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.