Mapo Minus the Tofu

Brett and I went to Mission Chinese on East Broadway in New York City last January, just after it opened.  I suspect they have worked out the kinks since then because people seem to love it, but we had a terrible meal that night.

I had heard their mapo tofu was not to be missed.  Even after a ropy lamb shank and weird coconut cocktail that was on its way to becoming pudding, the tofu was the biggest let down.  Brett was skeptical on pressed soy to begin with—and still is. But I had the misplaced confidence that with enough pork and beef fat we could change all that.

Ours came so salty that it was barely edible and laced with enough Sichuan pepper that to this day it still elicits numb tongue jokes.  For two people who will eat pretty much anything you put in front of them, the mapo went unfinished. 

After that, I was inspired to make the dish myself.  Though it took some months to revisit.  It was enough time for Lucky Peach to publish a few recipes on mapo—including the Mission Chinese version with a suspiciously miniscule amount of Sichuan pepper.

I suspect their recipe is actually quite good and the kitchen was likely still finding its groove that night.  But I settled on another recipe from Han Dynasty in Philly, which ended up being incredibly delicious.  It has been adapted and tailored a great deal since then, mostly due to my low energy search for doubanjiang.  And my contempt for chili oil made using cheap soybeans.  And my habit of keeping chicken stock frozen, so it cannot lend itself to impulse or whim.  And our coupled indifference towards tofu, which I am ashamed to admit as a healthcare professional, was phased out altogether.

Turns out, the dish is quite good solely with beef—I often use ground veal because I can get a quasi-local source—or pork. I may try adding back some soy in the form of edamame.  But in the meantime, the recipe remains heretically tofu free.

It still feels like a fairly wholesome dish—and a fairly fast one to recreate, perfect for a Friday night supper.  The healthy dose of aromatics in the form of ginger, garlic, and leek is crucial, as is the Sichuan pepper. But the amount of oil originally called for in the recipe is not.  I jettisoned a half cup so we could eat it more regularly as a lighter meal.

I doubt the cooks at Han Dynasty would recognize the recipe.  But to quote Lucky Peach, “the mapo tofu galaxy is one of infinite possibilities, spiraling outward from an originally spicy, oily, numbing, meaty sauce/stew of Sichuan origin.”

This is one meaty mission I can get behind, with just the right level of numb tongue.

Mapo Veal


3 to 4 large cloves garlic, minced
3 tbsp minced fresh peeled ginger
1 leek, white and light green parts well cleaned, split lengthwise, and thinly sliced
1½ to 2 cups uncooked white rice (see notes)
¼ cup canola oil
2 tbsp chili garlic sauce (such as Huy Fong)
2 tbsp hoisin sauce
½ pound ground veal (or regular beef or pork or lamb)
1 tbsp fermented black bean paste
1 tbsp gochujang (Korean chili sauce)
3 tbsp cornstarch
1 tbsp ground Sichuan pepper

Optional garnish: chopped cilantro


Make sure your garlic, ginger, and leeks are prepped and ready to go. 

In a medium saucepan, add the rice and 1½ times the quantity of rice of water.  (For instance, add 3 cups of water to 2 cups of rice.) Stir and bring to a boil uncovered, then reduce the heat to low and cover.  Cook for about 15 minutes or until the water is absorbed and the rice is fully cooked.  (Turn off the burner and keep the lid on for 5 to 10 minutes after the rice has finished cooking—the rice can sit longer, if necessary, while the sauce comes together.)

While the rice is cooking, heat a large saucepan on medium high heat, add the oil and the garlic and ginger; sauté until softened, about 2 minutes.  Stir in the chili sauce and then the hoisin.

Add in the ground meat, breaking it up with a spoon.  Cook for about 30 to 60 seconds, stirring occasionally, and then add in the leeks and cook another 60 seconds or so.  Stir in the black bean paste and gochujang.  Add in 2 cups of water and bring to a simmer over medium heat. 

In a small bowl, make a cornstarch slurry with 3 tablespoons of cold water. Add in the slurry and let the mixture simmer about 5 minutes, or until it thickens slightly.  (It should look like a thick chili.)

Stir in the Sichuan pepper.  Serve on top of rice with cilantro, if desired.

Serves 4 to 5

-I typically prefer basmati rice and this case is no exception.  The rice to water ratio may vary slightly depending on the type of rice you use. (I left a range for the rice, the resultant portion should be just enough for the sauce.)

-This would also be great with noodles instead of rice.


Sourdough Waffles, Without Conflict

There is an art to living with another human.  It is a delicate dance of neuroses.  A safari of previously hidden late night eating habits, secret cigarette stashes, and video games, exhumed. The migration of two people into one space inevitably unearths certain questions.

How many bottles of mezcal can be comfortably housed in one 500-square-foot apartment?

Does one find the practice of yoga in the living room charming or repulsive?

Is it acceptable to leave a trail of breadcrumbs in the jar of mayonnaise?  (It is not.)

Can a meal of beer or ladyfingers or cheese be consumed for dinner without judgment? 

Must one wear pants while doing so?

Where does our loose change go?  Does it get combined into a repurposed tin? Become stacked side by side in arranged identical piles?  Get tossed in the trash to avoid the discussion altogether?

The answers to such questions—minus the mayo contamination, which is unforgivable—are a barometer of insanity.  Best to know if your lunacy matches up before buying bed frames together.

All this to say Brett officially moved in today. (!)  While we don’t have all our personal peccadillos unpacked just yet, we typically agree on matters that matter.  And we are a solid match when it comes to breakfast.

So waffles are a safe bet.

We have a semi-regular weekend routine wherein Brett cooks the softest scrambled eggs in the slowest and loveliest of ways with the care and craft one might take to build a bird’s nest.  If we have cheddar cheese on hand, shreds of it get swirled into the eggs during their final moments in the pan.

Meanwhile, I press three waffles using batter prepped the previous night.  The first waffle always sticks a bit—which typically causes cursing as I prod it out of the iron using a fork, with the patience of a kindergartener.   (Ample greasing and preheating usually prevents this problem.)

If we are feeling fancy there is also bacon or hollandaise to be had, or maple syrup if I am too fragile or tired to deal with egg yolks or pork grease.

The waffles puff up like Belgians, offering crispy exteriors and fluffy insides with a slight tang. Like most things worth waiting for they require some forethought and, unfortunately, some sourdough starter—which necessitates tracking down a human that has some.  Or, perhaps, make your own.  

It is worth it.  These are waffles of finest quality. And they are highly unlikely to cause any cohabitation conflicts.  Unless it is about who gets the last one.

Sourdough Waffles


1 cup (200 grams) sourdough starter (not fed)
½ cup (55 grams) all-purpose flour
½ cup (60 grams) whole wheat flour
1 cup whole milk
1 tbsp sugar
1 egg
¼ tsp salt
½ tsp baking soda
2 tbsp olive or canola oil


The night before

In a large bowl, mix the starter, flours, milk, and sugar until well combined; cover with plastic wrap and place in the fridge overnight (ideally 10 to 20 hours ahead, see note below).

The day of

To the starter mixture, add the egg, salt, baking soda, and oil; stir to combine. 

To make the waffles, heat your waffle iron.  (Cooking instructions may vary slightly depending on the type you are using.  I have a Nordic Ware stovetop Belgian waffle maker and after greasing it with canola oil, I preheat each side a few minutes on the stovetop, flipping halfway through.)

Once the iron is preheated, pour in about 1/3 of your batter (or roughly 2/3 cup).  Close the iron and cook until the waffle is golden brown on both sides.  (If you are using a stovetop iron you’ll want to flip it after a few minutes to cook both sides evenly.)

Repeat with remaining batter.

Makes three 6-inch square waffles

-The whole wheat adds a nice nuttiness and I’d definitely encourage it.  The milk type can be swapped depending on your preference.

-Because the sourdough mixture rests in the fridge overnight, it benefits from being left on the countertop an hour or so to let the microbes warm up; this helps the waffles rise better. (But this is a living product and may need some individual tweaking.)

-They are best eaten the day of, but leftovers will keep a day or two in the fridge and can also be frozen.


Magically Delicious

Thirty-four was my scary age. 

The time at which, I was once told, my fertility would drop swiftly, like an Oldsmobile sailing off a cliff.  The time at which being unmarried and without a mortgage would place a searing spotlight on me as an adult fraud.  The time at which I would be guaranteed to die a grim death alone, perhaps eaten by pet canaries.

This, of course, is ludicrous.

I am not alone.  Plus most of my friends are now my scary age.  Which makes my impending situation less frightening. Strength in numbers.

But on the days my consciousness is dialed up, I can detect certain vicissitudes.

I notice that bodily things are starting to shift down, and spread.

I notice that my memory is not as elastic as it once was.  I find myself searching for words like chamomile and amuse-bouche.  This can no longer be correlated with prior gin ingestion, either.

I notice that my friends with children have all vacated the city.  Some days it feels like an emotional fallout shelter—where cultivated adult relationships are unreachable due to nuclear war caused by the whims of toddlers and unaffordable housing. 

I notice that some places I love have vacated as well.  Like the shockingly recently departure of River Gods, a bar that offered equally good beef and vegetable-based burgers; poured decent beers; and hung things like mermaids or witches or stars from ceiling, depending on the season.  I have had multiple friends live near River Gods.  They have since moved too.

But there are new homes of old friends to visit. There are new friends too. There are new restaurants and new recipes, like this frozen negroni I recently stumbled across. Because I am nearing thirty-four and still alive and enthusiastically capable of drinking something alcoholic made in a blender. 

I also recently found a recipe for cornflake chocolate chip marshmallow cookies from Momofuku Milk Bar that I thought might distract my aging corpse.  Except Corn Flakes were a common breakfast option growing up and I felt compelled to bake with the type of cereal that I was never allowed to eat as a child.  Because I am securely an adult and can do such things.

The result is a cookie with not one, but two forms of marshmallows.  It is a sweet dessert, for sure, but also salty and chewy and thereby addictive to any human with taste buds and a childhood rooted in the mid-twentieth century or beyond.

I mean, what kind of person is not, at least slightly, intrigued by such a cookie?  (No one I want to know.)  Or so I thought. 

Through some research I learned Lucky Charms are more or less glorified Cherrios (another Gelsomin sanctioned childhood breakfast) with added marshmallows.  These confections are officially known as marbits and were originally based on circus peanuts.  Circus peanuts!  Which I hate.

So there you have it, another story about getting older. More or less a collection of the truths we sell, stories mixed with the circus peanuts of youth and the Lucky Charms of adulthood. It is probably best not to take your marbits too seriously.  As Anne Lamott once wrote “the truth is we are all terminal on this bus.”

So I guess the new truth is that thirty-three plus is not a scary prospect at all, if you stay curious and adaptive. In fact, given some recent evidence, it’s magically delicious.

Toasted Lucky Charms Marshmallow Chocolate Chip Cookies
Inspired by Momofuku Milk Bar by Christina Tosi


for the toasted Lucky Charms crunch

100 grams (¼ cup plus 3 tbsp) butter
125 grams (3¾ cups) separated Lucky Charms oat cereal (without marshmallows)
30 grams (¼ cup plus 2 tbsp) dry milk powder (see notes)
20 grams (1½ tbsp) sugar
3 grams (¾ tsp) kosher salt

for the cookie batter

225 grams (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
250 grams (1¼ cups) sugar
150 grams (2/3 packed cup) light brown sugar
1 egg
2 grams (½ tsp) vanilla extract
240 grams (1½ to 2 cups) all-purpose flour (see notes)
2 grams (½ tsp) baking powder
1½ grams (¼ tsp) baking soda
5 grams (1¼ tsp) salt
230 grams (all the recipe, or about 3 cups) toasted Lucky Charms crunch (see instructions)
100 grams (1 cup of ¼-inch pieces) dark chocolate (see notes)
30 grams (about ¾ cup) mini marshmallows
45 grams (about 1½ cups) separated Lucky Charms marshmallows (marbits)


To make the toasted Lucky Charms crunch

Set the oven to 275 degrees.

In a small saucepan, melt the butter on medium to medium-low heat, swirling the pan occasionally, until it starts to caramelize and smell nutty (about 5 to 7 minutes).

Meanwhile in a medium bowl, place the separated Lucky Charms oat cereal and crush it with the end of a rolling pin until it is one-quarter of the original size (it is okay if pieces vary slightly in size). Add the milk powder, sugar, and salt and mix to combine. Pour in the butter and toss to coat (the mixture will get moist but not enough to clump together).

Line a sheet pan with parchment paper and spread the cereal mixture on the paper.  Bake for 30 or 40 minutes or until fragrant and slightly toasted in color. Let cool. (This can be made ahead of time and stored in an airtight container.)

To make the cookies

In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the softened butter, sugar, and brown sugar; cream together with a paddle attachment on medium-high for 2 to 3 minutes.  With a spatula, scrape down the sides and then add the egg and vanilla and beat for about 8 minutes.

Meanwhile in a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

Reduce the mixer speed to low, add the sifted dry goods and mix until the dough just comes together.  Remove the bowl from the stand and, with a spatula, add in the Lucky Charms crunch, chocolate, and both types of marshmallows; mixing until just incorporated.

Line a sheet pan with parchment paper and portion out heaping ¼ cup size scoops (about 50 to 60 grams each). Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate (ideally overnight but for a minimum of one hour).

When you are ready to bake, set the oven to 375 degrees.  Line a sheet pan with parchment paper and arrange the scoops of cookie dough four inches apart. (Two sheet pans can be prepared and baked at a time.)  Bake for about 18 minutes or until the cookies brown along the edges and the centers are no longer pale and doughy.

Cool the cookies on the sheet pans.  (They will harden as they cool, forming crisp edges and soft middles.)  Transfer to a plate or container.  Repeat until all the cookie dough has been baked off.

Makes about 20 cookies

-I like Meyenberg goat milk powder.

-For the flour, I went with the gram measurement (the book said 240 grams was 1½ cups but using my measuring cup it was closer to 2 cups).

-I used Wild Ophelia 70% dark chocolate laced with BBQ potato chips, because why not?

-Oh the picture?  We are celebrating a birthday of thirty-four, in the Boston Harbor.