In this 30-minute dish, which is inspired by Yotam Ottolenghi’s recipe in his 2011 book Plenty, black pepper is the star, not the sidekick: When bloomed in oil, the coarsely ground peppercorns become piquant and fragrant enough to flavor the entire sauce, no red pepper flakes, dried chiles, or hot sauce needed. Take care not to burn the peppercorns as you toast them or the flavor could swing from spicy to bitter
1 14-oz. package firm or extra-firm tofu, drained
1 Tbsp. black peppercorns
2 garlic cloves
1 1½” piece ginger, peeled
1 Tbsp. cornstarch
½ tsp. kosher salt
3 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 lb. asparagus, trimmed, cut into 1½” pieces
⅓ cup soy sauce
1 Tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. unseasoned rice vinegar
Cooked white or brown rice (for serving)
Wrap tofu in a clean kitchen towel and place in a shallow baking dish or on a rimmed baking sheet. Weigh down with a heavy object (a cast-iron skillet topped with a couple of heavy cans works well). Let sit at least 15 minutes and up to 1 hour (go the full time if you can).
Meanwhile, coarsely crack peppercorns in a spice mill or with a mortar and pestle (you can use a chef’s knife or a very heavy object, although be prepared for some peppercorns to fly!); set aside. Finely grate garlic and ginger into a small bowl; set aside.
Unwrap tofu and cut into 1″ cubes. Transfer tofu to a medium bowl. Add cornstarch and salt and toss gently to coat tofu.
Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high. Arrange tofu in skillet in a single layer and cook, turning occasionally, until golden brown and crisp all over, 6–8 minutes. Using tongs or a slotted spoon, transfer to a large plate or baking sheet.
Reduce heat to medium and add reserved cracked pepper to skillet. Cook, stirring often, until very fragrant, about 2 minutes, then add asparagus and cook, stirring often, until bright green, about 1 minute. Add reserved garlic and ginger and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 1 minute.
Return tofu to pan and gently toss to combine. Increase heat to medium-high, add soy sauce and sugar, and cook, tossing occasionally, until sauce thickens slightly, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and add vinegar. Taste and add more salt and/or vinegar if needed.
To serve, divide rice among plates and top with tofu mixture.