Venturing into Chinatown is always exciting for me. I love the frantic yet warm energy you can practically feel in the air upon entering a grocery store or noodle shop. Everything is urgent yet orderly, the smells and colors are unique and distinguished, and the sense that you are about to discover something you've never seen before is always a possibility. Sometimes this discovery is as simple as scoring a piece of mysterious produce or an exotic sauce that is only labeled in Chinese—which I happened to stumble across during my last trip there. This fabulous chili oil, which is practically fluorescent orange and highly viscous, is the hottest sauce I've ever consumed. Because of its intense heat level, I applied it sparingly to a mild vinegar sauce, and discovered that it suspends beautifully in the liquid. When paired with a seared ginger-garlic tofu, this makes a really pretty dish that delivers a well-balanced kick of heat.
1 block of firm tofu
1 cup vegetable stock
1 TB soy sauce
1-2 TB garlic, grated on a microplane grater
2 TB ginger, grated on a microplane grater
1/2 cup boiling water
1 TB sugar
1/4 cup vinegar
dash of salt
hot chili oil
Slice the tofu any way you like. Brush the bottom of a glass pyrex dish with olive oil and place the tofu in the dish. Place in the freezer overnight. To defrost the tofu, place it in the oven at the lowest setting for 15-20 minutes. Remove it from the oven and press it thoroughly for an hour, ensuring that it is almost bone-dry before placing it into the marinade, which you can make by whisking together the broth, soy sauce, garlic and ginger. You can skip freezing/defrosting the tofu for this recipe, but thorough pressing is a must. Freezing/defrosting transforms the texture of the tofu by making it more "meaty" and dense. Marinate for at least 4 hours.
When you are ready to make the tofu, dissolve the sugar in the boiling water, then add the vinegar and dash of salt. Set aside.
Saute the tofu for about 5 minutes on each side over medium-high heat, or until a good sear is achieved.
To plate the tofu, pour some of the vinegar mixture into a shallow bowl. Arrange the tofu on top of that, sprinkling with the chopped scallions. Finish by adding several droplets of the chili oil. Serve immediately.