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Dec 23, 2012

Bean Curd Stick Salad

I am really obsessed with bean curd stick salad with celery. Like, so obsessed I have calculated just how often I can order the bean curd stick salad from the dumpling joint without drawing attention to myself,  and yet still manage to cave and break the rotation (thereby ensuring that I do, in fact, draw attention to myself). Every time I call to order, I feel like Miranda in that episode of Sex and the City when she convinces herself that the lady who always takes order at the Chinese restaurant is picking on her for being single, because, she giggles each time she calls, “I KNOW, same order, every DAY, hahahaha.”

There is the same girl at Palace Dumpling every day, all day, and she takes my order each time, fried pork scallion dumplings and bean curd stick salad, and each time she reminds me that I always get the same thing. This is especially charming when I actually go to eat at the restaurant with friends, because right after I bravely order my usual, she goes and throws me under the bus and informs the whole table that this is what I always order, all the time, as in every other day, like in a way that’s not normal. You would think that she would protect the privacy of her regulars, but nope, it’s full disclosure at the dumpling shop, so don’t do anything you wouldn’t want your mother to know about.

But, at the end of the day, I’m not about to let mild embarrassment and the disapproval of the dumpling lady keep me from my bean curd stick salad. There are more embarrassing things to be obsessed with anyway, like venti frappuccinos (I literally don’t know how people drink those in public without shame), fedoras or gin. Since when am I going to be shamed away from a tofu salad, two of the healthiest words combined?  Never! This is America, goddammit.

But, everything ends. The day came when my favorite dish wasn’t quite right. Must be a fluke. The next time, it’s a little too sweet. The time after that, the whole celery to bean curd skin ratio is totally off, and I was starting to get stressed. This is the pitfall of getting unreasonably obsessed with any particular restaurant’s particular something. Inevitably, one of the following things is going to happen: you will move, the restaurant will close, the dish will be discontinued, or the dish will just inexplicably not taste the same anymore.

So, as I have had to do with other things I have fallen in love with eating in the past, I had to figure out how to make this salad, which I figured wouldn’t be hard to do since it is, thankfully, a very, very simple dish. The hardest part, I found, was locating dried bean curd sticks!

I had first tried bean curd sticks in Shanghai. Our guide had ordered dinner for us before a Chinese acrobatic show and one of them was a simple sauté of thinly sliced scallions and celery and carrots with szichuan peppercorns and bean curd stick. The texture was really interesting, meaty and rubbery and oddly satisfying. Before stumbling upon it again at Palace Dumplings in Wappinger Falls, I had actually forgotten about it. I found that the bean curd sticks were a little hard to track down in my local Asian grocery store, so I made the hike out to Kam Sen Asian Market in the White Plains Mall. The market takes up the first floor of the building and is packed with everything Chinese (and an Indian, Mexican and American section as well). You could find almost anything Chinese there, a good selection of Korean foods and some Japanese items. It is really a fun place to just poke around, and I spent two hours there just pouring over the different products and ingredients. They also have an extensive Chinese tea collection and a whole department of Chinese herbs and medicines, which you don’t normally see in these kinds of markets. They also had an extensive selection of fresh seaweeds and hard to find fresh produce like king oyster mushrooms, jackfruit and Chinese string beans. Also, everything is very inexpensive: I walked away with 3 bottles of cooking oil, two vinegars, fresh vegetables, herbs and spices for about $35.

So I tried searching for a recipe for bean curd stick salad that seemed similar to Palace Dumpling’s, and I couldn’t find anything that even resembled it, so I had to figure it out. I soaked my bean curd sticks overnight for about 12-18 hours before using them. I actually soaked them in plain water, so they tasted like rubber bands when I started to make the salad. I had to then soak them in the brine for a couple hours so they could get that nice, salty sweet sesame flavor. In hindsight, the sticks should just be rehydrated in the brine itself to get the best flavor and save time.

I did the same process with the celery and broccoli, just soaked them up in the brine for a little bit so that everything takes on the subtle flavors that makes Palace’s salad so addictive (that, and MSG. But i ain't scared of no MSG; It's fabulous.. The soaking process, I found, was essential to draw the sharp celery and sulfuric broccoli taste out of the vegetables and replace them with the salty sweet water of the brine.

Tossed together, you would have a pretty good knockoff of the original, but I decided to give the salad a little more flavor. I always added chiu chow oil to my salad when I would eat it in the restaurant, and so I decided to make a nice, light chili dressing to drizzle over the salad. Roughly equal parts chiu chow oil, soy sauce and rice vinegar with thinly sliced scallions brought a spicy, savory zing to the dish that it was lacking before. The dressing paired perfectly with the sweet and savory taste of the salad and the smoky flavor of the toasted sesame left a lingering aftertaste. Yum. Yum. Yum.

 

Spicy Pepper Bean Curd Stick Salad

Ingredients

  • 4 cups warm water
  • 2 tablespoons salt
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 3 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
  • 6 ounces dried bean curd stick
  • 2 celery stalks sliced thinly
  • 4 ounces broccoli florets
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons rice vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon chili oil
  • 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
  • 1 scallion thinly sliced

 

Method

Combine water, salt, sugar and sesame oil to create a brine. Soak bean curd sticks in two cups of the brine for 6-12 hours or overnight and reserve the rest for later.

Blanche celery for one minute and shock in ice bath till cool. Drain celery and dry thoroughly with paper towels  and then cover with brine in a small bowl and set aside for 15 minutes. Blanch broccoli florets for 2 minutes, shock, drain and dry and then cover with brine in a small bowl and set aside 15 minutes.

Drain bean curd sticks, celery and broccoli from brine and toss together. Combine soy sauce, rice vinegar, chili oil, sesame oil and scallion and stir to make a dressing. Drizzle scallion chili dressing over salad and serve.

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