Bruce's Blog

a handful of dimes and a jukebox

I’ve loved Asian food ever since 1965 when I first tried it at the New York World’s Fair.  Growing up in Vincennes, Indiana in the 50’s and 60’s, the selection of foreign cuisines was rather limited.  In fact, cuisine in general was pretty limited, as far as eating out.  Indiana’s major contribution to cuisine is probably the pork tenderloin sandwich.  And why is it no surprise to find out that Indiana pork tenderloin sandwiches have their own Facebook page?

Purple Sea Urchin

I think one of the things that I’ve always especially loved about Asian food is the abundance of fresh, seasonal vegetables, and the seemingly endless variety of things that Asians will eat.   Some of the stuff in it’s native form doesn’t even remotely look like food.  You have to picture a guy who sees a sea urchin with it’s hard shell and spikes and then  says to himself, “I’m going to crack that sucker open and whatever I find inside, I’m gonna eat”.

My friend and sushi mentor Nogy once said about me:  “Bruce will eat anything that doesn’t eat him first”.  I considered that high praise indeed. 🙂

But I didn’t set out to talk about sushi.  I wanted to talk about Japanese Hot Pots.  Many people aren’t familiar with the term “hot pot”.  Some think it refers to the hot stone used for some Korean dishes like bibimbap, where the food literally cooks on the plate.  Those are delicious indeed, but not a hot pot.  If you’ve ever had the famous Japanese dish Sukiyaki, you’ve had a hot pot.  Basically — it’s a stew.  You put a bunch of stuff in a pot with some liquid, and pretty soon you’ve got dinner.

But it’s totally unlike a Western stew.  In Western cuisine, stews cook for a very long time, usually using a meat that requires slow cooking to properly break it down to make it tender, which imparts it’s flavor to the broth and the other items with which it is cooked.   Boeuf bourguignon is basically a beef stew, using wine and beef stock as liquid.

The broth of Japanese stews is usually very light, and made with any one of or a combination of water, miso, dashi stock, sake, etc.  Dashi is a very light broth made from seaweed and dried bonito (a tuna-like fish which is fresh in Spring) shavings.   Dashi is the “mother stock” of Japan and the base of miso soup,  clear broth, noodle broth, and other things.  Japanese cuisine would not be Japanese cuisine without dashi.

My 1st Donabe

But again, I digress.  I came here to talk about Donabe.

Donabe are clay pots, traditionally used to make hot pots, rice, and other neat stuff.  There has been quite a bit written lately about the use of clay pots.  Some of it I believe, some I don’t, but the proof is in the proverbial pudding, and the pudding is darn good.

There’s a lady in Echo Park, a section of Los Angeles just east of Hollywood who calls herself Mrs. Donabe.  Her name is Naoko Moore and she teaches Japanese cooking and also sells donabe from her home.  I gather she has a pretty healthy mail-order business for them.  She mentioned they are surprisingly popular in unexpected places, like Minnesota.  Unexpected because you don’t usually think of Minnesota being a mecca of Japanese culture — but it does get incredibly cold there, and when it’s cold, hot pots are very welcome indeed.

I decided to take a couple of her classes.  I knew full well that it would be almost impossible to resist purchasing a donabe if I allowed myself to get too close to one, but I decided it was worth the risk. 🙂  I took a couple of her classes earlier this month and walked away with some new Japanese recipes, a few new Japanese phrases and two lovely donabe.

In my own hot pots, I’ve been using a great book by Tadashi Ono (what a great name to have for a Japanese cook “Tadashi” — because even his name has dashi in it!! 🙂 and Harris Salat called, mysteriously enough, Japanese Hot Pots.  Harris is a very cool guy, even answers questions via email and runs a great Japanese food site called “Japanese Food Report“.  One of the hot pots I made was their Salmon Hot Pot(Ishikari Nabe).  I had tried making some hot pots before I had a donabe with a Chinese clay pot I have, but the shape was wrong for what I wanted.  In the pictures of hot pots, the items are neatly arranged into sections, not mixed up like in a Western stew.  In order to make this happen, you need a pot that is more wide and a little more shallow.   You also need to learn some of the techniques that Tadashi and Harris teach you in their book.

My Salmon Hot Pot

For example, you need to “build” the hot pot.  You do this by laying down a foundation of stuff.  In the case of my Salmon Hot Pot, it was a foundation of onion slices, cabbage and potatoes.  Once you’ve laid the foundation, you can pour in your broth, which in this case was a mixture of dashi, shiro miso and mirin.   There are a bunch of types of miso.  Shiro miso is white miso, and the type of miso usually used in sushi bar miso soup.   Mirin is another “must have” ingredient for Japanese cooking.  It is often referred to as “sweet sake” or “sweet cooking sake”, but this is misleading.  Ono and Salat point out that mirin has nothing to do with sake, though it does contain alcohol.  So you can’t just take sake and put sugar in it and call it mirin.  🙂  I can buy mirin in the regular supermarket in LA, though it was harder to find when I first went looking for it in Boston’s Chinatown in the late 90’s.

So after you pour in your broth, you bring it to a boil and then let it simmer for a few minutes.  Then you uncover the pot and add other stuff.  The other stuff really is up to your personal taste.  In their recipe, they add tofu, harusame (dried yam noodles — yummy!), negi (Japanese long onion), enoki and shitake mushrooms.  Add these on top of the other ingredients, but be careful to arrange them so that they each are in a separate, neat bunch.  Cover and simmer for another 5 minutes.  Then you uncover the pot and add salmon slices and cook another 5 minutes or until the salmon is done.  It cooks *really* quickly when sliced thinly as you do for this dish.  Serve this with a bowl of rice, and you’ll have a table of happy people.

My Yakisoba

I did make one of Naoko’s recipes with my other donabe, which is a tagine-style one, which is known as Fukkura-san.  Since she has the recipe online on her site, I’ll quote it here.  This is her recipe for yakisoba.

Ingredients

2 tablespoons  sesame oil

1 clove  garlic, thinly sliced

3-4 leaves  cabbage, cut into strips

1/4 to 1/2 pound  shiitake mushrooms, sliced

3 servings of fresh Yakisoba or noodles for stir-fry (about 1 lb.), loosened by hands

2 tablespoons  sake

1 tablespoon soy sauce + 1.5 tablespoons oyster sauce

Salt and pepper

toppings such as bonito flakes, beni shoga (pickled ginger), chopped chives, karashi (Japanese mustard), optional

*You can make your own variations by adding different ingredients such as bean sprouts, pork, dried shrimp, etc.

Procedure

1.Heat the sesame oil in the skillet of Fukkura-san over medium-high heat.

2.Saute garlic until aromatic.  Add the cabbage and shiitake mushrooms, and stir-fry until for about 1 minute.

3.Add the yakisoba noodles on top of them and drizzle the sake all over the noodles.

4.Close the lid and let the ingredients cook over medium to medium-high heat for about 5 minutes.

5.Add the soy sauce and oyster sauce to the noodles, and toss all the ingredients.

6.Close the lid, turn off the heat, and let it steam for 2-3 minutes.

7.Season with salt and pepper if necessary.  Serve with your choice of toppings.

It is that simple.  And it came out *really* good.  🙂   So good that I couldn’t believe I made it.

I would heartily recommend the books of Tadashi Ono and Harris Salat.  I have their new book, The Japanese Grill, on my iPad. 🙂   And you can mail order donabe to your heart’s content from Naoko’s site.   Definitely check them out, they are really beautiful and it is a pleasure to cook with them.

Categories: Books, Cooking

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