Vegan: Braised Eggplant with Tofu in Garlic Sauce
Note: For the four weeks between January 14th and February 11th, I'm adopting a completely vegan lifestyle. Every weekday I'll be updating my progress with a diary entry and a recipe. For past posts, check here!
Woks are generally associated with super high heat, rapid cooking, and smoking hot oil, but there are other, gentler methods of cooking in one. Braising (or simmering) in a wok is about the simplest thing you can do with it. It doesn't require the crazy high heat you need for stir-frying (at least, no much of it) and it doesn't require mad flipping skills. In fact, it doesn't even require a lot of time, particularly when working with a tender vegetable like eggplant.
Wok-simmering is my go-to method for cooking eggplant. I like how the spongy flesh absorbs sauce and gets a tender, lightly chewy texture almost like soft braised meat. Many folks like to purge their eggplants by salting them and letting them rest before cooking them. I don't bother with this step, particularly not when using thing Chinese or Japanese eggplants, which basically have no bitterness whatsoever and thus don't need to be purged (even modern cultivars of globe eggplants have very little bitterness).
What I do do to them is par-cook them either by steaming in a bamboo steamer set over my wok, or (as is more frequently the case these days), by microwaving them until completely softened. Par-cooking not only gets them to cook more evenly, but it also speeds up the whole process. Rather than having to simmer for half an hour in the sauce until tender, with par-cooked eggplant the whole thing comes together in just a few minutes (even counting the 10 to 15 minutes it takes to par-cook, you're well in the green). This means less time standing and stirring, less time waiting for dinner, and more time to move on to bigger and better concerns like what you're going to be eating the next day.
Braised Eggplant with Garlic Sauce is a classic Sichuan dish that combines soft simmered eggplant, fermented soy beans, and a sweet, garlicky sauce. For this version, I like to add a few tablespoons of chopped up preserved mustard root (you can find this canned or jarred in any good Chinese market—if not, you can omit it. Its role is largely textural) and incorporate the garlic in a couple of ways: first, by cooking whole smashed cloves in oil to infuse it with flavor (I discard the cooked whole cloves), as well as sliced thin and sauteed along with the other aromatics.
The sauce is a simple mix of Chinese wine, soy sauce, sugar, and fermented soybean paste (also available in Chinese markets). You can go with 100% eggplant if you'd like, but I like to add cubes of firm silken tofu (my tofu of choice for braising) to transform this into a one-pot-meal.
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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Managing Editor of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.