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looking for simple

Recipe: sichuan tofu celery salad

Oh my word, it’s nearly December. By the time most of you read this it will *be* December. I was telling Erin the other day that when I was a little kid a year felt like an eternity. And now… now the days and weeks and months and years are gone before you know it. She said that was a sign of well-lived life. I think it’s the sign of me not being able to keep track of everything I need to get done, but Erin is always kind about giving me the benefit of the doubt. So it reminded me that sometimes we need to stop and walk through those familiar places, to appreciate how they change with the seasons and how we too have changed.

once green, upright, and riddled with blackbirds

now frozen in place

Kaweah is going to turn twelve this month. She looks great for her age, but she’s physically unable to clamber up rocks, leap from tall buildings, and go tear-assing around in the snow anymore. For all intents and purposes, she has entered her golden years. Not long ago she’d bolt across the frozen lake, wipe out while doing the Scooby Doo running-in-place routine, and then butt-scoot all the way back. In her tiny brain, she wants to come with us on hikes and skis – she is all enthusiasm. But it took a lot of coaxing to get her onto the ice the other day. She stood with her paws firmly planted in the dirt, head tilted to the side and down. When we finally got her out there, she was cautious – nothing like the crazy pup we’ve known for over a decade. But she was a good sport and once off the ice, she was happy to finish out her walkie.

a little nervous

maybe this guy has a treat

Winter is my season of reflection more than any other. I think intently about my life, the people in it, decisions, actions, goals, happiness. Perhaps I’m just too distracted by wildflowers, wildlife, waterfalls, autumn colors, or the sprouting of baby green leaves in the other seasons? Winter around here is sublime when the winds aren’t howling. Walking or gliding through a world of cold, silent white has a way of focusing your mind on the important things. While December can be a time of maximum insanity for some, it’s the time of maximum simplicity for me – at least that is what I try to achieve. Lately, I’ve been enjoying this salad recipe that Kitt pointed me to several months ago. It’s mostly tofu and celery.

and all of these flavors

infused in some oil

The recipe comes from Mark Bittman and it was in video form. I rarely have the patience to watch through videos, but Kitt said it looked really good. So I watched. It really did look good. My mouth was watering by the end of the short clip. I had no excuse not to try it because I had all of the ingredients.

sichuan peppercorns

everything into the peanut oil

Okay, I didn’t have ALL of the ingredients. I had celery, but not Chinese celery. There is a difference in the flavor, but celery is an acceptable substitute and I wasn’t about to drive over an hour to Denver to hunt down one ingredient. That’s not how I roll. Anyway, the part I was most excited about was the oil because that’s the component that brings everything together. It starts out as regular old peanut oil and it winds up a brilliant orange color from the pepper flakes with lots of zingy spice from the Sichuan peppercorns. [EDIT: Yes, you really need to use Sichuan peppercorns rather than any old regular peppercorn because the Sichuan peppercorns have a distinct flavor and “numbing” quality to them. You can probably find them in an Asian grocery store (get them when you get the Chinese celery and the pressed tofu).]

heat the oil until it is sizzling

strain everything out

The two main ingredients in the salad are pressed tofu and Chinese celery. I love pressed tofu. It has a firm, chewy texture and the kind I buy is seasoned just a tad (probably with soy sauce). You can find it in most Asian grocery stores, just don’t substitute the regular tofu for it because that would be weird and not especially appealing. The Chinese celery is another matter. We don’t have it in my local Boulder Asian market and I don’t recall seeing it in the big Asian market in Denver (although I must admit I’ve never looked for it before). I used regular celery.

slicing the tofu (pardon the henna tattoo)

toss the celery and tofu together

I’ve never had a dish like this before, although last October I ate an extraordinary amount of Sichuan Chinese food in the bay area when visiting with family. I have to say it had the requisite bright orange color of any Sichuan dish worth its spice! It’s light and refreshing on the tongue in contrast to the warm, numbing spiciness of the oil. You don’t need a lot of oil, but I certainly like it spicier than not. It’s simple and satisfying, especially if you want a change from heavy holiday fare.

a little oil and you’re good to go

Sichuan Tofu Celery Salad
[print recipe]
from Mark Bittman at The New York Times

1 stick cinnamon
1 tsp coriander seeds
1 tbsp Sichuan peppercorns
4 whole star anise
2 whole cloves
1 tsp ground cumin
1/4 cup red chili flakes
3 large slices ginger
2 green onions, cut into 2-inch pieces
1 tsp salt
2 cups peanut oil
2-3 stalks celery (preferably Chinese celery, blanched – but regular celery is okay)
4 blocks pressed tofu (about 8 oz.)

Place the cinnamon, coriander, Sichuan peppercorns, star anise, cloves, cumin, chili flakes, ginger, green onions, salt, and peanut oil in a medium saucepan. Heat on high until the oil begins to sizzle. Turn the heat off and let the oil cool. Strain the oil. You can store the oil in the refrigerator. Slice the celery into 3-inch strips. Cut the pressed tofu into thin slices. Combine the celery and tofu in a bowl. Toss with oil. (Note: You’re going to have a lot of extra oil… I used about 1/4 cup on the salad.)

22 nibbles at “looking for simple”

  1. Faith says:

    Wow! I’ve never seen sichuan peppercorns before! They’re amazing! They look like tiny mushroom caps :)

    I also love the idea of boiling things in oil to infuse it with flavor! I have never done that… hmm…. there are so many ways you could take that!

  2. Cheng says:

    I’m hooked after seeing the combination of sichuan tofu and celery!

  3. Raquelita says:

    Mmm…that’s going to be my lunch soon!

    I loved the way you phrased your thoughts on the season. You articulated my sentiments much better than I could have.

  4. LimeCake says:

    Hi Jen, have you tried shredded tofu noodles/strips before? They’re not noodles per se, and are usually five-spiced. They’d taste awesome in a salad like this.

  5. Ruth says:

    I know what you mean about winter: it’s a reflective time of year for me, too. I tend to get very still and quiet, venturing out only for a ski or a long walk; otherwise i”m tucked away inside the house with a cup of tea and a good book. My beautiful Lab is 11 and a half and although he was never the healthiest pup on the planet he is now slower and more tentative than ever. It is difficult to watch his decline from the silly puppy that he once was.

  6. Caitlin says:

    I think winter is pretty awesome, even in blustery winds – that’s when I go inside and putter around the kitchen or read a book. I’m tap-tap-tapping my feet though, waiting for winter to come to NC…

    Also, do you use the full two cups of oil for that? Even with four blocks of tofu, that seems like a lot of oil. (And what’s the weight of a standard block of tofu anyway? I have no clue…)

  7. Christine says:

    This sounds like a great packed lunch if I pack along the dressing on the side. Thank you so much! I just want to give your pup a hug. She seems like such a great girl.

  8. Shu-Huei Henrickson says:

    thank u so much for this recipe. my mom used to make something like it, but i haven’t made it. a great way to use up celery. and yes, simple is great.

  9. Nisrine, Dinners & Dreams says:

    I like the henna on your hand :)

  10. Jane L says:

    great simple recipe, I will try it too.. Thanks for making simple enough for me to try.

  11. Marti says:

    where would I find Sichuan Peppercorns or are regular corns “an acceptable substitute?”?

    Totally interested in this.. and pondering whether I can douse my REGULAR but very well pressed tofu into soy sauce… and then into the salad.

    I’ll make it by YOUR recipe first, I promise. :)

  12. Elisa_Croatia says:

    I miss Colorado!

  13. Jill Silverman Hough says:

    Your photos are so lovely, Jennifer. There’s a clean simplicity to them that is so beautifully peaceful! Thanks for a little “ahhh” in my day.

  14. SallyBR says:

    Loved the post…. beautiful thoughts, and beautiful images as usual

    On October 14th, we had to put our beloved dalmatian (14 years old) to sleep, and I can say than only now, almost two months later, I am able to “talk” about it. My other dog is 11 years old, but Jack Russells tend to live a long life, so we enjoy each day we have with him, and hope he’ll be around for a few more years. We see the puppy in his eyes, but he also has trouble jumping on the sofa, and chases his toy with a lot less energy than years ago

    Sorry, I am rambling…

  15. Margie says:

    Sweet salad….
    Sweeter puppy.

  16. Lucie says:

    Ahh–looks so delicious! I’ve actually never had pre-seasoned tofu before as it’s not widely available in France…but definitely making me hungry!!

  17. Ruth Ann says:

    I love Kaweah, she reminds me so much of our black lab growing up.
    I like what you had to say about a crisp winter of cold silent white. I guess that it could be really nice for reflecting (that is, if you have a warm coat, hat and gloves.) For now, I’ll enjoy our California “winter”.

  18. jenyu says:

    LimeCake – I have had those before, but not in this salad. You’re right, they’d be perfect.

    Ruth – it’s hard to see them age, but the best we can do is make sure their final years are happy ones.

    Caitlin – yeah, I have a whole jar of the oil sitting in my fridge… I’d probably use about 1/4 cup or less on 4 blocks of dried tofu. I’m guessing a block is about 2 ounces in weight. I think. I’ll edit the recipe.

    Marti – regular peppercorns are very different from Sichuan peppercorns. You can probably find Sichuan peppercorns in the spices or dried items of an Asian grocery store. Definitely try to find pressed tofu first. There are different kinds (one isn’t really seasoned and another kind is – but I think it’s more than just soy sauce, it’s probably spiced with 5-spice as well).

  19. Etsuko Kawski says:

    I found Mark Bittman’s cooking videos together with Jill Santopetro’s Tiny Kichen at recently. They are fun to watch and very inspiring. I’m about to try spelt crackers.

    I always see Chinese celery at a local oriental market but I didn’t know what to do with it. Now I can try this recipe! Thanks.

  20. Everyday Southwest » Enlightened Classic Tacos Recipe: Surprise! It’s Tofu! says:

    […] Baked Tofu, Kalyn’s Kitchen Crispy Rice and Tofu Balls, Just Bento Tofu Tacos, Former Chef Tofu Celery Salad, Use Real Butter Grilled Tofu and Peppers Tacos, […]

  21. Diane Baum says:

    Sounds yummy-want to try it

  22. Karen Gonyea says:

    Looks like a wonderful recipe, can’t wait to try it out !!

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