Monday, September 13, 2010

Making Nabe While the Sun Shines

By now those of you who read my post about the giant box of dashi soup stock are probably wondering, "Isn't she ever going to make anything with it?" Well, surprise - yesterday, after poring over an unbelievable number of online recipes, I cooked nabe (pronounced naw-bay) for the first time in my life.

You have to understand that I came to Japanese food late. In the town where I grew up, Asian culture was represented by a single Cantonese restaurant, and my family never ate there; we stayed home with Chun King. My first taste of "Japanese" cuisine was in a Benihana knockoff some time in my late twenties. Even in my New York neighborhood, the Japanese restaurants mainly served things like miso soup, tempura, and California rolls. I was privileged to eat at one first-class Japanese restaurant located about a block from and probably destroyed with the World Trade Center, but the tastes and names of everything there were so foreign to me then that I can't tell you much about the experience except that we sat on the floor.

This makes judging what recipes might or might not be authentically Japanese or pleasing to our palates rather difficult, but I started by searching for the dishes specifically mentioned on our soup box as using dashi stock. I weeded out any requiring multiple mystery ingredients or exotic cookware that I had failed to buy at Lee-Lee's, plus those contributed by people named "Thompson" or "Slavinski." Finally I threw out the recipes without photos (arbitrary, I know, but I was running out of logical filters). In the end I chose to try this nabe:  I still had to make a couple of substitutions - I used regular scallions instead of negi, and increased the amount of shellfish while leaving out the snapper.

As you can see from the name of the document link, nabe is a type of Japanese hotpot - a one-dish meal where everything is cooked together in broth, rather like a New England boiled dinner. The separate ingredients are carefully stacked in layers; the broth is poured in; and the pot is covered and left to boil over high heat "until done." Of course, the recipe didn't suggest a time, and I didn't know whether "until done" meant 5 minutes or 25. If you look at the recipe, you'll see that it includes chicken, tofu, vegetables, and seafood. I didn't want to end up with raw chicken, pulverized tofu, or rubber shrimp. What to do?? In the end I left it for 10 minutes and then checked one of the carrot sticks on the top layer. It was perfectly cooked, so I whisked the pot off the stove and onto the table.

Remarkably, despite the short cooking time, the broth had picked up the flavors of all the other ingredients and married them into something rich and delicious. In turn, the broth had soaked into the chunks of tofu and the shitake mushrooms, softening and flavoring them. The spinach and carrots were still brightly colored and the carrots were just slightly al dente. The ingredients needed quite a bit of chopping, and yes, some assembly was required, but it was a healthy and satisfying meal, and the actual cooking time was extraordinarily short. (Next time I might only let it go 8 minutes.) We also had plenty left over for lunch today.

Four servings down, 246 to go. Anyone have a good recipe for suimono or oden?

image of a Japanese bowl of nabe soup with chopsticks

"I refuse to believe that trading recipes is silly.  Tuna fish casserole is at least as real as corporate stock."  ~Barbara Grizzuti Harrison

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