Sunday, April 17, 2011

Shepherd's Purse and Tofu Stew

Last summer, I had taken a picture of this stew that my mom made with Shepherd's Purse or ji tsai - a native vegetable of Shanghai, where she grew up. It's a recipe I always fall back on, partly because it's cheap and easy to make, and partly because it's my form of comfort food - stuff that I grew up on. The funny thing is that this picture got accepted on Foodgawker, while my very first photo of it did not. I suppose one thing I did change was something I read off another blog a while back. When you have a stew-like object that consists of a medly of protrusions that make the surface of the dish convoluted, it's better to try to use light to reflect off of it. Usually, you want to avoid reflections, but if you notice, this time I really tried to incorporate that in the photo. It's not a pretty dish, I have to admit (what with the tofu all chunky), so if I had simply rid myself of the reflecting light, I would definitely not been able to portray the pure delicious-ness of it as well. 

Unfortunately, you can only find the frozen variety of Shepherd's Purse here in the U.S. but for things like stew or stirfry, that doesn't downgrade the taste too much. Last year, when I visited Shanghai before medical school, I got to see and taste fresh ji tsai for the first was amazing! Usually, Shanghai people use this vegetable for humbler dishes like this tofu stew or stirfried with rice cakes - but even then, you can taste a distinct difference just by adding the locally grown variety into your diet. 
<-- Here is what it is supposed to look like. I actually thought it was a weed when I first saw it. At some point, I'll put up a picture of the frozen package label, too. 
Anyway, traditionally, you are supposed to add garlic, pork, silken tofu, and shiitake mushrooms. Last time, Mom added chunks of shrimp and water chestnut as well. I didn't have any pork (partly to be healthy and partly to save money), but I did happen to have a very large chunk of seitan that I made out of wheat gluten - yes, very random, but I figured I may as well experiment a little. It was definitely...odd...and the texture was unusually chewy...but if you dice it up and cover it up with other ingredients, it can actually pass as chicken, maybe. But then, there is no set rule in this recipe. That's what I like about most comfort foods - they're so plain and humble that you can either spice them up with new additions or leave them as they are, and they can be equally good in both cases.

Shanghai-style Shepherd's Purse and Tofu Stew


-3 cloves garlic, mashed
-1 tbsp cornstarch
-1.5-2 tbsp soy sauce
-About 2-3oz pork, cut into strips
-1 package silken tofu
-1 package frozen Shepherd's Purse, thawed and cut into pieces
-4-5 large dried Shiitake mushrooms, rehydrated and cut into strips
-Dashi powder
-Soy sauce to taste
-2.5 tbsp cornstarch mixed in about 1/3 cup of water. 
-Sriracha hot sauce (optional)
-Cilantro and/or Chopped scallions to garnish

1. Marinate the pork slivers with the cornstarch and soy sauce for about 15 minutes. This will help give the pork a somewhat nice crust
2. In a separate pot, boil water and add the tofu. Cook for about 10 minutes. This will solidify the tofu and keep it from breaking apart too much. You can skip this step if you are low on time.2. In a pot, fry the garlic with oil until they start to brown.
3. Add the marinated pork and cook on high heat until they brown. Then add the mushrooms.
4. Add the shepherd's purse and boiled tofu. This is where the stirfry starts to become a stew. 
5. Add the mushroom stock leftover in small batches, waiting until the stew boils each time before adding more.
6. Turn heat to low and allow to simmer uncovered until some of the liquid has evaporated.
7. Add soy sauce and dashi powder to your taste. You can also add Sriracha if you want, although that traditionally is not included.
8. After about 5-10 minutes (depending on how you want the consistency of your stew to be), add the cornstarch/water mixture, stirring constantly. 
9. Turn off the heat, top with scallions and cilantro, and enjoy!

Note: like I said, this is a very versatile dish. So add whatever else you like to it! This can include shrimp, water chestnuts, bamboo, etc.

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