Being a vegetarian doesn’t mean subsisting on steamed broccoli and bowls of pasta. In her monthly column, nearly lifelong vegetarian Sarah Jampel will tackle cooking, eating, and navigating the world meat-free—even when her grandma still doesn’t know what she makes for dinner.
Approximately 95 percent of the flavor in this Black Pepper Tofu and Asparagus, which is inspired by a favorite Yotam Ottolenghi recipe, is built on one tablespoon of humble black peppercorns, coarsely crushed.
Of all the sources of heat—fresh chiles, dried chiles, crushed chiles, fermented chiles (a.k.a. hot sauces)—black pepper is the one I can always count on to be around, but also the one that I’ve consistently taken for granted. Because black pepper’s on the counter, just lying in wait in the grinder, I tend to forget it exists. It doesn’t feel special. (Sounds like a lot of quarantine relationships, huh?) I grind it over eggs and into salad dressing, but, full disclosure, I sometimes worry that it’s just for show. Can I even, um, taste it?
But the truth is that black peppercorns can be as fruity, fragrant, and downright spicy as other sexier (or at least more colorful) pepper products. Treat them right and they’ll be so flavorful as to make other aromatics unnecessary. Just look at Chinese salt and pepper fish, Roman cacio e pepe, Cambodian beef lok lak (black pepper beef), and the Indian murgh kali mirch (black pepper chicken), among so many other examples.
In dishes where black pepper serves as a foundational flavor, not just a garnish afterthought, the key is to crush whole peppercorns, then bloom them. Freshly cracked pepper (do this with a mortar and pestle or a spice mill, or dump the peppercorns onto a rimmed baking sheet and use a cast iron to pound them) is coarser and more potent than the pre-ground stuff; cooking it in hot fat does even more to extract its best flavors, which will be passed on to whatever you add to the pan next.
In this tofu stir-fry, you’ll sizzle cracked peppercorns in oil until the spice makes you want to crack a window. Once it’s smelling good, add chopped asparagus (though another quick-cooking vegetable, like peas, chopped cabbage, peas or sliced snap peas or snow peas, would work), tofu that’s been coated with cornstarch and pan-fried (drained and rinsed chickpeas would also be good, as would crumbled tempeh), and ginger, garlic, sugar, and soy sauce. The veg is crisp-tender, the tofu is crispy-gone-soggy, and both are coated in a super savory sauce that adds a sinus-clearing heat. Oh, and once you’ve got the tofu pressed, it comes together in about 15 minutes.
For me, someone who hasn’t seen a serrano in weeks and can’t remember the last time I had a bottle of sambal in the fridge (I MISS YOU), it’s nice to realize that black peppercorns are all I need to bring that heat. Like my quarantine buddy, they’ve been there all along.
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