Spicy Eggplant and Tofu
By Dennis Linden
This month’s featured recipe, submitted by Savannah Muñoz of our Corporate Chefs Team, is a very tasty eggplant dish that gave me the resolve to use this versatile ingredient more often! Savannah chose Chinese Eggplant over the more familiar Western or Globe variety because it has smaller/fewer seeds and a slightly sweeter flavor, including its paper thin, edible skin that does not need peeling. Plus the variety’s meatier texture holds firm during the double-cooking process her recipe requires.
“I love eggplant and tofu separately…but together they are simply blissful!” Savannah declared, then went on to elaborate. “This recipe was inspired by a favorite TO GO dish that I am in the habit of ordering from a popular national Chinese-American restaurant chain [think cute bear]. One day I happened to have those two main ingredients in my own ‘frig, so decided to make my own version of the dish at home and I liked mine better!”
Eggplant is a member of the nightshade family, which includes potatoes, tomatoes, and peppers. Eggplant is believed to have been domesticated centuries ago in ancient China, Southeast Asia and India. This domestication process developed different varieties that varied greatly size, skin coloration and texture. We know this because the centuries-long process was carefully documented in ancient Chinese agricultural literature. Today China is still the largest producer of eggplant, having developed over twenty different commercially viable varieties that are now grown around the world. Varieties range from small white egg-sized bulbs to purple, mottled pear-shaped fruit, to elongated and melon-round varieties with dark purple, almost black, outer skins. And, of course, like all other types of fresh fruits and vegetables with purple skin coloring, it is an indication of the eggplant’s high antioxidant content. However, no matter the shape, size or color, the flavor differences between varieties are very subtle, if existent at all.
While eggplant is prepared, cooked and served as a vegetable, botanically it is a fruit; a berry, in fact! It’s porous, spongy and mild-tasting interior has made it a culinary favorite because it readily absorbs the flavors it is cooked with. Savannah uses this characteristic in her recipe with her choice of accompanying components – uniquely flavorful sesame oil, plus a few teaspoons of chili sauce, as well as shallots and garlic. I was very skeptical of Savannah’s cooking sauce, whose liquid base of two tablespoons of soy sauce seems too meager to coat three cups of eggplant and a whole package of tofu. To my surprise, the mixture did as advertised and turned out to be just the right amount to coat without overpowering. My apologies, chef, for the second-guessing! Although, after a taste test, I admit to doubling the amount of chili sauce Savannah calls for just to give it a little more kick, though that tweak was just a matter of personal preference.
A few tips will make this very simple recipe go even smoother. In reading through the recipe for the first time, you will note that there are four separate stovetop tasks using one pan: sauté the eggplant -- then the tofu -- then the shallots – lastly, combine all for the final fry. As I suggest in the prep instructions, approach this recipe with a technique called mise en place. Mise en place literally means "set in place," and it refers to having all your ingredients prepped and ready to go before you start cooking; eggplant and tofu diced, supporting ingredients measured or portioned. These stages will go quickly, orderly and be a very pleasant experience if you are not trying to dice the tofu, for instance, while the eggplant is cooking. Use “firm” style tofu, as it dices into uniform cubes easily with a sharp filet knife and, like Chinese eggplant, will hold its shape during Savannah’s double sauté.
Savannah Muñoz has been a member of Melissa’s Corporate Chef Team for almost 2½ years, working in the company’s state-the-art multiple-use test kitchen. When she is in the kitchen, Savannah describes the majority of her workday as being immersed in culinary R&D. She prepares new and/or unfamiliar products in various ways and styles to educate the sales team so they can better serve their customers. The chef team also caters corporate meetings, orchestrates company-wide product tastings, as well as providing culinary support for in-store retail demos.
“I find the most interesting part of my job is the fact that every day brings something different. The culinary task itself might be basically the same, though the product I’m using or persons we are hosting vary, which means that the taste preferences will also differ,” Savannah explained, then continued. “Plus the selection of fresh products changes with each of the seasons. All in all, there are so many different techniques and ingredients to work with throughout the year that the possibilities are endless and my days are never boring -- fun and challenging, in fact!”
Once she has left her cutting board for the day, Savannah goes home to her long-time partner, a patient man who is always out-voted 3-1 by the two ladies of the household – Savannah and Kali, a 12-year-old pit bull who counts for two votes, as Savannah is a staunch pit bull advocate! Savannah also admits to being an avid Disney pass holder and a huge fan of Cosplay and Comic Con. While she sees that there’s probably a contradiction in enjoying both camping in the great outdoors as well as exploring the various parts of Los Angeles and discovering new restaurants, she happily pleads guilty to enjoying both equally! Actually, we see no contradiction at all and, in fact, suggest that Savannah’s Spicy Eggplant & Tofu might taste even better cooked over her next campfire!
Spicy Eggplant & Tofu
3 Cups Chinese Eggplant, quartered lengthwise, sliced into quarter moons 1-inch thick
1 Package Melissa’s Firm Tofu, drained, patted dry on paper towels, diced into half-inch cubes
4 TBS. Sesame Oil, Divided in Half
6 Shallots, sliced thin
2 tsp. Garlic, minced
2 tsp. Chili Garlic Sauce
Cooking sauce – whisk together
2 TB. Soy Sauce
1 tsp. Cornstarch
1 tsp. Brown Sugar
1 tsp. Black Pepper
This recipe is best approached “mise en place”, meaning the eggplant, tofu, shallots and sauce should be prepared and measured before the cooking process is begun.
Heat half the oil in a wide pan until white wisps of smoke appear. Sauté the eggplant in two batches; if pan is too crowded, the eggplant will tend to steam instead of fry. Cook until eggplant is sticky and has browned. Remove from flame, drain residue liquid, season with salt and pepper, then transfer to bowl and set aside.
Using the same pan, add the other half of the oil and heat again until white smoke appears. Add tofu and fry until golden brown, tossing occasionally so as not to burn. Transfer from pan to the bowl containing the eggplant.
Add a few drops of oil into the same pan to sauté shallots until soft. Blend in the garlic and chili garlic sauce and continue the sauté until the garlic is fragrant. Then pour the cooking sauce in with the shallots, simmering the mixture over a medium-high heat until it begins to thicken.
Stir in the eggplant and tofu pieces, continuing toss and cook until the sauce has thoroughly coated all. Serve over rice or enjoy as a standalone side dish!