Fiery, Tingly Kung Pao Tofu

May 20, 2024
Dining & Wine
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With its piney slap and mouth-numbing tingle, the Sichuan peppercorn lends a distinct and irresistible character to many dishes from that region. Yet from 1968 to 2005 it was actually illegal to import it to the United States, because it was thought that the dried prickly ash berry (the Sichuan peppercorn) might carry a bacterial disease that threatens citrus trees. During that dark time, American versions of dishes like kung pao chicken simply left out the spice, replacing its pungency and heat with extra red chiles and ginger. Tasty, sure. But tingly? Not so much.

Happily, we live in a golden age of legalized and readily available Sichuan peppercorns. Ham El-Waylly puts them to superlative use in his kung pao tofu. Substituting pillowy tofu cubes for the usual chicken breast, he stir-fries them with bell pepper and roasted peanuts for sweetness and crunch, and adds just enough dried red chiles and Sichuan peppercorns for a fiery bite. Serve it over rice for a meal that will make you grateful this once-forbidden fruit has returned to our shores.

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Spring is dragging its feet here in the Northeast, where cool, rainy evenings have stretched on for weeks. The silver lining: This is great sheet-pan weather. Not only does turning on the oven help banish the damp, but your sheet pan is also the perfect place to showcase your seasonal farmers’ market haul, like asparagus and peas. I’ve got two timely recipes to help you do just that.

The first comes from Yossy Arefi, featuring asparagus and chicken thighs that are glazed with a miso-honey marinade and broiled until singed and glossy. The broiler makes this dish particularly speedy, needing only 10 minutes to cook. Next up, there’s Dan Pelosi’s sheet-pan roasted salmon with pea pesto. This one takes a touch longer, but the combination of crispy roasted potatoes and velvety salmon dabbed with garlicky pea pesto is a springtime delight.

Broccoli isn’t what I usually think of as a spring vegetable, but now that I’m seeing bunches of it crop up at my farmers’ market alongside greenhouse cherry tomatoes, I’m excited to pair them in Yasmin Fahr’s five-star sheet-pan sausage meatballs with tomatoes and broccoli. Yasmin’s next-level twist here is to roll bulk sausage meat into meatballs to roast alongside the vegetables. Sprinkling Parmesan over everything is another savvy move; the bits that fall onto the sheet-pan get crisp and frico-like, while the cheese that clings to the tomatoes stays softer and more melty.

That trusty sheet pan is also perfect for whipping up a snack, such as Sheela Prakash’s take on roasted chickpeas. These crispy, salty bites, coated in olive oil and seasoned with smoked paprika, are impossible to stop eating once you start. The trick here is to dry the chickpeas thoroughly with a clean dish towel, pulling off the skins as you go. This lets them become crunchy on the outside and stay chewy inside. Feel free to change up the seasonings — za’atar, chili powder or garam masala would all work wonderfully.

Finally, on to dessert! Genevieve Ko’s one-bowl chocolate cake has become my go-to recipe for easy, fudgy bliss. Even without the creamy ganache frosting, its deeply flavored, moist crumb is absolutely perfect. The cake freezes well, too, for, you know, chocolate-cake emergencies.

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That’s all for now. I’ll see you Wednesday.

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