Vegetarian Ma Po Tofu, with Photography Lessons

posted in: Recipes, vegan, vegetarian | 4

photo: Brie Passano

Last week, I was delighted to sit alongside fellow local bloggers for a panel discussion on food blogging hosted by Edible Manhattan. One of the questions that came up was, how important is photography to you? And another question, or several of the questions, were aimed at understanding what drives readership in a claustrophobic spectrum of sites about food. I’m not a photographer (never learned the ropes formally), but I’d say that photography is important and something to just try, try, try to become better at. As it turns out, an opportunity to get more perspective on the practice came up a few weeks ago, when a photographer named Brie Passano approached me to take photos for a cooking series she was just starting.

Then, my answer to that second question, on growing community and readership, was to keep meeting people, checking out their work, and making genuine connections with others. So having Brie over to shoot me in my kitchen was a really fun way to accommodate both these efforts.

For her photo series, Brie wanted to shoot people cooking their favorite foods in the comfort of their everyday home settings. She asked me to prepare a dish that was a classic to me, in some way. I knew of one easy standby immediately, although I was skeptical at first. It’s basically spicy, garlicky, silken tofu stir-fried with peas tossed in straight from the freezer. It takes about three minutes to cook, and is oh so satisfying poured over plain rice. I didn’t think this dish could ever be photogenic — a sloppy, chunky, reddish-orange mess. But maybe that’s why I should make it for Brie, I thought. Let’s see what a real photographer can do with this.

I saw her photos a few days later, and realized that Brie had a totally fresh perspective on shooting in my kitchen. She found interesting the things that I never found interesting (like shadows, or the tear in the upholstery of my red chair). She wasn’t afraid of really wide shots which I never do for reasons that I have no idea why. It really opened my eyes.

Brie ate about half this pan of tofu along with me after the photos were taken. She actually seemed to like it just as much as I did. I told her it was sort of like a lazy person’s version of Ma Po Tofu, the Sichuan dish, only without ground pork sauteed with the tofu, and with peas instead. Brie didn’t think she had ever tried Ma Po Tofu, or seen what it was supposed to look like. But she captured the dish really well, framing it with lots of clean, white space to contrast with the busyness of all that red-orange.

I can’t wait to see what foods she shoots next, and was so honored to be a part of the series. Check out more of her work here. And keep in mind, food bloggers or anyone interested in photography otherwise: there’s a great photographer in your community. Be the one to seek them out, and have fun with it, whatever you do.

Vegetarian Ma Po Tofu with Peas
(makes about 2 servings)

1 block (12-14 oz.) silken tofu
2-3 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 cup frozen peas
2 tablespoons Sichuan chili bean sauce or doubanjiang (preferably studded with whole, fermented black beans)
1 teaspoon soy sauce (or more to taste)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil

Chop the tofu into cubes of about 1/2 – 1-inch. Mince the garlic. Assemble your sauces and ingredients within easy reach.

Heat the oil in a skillet or wok over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and cook about 30 seconds, until fragrant. Add the tofu and peas and stir very gently. Let cook about 1 minute or until the peas and tofu are warmed through. Add the chili bean sauce and stir gently. Cook another 1-2 minutes, or until the peas are tender. Taste for seasoning, and add the soy sauce to taste. Remove from heat and serve with rice.

Cost Calculator
(for 2 servings)

1 block silken tofu: $2.50
1/2 cup frozen peas: $0.50
3 cloves garlic: $0.25
2 tablespoons chili bean sauce, 1 teaspoon soy sauce: $0.50
2 tablespoons oil: $0.20

Total: $3.95 (now you see why I make this all the time, too?)

Health Factor

Four brownie points: I almost think that the fact that tofu is so well-regarded as an all-natural, healthful source of protein makes it sound like it’s supposed to be eaten for health purposes only. I don’t. I eat it because it’s soft and custardy (the silken kind), absorbs delicious flavors that you can choose at your own whim, and is quick and easy to prepare. Okay, it’s also really healthy, with doesn’t hurt, either: a great source of protein, calcium, and plenty of other minerals with low sodium and cholesterol. Peas, another plant-based source of protein, only sweetens the deal.

Green Factor

Five maple leaves: Having a meal that’s totally plant-based is easy on the environment; no energy spent raising livestock. Many of the ingredients in this dish were preserved somehow, too — the chili bean sauce and soy sauce, both from fermented soybeans, and the frozen peas. Those sauces were imported, however, and the silken tofu is quite perishable once made (also not locally). Still, you could do much worse for this amount of satisfying protein and it’s a tasty way to translate a classic dish that’s traditionally made with meat into a vegan-friendly rendition.

4 Responses

  1. Vessel

    Hi Cathy,

    This looks so easy, I have to make it! Would you mind recommending a good chili bean sauce?


  2. Cathy Erway

    @Vessel: Sure! I think the best one is called Lao Gan Ma but it doesn’t have much English on its label (it does have an oval-shaped picture of a lady’s face on it). An easier to find brand would be Lee Kum Kee’s sauce, but preferably get their one called Chili Black Bean Sauce instead of just Chili Bean Sauce if you can find it:

  3. ellen

    fresh green onions or cilantro made a tasty garnish!

  4. Looks like yummy…
    Thanks for sharing such wonderful post… 🙂

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