Tofu gets a reputation as a meat substitute in Western kitchens, but many Chinese recipes actually combine tofu and meat into one extremely satisfying meal. There are a lot of homey recipes based on simply steaming silken-style tofu and topping it with a simple sauce of sautéed meat with a light gravy. Typically, this includes minced shrimp, ground chicken, or pork, flavored with Chinese preserved vegetables or a julienne of scallions and ginger.
But I wondered what would happen if I replaced that meat with some spicy Italian-style sausage from my local American supermarket. Surprisingly, it worked, and it got me on a spree of testing various Western-style sausage mixtures with my tofu, running through turkey and chicken sausages, and even Mexican-style chorizo.
This particular sauce combination is my favorite, made with Italian sausage flavored with a touch of soy, sugar, sesame oil, and oyster sauce along with some dried shiitake mushrooms, cilantro, and scallions, all poured over soft silken tofu. Here's how I make it.
Season the Sausage and Hydrate Mushrooms
Combine a half pound of Italian sausage removed from the casings with a tablespoon of soy sauce, a teaspoon of sesame oil, and a quarter teaspoon of sugar. One of the great things about store-bought sausage is that it's packed with flavor, so you can skip the long marinating step that many Chinese recipes call for when using unseasoned ground meat (though it doesn't hurt to let it rest up to overnight if you've got the time).
Meanwhile, I also rehydrated five dried shiitake mushrooms in a half cup of hot water, letting them soak for five minutes before draining and slicing them and reserving the liquid for my sauce.
Steam the Tofu
Soft silken tofu is my preferred tofu for this dish to get the best textural interplay between the tender, custard-like tofu and the meaty sauce. The texture and the taste just won't be the same if you substitute it with cottony or firm tofu.
The best thing about silken tofu is the texture, but it can be a little tricky to handle. When un-boxing the tofu, make sure it's on the plate you will be steaming and eventually serving on. It should be at least 8 1/2 inches wide and 1 inch deep. Gently flip the tofu onto the plate and wiggle it out. Rinse the tofu under low running cold water. Place the palm of your hand on the side of the tofu, tilt the plate, holding the tofu back, and carefully drain the water out. Don't worry if you can't get all of it out.
Set up a steamer insert and bring an inch of water to a boil. I like to use my 5 1/2 quart pot with a steam rack in the middle.
Place the plate of tofu in the steamer and close the lid, then let it steam until heated through, about 5 to 10 minutes. Once it's done you'll notice there's water on the plate. Like before, carefully tilt the plate back and spoon as much of the water out as you can. You don't have to get every last drop of it out. It's more important the delicate tofu stays intact.
Once it's ready, carefully spoon off any excess water and cover the plate with foil to keep the tofu warm.
Cook the Sauce
Cook the sausage and the rehydrated mushrooms in a skillet over medium-high heat, breaking up the sausage with a spoon, until just starting to turn golden. The sausages should give up enough fat on their own that you won't need to add any more.
While the sausage cooks, stir together the mushroom cooking liquid, a half teaspoon of sesame oil, a teaspoon of soy sauce, 2 teaspoons of oyster sauce, and a half teaspoon of cornstarch
Once cooked, pour in the sauce and bring it to a simmer, allowing it to thicken.
Pour Sauce Over Tofu and Serve
As soon as the sauce thickens, it's done. Just pour it right over the silken tofu, sprinkle with scallions and cilantro, and serve, along with a side of white rice.