now, I pass that love along to others in need.
The world may buffet us with cold winds and blinding snow, and the sun may hide her face to us, but in our kitchens we can make our own warmth and give it to all who have need of it.
May you never hunger.
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