Mapo Dofu With Ramps: Quite Possibly The Greatest Food Ever
I've never hidden my love for Mapo Dofu, the Sichuan dish of soft silken tofu flavored with beef and mouth-numbing, citrusy Sichuan peppercorns. Hot in more ways than one, comforting and addictively spicy, I love the way the smooth, silken tofu slips down your throat in its slick of hot roasted chili oil, the texture livened up by tiny bits of ground beef with the heady aroma of fermented broad beans, garlic, ginger, and chili paste. When prepared right, it should arrive at the table nearly bubbling hot with a crimson red, lava-like appearance.
Mapo dofu is hardly what you'd call seasonal fare. Indeed, one of the things I like most about it is that it requires barely any fresh ingredients whatsoever. Based mostly on dried spices, preserved condiments, tofu (which I always have in the fridge), and just the tiniest bit of meat, it's a dish that I can throw together any time of year. It's equally comforting on a cold winter afternoon as it is on a hot summer's night when I don't feel like doing anything beyond firing up the wok for the five minutes it takes to make.
But it doesn't have to be a season-less dish. The past few years I've taken to adapting it to the spring by adding in a few big handfuls of sliced ramps, the ephemeral wild spring onions that how up by the bushel at farmers' markets (or if you're lucky, sister's backyards*).
They make a great substitute for the garlic, though I tend to go overboard and add a big bunch of them to the wok. The wilt down fast and look like they're going to be insubstantial, but ramps pack a lot of flavor and give it up willingly to their compatriots in the pot. The stir-fried ramps lend the oil (which you've already steeped with Sichuan peppercorns) a deep, aromatic, onion-y flavor which subsequently gets carried throughout the whole dish.
Now I know how food math works and that most of the time adding two things you like together doesn't give you something you like even more (think: Sour Patch Kids and raw hamachi), but this is a case where there truly is some good synergy at work. Ramps almost belong in mapo dofu. The two buttress each other, producing a dish that, while it may not be the greatest dish in the world, certainly belongs on the same album.
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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer 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.