Chinese Five Spice Tofu with Black Bean Noodles

A few weeks ago, following a couple of nights away from home with the girls, my sweetie took me out to dinner. We went to our usual, The Bobcat Cafe, a mere seven miles from home, where they brew their own beer and have a rotating menu based on what’s in the garden that season. I hadn’t been in a while so one menu item popped out at me, Chinese Five Spice Seared Tofu served on a bed of black bean noodles with sesame cabbage slaw and cashews. I was imaging noodles made of black beans, but when it arrived it was even better. Crispy triangles of spicy tofu atop a bed of noodles doused in just the right amount of black bean sauce and spice. I studied it carefully and I knew I had to make this at home. And the other evening I did!

I admit, my version wasn’t as good as the Bobcat’s, probably for the mere reason I didn’t use as much oil as they did. The noodles (which got really sticky and probably needed some oil or water before adding the dressing) got a thumb’s up from my audience; the tofu, not so much. Chinese Five Spice resembles more of a cookie spice than one you’d find in an entrée; it has a variety of compositions, but some of its main ingredients are star anise, cloves, cinnamon, Sichuan pepper, and ground fennel seeds. It worked for the Bobcat, maybe next time I’ll use even less of a dusting. If you’re interested in trying the spice, get a little bit at your coop, that’s where I buy all my spices; bought in smaller amounts, your spices will stay fresher–and you’re saving money than buying a whole container of a spice you’ll use for one dish. At $16 a pound, I paid 65 cents, and I have a little bit leftover for another dish.

I liked this dish, and will probably make this again with some tweaks, like adding a tiny bit of oil and cooking water to the noodles. It was easy to put together on a work night, took about 30 minutes from beginning to end, and served with a quick saute of summer vegetables, dinner is ready!

Chinese Five Spice Tofu with Black Bean Noodles
• 2 cubes, fresh tofu, cut horizontally, so you have four pieces
• Chinese Five Spice (found in an ethnic grocer or your coop)
• About four cups cooked noodles (I had leftover lo mein noodles in my cupboard, but any mild, thin noodle will do)

Black Bean Dressing
• 2 teaspoons black bean sauce
• Rice vinegar to thin the sauce
• 1 large teaspoon sambal oelek (fresh chili paste), or to taste (if you don’t have that on hand, chili flakes can be substituted)

Heat some mild oil in a skillet and when hot, add the tofu, turning from side to side until crispy. Place on a plate when they are done and when they are cool, add a sprinkle of the Chinese Five Spice on each side. Cut into triangles and set aside.

In a small bowl, mix the dressing together. Add more sambal oelek if you like things spicy! Set aside.

Cook the noodles in a large pot according to directions. Drain and place in a large bowl. (**Add a little bit of mild oil and/or cooking water if you don’t want the noodles sticky!**) Add the dressing and mix until all the noodles are covered with sauce. On a plate, add about a cup of noodles and two tofu triangles. Eat! Serves four.

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I listened to Alice Waters of Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California, on a podcast to and from work the other day. The restaurant is celebrating its 40th anniversary this week! Listening to her talk about food, the flavor of how eating in season is best, and her vision of having a restaurant where people ate good food around a table together was wonderful and inspiring. You can listen to it here, http://www.npr.org/programs/fresh-air/ or pick it up on iTunes.