Vegetarian Ma Po Tofu


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In my first months of blogging, way back in the middle of 2011, I posted one of my absolute favourite recipes, Ma Po Tofu, which is a Sichuan classic and is seriously addictive – if you like chilli that is. It is incredibly easy to cook and after a manic day it is the perfect pick-me-up-food that takes no time to prepare. Over the years however, I have found that I am increasingly making it without the pork mince element and keeping it to a more vegetarian dish by including simply tofu and fresh (or sometimes frozen) spinach.

Recently in Hong Kong I began to judge eating establishments on how well they could cook Ma Po Tofu and Dan Dan Noodles as I had a acquired a taste for both dishes.

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Tofu I know divides opinion, but I am definitely in the camp of someone who loves it. It wasn’t an immediate love affair, but one that has grown over time to the extent that I always have tofu in the house, ready and waiting for me to make a last minute Ma Po Tofu dish or my other favourite tofu dishes, roasted harlequin squash with tofu, kale and coriander in a miso curry paste, black pepper tofu and soba noodles with tofu, aubergine and mango. Seriously give them all a try – I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

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Tofu, or bean curd as it is also known, is hugely nutritious, versatile and a great vehicle for flavour. It’s rich in protein and low in fat, especially saturated fat. Yes, eaten on its own it is rather plain, but the point of tofu is to incorporate it with other flavours which it will help to enhance and lift. There are a myriad of different types of tofu, but the one I tend to use the most is ‘firm, silken tofu’ . I am going to be cooking some more tofu dishes over the course of this year, hoping that I may convert a few followers to the joys of tofu eating.

So here is what you need for the vegetarian version of the dish.

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Vegetarian Ma Po Tofu

Serves 2/3

349g silken tofu (or a similar amount)

2 large handfuls of fresh spinach

1 tbsp vegetable oil

1 clove of garlic, finely chopped

2 spring onions, chopped

2 tbsp of chilli bean sauce (Lee Kum Kee’s I find works really well)

125ml of vegetable stock (fresh or a cube)

1 tsp shaoxing wine

1 tsp of soy sauce (light or dark)

2 tsp of sugar

1/4 tsp of sea salt

a good pinch of crushed Sichuan peppercorns

1/2 tsp of sesame oil

1. Cut the tofu into small (2cm) cubes and place to one side.

2. In a shallow pan heat the vegetable oil and then add the garlic and spring onions, stirring for around 30 seconds. Then add the chilli bean paste and mix into the garlic and spring onions.

3. After a minute add the chicken stock, shaoxing wine, soy sauce, sugar and salt and bring to the boil.

4. Add the spinach to the pan and gently fold into the hot sauce.

5. Once the spinach has begun to wither add the tofu and carefully spoon the sauce over the tofu, making sure not to break up the cubes. Leave to gently simmer for a couple of minutes.

6. Serve into a large bowl and sprinkle the Sichuan peppercorns and sesame oil and gently mix together.

Serve alongside small bowls of rice and hot cups of piping Jasmine/Chinese tea.

Perfect for this cold snowy weather.


Lazy Florida days and a healthy option omelette

We have now returned from 10 blissful days in the Florida Keys and Miami. Nine hours on a plane transported us to the depths of summer where the sun shone and a gently cool breeze drifted off the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, giving us a little respite from its warm rays . I’d been to Key West once before but had flown directly onto the island so had not fully grasped how spectacular the drive from the Everglades to the southern tip of Florida – Key West – actually was. There are over 1700 islands in the coral archipelago that makes up the Florida Keys, but only 43 are inhabited connected by bridges, the most spectacular being the seven mile long bridge. We stayed on the beautiful Islamorada and whiled away the days swimming, snorkeling, sea kayaking, seeing dolphins and fishing from the jetty.

A coral reef stretches to almost as far as the eye can see and this coupled by bath warm still waters provided the perfect sea for the whole family to feel safe from deep swells.

We spent a leisurely day driving up to the tip – Key West – and back to Islamorada. Key West seemed to have expanded  somewhat since I was last there 18 years ago, as you would expect, but step off the touristy Duval Street on to the side streets and you will find the the beautiful weather boarded houses covered with bougainvillaea which have remained the same since the days of Ernest Hemingway. The pace of life is slow and it doesn’t take long to feel the stresses of everyday life lift off you when you spend time in the place.

Being only 90 miles from Cuba, therefore closer to Cuba than Miami, the island definitely has more of a Caribbean than American air to it. Many Cubans moved permanently to Key West from the 1860’s  following the ‘Ten Year War’ and with the Cubans came the arrival of the rooster (due to their love of cockfighting), to the extent that today virtually every street has a rooster wandering down it. Cockfighting was outlawed in 1970 but the roosters have remained free to wander at their will around the streets.

Mr B and I ate one of the most delicious lunches whilst in the US at a place called Mangoes, a ‘Tuna, Crab and Avocado Tower’. It was absolutely divine, seriously off the charts. It consisted of  tuna tartar, blue crab, layered avocado, plum tomato, cucumber, field greens and arugula (or rocket for us Brits!) and finished with a tomato vinaigrette and scallion infused oil.  I am going to have to replicate a similar dish and put it here on my blog in the future. Fresh, healthy and delicious what more could I ask for !

Half way through our holiday we said our goodbyes to the Keys and headed to Miami, a city that none of us had visited before. I had high hopes for the place and was looking forward to seeing its art deco district, sample fresh healthy food and soak up the atmosphere on South Beach. I can honestly say that Miami totally lived up to our high expectations. OK, it’s not going to compare to the likes of Rome or Florence for history and culture, but for flamboyance, flair and basically great fun, it definitely rocks.


The pulse of the place is electric and it’s definitely a place that promotes healthy living. South beach is stunning and stretches for miles and all day there are joggers, cyclists, skate boarders, roller bladders and walkers using the board walk that runs parallel to the beach. The beach is exceptionally wide owing to the fact that the part nearest the board walk has concrete underneath with sand on top, which gives it an easier surface to jog for those who want to run on the beach. It’s appearance however, completely blends in naturally with the rest of the beach. I was rather taken by the stunningly painted (mostly pastel shades) life guard huts that are scattered down the beach. There are 125 life guards covering 8 miles of beach and every couple of hundred meters sits another beautiful hut for them to survey the waters and swimmers within their view.

Up until the 1980’s Miami was a no-go zone for tourists, in fact it supposedly had the highest murder rate in the whole of the US. The hit TV series ‘Miami Vice’ played it’s own part at bringing around the change from least desirable city to visit to the happening, tourist magnet it is today. The series put Miami on the map and with the help of the real life cops it cleaned up it’s act. I can honestly say that I was surprised by how safe Miami – well South Beach – actually felt. There was a police presence, but not a threatening in your face kind of presence.

Food wise we ate some delicious meals but there are a few observations I thought it might be interesting to raise here.

1. Portions in the US are SOOOOO BIG. Way bigger than here in the UK. On average I would say they are twice the size. I have a good appetite but even I found the portions to be far too large to be considered healthy for a grown adult. I realise that ‘doggy bags’ are common place in the US, less so here in the UK, and that most people like to take home the food they cannot eat. Just an idea, but why don’t restaurants serve smaller portions, charge less, and then the diners can finish all their plate without having to take home a ‘doggy bag’. Does everyone really like leftover brunch? As far as I could see there must be so much wasted food in the US. Also as the population is growing in girth it might be advisable for restaurants all over the US to join together and serve smaller portions so that the next generation do not have to deal with such first world problems as obesity.

2. Oranges come from Florida right? They even have them on their number plates, so you would expect that a fresh orange juice in a restaurant/diner would be pretty cheap. Oh no think again. Fresh orange and apple juice were so much more expensive than all the fizzy sodas that it is no wonder that people chose the unhealthy option if they are strapped for cash. We went to a few diners and they always seemed to have free refill for coke, lemonade etc, but never the healthy options such as fresh orange or apple juice. I found it rather off putting seeing grown adults drinking pint sized glasses of coke with their breakfast.  Also ordering a fruit salad for breakfast was always so much more expensive than ordering the unhealthy options.

3. Seeing Cops eating in diners was new for us. In the UK you would never see this. It’s not that they don’t eat when on duty – I am sure they do – but you never see a bunch of them chilling out for an hour or so eating a large fry up. I’m not saying this is a good or bad thing, just an observation we made.

4. Average steak size in the UK is 12/14oz. In the US it’s 22 oz. This tells you something right?

5. We had a fun brunch at ‘The Big Pink’ in South Beach, but a 5 egg omelette is just a little too much for one individual. A healthier option and one that was prepared for me when I was staying in Islamorada is the following and is without out doubt the tastiest and healthiest omelette ever. Seriously try it out and let me know what you think.

 Egg White Omelette with Fresh Spinach, Goats Cheese, Red Onion and Tomato

serves 1

3 egg whites, whisked

half a small red onion, chopped

half a medium sized tomato, chopped

small handful of fresh spinach

1 tbsp crumbled goats cheese/feta

olive oil

pinch of salt (optional)

1. Warm a pan/skillet and then add a little oil and the chopped red onion. Fry for 2-3 minutes before adding any other ingredients.

2. Add the tomatoes and spinach and after 10 seconds add the whisked egg whites, goat cheese and pinch of salt (optional).

3. Continue to whisk gently for up to a minute or just before the eggs set so as to make the omelette fluffy. Using a spatula press down lightly so as to bind the omelette together.

4. Gently fold over half the omelette using a spatula to create a half moon shape and again press down lightly for 20 seconds.

5. Tilt the pan/skillet and transfer omelette on to a plate.

6. Eat immediately, with a scattering of fresh spinach leaves on the side.


Florentine Lemongrass soup

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Spinach is one of those super foods that you can literally feel the goodness seeping into your body with every mouthful. When Catherine de Medici became Queen of France in 1533, she was so taken by spinach that she insisted it be served at every meal. Dishes that are cooked with spinach are known as ‘Florentine’, after Catherine’s place of birth – Florence. Hence the name I have given this delicious soup.

I know I tend to say this a lot in my blogs, but this really is super easy and takes no time at all – so perfect for a light lunch or for a starter when guests are coming over. You can prepare it in advance, freeing you up to have proper conversation without the worry of having to prepare the starter. Have you ever tried making souffles for a starter? Well believe me, the results are delicious, but it does involve a lot of care and attention and time away from your guests to get it right.

You can absolutely use fresh spinach here, but I often tend to use frozen as I always have bags of it in the freezer. This soup is versatile in that it tastes equally good in the summer or winter.

Florentine Lemongrass Soup

Serves 4-6

3 garlic cloves, chopped

1 onion, chopped

2 tbsp of olive oil

2 green chillies, deseeded and chopped

2 tsp of lemongrass paste (I use Barts)

1kg of spinach, frozen or fresh

2 pints/40 fl oz vegetable stock

400ml tin of coconut milk

juice of 2 limes

single cream to garnish, if desired

salt and pepper

1. In a large saucepan heat the olive oil and then fry the onions gently until they begin to become transparent – this should not take more than six minutes. Then add the garlic and chillies continuing to stir for a few minutes.

2. Add the vegetable stock and lemongrass paste and gently simmer for five minutes. Then add the frozen or fresh spinach and cover until they have completely wilted/defrosted. Once this has happened use a hand blender to blend the soup thoroughly.

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3. Add the coconut milk and lime juice and blend once again. Season to taste and garnish with single cream if desired.

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