Wok with Me: Saucy Braised Tofu with Mushrooms, Scallion or Black Sesame Pancakes and Riffing the Szechuan Master Meat Mix

By Charleen - February 16, 2020

Braised dishes with their luxuriously rich sauces are perfect for the winter months. Margaret Loo's Braised Tofu and Mushrooms from The Breath of a Wok by Grace Young is a wonderfully satisfying dish with golden slabs of tofu soaking up all the meaty essences. Serve it with crisp, layered scallion pancakes for an even richer experience. A riffed version filled with black sesame paste is great for dessert!

Margaret Loo's Braised Tofu and Mushrooms 
Scallion pancakes 蔥油餅 cōng yóu bǐng
Flaky scallion pancake, top. Or filled with homemade black sesame paste for a sweet variation.

Each month, the 3000+ members of the Wok Wednesdays Facebook group cook new dishes from the award-winning cookbook The Breath of a Wok. We share our photos, thoughts and suggestions for great camaraderie and a chance to win some fabulous cooking prizes. See also my posts for moo-shu pork and those paper thin wrappers that are surprisingly easy, the best beef and broccoli recipe that is so good I can't order this dish at restaurants anymore, or my own recipe for General Tso's chicken

This month's braised dish is centered around a high quality oyster sauce, which manages to bring out all the rich, land-based flavor of ground pork and mushrooms without adding the slightest hint of ocean. It's another winner that I will be adding to my regular repertoire! 

I also took the opportunity to get a head start on cooking for the rest of the week. One of my goals is to maximize cooking efficiency while minimizing waste. (See Green Tips at the bottom of my posts.)

The recipe uses just a quarter pound or 4 oz (w) of ground pork. Although I used to divide out 4 and 8 oz portions to freeze for various recipes, I now try to avoid single use plastics such as Saran wrap or zip lock bags. (These washable silicon freezer storage bags that can also be used for sous vide have worked extremely well for me). So, I decided to use the rest of the thawed pork to make some Szechuan master meat mix to save time for other dinners over the upcoming week.

I had some beautiful Chinese yellow chives leftover from my Spring Festival dumpling wrapping party over two weeks ago, which I thought would go great in a layered Chinese flatbread stuffed with chives or scallions, called 蔥油餅 cōng yóu bǐng. Any chives that would not fit in the scallion pancakes would be added to the Szechuan master meat mix to add a nice, delicate onion-garlic flavor. Since I also had leftover black sesame paste from making the sweet, round rice flour dumplings for the Lantern Festival last weekend, I thought I'd try stuffing a couple of flatbreads with sesame paste for a sweet finish. 
Leftover ingredients to be used along with the extra 3/4 pound of ground pork

Scallion flatbreads 蔥油餅

Although the scallion pancake or flatbread 蔥油餅 cōng yóubǐng is traditionally made with a hot water dough, we have often made it using cold water dough leftover from making dumplings. Both doughs are made simply with water and flour, but the water temperature regulates how stretchy the dough will be. I'll go into more detail in a future post; in general, there is a tradeoff between flakiness and the ability to stretch around the filling without breaking.
The ingredients for scallion pancakes - flour, water, sesame oil, salt and scallions plus oil for pan-frying.
As shown in the composite photo, microwaving in a glass measuring cup is a convenient way to boil water. Chopsticks, or a pastry cutter if making the dough on a board, saves your fingers from burns during the initial mixing. After kneading to smoothness, the dough is divided and covered with a damp dishtowel. The filling is simple: a Tbs of toasted sesame oil with a quarter tsp of salt dissolved in and some scallions. After brushing on a thin layer of sesame oil, I found that I could not fit too many chives in. The amount shown is about right if you don't want scallions oozing out everywhere. The dough is rolled up into a thin tube and then coiled into a snail shape, before being flattened and rolled out again. Finally, it is pan-fried for 2-3 minutes per side.
Major steps in making scallion pancakes. 
These scallion pancakes are delicious eaten as a snack, or to accompany something saucier!  See below for the black sesame paste variation.
Flaky scallion pancakes

Master Meat Mix with Yellow Chives

When I ordered ground pork from the butcher counter, I asked him NOT to wrap the meat in a plastic bag, and to simply wrap it in butcher paper. The entire package went into the freezer as I became too busy to make anything. So now I know that the paper wrapping holds up whether the meat is used right away or frozen and defrosted.
Reserving 4 oz for the tofu dish, and browning the rest for SM3
After weighing out the pork needed for the tofu dish of the month (below), I browned the rest of the meat along with my secret ingredient for both flavor and color -- little bits of pickled mustard green stems from Szechuan province called Suimiyacai. I then added the leftover chopped yellow chives, scallions and even the salted, sesame oil that did not get used up for the scallion pancakes.
Making a variation of Szechuan Master Meat mix using ground pork and delicately garlicky Chinese yellow chives
This meat mix can be refrigerated for up to a week, and used for dan dan noodles, short-cut Szechuan dry-fried green beans, basil eggplant, mapo tofu, Asian nachos, breakfast eggs and anything else that would benefit from bits of savory, umami-laden goodness!  

Click here for the basic recipe and several ideas on how to use Szechuan master meat mix (SM3).

Margaret Loo's Braised Tofu and Mushrooms

Now onto the main event. Last fall, I fell in love with the salty, pungent flavor of fermented soy beans in Cousin Judy's Tofu with Black Bean Sauce, another recipe from the Wok Wednesdays monthly cooking challenge. Indeed, participating in this group helped me overcome long-set childhood prejudices against tofu, to discover new dishes that I find myself craving

In addition to Black Bean Sauce, made from fermented soybeans, famous Chinese sauces include Hoisin Sauce (used in Chinese barbecue pork) and Oyster Sauce. Like fish sauce, oyster sauce adds a wonderful flavor while disappearing into most foods without leaving the slightest trace of ocean. One exception is yu choy simply stir-fried with oyster sauce diluted with a bit of rice wine, which infuses the vegetables with a subtle briny flavor. 
Yu choy and oyster mushrooms with oyster sauce

With this in mind, the choice of Oyster Sauce brands is very important. For years, Grace had been recommending the  Lee Kum Kee brand of Premium Oyster Sauce (make sure to get the premium, which has a picture of two people on a small boat). Indeed this is a fine sauce, if a bit hard to get out of the bottle like Heinz ketchup. However, the Wok Wednesdays group has since discovered an even better Oyster Sauce made by Megachef. 

Taste test: Lee Kum Kee on left weighed 7 g/Tbs, while Megachef was a bit thinner at 6 g/Tbs.
I recently conducted a blinded taste test, adding a bit of oyster sauce to scrambled eggs. I tried it on two occasions, varying the order of cooking to even out the benefit of being served hot from the pan. While my husband initially preferred the stronger briny aroma of the Lee Kum Kee fresh from the bottle, everyone agreed the eggs cooked with the Megachef brand tasted better.
Megachef oyster sauce ingredients on top; Lee Kum Kee premium oyster sauce ingredients on bottom.
In short, the Megachef sauce has fewer ingredients for a more pure flavor experience, and has the added benefit of being easy to pour out of the glass bottle. That being said, I still had 1.5 bottles of the Lee Kum Kee oyster sauce, which I used in this dish. 

While other firm tofu recipes involve pressing the tofu between dish towels to dehydrate them for frying, this one involved simply sprinkling on some salt and letting the tofu sit on a dish towel while prepping the rest of the ingredients. (I have found that dish towels absorb far more water than the single use paper towels advocated in most recipes, and they can be tossed into the wash instead of the trash.)
Ingredients for braised tofu with mushrooms
After marinating the ground pork simply in soy sauce and a bit of cornstarch, cutting up some garlic and slicing only 4 mushrooms, the dish was ready to cook.
Pan-frying the tofu, cooking the meat-mushroom topping, and then braising it all in water and oyster sauce.
Pan-frying the tofu to a light golden brown color was the most time consuming part of making this dish (See tips below for ideas on how to reduce this time). After this, the garlic, meat and mushrooms were stir-fried in a bit of oil in the same wok. I mixed the oyster sauce into water instead of chicken stock for the braise. The finished dish was wonderfully rich in flavor, with pleasing contrasts between the golden tofu, ground pork and soft mushroom slices. After adding a quick garnish of scallions (I forgot to buy cilantro), we greatly enjoyed this dish, soaking up the savory sauce with Instant Pot brown rice and scallion pancakes.
Margaret Loo's golden braised tofu with mushrooms and ground pork

...a sweet black sesame 黑芝麻餅 variation on scallion pancakes.

Black sesame paste is a deliciously fragrant, sweet filling made by grinding toasted, black sesame seeds with the equivalent volume (or a little less) of sugar ground into a powder, and adding melted butter to the right consistency. The mixture will harden in the refrigerator (it's got a lot of butter content), but a few minutes of warming results in a beautiful spread.

I initially thought I would brush the dough with sesame oil, and then spread on the sesame paste, but this overfilled the flatbread, resulting in an oozing (but tasty) mess. As the sesame paste has a high oil content, I tried spreading the thinnest layer right onto the dough for the next one. This worked out better, although some sesame paste still broke through the dough.
Making a sweet black sesame flatbread
It was nice and crispy, with a subtle sesame flavor, which I have named 黑芝麻餅 hēi zhīma bǐng, or black sesame cake. My husband got the idea of spreading even more sesame paste on top for a perfect sweet treat!
A delicious Chinese-flavored dessert - black sesame layered pancakes.
🍃 Tell your butcher or the person behind the meat counter at grocery stores that you do NOT want your meat wrapped in plastic or with styrofoam, and to please just wrap it in paper. Butcher paper has been used for wrapping meat way before plastic bags became common, and it is designed to keep the moisture in the meat. There is no reason to add a layer of single-use plastic unless you plan to submerge your wrapped meat in water!

🍃 Instead of buying 4 ounces of ground pork (and all its associated single-use paper or plastic or styrofoam wrapping), buy a pound and use the rest to make a master meat mix that can be eaten with rice, pasta, tortilla chips, or used as a topping for a variety of dishes and snacks. See this link for photos and more ideas

🐾 Although the method used in this recipe of salting the tofu to draw out the water is easier, it takes a longer cooking time before the surface dehydrates enough to start turning golden in color.  Using the method of pressing between dish towels would probably allow the tofu to brown much more quickly.  For an even easier preparation, it may not necessary to brown the tofu at all!  Make the sauce and add in cubes of silken tofu, similar to how mapo tofu is made for an even quicker dish. 

Pick up a copy of "Breath" from your bookstore or library and come join us in the Facebook Wok Wednesday group! It's a fun, supportive and informative community for both beginners and experienced wokkers. 

by Grace Young with Alan Richardson
Simon & Schuster, 2004
·       ISBN-10: 0743238273
·       ISBN-13: 978-0743238274
Inducted into the IACP Cookbook Hall of Fame, May 2019.

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