From Too Many Chefs -

January 24, 2006
Spicy Green Beans and Tofu "Stir Fry"

I mentioned early this month that I was resolved to learn Chinese cooking this year. At our local fruteria, very fresh looking green beans were cheap (I'm telling you, live in an ethnic neighborhood if you cook), and I figured a Szechwan (or Sichuan, if you prefer) green bean-type dish would be a fine place to start. Maybe I'd add a little tofu for extra protein.

I'd recently used the aluminum top to a wok an ex-girlfriend had abandoned at my apartment years ago in her haste to get free of me. I wouldn't have minded her ditching the wok so much, but I'd given it to her as a present. Oh well, at least I had a wok (I thought).

I cut up my tofu, prepared a quick improvised marinade, went to get the wok and... And there was no wok. Only the top remained to be used to cover large skillets that had no top of their own. I'd forgotten that I'd thrown the rest of the wok and its gadgetry away months ago when I got a good look at it in my new cooking phase. It was made of cheap aluminum, and was not the sort of thing you'd want to use to make food for yourself or someone you liked.

But I did have a big old non-nonstick pot I'd bought from Amazon a month or two ago on special for next to nothing. It was huge, would stand up to high heat, and was made from an anodized aluminum so it should be safer to cook in than untreated aluminum. (Next time, it'll be a steel wok!)

I think the final dish turned out pretty well, especially for a first cut. I've cut the soy sauce back in the recipe here because the Redhead found it too salty and a little too spicy. I think she's right on the salt, but I like spicy so I'll tell you the straight story on what I used there.

Changes for the future: I will use Barbara's suggestion (from Tigers and Strawberries) to add some cornstarch or maybe some honey or molasses to the marinade next time and marinade the green beans too so the sauce sticks to the veggies. The tofu absorbed the marinade beautifully as is, but the beans felt under-sauced sometimes.

The big Calphalon pot worked great for this task. I will be doing some wok shopping soon, but until I do I think I have a decent enough substitute.

Spicy Green Beans and Tofu "Stir Fry"
1 1/2 pounds washed string green beans, tops and tails removed.
1 pound extra firm tofu
2 tablespoons soy sauce plus 2 tablespoons
2 tablespoons plus 1 tablespoon sesame oil
2 tablespoons mirin
2 teaspoons chopped ginger
3 minced garlic cloves
2 tablespoon sriracha "Rooster" hot garlic sauce
2 onions, sliced into long thin half moons
2 tablespoons lemon juice

Press the tofu on top of paper towels under a modest weight to press the water out of it, about 15 minutes. Put paper towels between the weight and the top of the tofu so water can be absorbed through top as well as out the bottom of the block.

Cut the pressed tofu into 1/2" cubes and place them in a tupperware-type container. Add 2 tablespoons of soy, the mirin, 2 tablespoons sesame oil, the garlic cloves, ginger, and hot sauce to the container. Close it up and shake gently until the tofu is completely covered with a well mixed marinade. Set aside and let soak for 20 minutes.

Put a tablespoon of oil in the bottom of a large non-non-stick pot or wok. Let it heat until touching the edge of an onion to the oil makes it sizzle violently.

Add the tofu and onions and stir well. Fry over high heat for about five minutes, stirring frequently. Add the green beans, lemon juice and soy and stir and toss well. Cover.

Let cook on high for 10 minutes, checking in every few minutes and stirring the pot. If it seems dry, add a tablespoon or two of water and keep cooking it covered to steam the beans.

After ten minutes take the beans and tofu mix off the heat and serve immediately.

Good as a main dish for 2-3 or as a side dish for 4-6.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at January 24, 2006 10:28 PM | TrackBack

If you want to go over to chinatown sometime, I'm game. I've been wanting to pick up a real wok (I have a calphalon non-stick wok that isn't bad) and and some bamboo steamers.

Posted by paul on January 25, 2006 at 9:37 AM

Carbon steel or cast iron are what you want for a wok.

(Don't get stainless--it heats too unevenly.)

The dish looks pretty good, Barrett, but I wouldn't marinate the green beans to make more sauce. You could do that, and it might work, but there are easier, less messy ways around it,

For one thing, you can blanch the green beans in boiling water for about a minute, then drain them and let them dry. This does a couple of things--it brightens the color of the beans, it softens the skin of the beans slightly--and changed the texture of it a bit.

That is the important part. For whatever reason, if I am stir frying green beans, the sauce clings to them better if I blanch them first. I think it has to do with the change in texture of the skin. Sauce seems to grab onto it better.

The trick is to not blanch them until you get rubbery beans when you stir fry them--hence, only a one minute blanch in boiling water.

Another trick you can do with the cornstarch marinade in the tofu--is cut the pieces of tofu slightly smaller--you have more surface area to expose to the marinade, so you have more flavor potential. You also have more surface area to expose to the hot wok, so you have more potential for browned goodness.

What I would do for more sauce is after you toss in the beans, and the sauce is really thick on the tofu (and kinda gloopy looking) you can thin it with rice wine or broth of some sort, and it will take on a consistency that will thicken and cling to the beans.

I hope that made some amount of sense--no coffee yet today....

Posted by Barbara on January 25, 2006 at 10:34 AM

Paul, consider yourself taken up on that offer.

Barbara, I thought about pre-cooking the green beans but it felt like cheating. I'm glad to hear that it might be a legitimate path. I will certainly try your sauce tip.

Hey, this Chinese cooking thing is looking promising.

Posted by barrett on January 25, 2006 at 10:58 AM

I think carbon steel wok is best because it's lighter weight than cast iron. I don't think I'd want to have to heft a cast iron wok around. (unless it was a mini wok)

We've never parboiled green beans when stir frying them. It didn't even occur to us! (One more pot to wash...) But if it makes the sauce cling better, maybe we'd better try it!

For another taste sensation, try this:

In vegetable oil, saute chili flakes til dark red. Add green beans and saute til they're half done. Add chopped ginger, garlic and crushed salted roasted peanuts. When the peanuts start to colour, add a little soy sauce and maybe a little water.

This is a fantastic foil to a sweeter stirfry (something with Hoisin sauce, say)


Posted by ejm on January 25, 2006 at 11:36 AM

This looks great, for a first try, especially. I love green beans in a stir-fry, and I'd definitely second Barbara on the blanching technique. Try tamari sauce instead of soy. I had to switch away from soy sauce when I had to cut out the gluten, but I never miss it. Tamari is so wonderfully rich. Just a few drops does the trick.

Posted by shauna on January 25, 2006 at 1:30 PM

I've been reading your site for a while now. I've always enjoyed the entertainment and practical values of it :-) After reading this post though, the Chinese in me had to speak up... hahah. Mirin is actually a japanese cooking wine. If you want to pick up a wok from Chinatown, also look for a chinese rice wine. It's clear, it gives your food that "oh-so-Chinese" fragrance, it comes in relatively small bottles, and it should be no more than 3 bucks in a chinese grocery store near you ;-)

Posted by Meggie on January 25, 2006 at 7:23 PM

Oh oh and to stir fry anything with soy sauce, the trick is to heat the oil, then put in your garlic/onion/ginger and make fragrant, then you put in your main ingredients, meats first. Don't put in your soy sauce until the meats or veggies have started to brown or appear cooked on the outside. When the surfaces of your food is cooked, pour in your soy sauce and quickly stir the content of the wok to coat everything, and within 30 seconds, pour at least 1/2 cup of water in, and cover. This is because food coats way better in soy sauce when it's cooked rather than raw, but once you put the soy sauce in, it burns very easily on high heat (thus the water). You cover to let the steam do the rest of the cooking.

Posted by Meggie on January 25, 2006 at 7:31 PM

Yeah--if you put your soy sauce in before the meat, you won't get the brown taste of the meat--it will simmer and steam in the soy sauce rather than sear on the wok.

Cantonese style cast iron woks are very thin and light--they are enamelled on the outside to give them strength--I have had mine for two years now, and have been stir frying with it more than three times a week and it does a beautiful job.

The thick American cast iron woks can do stir frying--but because they are so heavy, they are a pain in the butt.

For a Cantonese flat bottom (for an electric stove) or round bottom wok, order from Tane at the Wok Shop in San She is a great lady with the best prices on them, and she gives you seasoning and care instructions with the wok that are spot on.

The only thing about the thin cast iron, is if you drop it from up high, you can shatter it. I haven't managed it yet, so you may never have it happen to you.

Oh, and I second Meggie's suggestion for the wine.

Posted by Barbara on January 25, 2006 at 11:39 PM

I tried that string beans and tofu dish and it was a big hit. my nephew especially liked it and he's very picky about these things.

You might check out our site ( when you want something other than wine for all times of day/night. Now that i found you, I'll be sure to check in to see what other gems I might find. Thanks.


Posted by Hazel on January 25, 2006 at 11:49 PM

I'm wondering about the sesame oil. 3 Ts is a lot, but it's the only oil in the recipe. I use it more as a condiment - as part of the marinade - and I wouldn't have fried the tofu and beans in it. Doesn't it smoke at high temps?

Posted by Dorothy on January 26, 2006 at 9:31 AM

Dorothy - this is one of my first attempts at Chinese cooking, so I may very well have misused the sesame oil. I can tell you the final dish was pretty delicious, but my wife did find it a little fatty and thought I'd put butter in it.

I'm sure sesame oil smokes at a high enough temperature, but I didn't get it up to that temperature.

Posted by barrett on January 26, 2006 at 10:20 AM

I echo the thoughts on sesame oil. The sesame oil we buy is smoked sesame oil and we usually put just a little onto a finished dish. We usually stirfry in either peanut or safflower (or sunflower or canola) oil.


Posted by ejm on January 26, 2006 at 12:01 PM

Barrett--if your sesame oil is pale, it is for cooking. If it is dark brown--like the color of a Brazil nut shell, it is toasted, and is used in amounts of drops for flavoring.

Posted by Barbara on January 26, 2006 at 12:58 PM

Barbara, it was pale sesame oil. I have the other, but I haven't used it for nythig but marinades and dressings.

Ha! I guess I got lucky and sorta knew what I was doing, after all.

Posted by barrett on January 26, 2006 at 1:16 PM

I second Barbara's recommendation of The Wok Shop as a great source of carbon steel woks (and the oh-so-important seasoning instructions). An alternative, if you want a "wok" that's more all-purpose and maintenance-free, is Vollrath's 11-inch stir fry pan. It's nonstick, with a long handle that's great if you're doing the sauté flip maneuver, and it's great for stir frying, too. You do need to use a wooden (or Amco) spatula, so you don't ruin the nonstick coating. I paid $40 at a restaurant supply place, and I use the pan for everything.

Posted by lydia on January 29, 2006 at 8:09 AM

I hate green beans. Totally gross.

Posted by MJ on May 24, 2009 at 12:54 PM