Hooray!  It’s time to kick off the 2012 Best Recipes series: drool-worthy, conversation-stopping, routine-altering recipes published in the last year. We’re going in order of publication – so we’ll begin with Andrea Nguyen’s magnificent tofu book, published in February.

The book:  Asian Tofu, by Andrea Nguyen (10 Speed, $30)

The recipe:  Pan-fried Tofu with Mushroom and Spicy Sesame Sauce

Why I tried it:  It was initially  one more excuse to pull out the shiitakes, which I adore.    Also, it’s not always easy to achieve a crisp exterior when frying tofu, though it’s irresistible when you get it right.  So it was a good litmus test for the book – was Nguyen really going to lead us to crisp-tofu nirvana? Or would we be left fumbling cluelessly on our own (which is what usually happens)?

Why I loved it:  Crisp exterior achieved! by thoughtful slicing, draining, blotting–and a nonstick pan (who knew?)  But the real payoff came when the fried mushrooms met the sesame sauce.  I don’t know how it is that those predictable ingredients – soy, sesame, garlic, scallions – can constantly offer flavorful surprises.  Yet they do. The thinly sliced mushroom caps attain a slight golden crust of crispness, yet remain porous enough to absorb sauce like nobody’s business.

The recipe may seem long on first read, but it’s one of those cases where Nguyen is just being careful so things are crystal-clear.  The whole thing doesn’t take more than 30 minutes, even when you include making the sauce. (I usually hate turning to another page in a book to make a sauce, but it was totally worth it this time.)

Estimated preparation time: 30 minutes*.
*once you’re familiar with the recipe, and if you don’t mess around.

Panfried Tofu with Mushroom and Spicy Sesame Sauce

Serves 4 with 2 or 3 other dishes

1 pound firm or extra-firm tofu
8 ounces assorted fresh mushrooms, such as enoki, shimeji, oyster, and shiitake
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 big pinches salt
2 big pinches black pepper
1/3 cup Korean Seasoned Soy Sauce (recipe below)

1.  Cut the tofu into chunky matchboxes, each about 1 1/2 inches by 2 inches by 1/2 inch. Line a plate with a non-terry dishtowel or double layer of paper towels. Place the tofu on top to drain for about 15 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, give each type of mushroom a very quick rinse under water to knock off any debris. Hold enoki and shimeji by the cluster. If you are using enoki or shimeji, trim and discard the sandy material that the mushroom grew in. The cluster should naturally fall apart. Trim oyster mushrooms at the ends and separate into individual ones. Tear large ones lengthwise into bite-size pieces. Trim and discard shiitake stems, then slice the caps a good 1/8 inch thick. Set the mushrooms aside.
3. Heat the oil in a large nonstick skillet over high heat. Blot the tofu pieces before pan-frying them until golden, about 3 minutes per side. Transfer to a serving plate and keep warm.
4. Add the mushrooms to the pan and sprinkle in the salt and pepper. Cook, stirring, for about 2 minutes, until the mushroom are soft, fragrant, and about half of their original volume.
5 Arrange the tofu on one large plate or individual plates. Top with the mushrooms and sauce. Serve hot or warm.

Korean Seasoned Soy Sauce
makes about 1/3 cup

2 tablespoons Korean or Japanese soy sauce
1 tablespoon water
1 1/2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 to 2 teaspoons sugar
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon Korean red pepper powder (gochu garu) or other red pepper
2 tablespoons lightly packed finely chopped green onion, white and green parts
2 to 3 teaspoons sesame seeds, toasted then crushed with a mortar and pestle

1. In a small bowl, stir together the soy sauce, water, sesame oil, and sugar, until the sugar has dissolved. Add the garlic, red pepper powder, green onion, and sesame seeds. Set aside for about 15 minutes for the flavors to develop. The sauce can be made in advance and refrigerated for up to a week.
2. This sauce can dramatically change its characteristics as it sits. Right before using, taste the sauce again and make any last-minute tweaks. You want a strong savory-spicy-slightly-sweet finish because the tofu that will be served with this is not highly seasoned.

Reprinted with permission from Asian Tofu © 2012 by Andrea Nguyen, 10 Speed Press.