Smoked Ocean

Seafood inspires me. Faced with some wild shrimp and semi-local (RI) clams, I thought about all the ways I could use them–together or separately–to good effect. I went around and around, and ultimately I settled on soup. Amazing, right? All the visions of multiple small plates (each cradling one elegant concoction) collapsed in the din of the ticking clock. I did have enough time to prepare the components individually, though, and it made a huge difference to the result.

First, the stock. Instead of regular old dashi, I used a variant and modified it more. I brought a piece of kombu slowly up to a simmer with a handful of dried baby sardines (niboshi in Japanese) that are often used in place of bonito for dashi-making. I also threw in a dried shiitake cut into pieces. As the water started to move, I turned off the heat, removed the kombu, and let it sit for a few minutes. Then I strained everything out and added the next wave of flavors: lardons of homemade miso-cured bacon that I crisped up in a pan, slices of turnip, celery, and fennel stalk, and a smashed thumb of ginger. This simmered nice and low while I shelled the shrimp and ground them up with garlic, ginger, sesame oil, fish sauce, fennel fronds, and salt to make a stiff paste which I folded into tortellini-shaped wontons. These I poached gently in the stock while the dozen littlenecks steamed hard on the adjacent burner. Once they were all open, I strained their steaming liquor (sake and stock) into the soup and distributed them among the bowls, some shelled, some not.

I used the rendered bacon fat to brown some Brussels sprouts, then steamed them with a little sake and put them in another bowl. The soup was pretty wonderful; all the various things got along really well and made for a rich soup studded with plump clams, bright ginger-pink wontons, and falling-apart tender turnips. The smoky bacon and super-umamiful sardines combined vary happily with the herbal notes of fennel and celery and the cilantro leaves I scattered on top. A delightfully comforting smoky-oceany steam wafted up from the bowls, perfumed with ginger and the other herbs, and was soon accompanied by contented slurping and the clatter of empty shells. The chewiness of bacon and clam and the soft turnips reminded me that a glug of cream or coconut milk would have made this into a superb Japanese chowder, but it wasn’t missed. And now I have a reason to make this again.

Taking a few extra minutes to include one extra step–a two-stage stock, straining a purée, cooking things separately and then combining them–can double or triple the quality of the resulting meal, even if it’s a simple one like this. The respect and care we show ingredients comes back to us in the form of amplified pleasure.

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  1. January 5

    Oh, Peter. This is amazingly beautiful. Now I want to take the boat out for cockles! I’ve been playing with Dashi for awhile now and welcome a change from the bonito I’ve been using. Where do you get your sardines?

    Miso-cured lardons? I’m planning on miso-curing salmon this summer, any pointers?

    • Peter
      January 5

      1. The sardines are from a Japanese supermarket in NJ. I bet you can order them from your new iPad. They’re lightweight, so shipping shouldn’t be too much.

      2. It’s a slower cure than salt/sugar: when I do pork belly for bacon it takes 10 days or more. You might want to experiment with adding one or both to the mixture to see how it changes the result. If you’re going to smoke it, that changes the equation still more. When it’s no longer squishy, but has a firmness in the thickest part of the fillet, it’s cured. I think you’ll find that it adds a wonderful rich flavor. Don’t overdo the salt; there’s a subtlety and tender texture that the miso gives that you don’t want to lose.

      I also find that fennel and citrus add some nice flavors to salmon gravlax. I bet you have all sorts of amazing indigenous alpine herbs come summer.

  2. January 6

    I’ll look into the sardines, thanks. I didn’t know If they were home made or not. I already marinade salmon in miso to to bake but a cure would be amazing. Smoking might be wierd but a gravlax-type cure would rock.

    No herb gathering yet, I stick pretty close to traditional with gravlax. This summer with the new boat I can’t wait to gathe and dry seaweed. My own local kombu!

  3. January 6

    This looks beautiful. I recently made chowder with both smoked and poached trout. The combination of seafood and warm broth is amazing.

  4. January 6

    you make some complicated food, man. beautiful and delicious – but complicated. and don’t go saying it’s not. cause it is. mainly i want to know why i am not eating this food of yours more often.

  5. January 11

    Oh my goodness, I can’t even eat seafood, but the way you wrote this practically made me want to lick my laptop screen to get at the amazing tastes and flavors you were describing! Absolutely stunning photos.

  6. Peter
    January 12

    Jacquie: I am jealous of all your oceany bounty.

    PP: I saw- it looked great.

    Claudia: Because you never call, you never write.

    Mo: Thanks- the little fishies are pretty photogenic.

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