Tofu, ready to rumble: Bring the black pepper

Black Pepper Tofu Pot strikes perfect balance

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Countless Chinese restaurants know: There's something about the combination of black pepper and tofu that sings. And it's got a rich, deep bass voice.

Like many other cooks, I first made black pepper tofu at home when I saw it in that instant-classic book "Plenty" by Yotam Ottolenghi. You fry cubes of tofu until crisp, then make a pungent sauce out of heaps of coarsely cracked black pepper, chili peppers, ginger, garlic and more. But I balked at a few things -- 12 tablespoons of butter? -- and soon started making it with my own adjustments. The dish is super-fiery, and I love spice, but I toned it down. I wanted that low, rumbling flavor of black pepper to dominate, not the sharp screech of serrano peppers.

I even riffed on the idea in my recent cookbook, dropping the butter entirely, slicing the tofu into bigger cutlets and encrusting them with the black pepper, then using them to top a broccoli-red pepper stir-fry.

In her beautiful new book, "Feast: Generous Vegetarian Meals for Any Eater and Every Appetite" (Chronicle Books, 2013), Sarah Copeland also takes a crack at the dish. Confession: I might like her version even better than Ottolenghi's, and possibly as much as my own. She cuts back on the butter and chilies and soy-sauce varieties, making the dish much quicker to prepare. When I made it, the result had perfect balance: a touch of sweetness that balances the black pepper -- while keeping that deep rumble that I love so much.

Black Pepper Tofu Pot

6 servings

A heap of black pepper gives this dish a warming, earthy flavor reminiscent of mushrooms or even steak. Adapted from “Feast: Generous Vegetarian Meals for Any Eater and Every Appetite,” by Sarah Copeland (Chronicle Books, 2013).

1 bunch scallions, root ends trimmed

Flour, for coating

Vegetable oil, for the pan

1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

28 ounces firm tofu, drained and patted dry, then cut into 1-inch cubes

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into chunks

2 shallots, thinly sliced

1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and thinly sliced

6 cloves garlic, smashed

1-inch piece peeled fresh ginger root, cut into thin matchsticks

2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce

1 to 2 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons coarsely cracked black pepper

4 to 6 cups warm cooked brown rice, for serving

Cut the scallions (white and green parts) into 2-inch lengths, then slice them lengthwise into matchsticks. Keep the white and green parts separate.

Pour the flour into a shallow bowl. Line a plate with paper towels and set it near the stove. Pour vegetable oil to a depth of ¼ inch into a large skillet set over medium heat. Once the oil is shimmering, and just before frying, add the sesame oil to the skillet.

Working in batches, lightly dust the tofu cubes in the flour, tossing to coat and shaking off any excess. Use a slotted spoon to add the tofu to the hot oil, making sure that none of the pieces touch. Fry until the tofu cubes are golden and have a thin crust on most sides, turning them as needed, about 8 minutes. Lift the tofu out of the oil with the slotted spoon, letting the oil drip back into the pan, and transfer to the paper-towel-lined plate. Repeat until all of the tofu cubes are fried, coating the tofu in the flour as you go and adding oil to the pan as needed.

Wipe out the skillet and return it to medium heat. Add the butter; once it has melted, add the shallots, jalapeño, garlic and ginger, stirring to combine. Cook for a few minutes, then add the white parts of the scallions and continue cooking until the vegetables are fragrant and soft, about 8 minutes. Stir in the soy sauce, sugar (to taste) and pepper; turn off the heat and cover to keep warm.

Immediately before serving, add the tofu and the green parts of the scallions to the sauce; toss to coat evenly.

Divide the rice among individual deep bowls, spoon the tofu and sauce over the rice, and serve.

Per serving (with rice): 609 calories, 27 g protein, 51 g carbohydrates, 36 g fat, 13 g saturated fat, 40 mg cholesterol, 209 mg sodium, 7 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar