One-Pot Wonders

Country Style Vegetable Soup with Fermented Black Beans and Tofu

February  5, 2013
Author Notes

I found inspiration for this soup in a dish I first tasted shortly after I arrived in San Francisco nearly three decades ago. Before moving here from New York, one of the partners at my firm there recommended a tiny hole in the wall on edge of Chinatown. (Good information like that can be the gift of a lifetime. We still go there regularly, counting it among our all-time favorite places to eat in the gastronomic paradise.) The dish that inspired this recipe, a fragrant, soupy concoction called “Country Style Vegetables,” introduced me those many years ago to fermented black beans. They transform this soup. I've drafted this as a vegan recipe, but please feel free to use chicken stock if you prefer. Also, if you don't have doenjang (Korean fermented soybean paste) you can use red miso instead, added at the very end, or fish sauce if you don't care whether it's vegan, or just add more soy sauce, a bit at a time, to taste. This is simple food, but satisfying, Enjoy! ;o) —AntoniaJames

Test Kitchen Notes

Upon first read, I simply knew this soup would be good. Due in equal measure to meticulous description and a great ingredient list (all my favorite aromatics, hearty Asian greens, and the elusive salted black bean), I could not wait to try it. The fermented bean gives this soup a pleasantly sour, almost smoky depth, which is complemented by the fragrant aromatics and slightly bitter edge of mustardy bok choy. It builds a lot of flavor in a short amount of time, making this warming and delicious soup one that my family will enjoy countless times – even on a weeknight. —gingerroot

  • Serves 4, for dinner
  • The Soup
  • 4 cups aromatic broth (see recipe below)
  • 14 - 16 ounces firm tofu
  • 1 tablespoon peanut oil, preferably the fragrant Chinese kind
  • 1 small head napa cabbage – about 1 ¼ pound
  • 2 small heads of bok choy (4 to 5 inches in length) or 1/12 cups broccoli florets
  • 6 scallions, white and light green parts, about 2 inches in length, sliced lengthwise
  • 1 - 2 tablespoons doenjang, or if you don't care whether this is vegan, 1 tablespoon high quality fish sauce (I highly recommend Red Boat.)
  • 2 teaspoons brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon organic brown rice vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons fermented (also called “salted”) black beans
  • Soy sauce to taste (I use about 2 teaspoons of soy sauce, but be careful. The black beans are salty, as are the fish sauce and doenjang, if using.)
  • 6 ounces thin rice or bean vermicelli
  • 1 tablespoon dark sesame oil
  • Handful of cilantro leaves
  • Chinese spicy chili oil, to taste (optional)
  • Fermented Black Bean Scented Vegetable Broth
  • ¼ cup fermented black beans (also called “Salted Black Beans”), coarsely chopped
  • Dark green tops of 6 scallions, coarsely chopped
  • 1” piece of fresh ginger, unpeeled and coarsely chopped
  • ½ cup coarsely chopped cilantro stems
  • 6 cloves of garlic, smashed (no need to peel them)
In This Recipe
  1. The Soup
  2. Cook the tofu: Heat oven to 400 degrees. Cut the tofu lengthwise into four pieces, then cut each of those into generous bite-sized squares or rectangles. Place on a parchment lined baking sheet and put into the oven. You don't need to wait for it to heat all the way before putting them in.) Bake for 15 - 25 minutes, depending on how hot the oven is when you start baking. See note, below, if you want to cook the tofu on the top of the stove. You should do that pan frying right before you're ready to start cooking the vegetables.
  3. Make the stock. (See instructions below.)
  4. Prepare the vegetables: thinly slice the top half of the napa cabbage, then thoroughly rinse and drain. Put those leafy pieces into a container. Then thinly slice the rest, which will consist of the large, hard white middle, and rinse and drain them; set those pieces aside in a separate container.
  5. Cut the bok choy in half, crosswise, and rinse the dark green leafy pieces. Shake off any excess water, and put in the container with the soft leafy pieces of the napa cabbage. Cut off the hard bottom of each bok choy, then remove what’s left and wash. Stack those hard stems and slice into thirds or quarters, lengthwise. Put those pieces into the same container as the hard, mostly white pieces of napa cabbage. (If using broccoli florets, make sure they're fairly small, and put them with the napa cabbage leaves.)
  6. While the tofu is cooking, start making the noodles. Cook them according to the instructions on the package. Once you drain them, toss immediately with sesame oil and divide between the bowls in which you’ll be plating the soup. Cover them if you won’t be serving within a few minutes.
  7. Cook the vegetables: Heat a large skillet and then add the peanut oil. cook the hard portions of the napa cabbage and bok choy for about five minutes, along with the scallion pieces, turning frequently.
  8. Add to the drained broth the cooked napa cabbage and bok choy pieces, the reserved leafy pieces of cabbage and bok choy (or broccoli florets, if using), the doenjang or fish sauce (or a couple teaspoons of soy sauce, if not using either of those), brown sugar, fermented black beans, and vinegar to the stock. If using doenjang, thin it with a half cup of broth before adding to the pot. (If using red miso, add it at the very end, right before serving, thinning it with a cup or so of the hot broth.) Heat the soup back up to a low boil, and cook for 2-3 minutes.
  9. Taste the broth. If it needs seasoning, add a teaspoon or two of soy sauce - or more to taste.
  10. Shortly before serving, add the cilantro leaves (reserving a few for garnish) and the cooked tofu. Simmer it just enough to heat the tofu through. (If you add it sooner, it will soak up too much broth.) Turn off the heat and drizzle in the sesame oil.
  11. Ladle the hot soup over the noodles in the soup plates. Give each bowl a good stir. Garnish with the reserved whole cilantro leaves. Let your guests stir in hot chili oil, to taste.
  12. Enjoy! ;o)
  13. To cook the tofu on the top of the stove: cut the tofu into equal sized rectangles. (I cut crosswise, as if slicing a cake to fill between layers, then cut those rectangles each into four pieces.) Put the tofu slices between two cutting boards; then put some heavy but stable objects, such as large unopened cans, a stone mortar and pestle, etc., on the top cutting board to press the liquid out of the tofu. Let rest while you prep your vegetables. Then, drain and cut the rectangles into smaller, easier-to-eat rectangles. Pat dry. Heat a large skillet and then add the peanut oil. When it spits when you flick a drop of water on it, add the tofu. Cook over medium heat, resisting the urge to turn the tofu pieces for at least two minutes. You want them to get a bit crusty, so they’ll hold up better in the soup. After two minutes or so, turn the tofu pieces over and cook for another minute or so. When lightly browned, remove from the pan.
  14. As with most of my soups, I view a recipe like this as merely a template. Depending on what's on hand, you can use whatever vegetables you like -- kale or standard green cabbage instead of bok choy and/or napa cabbage, sugar snap peas or regular string beans, cut on the diagonal into one-inch pieces, julienned carrots for color - whatever you like. Just make sure to put the harder vegetables into the pot first, adding the more delicate ones at the very end, to ensure the best texture and color. ;o)
  1. Fermented Black Bean Scented Vegetable Broth
  2. Put all of the ingredients into a heavy pot with 6 cups of water. Simmer for about 15 minutes, then let stand for another 15 minutes, or more, if you have the time.
  3. Strain the broth. You should have about 4 cups. Don’t worry if you have less; just make up the difference with a bit of filtered water. If you have much more than 4 cups, simmer it for a while longer to reduce it.

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Recipe by: AntoniaJames

When I'm not working (negotiating transactions for internet companies), or outside enjoying the gorgeous surroundings here in the San Francisco Bay Area, I'm likely to be cooking, shopping for food, planning my next culinary experiment, or researching, voraciously, whatever interests me. In my kitchen, no matter what I am doing -- and I actually don't mind cleaning up -- I am deeply grateful for having the means to create, share with others and eat great food. Life is very good. ;o)