A Science-Loving Chef’s Transformative Tofu Recipe

Tom Philpott wrote . . . . . . . . .

One night at Joe’s Shanghai in Manhattan’s Chinatown in the late 1990s, my friend suggested we order a tofu dish to round out the pork and greens items we had chosen. No fan of the soybean product, I went along, figuring I’d pick at the tofu and focus on the good stuff.

But mapo tofu emerged as the clear star of the table, and we ended up fighting over the last morsels: silky curd suffused with a dark, fiery-hot, umami-bomb sauce, accented by beef and punctuated by a prickly, tongue-numbing spice that turned out to be Sichuan peppercorns. Okay, so it wasn’t vegetarian. But that night, I finally got tofu, and mapo tofu became a favorite during my time in New York. Lesson learned: The various culinary traditions of Asia, where tofu originated two millennia ago, have everything to teach eaters like me about this unjustly maligned delicacy.

I was reminded of the exquisite potential of tofu during my recent interview with J. Kenji López-Alt. López-Alt is a giant in the food world: chef-restaurateur (Wursthall in San Mateo, California), author (of the celebrated Food Lab cookbook), and food-science expert (he’s the chief culinary consultant for Serious Eats). In our conversation, captured in the latest episode of Bite, he dropped definitive—and comforting—science on staying virus-free while eating during the pandemic; and delivered an insider’s view of what it means to reopen restaurants even as the pandemic lingers and COVID-19 testing lags. Listen here:

At the end of our conversation, when I asked about his go-to comfort food, López-Alt didn’t hesitate. “Mapo tofu is my favorite food in the world,” he declared. “We always have tofu at home. Like, a lot of it.” He added that he loved the classic version of the dish from its place of origin, Sichuan, China (where it was apparently invented by a Mrs. Chen in a small eatery in 1862); but that when he was a kid, López-Alt added, his mom would make a Japanese-inflected version with leftover beef dumpling filling, tweaked with sake and mirin in place of Sichuan condiments. (He said he had never written out a recipe for Japanese-style mapo tofu, but he promised me he’d make it soon on his YouTube channel.)

In the meantime, just his mention of mapo tofu transported me back to that long-lost moment in lower Manhattan—and launched a craving that could only be satiated one way, given the lockdown. I was thrilled to find, on Serious Eats, a recipe by López-Alt himself for “Real-Deal Mapo Tofu.” With his permission, I’ve pasted it below. First, a few notes on a novice’s experience with this dish:

• By far the most complicated part of this extremely simple and elegant recipe is assembling the ingredients. At an excellent pan-Asian market near me, I was able to find the fermented (and thus umami-packed) chili-bean paste called doubanjiang; the all-important Sichuan peppercorns, sold under the evocative name dried prickly ash; the Chinese cooking wine, Xiaoxing; and dark soy sauce. For the meat, I used ground pork, because that’s what I had on hand, but it really is just an accent in the dish, and López-Alt also offers a vegan version, replacing meat with mushrooms. Confession: I left out the chili oil, instead adding a lashing of crushed chili flakes to ramp up the heat. On Serious Eats, López-Alt notes that “you can make your own by toasting a cup of whole hot dried Chinese peppers in a wok until lightly charred, then adding 1 1/2 cups of vegetable or canola oil. Heat the oil until the chilis start to bubble slightly, then allow to cool and transfer to a sealable container.” I will do so, soon.

• Too often, US cooks slice tofu thin and roast it to the leather stage, hoping that it will mimic meat. Here, tofu is allowed to be what it is: a delicate, quivering curd that releases the flavor of its sauce as it melts in your mouth. I regret every bad thing I’ve ever said about it. Note well: “Use tofu labeled ‘silken’ in a hardness range of medium to firm,” López-Alt warns. “Don’t try this with the super-soft stuff or it’ll fall apart!”

• Mapo tofu exemplifies the importance of what the French call mise en place, the craft of getting everything together before you execute the dish. This recipe is dead simple and fast, once you’ve got the peppercorns toasted, the oil infused, the tofu par-boiled, the condiments and corn starch mixed, the garlic and ginger grated, the scallions sliced. Enjoy!

Real-Deal Mapo Tofu Recipe

By J. Kenji López-Alt

2 tablespoons Sichuan peppercorns, divided
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon cornstarch
2 teaspoons cold water
1 1/2 pounds medium to firm silken tofu, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/4 pound ground beef
3 garlic cloves grated on a microplane grater
1 tablespoon fresh ginger grated on a microplane grater
2 tablespoons fermented chili bean paste (doubanjiang)
2 tablespoons Xiaoxing wine
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
1/4 cup low-sodium chicken stock
1/4 cup roasted chili oil (see note)
1/4 cup finely sliced scallion greens


1. Heat half of Sichuan peppercorns in a large wok over high heat until lightly smoking. Transfer to a mortar and pestle. Pound until finely ground and set aside.

2. Add remaining Sichuan peppercorns and vegetable oil to wok. Heat over medium high heat until lightly sizzling, about 1 1/2 minutes. Pick up peppercorns with a wire mesh skimmer and discard, leaving oil in pan.

3. Combine corn starch and cold water in a small bowl and mix with a fork until homogeneous. Bring a medium saucepan of water to a boil over high heat and add tofu. Cook for 1 minute. Drain in a colander, being careful not to break up the tofu.

4. Heat oil in wok over high heat until smoking. Add beef and cook, stirring constantly for 1 minute. Add garlic and ginger and cook until fragrant, about 15 seconds. Add chili-bean paste, wine, soy sauce, and chicken stock and bring to a boil. Pour in corn starch mixture and cook for 30 seconds until thickened. Add tofu and carefully fold in, being careful not to break it up too much. Stir in chili oil and half of scallions and simmer for 30 seconds longer. Transfer immediately to a serving bowl and sprinkle with remaining scallions and toasted ground Sichuan pepper. Serve immediately with white rice.

Source: Mother Jones

Keto Diet 101: What to Eat, Ketosis, Weight Loss, and the Downsides

Cathy Hilborn Feng wrote . . . . . . . . .

The ketogenic diet, or keto diet, is a high-fat and highly restrictive regime that promises speedy weight loss. It is rocking the headlines, its profile boosted by endorsements from celebrities including US reality TV star Kourtney Kardashian and actress Halle Berry.

Curious to try this diet? Here’s what you need to know.

The history of the keto diet

For starters, it’s not new. The ketogenic diet is approaching its 100th anniversary – though it didn’t begin as a weight-loss plan. Dr Russell Wilder developed the diet at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, in the US state of Minnesota, in 1923 for treating children with epilepsy who didn’t respond to medication.

Studies over many years suggest that up to 25 per cent of children on the diet will have their seizures well controlled and may be able to decrease their medications or discontinue them, according to the Johns Hopkins Ketogenic Diet Fact Sheet from the US university in Maryland. A further 30 to 40 per cent will see their seizure frequency halved, while 25 to 30 per cent who try the diet will find, after a month or two, that it is not effective.

Since the diet’s introduction, researchers have published at least five variations of it in medical journals as treatments for other diseases such as autism, some types of cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease – and diabetes.

The keto diet’s perceived benefits

Halle Berry, a diabetic, says the diet helped her manage her condition. “If you’re like me, you can possibly reverse diabetes,” she posted on Instagram, listing the diet’s benefits – from better physical endurance, better skin, appetite control, migraine control, and more energy, to better mental performance.

It “actually forces your body to burn fat like crazy. I also believe it’s been largely responsible for slowing down my ageing process,” the 53-year-old Academy Award winner posted in 2018 for her 6.2 million followers, urging them to give the keto lifestyle a try.

Berry’s claims are exciting but have yet to be fully proven. The Johns Hopkins Patient Guide to Diabetes says the keto diet may work in the short term for some people with type 2 diabetes, but it’s not the only way to lose weight and manage glucose.

Like many keto dieters, Berry also practices intermittent fasting (IF), in which you eat only in a short window during the day. Studies suggest that IF, too, may play a role in some of the benefits she attributes to the keto diet.

Kourtney Kardashian, 41, recently told US magazine Health that she loves a keto diet, “though I’m not doing it now. I noticed my body change for the better. I [also] love intermittent fasting. I try to do that all the time”.

Jason Ewoldt, a wellness dietitian for the Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Programme, has seen a growing interest in the keto diet in the past two years.

“People are coming to us saying, ‘hey, I’ve heard of this keto diet, what’s it all about and should I be doing it?’”

Many, upon learning what it takes to follow the diet, decide it’s not for them, based on their lifestyle and goals, Ewoldt says. “Others dip their toe in and give it a try, knowing full well it might not be a long-term answer.”

Most do not stick with it, he says, adding research shows the hardest part is sustaining the diet long term.

How the keto diet works

A look at the details suggests why. The classic keto diet is known as a 4:1, as it provides four times as much fat as protein and carbohydrates combined. Fat is energy-rich, with 9 calories per gram compared to 4 for carbohydrate or protein, so portions on this diet are smaller than normal.

Although different versions of the diet have sprung up, usually 75 per cent of daily calories are from fat, 20 per cent from protein, and 5 per cent from carbohydrates – just 20 to 50 grams a day, less than you find in four slices of bread or a cup of pasta.

Here’s how it works. Normally our body turns the glucose in carbs into energy. But when it is starved of carbs, the body is forced to find a different fuel source. So the liver starts to convert both stored fat and the fat you eat into fuel, breaking it down into fatty acids and ketone bodies.

An elevated level of ketones in the blood is called ketosis. Although the reasons why are still unclear, this state can help lower the frequency of seizures in epileptic patients. Some early research suggests it may help control blood sugar in diabetics. And, not surprisingly, it helps people shed fat.

Two types of keto test strips are widely available, to help check ketone levels in the blood or urine to know whether you have achieved ketosis.

What keto dieters can and cannot eat and drink

By now it’s well known that bacon gets a stamp of approval on this diet. But Ewoldt and those who follow it warn that it requires a high degree of discipline. For starters, high-carb foods – including staples like rice, noodles, pasta, bread, cereal, potatoes, and most fruits – are out. If you’re a sugar addict like many of us, you’ll have to leave that carbohydrate off your plate and out of your beverages, too.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends carbs make up 45 to 65 per cent of total daily calories; the typical American consumes 200 (7oz) to 300 grams of carbs a day. So a keto newbie faces a drastic change in eating habits.

What can you eat? To reach the moderate protein and high fat levels needed, you can turn to eggs, meat, poultry, seafood, butter, cheese, yogurt, avocado, olives, nuts, seeds, tofu, and oils – especially coconut oil, a medium-chain triglyceride. Most dietary fat is made of molecules called long-chain triglycerides (LCTs); MCTs, made from fatty acids with shorter carbon chains, are more ketogenic.

The few carbs you have should come from non-starchy vegetables such as leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, peppers, asparagus, mushrooms, celery, zucchini and green beans.

You should drink water, and lots of it, to keep dehydration at bay. Fruit juices and sugary sodas are out – along with most alcoholic beverages. While cheese and butter are integral to the diet, dairy milk is off the menu: a single cup of whole milk has about 12 grams of carbs.

If you’re prepared to eat by these rules and ratios, you may well experience a drop in belly fat, though study results are mixed.

A rocky transition for keto dieters

The downside? It takes two to three weeks for ketosis to kick in, Ewoldt says. Expect some unpleasant side effects, including nausea, constipation, headaches, bad breath (a chemically acetone smell, from the excess ketones) and fatigue, while your body transitions from using carbs to using more fatty acids and ketones, he says.

“It’s almost like you have the flu, hence the term ‘keto flu’. It’s not like a universal thing for everybody and it’s not the same symptoms for everybody.”

The keto diet has been associated with an increase in LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, Ewoldt says, but the research is conflicting. It has likewise been associated with an increase in HDL, the “good” cholesterol.

Meeting the diet’s requirements means cutting out many healthy foods, making it difficult to meet your micronutrient needs. There are now many versions of the diet, as lines blur between low-carb and keto diets. So some people may follow an unhealthy high-fat diet and not be in ketosis, and people can be in ketosis with different levels of protein and carb intake.

Seek expert advice about the keto diet

Before starting this diet, or any diet, it’s best to consult a trusted expert to see whether it meets your needs and who can help devise a workable plan so you can safely stick with it.

“We do know from research, if you’re looking a year out, and this group is doing a calorie-controlled diet, and this one’s doing a keto diet, those on the keto diet tend to lose a little bit more weight,” Ewoldt says. “But if you’re looking at two years out, the weight discrepancies kind of dissipate. The reason being, researchers theorise, is those people on the keto diet aren’t doing the keto diet; they basically fell off because it is such a strict diet to adhere to.”

There’s little evidence to show that this type of eating is effective – or safe – over the long term for anything other than epilepsy, he adds.

“There are no long-term studies on the keto diet. What does it look like 15 years from now? That’s a very good question.”

A taste of the keto diet

For Harrison Lebowitz, the keto diet proved an effective way to drop a few stubborn pounds.

The 62-year-old lawyer, writer and entrepreneur leads an active lifestyle in the sunny US state of California, but despite working out religiously his whole life, had noticed his waistline was expanding.

“Three days a week I would do an intense workout in which I would burn 1,000 calories in an hour. My metabolism has slowed over the years, so I ended up putting on some weight. When I was 20 years old and burning off 1,000 calories and I could eat whatever I wanted to. Now, I burn off 1,000 calories and I only eat one meal a day,” he said.

When his fiancée, Ana Alfaro, dropped by to watch his beach volleyball session, she asked a fellow player in his mid-50s how he had achieved his “ripped” physique. His response was the keto diet.

“We’d both heard about the diet but hadn’t explored it,” Lebowitz said. The couple did some research and took up the diet themselves.

“It was like the most unhealthy thing I’ve ever heard of … Massive butter, meats are good, fats are good. It was counter-intuitive.”

The couple swapped out wheat flour, using almond flour, substituted crumbled pork rinds for breadcrumbs, and followed the diet quite strictly for seven months.

Surprisingly, they ate more vegetables than they had before – especially cauliflower. Put through the processor, you can create a dish that “tastes exactly like mashed potatoes” but with far fewer carbs, Lebowitz says. And to meet the fat requirements, “you end up putting a lot of butter on it”.

He missed having “a really good pizza … You can have one with a cauliflower crust, but it just wasn’t the same. You can have as much bacon as you want, but I was missing certain other things, including some fruits. You could lick a stick of butter and that’s fine. I was missing wheat-based products – breads, a good baguette.”

He dropped five to 10 pounds (2.3 to 4.6kg) despite not having cut back on his food intake.

“Having all that bacon, all that meat, all that butter, from everything that I’ve read, I thought there’s got to be some bad side effects here,” Lebowitz said. When a blood test did show an increase in his bad cholesterol, he began to question the diet.

They put the diet on pause when they went to Mexico for a couple of weeks last summer. “It was going to be fairly impossible to try to do the keto diet there”, where the cuisine features wheat and cornflour, beans, beer and other high-carb ingredients, Lebowitz says.

When the coronavirus pandemic spread to California and they were asked to shelter at home, the couple returned to having their usual carbohydrate levels.

Lebowitz would be supportive if Alfaro wants to return to the keto lifestyle. “I’m just nervous about the cholesterol side effect.”

Besides, he says, “At this age, why should we cut back on some things we enjoy?”

Source: SCMP

Blood Test that Measures Alcohol Use May Predict Risk for Bleeding Strokes

People who drink large amounts of alcohol have nearly fivefold odds of experiencing a potentially deadly type of stroke compared with those who drink very little or not at all, a new study finds.

But researchers didn’t rely on people to self-report how much alcohol they consumed. Rather, they looked at blood concentrations of phosphatidylethanol (PEth), a biomarker reflecting alcohol consumption over the past month.

The study, published Tuesday in the American Heart Association’s journal Stroke, included 277 middle-age men and women in Sweden. The odds of having an intracerebral hemorrhage, or ICH, during the 22-year study was nearly five times higher for those with the highest PEth blood concentrations than those with the lowest concentrations.

ICH is a type of stroke caused by a blood vessel rupture that leads to bleeding in the brain. The strokes occurred, on average, within seven years of the blood test.

PEth measurements don’t indicate frequency or volume of drinking, only whether alcohol was in the system in recent weeks. Researchers used PEth results to divide study participants into groups: heavy drinkers, moderate drinkers and those who drank very little or not at all. For those who drink alcohol, the AHA recommends men limit it to one or two drinks per day and women one drink per day.

“We had expected that a high alcohol consumption would predict risk for ICH, but I was surprised at the magnitude of the increased risk,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Kristina Johansson of Umeå University in Sweden.

“I was also surprised that the biomarker PEth was so much better at predicting risk for ICH, compared to alcohol consumption measured by questionnaire,” she said.

Previous studies linking alcohol consumption to increased risk of ICH have relied on self-reported alcohol use. The new study, however, found self-reported alcohol use was not effective at predicting risk for future strokes.

“Patients tend to underreport how much alcohol they routinely drink,” said Dr. Hugo J. Aparicio, an assistant professor of neurology at Boston University School of Medicine and an investigator with the Framingham Heart Study. He was not involved in the new study.

“This is a relatively small study, but their findings do confirm that high alcohol use is associated with a higher risk of ICH. As we move toward more personalized medicine, biomarkers may have a role in helping people assess their true risk,” he said.

ICH is the second most common type of stroke in the United States, with an estimated mortality rate of about 40% within one month of the stroke. It also can cause severe disability in those who survive.

One thing biomarkers don’t tell you, cautioned Aparicio, is whether a person is binge drinking or has chronic, daily drinking habits. “The biomarker only tells you so much. It does not show you the type of alcohol a person is drinking or show you their drinking patterns.”

Johansson said using the biomarker in addition to asking patients about their alcohol consumption could give doctors valuable information about someone’s disease risk.

“PEth analysis could be part of a regular health exam,” she said, “where the health care provider could use the patient’s PEth level as a starting point for discussing the possible implications of heavy alcohol consumption. It’s important for both patients and health care providers when discussing lifestyle changes and when treating other risk factors for ICH, such as high blood pressure.”

It is those doctor-patient conversations that are key, Aparicio said. “If you have a good relationship with your primary care provider, you might be able to have a more forthcoming discussion about your alcohol habits. A good interview and the time to have that interview are just as important.”

Source: American Heart Association

Healthier Meals Could Mean Fewer Strokes, Heart Attacks

Sticking with a healthy diet can lower your risk for stroke and heart attack, a new study suggests.

“Although each healthy eating pattern represents a different combination of dietary constituents, our study indicates that greater adherence to any of the four healthy eating patterns we looked at is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and the health benefits persist across racial and ethnic groups,” said study author Zhilei Shan. He is a research associate in the department of nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in Boston.

For the study, Shan’s group focused on dietary scores for four healthy eating patterns: Healthy Eating Index-2015; Alternate Mediterranean Diet Score; Healthful Plant-Based Diet Index; and Alternate Healthy Eating Index.

Although each diet was different, they all stressed eating whole grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes and nuts, while eating less red and processed meat and sugar-sweetened drinks.

The researchers compared each diet with the risk for cardiovascular disease using data on nearly 75,000 women in the Nurses’ Health Study and nearly 91,000 women in the Nurses’ Health Study II. They also used data on more than 43,000 men in the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study.

Over several decades of follow-up, the researchers found that people who kept to a healthy eating pattern had a 14% to 21% lower risk of cardiovascular disease, compared with people who didn’t always eat a healthy diet.

All of the healthy eating patterns had a similar effect in lowering cardiovascular risk in all racial and ethnic groups — including the risk of heart disease and stroke.

According to researcher Dr. Frank Hu, “These data provide further evidence to support current dietary guidelines that following healthy eating patterns confers long-term health benefits on cardiovascular disease prevention.” Hu is a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard.

“There is no one-size-fits-all diet that is best for everyone. One can combine foods in a variety of flexible ways to achieve healthy eating patterns according to individuals’ health needs, food preferences, and cultural traditions,” he said in a school news release.

The study was published online in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Source: HealthDay

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