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Recipe-phile: Engage pantry staples, ground pork for quick Asian suppers

Thai spaghetti with meat sauce, a comforting but bold dish that spices up a midweek dinner. (Amy Thielen / For the Enterprise)

It was while working on the steamer station at an ambitious Chinese restaurant in New York, during a particularly slow Tuesday night, that I first tasted Ma Po Tofu.

To pass the time, Wei Chan, the Chinese chef, made his version of the dish for the squadron of Western chefs and the head chef and owner, who was French. (More chiefs than comrades at this place, if you know what I mean.) The Western chefs came away shaking their heads, pointing at crusty jars of chili paste, asking for translations.

I don't know if Wei Chan was attempting to play to American tastes, but Ma Po Tofu, they insisted, did not contain peas and carrots. Authentic Ma Po was earthy and fire-red, bobbing with bits of pork and soothing icebergs of fresh tofu--it was a killer dish, as they say.

A few weeks later at a Sichuan restaurant, I saw their point. One taste and my mouth began to radiate, and at the center of the action was a bit of chili pork. Indeed, it might have been a killer of a dish. But I loved how underneath the chili fire the pork and the tofu mingled with the white rice.

I began to make it at home. My Ma Po was cobbled together from my memory of the condiments Wei Chan used and what sense I could make of the Chinese waiter at Grand Sichuan. Eventually my Ma Po ended up being a bit of a compromise between the two - rustic, but not as spicy.

Around the same time as the Ma Po education, my husband and I were frequenting a neighborhood Thai restaurant. As Asian restaurants go it was of the dim/clubby/neon variety (as opposed to fluorescent-lit, silent and dirty), which in my experience foretold that the food wouldn't be good or authentic--but the place managed to be both.

A small open kitchen in the middle of the room starred two guys and two woks: double flamethrowers, my heroes. After a long workweek I liked nothing better than a plate of wok-flown Asian greens: with the good posture of the lightly-cooked, they had wilted garlicky tendrils and charred spots that tasted almost meaty from their contact with the hot black metal.

I ordered various main courses - spicy beef salad or maybe pad thai noodles with shrimp - but my husband always got the Nam Phrik Ong, or what they called Thai Spaghetti with Meat Sauce. (Because I could count on him to order it, I didn't have to myself. A bite of his held me.)

It came to the table in a wobbling unstable mound, like a plate of spaghetti in a red sauce joint, and it tasted a bit like pork sloppy joe - but better than that. It had that same comforting brown sugar sweetness as any sandwich you'd pick up in a reunion buffet line, but the sauce was altogether deepened by the curry paste, fish sauce and cilantro.

Thai spaghetti is a major player in my arsenal of quick, unplanned meals, because I stock most of the ingredients in my pantry and usually a cylinder of ground pork in my freezer, too. You know, for spicy Asian noodle emergencies.

Ma Po Tofu

Chinese Chili Pork with Tofu

Serves 2 or 3

1 teaspoon cornstarch

1 cup chicken stock or water

3 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil

1 1/2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger

3 garlic cloves, sliced thinly crosswise

1/2 pound ground pork

1 tablespoon toban djan (Chinese chili-bean paste, or your favorite chili sauce) or more, if you want it spicy

12 cherry tomatoes, washed and halved

1 tablespoon shaoxing wine or cooking sherry

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon dark sesame oil

1 box firm tofu, carefully cubed

1/2 cup torn fresh basil leaves

Cooked white jasmine rice

Stir the cornstarch into 2 tablespoons of chicken stock and then combine the cornstarch mixture with the rest of the chicken stock. Reserve, and stir again before using.

Heat the canola oil over high heat in a large wok or skillet. Add the ginger and garlic and stir, cooking about 30 seconds in the hot oil. Immediately add the ground pork and cook quickly, stirring often and tossing until cooked through. Add the chili paste and cook until combined. Add the cherry tomatoes, stock, shaoxing wine and soy sauce. Bring to a boil and simmer until slightly thickened.

Taste for seasoning and add soy sauce if needed. Add the sesame oil, tofu and basil leaves. Shake the pan gently to cover the tofu. Refrain from stirring to keep the tofu pieces whole.

To serve, gently ladle the sauce over steamed white (or brown) rice.

Thai Spaghetti with Meat Sauce or, Nam Phrik Ong

Serves 2

2 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil

3 plum tomatoes (canned are fine), diced

2/3 pound ground pork

2-3 tablespoons thai curry paste, depending on your chili threshold. (Use a red Kaeng Kua curry paste if you like it hot, or Massaman for a milder sauce.)

1/2 cup tomato sauce

1/2 cup chicken stock

3 tablespoons brown sugar

2 tablespoons fish sauce

1 tablespoon soy sauce, such as Kikkoman

1 tablespoon lemon juice

2 handfuls cleaned spinach leaves

1 bunch cilantro, washed, dried and roughly chopped

1/2 pound spaghetti

10 turns ground black pepper

Heat a large pot of water for cooking the spaghetti.

As the water heats, make the sauce: Heat a large wok or skillet over high heat. Add the canola oil and the curry paste, mashing it into the oil with a large spoon and cooking until it makes a loose paste. (Stand back and don't breathe in the fumes; the frying chilies may cause you to cough.)

Add the tomatoes and pork and stir-fry until the pork is cooked. Add the tomato sauce, chicken stock, brown sugar, fish sauce, soy sauce, lemon juice and black pepper. Taste for seasoning. Add the spinach, stir to wilt, and reserve while you cook the spaghetti.

Add the spaghetti to the boiling, salted water in the pot and cook until just done, or al dente. (It should be chewy, not soft.) Drain.

Add the cilantro to the sauce and then the spaghetti. Toss to combine and serve immediately.

Note: A & A Market in Fargo carries an endless amount of Asian staples. The place is immense, and clean, and they certainly have chili bean paste (toban djan) and curry pastes (Thai or Indian) and good soy sauce and whatever else you might want.