Turning Japanese

High quality ingredients inspire. Yesterday I made a vegetable curry with cauliflower, sweet potato, carrot, and peas; puréed radish greens with yogurt, fenugreek and mustard seeds; and tofu simmered in one of my patented mutant soups. It started as the dashi in which I cooked the radishes for Sunday’s dinner, then turned into a funky addition to some pappa al pomodoro- Tuscan tomato soup with stale bread- which I made for lunch. That puréed bread soup, with the addition of a bunch of spices, made a decent sauce. With brown rice, it was a perfectly good meal, with a nice variety of flavors- but it didn’t shine. The tomato thing was a little muddy, the vegetable curry a little bland (though the greens were excellent) and these limitations, though minor- and partly rectified with some of our peach-habañero chutney- revealed the lack of detailed attention I paid to the preparation. There wasn’t much time, and I just tossed things around until they were “done.”

Tonight, I finally had some time to get into the exquisite ingredients John and Chris brought me from Japan. The contrast in my approach was stark, and the results were equally different. To begin, check out this bonito shaver (katsuo kezuri-ki.) This right here is the happy, happy place where woodworking and meat intersect, and it’s immaculately crafted to boot. Just opening it up makes me smile. It’s not possible to begin preparing a meal by block-planing smoke-fossilized fish into a handmade box and not be reverential.

In addition, the smell of fresh-grated bonito is as different from the packaged stuff as the sweaty neck of your true love is from her dirty laundry. The aromatic overtones in this fish are nothing short of astonishing. And it’s as hard as ceramic; if you drop it, it shatters like volcanic glass. (Not that I would know about that.) And the perfumed steam that rises from the dashi makes you swoon.

A trip to the store this afternoon furnished me with a couple of Alaskan king crab legs, shiitake, and some watercress, and everything else came from our newly enriched pantry or the garden. The mushrooms, given a good caramelization with garlic, inspired me to open the Tosa soy sauce I made last week; it’s supposed to sit for a month to marry the flavors, but I couldn’t resist the urge to try it out on this most umami of dishes- so I used a splash to deglaze the pan.

Another clove of garlic followed, and then the watercress for just long enough to wilt it, followed by a splash of the ponzu, which is also supposed to sit for a month. Same reason. I garnished the cress with a sprinkle of dried sudachi zest, and quickly made a salad of curly endive with sesame and olive oils and rice and balsamic vinegars for a nice balance.

So I carefully made fresh dashi, adjusted the flavor with shoyu and sea salt, and set it aside to keep warm. I steamed the half-thawed crab legs in a little water and sake just to heat them through, and strained the liquid into the dashi. Meanwhile two bundles of the fancy udon simmered in an adjacent pot. Udon, broth, and crab met very happily. These noodles are incredibly silky; they’re in a different league than the kind we’re used to. The broth was deep, light, and satisfying, and it goes without saying that the crab was super sweet and perfectly supported by the broth. The chervil garnish completed a beautiful combination of flavors. I don’t for a minute think that this would fool any Japanese gourmand, but it was a damn fine soup and made us all happy.

At the end, I warmed some brown rice from last night and topped it with the shichimi-kabocha seed gomasio I made a while back plus one of the über-artisnal umeboshi and a little of the red shiso they are pickled with, which comes along with them in the container, tucked in the corner. And a little later on we had a slice of the banana bread with cacao nibs that Christine and Milo made this afternoon. Since I had neglected to get any sake, we made do with another delicious Bret Bros. Pouilly Fuissé. It’s wonderful wine, and handles these kinds of flavors with aplomb; it was lemony against the sesame oil, acidic against the sweet crab, tropical against the earthy mushrooms, and never overwhelmed the delicacy of the food.

I’ve been waiting a long time to cook like this. These plates I’ve been making were a beginning, and the beautiful ingredients were another requirement that my incredible friends knew I needed, and brought me just when I needed another infusion of inspiration. From now on I hope to be more mindful and attentive in the kitchen (and out) no matter what it is that I’m making. This aesthetic of reverent care and quality materials in the service of maximum sensory pleasure is something I can get behind.

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  1. Vicki
    November 19

    Holy Jeebus can I come over for dinner. I’ve never seen un-shaved bonito, didn’t even know you could buy it. Everything looks lovely.

  2. The Spiteful Chef
    November 19

    I would love the recipe for the soy sauce. You have my email address.

    You sound a little bit emo, though. Mid-life food crisis? Upset that they cancelled Will and Grace?

  3. peter
    November 19

    Vicki: Sure. Un-shaved bonito was really popular before about the mid-1990’s.


  4. Zoomie
    November 19

    That shaver is simply perfect, like so much of Japanese craft. You are lucky.

  5. bb
    November 19

    Wow! And I’m worried about getting home and warming up a heaping pot ‘o ancho short ribs I have pre-made in the fridge and not eating too late. You make me feel a bit slackerish. But oddly inspired, too, damn you!

    love the bonito shaver, too. Also, those Bret Bros. have a pretty serious skill set don’t they? One of my favorite slurpables!

  6. Heather
    November 20

    Well I guess if I had my own dried bonito I’d put dashi in everything, too. Just sayin’.

  7. November 22

    I spent a year as an exchange student in Kyoto Japan, and I have to say I probably wouldnt have gotten by if it wasnt for a cheap dinner of udon a couple of times a week! There is even one shop where you can eat for free if you do 30 minutes of washing after! Anyway, I found a load more tasty looking ideas at this udon recipe site.

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