Spicy Love Affair
"Great food is like great sex. The more you have the more you want."
I know to feed my lover. It's true--- love is shown through cooking, and preparing a meal is giving love. I've poured out my full heart to overflow his cup, ladle, plate and bowl. He loves my cooking at home, sometimes more than dining out, which is a high compliment coming from a professional food critic.
Like some couples in love for awhile, we want to taste the spice of our beginning moments again. We recall our first date, our first kiss, our first meal together (which all happened on the first meeting), the time an errant clove ended up in his chicken from my chai tea recipe (a memorable mistake), and the marinade for the fish that was so good he almost licked the sheet pan (I didn't write that recipe down, sadly). He reads his journal to me. We tell each other stories about our lives before we met. Our childhood anecdotes, memories, experiences and intimacies are shared with each other, weaving through the stories of both our lives--- from before we met, when we met, and back to the present moment--- together.
We've become that couple that takes a greeting card-worthy Christmas photo while exhausted from an entire day of escorting five children around in holiday attire through a mall. We know what to order everyone for family dinners. We still sigh when we touch. We gaze at each other longingly rather than at our phones at the dining table. We flirt, caress, hold hands and somehow have appetite for one another at the end of a tiring day. It's always Valentine's Day between us. Passion is an essential ingredient we keep on simmer.
We've had our disagreements, sure. But those few arguments, misunderstandings and painful absences after a lover's quarrel have brought us even closer together. At our age, we know what is important. Our lives are more complicated than most, with five children between us--- my three children (a son and two daughters) and his (two daughters). We have exes, we juggle different households, visiting weekends, family outings--- you name it, we've attempted to figure it all out and still have a sexy and romantic date together.
My man is tall and handsome. He looks fetching dressed up in a suit and tie, though his vest was dubbed a "man girdle" at one time to hold his waistline in. He's lost weight and changed his drinking and eating habits greatly since we met. We workout together at the gym. He lifts weights and drinks smoothies. He loves taking me to vegan restaurants. He makes me laugh.
No longer is he the lone guy at dinners and cocktail parties, drinking too much to numb the lonely ache in his heart, then staggering home drunk to an empty single bed, suffering a bad bout of acid reflux. Unless it's a media dinner, he doesn't drink wine like before. No longer does he smoke cigarette after cigarette nor does he gorge on meat-heavy meals. Being a food writer, he eats in many restaurants all over the city, enjoying the glory of food by LA's top chefs, along with wine and cocktails.
At home, my cooking is typically vegetarian, mostly vegan, although eggs and cheese are tempting indulgences and I'm not good at adhering to strict diets. The sensuality of food is important for the soul. We love our morning poached eggs over rustic lentil stew, avocado toasts on whole grain. A sprinkle of sea salt, a dash of cayenne. I make fresh green smoothies, serve warm lemon water, prepare luscious kale salads. Then we dine out in local Chinese neighborhoods for our dim sum dates, eating, drinking tea, and sharing conversation over steamer baskets full of xiao long bao dumplings.
It's all about balance and harmony in our family minivan of love. We feel lighter in our hearts and a deep sense of contentment within our souls. We are two people that have been lonely, heartbroken and lost at moments. Then we became parents, just not with each other's children. What matters: we love our kids and each other. As the weeks and months are packed with workdays, waking early, school drop offs, pickups and schedules, figuring out what to do on those 'no school' holidays, overdue bills, homework, tears, laughter, softball, ballet, sleepovers, dinners, driving and driving in traffic--- it all goes by so fast, and we realize that our last date night happened... months ago. So we plan to go out for Chinese food.
Fortunately, my love is Chinese which makes him the perfect guide through the restaurants I'd never know about. We explore the many neighborhoods in Los Angeles aside from Chinatown--- Monterey Park, Alhambra, Arcadia and most of the San Gabriel Valley--- where restaurants are bountiful in dim sum dishes and cuisine that offers an entire menagerie of seafood delicacies, as well as traditional (and authentic) Chinese fare. We like to go to our favorite tea house after dinner (they stay open until the wee hours) pouring each other floral bouquets of tea infused with ginseng, chrysanthemum, lotus, goji berries, as well as smoky black teas, light green teas, and really anything you can imagine that can steep in a tea pot.
Chinese food is still a mystery to me. It's an adventure in flavors my palate is fascinated with. Intense broths, cloud-soft bites of wood ear mushrooms, tangy mustard greens, salty, spicy and pungent dipping sauces, toothsome noodles that spool through my chopsticks, spongy white fungus called 'snow mountain mushrooms' that crunch in the mouth, slippery sea cucumber the texture of shiitake, crunchy circles of lotus root, oily chili spice slicking the rim of a soup bowl. "Chī fàn," what the Chinese call rice "fàn" and "to eat" are the same. To eat rice is to eat. Every meal comes with rice without question.
When I cook for my love, I make vegetarian recipes, though to please him I try my hand at meat and seafood dishes. Though I do make and eat fish on occasion, I'm more of a tofu type of girl.
As I am an adventurous and brave sort of vegetarian cook, I once attempted a duck braise. It was a success and I'm sure I'll make it again for a special family occasion. But most of the time he eats my vegan-style cooking. He gets his belly-full of meats and seafood when he dines out on assignment and during media dinner events. If I make rice, it's brown rice. He likes quinoa, so I make that too. He gulps down his green leafy kale, bok choy, arugula and other vegan delicacies.
This post was originally a Valentine for my man, however it makes better sense to celebrate the Chinese New Year this week with a Sichuan recipe. Hey, it's red with chili which brings good luck!
He ordered the 'toothpick lamb' which is a classic dish his mom makes. "You could make this dish with tofu," he suggested.
So I did.
Here is my recipe for Sichuan Toothpick Tofu. I'm not sure of the origin for this style of cooking the meat (usually lamb or beef) with toothpicks. The dish called Ya Qian Rou, I know nothing about except that my man likes it and sweats profusely while eating this Sichuan spicy cumin-heavy dish. He takes the pleasure with the pain eating the intensely spiced Sichuan style cuisine--- perspiring from his forehead and wiping his face with his napkin. I made this with tofu instead of meat, as tofu is porous, soaking up the heat of the chili oil and sprinkled with the warm earthy perfume of cumin.
You can serve this spicy Toothpick Tofu dish with rice--- white or brown--- I chose quinoa for a more nutrient dense accompaniment. A favorite Chinese classic side dish like green beans with ginger and garlic balance the 'spicy hot' with 'crunchy green' and nourishing rice (or quinoa). And oh how I love the thick slivers of ginger! Make a pot of jasmine tea, but you will need icy-cold glasses of water (add cucumber slices) to serve with your spicy meal. Hot and cold, spicy and refreshing, invigorating and calming, there are elements of both yin and yang in this way of eating.
SERVES 2 SPICY LOVERS
As I searched through classic recipes for toothpick lamb and beef, what I learned was that you fry the toothpick pieces of meat (in our case, tofu) three times. What? So I decided to lightly dry sauté the tofu instead. Cooking healthy is our approach rather frying in an exact copy of the original Sichuan recipe. We will just heat the tofu enough to warm the cumin spice and chili. Making Sichuan chili oil is fairly easy and you can adjust according to your spice level. The chili and spice-infused oil is essential in making this Sichuan dish flavorful, depending on how hot you'd like it is up to you. You’ll also want to save a few of the bright red chilis to plate this dish, along with the chili oil, which can save for about three months. Please remember to be careful when handling chilis--- do not touch your eyes or anywhere else.
INGREDIENTS FOR CHILI OIL MIXTURE
¼ cup sesame oil
1 star anise pod, crushed
3 cloves garlic, smashed
2 tablespoons cumin powder
1 (3") piece ginger, smashed
1/4 cup (about 12) dried chilis , stemmed and chopped
2 tbsp. Sichuan peppercorns
1/2 tbsp. tamari sauce
½ tsp. sea salt
**SPICY SHORTCUT**—If you cannot find the listed ingredients such as star anise pods and Sichuan peppercorns, don’t worry! You can always find powdered and pre-made Chinese Five-Spice and cumin. A light dusting of the spices on the tofu will give it the warm spicy cumin-infused heat you desire.
DRY CHILI-CUMIN SPICE RUB
2 tablespoons cumin
1 teaspoon chili powder or cayenne (adjust to your spice level)
½ tablespoon paprika
INGREDIENTS FOR TOFU
1 large package very firm tofu, cut into 1-inch long cubes
1 box toothpicks
2 teaspoons rice vinegar
1 green onion (scallion), sliced or chopped (garnish)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons sesame oil
**TOFU** ---For this recipe, find the firmest tofu possible. In many Asian markets there is a variety of tofu to be found. I used a very firm type that was already marinated in scallions and some chili spice. The tofu should be dry sautéed rather than fried in oil. Use the very lightest amount of oil and sprinkle the tofu with cumin chili dry spices.
HOW TO MAKE TOOTHPICK TOFU
Mise en place (prepare) all of your ingredients and have everything ready in front of you on the kitchen counter.
Make the chili oil: Heat oil, star anise, garlic, cumin, and ginger in a saucepan over medium heat; cook, stirring occasionally, until garlic is golden, 15-20 minutes. Using a sieve, strain the oil, discarding solids. Pour the oil into a bowl with the dried chilis, peppercorns, tamari, and salt.
Take one cube of tofu and push a toothpick into the piece lengthwise. Do this to each cube of tofu.
In a shallow bowl or casserole dish, combine the toothpick tofu pieces with a small amount chili oil, rice vinegar and a sprinkling of tamari sauce (not too much) and marinate for 30 minutes. Drain the tofu on a paper towel. Sprinkle lightly with the dry chili-cumin mixture.
In a wok, cast iron or large sauté pan (a cast iron pan is best), add a very light amount of the chili oil to coat the surface of the pan but not enough for frying. We want the tofu to get some color and flavor. Dry stir-fry the tofu in the chili mixture on medium-high heat, for about 6 minutes or until golden and fragrant with spices. The cumin aroma smells warm and delightful.
Plate the tofu on a decorative serving dish and garnish with scallions.
Serve with side dishes and rice. Enjoy.
Here's a classic Chinese green bean recipe for a side dish. I like it with extra slivers of ginger and golden pieces of garlic sticking to the beans. Long beans are traditionally used, but you can make this with regular green bean varieties. Do not allow the beans to overcook. It is better that they keep their vibrant crispy texture.
Green Beans with Ginger and Garlic
1 lb. green beans
1 tablespoon tamari sauce
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
6 inch ginger root, shredded
2 tablespoons sesame oil
1 tablespoon mirin (rice cooking wine)
1/2 cluster bunshimeiji mushrooms, tops chopped from stem base
sea salt, to taste
extra ginger slices, freshly shredded, to garnish
Cut the ends off the fresh green beans, wash and drain.
Heat pan without oil and place green beans into pan for dry frying, around 2 minutes to remove moisture.
Add 2 tablespoons of sesame oil in the pan and continue to dry fry until the skin of the green beans become to wrinkle, about 10 minutes. Take care not to overcook. Remove the green beans from the wok and set aside.
Transfer excess oil from pan and leave about 1 tablespoon in the wok. Add garlic and ginger to stir fry until aromatic. Let the garlic get a little brown. Add the bunshimeiji mushrooms. Dash in some mirin (rice cooking wine). When the garlic is golden, turn off heat.
Return the dry-fried green beans to the pan and add a pinch of sea salt. Heat on medium to combine the flavors.
Mix and turn off heat.
Place the green beans on a serving platter and garnish with extra slivers of fresh ginger.