In my family, Shabbos dinner were always epic. Friday night meant hordes of guests, a continuous parade of delicious food and raucous singing way into the night. These meals were the stuff of legends among our friends. People would finish up their dinners and stroll over to ours, ready to pull up a chair and join us with full confidence that we’d only be up to the gefilte fish. Honestly, it felt like a weekly party — a pre-Monday infusion of rock-out liturgical sing-offs and the most perfect sweet and sour meatballs you could imagine.
The real centerpiece of these fetes, though, was the steaming vat of profoundly flavorful and deeply soul-warming cholent. The cholent was, in a word, art on my mother’s part. It was endlessly saucy, hot, nourishing and thus, gorgeous. And the funny thing was, it wasn’t anything all that special — it was pretty much just your basic Eastern European Jewish stew like everyone else’s. And yet it was the most festive and delicious thing I could imagine eating.
I’m not really here to talk about cholent, though; I’m here to talk about what my mother’s not-so-special-yet-utterly-spectacular cholent bred. As a twenty-something, new to Brooklyn and to the well-behaved dinner parties to which its inhabitants were more accustomed than I (knowing only from rambunctious singing and Manischewitz-fueled jokes), I was determined to gain (at the very least) borough-wide fame for my Shabbos dinner creations, as my parents had before me.
I needed a signature dish. I wanted something with a bit more edge than cholent, a bit more kick — sacrilegious though it felt. All I knew is that —like the cholent — it needed to be saucy. But spicy! And, naturally, there needed to be a photo of it under “ultimate comfort food” in some imaginary dictionary.
I found it instantly and unexpectedly one day when I had an out-of-nowhere craving for peanut sauce. It was cold in my apartment that Friday afternoon and I had invited some new friends over for dinner. I was fretting over what to make — what would be brilliant enough to begin to contend with the meals of yore — then it came to me. Suddenly, as though possessed, the thick, earthy rounded flavor of a slightly kicky peanut sauce was all I could think about.
It quickly went from being the idea of peanut sauce to being one peanut sauce in particular — a college friend of mine (brilliant chef disguised as Political Science major) had made it frequently and served it up over simple fluffy rice and golden-fried tofu. I called her for the recipe, adapted it a bit myself, and went to it. I got the firmest tofu I could find, fried it up, and smothered it in dreamy, spicy peanut sauce. The ginger was key in the soul-warming department and the tofu nuggets absorbed the sauce, as they say, like butter. It has since – and for understandable reasons – become a Shabbos standby wherever I live, and for whomever ends up coming to dinner. And kind of like a lively spin on an old yiddishe folk tale about the ineffably delicious fragrance of Friday at sundown, this dish always smells like Shabbos to me.
Friday Night Tofu With Peanut Sauce
Cook’s Note: This recipe was passed on to me by a friend over the phone a number of years ago, so part of its beauty is its imprecision! I have also experimented with additions like rice vinegar, coriander, fresh chili pepper and/or actual peanuts. I often serve this with a side of kale or broccoli and a heap of peppery fried plantains with fresh lime
1 package extra-firm tofu (the firmer the better!), cut into cubes
2 tablespoons peanut oil
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 1/2 tablespoons of fresh grated ginger
2 - 4 cloves of minced garlic
2 tablespoons maple syrup
3/4 cup creamy peanut butter (either natural or the regular stuff will work)
2/3 cup soy sauce
3/4 cup hot water (adapt amount based on desired sauce thickness)
1/2 cup canned crushed tomatoes (unusual, I know! But it gives it a nice hearty and sweet undertone.)
Hot sauce to taste (I always err on the side of more!)
1) In a small saucepan, heat the canola oil over low-medium heat and sauté the ginger and garlic until fragrant and tender.
2) Add the tomatoes and soy sauce and continue to simmer.
3) In a separate bowl, combine the peanut butter and hot water to desired thickness; add to pan and stir until combined.
4) Add the maple syrup and hot sauce. Remove from heat.
5) Fry tofu in peanut oil in a separate pan until firm and golden brown. Add tofu to sauce and stir to combine. Serve over rice with a wedge of lime.
6) Delicious accompaniments include kale and fried plantains.