Everyday Meals

black pepper tofu and eggplant

I spotted black pepper tofu on Ottolenghi’s Instagram last week, a fine place to gush over food. The recipe is from Plenty, an excellent cookbook that I happen to have, which means I could make it right away. However, rather than making it and then still feeling a loose obligation to make a vegetable side dish or salad, I decided to add eggplant. From there, everything went south. I don’t have three types of soy sauce. I can get them, theoretically, but I was feeling lazy about it. I was pretty sure five tablespoons of crushed peppercorns and eight thinly sliced red chiles would make my children run screaming from the room; 11 tablespoons of butter was a bit rich for my tastes. But here’s the thing with this and, I think, all recipes. Much ado is made about “internet recipe commenters” and their “I changed eight ingredients and it didn’t work, zero stars”-type presence on websites. I’m often asked how I don’t “lose patience” with these types of comments and here comes an opinion, you just know I had one brewing:

For the love of absolutely nothing holy, because this an internet recipe blog and not the 11th commandment, you are allowed to make every single recipe you come across any way you wish. Modify for the ingredients you have. Modify for the schedule you have or the free time you want. Modify for the nutrients you need. Recipes aren’t bibles; I am no goddess. I don’t find it annoying. I mean, we’re going to have to manage our expectations about the outcomes. Some changes work, some don’t, and we can talk about it, I’ll answer whatever I can as best as I can. But honestly the best thing you can do is to report back in the comments, that is, tell us what you changed and how it went, and help the next person with the question out.


Which is all to say [“Ugh, why are recipe headnotes so long?” lol] that I used one kind of soy sauce, a third of the butter, a tablespoon of black pepper, no chiles, I halved the tofu, added eggplant, and then I ultimately sheet pan-ed it. I didn’t only roast it because I’m nursing a hot pink two-inch burn on my forearm from dropping tofu in hot oil on the stove — if only 13 years of cooking experience here could have warned me about the ol’ water-oil issue — but because to make this entirely on the stove, you’ll need to fry tofu, and then the eggplant, and then make the sauce for 15 minutes and that adds up to a lot of time. By roasting the vegetables while you make the sauce, it comes together faster. Eggplant and tofu are fantastic together; the tofu holds its shape, the eggplant collapses and partly joins the sauce and the result was too dark and pretty to even bother garnishing with chiles or scallions, but you could. You’re in charge.

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Black Pepper Tofu and Eggplant

  • Servings: 2 to 3, with rice
  • Source: Smitten Kitchen

For high-heat cooking and roasting, I usuaully use safflower (currently this one) or sunflower oil. Shallots vary a lot in size but I used 4 to 5 medium/big ones for 1 1/4 cups shallots. This will be too salty with regular soy sauce. If it’s all you’ve got, use 6 tablespoons plus 2 tablespoons water. Cornstarch-coated tofu likes to sticky to roasting pans but I find by preheating the pan, using a thin spatula (this is my go-to), and not moving the tofu until it’s crisp and browned underneath, it’s not a problem.

  • 14-ounce package extra-firm tofu
  • Neutral oil for roasting (I use safflower)
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • 3/4 to 1 pound eggplant
  • Kosher salt
  • 3 to 4 tablespoons unsalted butter (the higher amount is slightly more rich)
  • 1 heaped cup thinly sliced shallots or 1 medium white or red onion, thinly sliced
  • 5 garlic cloves, peeled, crushed
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped ginger
  • 1/2 cup low-sodium soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon granulated or brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon crushed or very coarsely ground black pepper, and more to taste
  • Rice, for serving
  • Chile-garlic sauce, crispy chili oil, or sriracha for serving

Heat oven to 425 degrees F. Drain tofu and place on a few layers of paper towel with more over it; set aside for 5 minutes, or until needed. Drizzle 3 tablespoons oil over your largest baking sheet and place it on the oven to get very hot while you get everything else ready. Trim eggplant and cut eggplant into 1-inch pieces. In a large bowl toss with 1 tablespoon oil and a few pinches of salt. Remove hot pan from oven and spread eggplant over half to 2/3 the pan. Cut tofu into 1-inch cubes. Toss gently in empty bowl with cornstarch and a couple pinches of salt until coated. Spread on empty part of baking sheet.

Roast tofu and eggplant in oven for 20 minutes to start. After 20 minutes, use your thinnest spatula to gently separate the tofu from the pan and flip to crisp and brown on the other side, about another 10 minutes. Do the same with the eggplant. At 30 minutes, the tofu should be crisp and browned and the eggplant should be roasted and tender. If needed, cook it for 5 more minutes.

While tofu and eggplant roasts, prepare the sauce. Heat a large, heavy skillet over medium heat and add butter. Once butter melts, add shallots, garlic, and ginger. Reduce heat slightly and cook, stirring here and there, until everything is tender, about 11 to 14 minutes. Add the soy sauce, sugar, and black pepper and cook, simmering, for 3 minutes more. Add roasted tofu and eggplant to pan and stir to coat with sauce; cook for one to two minutes minute together. Serve over or with rice; add extra heat as needed.

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