Thursday, December 2, 2010

Chawanmushi - a silky surprise and yes, my Dashi recipe

Okay I know, don't be shocked.  No writey for like, 3 months.  Let me explain.  Things have been a little hectic in food land.  Ever since I stopped working for the "tyrant" in June, I've been patching my income together like a madwoman.  Some weeks are good, and some just plain POOR!  ha!  Plus I have some stuff up my sleeve.  Let's just say it involves my love of Japanese food, knives, and... my love of feeding people good stuff.  Yes, I'm trying to start my own place.

So, in lieu of trashing and praising other people's food, let me share some of my own.

My facebook food and drink posts garner a lot of oohs and aaahs (photographing food is just plain FUN).  A few days ago I posted a photograph of a beautiful Chawanmushi I made on the fly.  Lately I have all kinds of stuff in my arsenal (i.e. my refrigerator) and am finding endless combinations I can make with just a few basic ingredients.  This is one of them:

I'm not officially a Japanese food aficianado, in fact, I'm not even sure I spelled that correctly! : )  However, I do know the basics and have a huge love affair with the stuff (fortunately or unfortunately at the moment to the exclusion of all else).  That said, let's talk custard.

The deal behind Chawanmushi is that it's Dashi (fish stock) and egg based.  Simply, a 2 cup Dashi to 3 eggs ratio.  Once you combine the two and strain them (for clarity and consistency) into custard cups, tea cups or any stoneware cup you have the base.  But let's back up cuz' that's the last step. 

For the custard pictured here, into the bottom of the cup I placed a Shitake Mushroom cap, cut in half (raw), a few sprigs of green onion and about 2 Tablespoons of cooked Dungeness Crab meat.  I then poured the egg mixture over the top (reserving about 1/2" room at the top) placed the lid on and steamed it in a bamboo steamer for about 20 minutes.  I only have two official Chawanmushi cups (replete with lids) so I used a few tea cups and covered them tightly with saran wrap (which works just as well).  Strangely some of you may know, the saran wrap does not melt under these conditions. 

For this recipe I used crab stock that I made from spent crab shells, simmered for a few hours, and seasoned with soy sauce and mirin.   However, I recommend using straight seasoned dashi, as it is easier and if you are a freak like me, always have a quart or so hanging around in the refrigerator.  By the way, don't store your dashi for longer than 5-7 days.  (It is perishable after all).

Okay, you are begging, just begging to know WTF dashi is and why I keep referring to it.  Well, you see, dashi is the staple, absolute cornerstone of Japanese cooking.  It is used as the base for all soups, many dressings, sauces and even  Ponzu sauce is made with Dashi.  Little known but true, most Japanese food is not vegetarian because of this   (which is no problem for me...).

I went to Japan two years ago  (weep weep, it has been so long) and learned how to make dashi from two different Japanese chefs.  I watched my friends at O Chame; in Berkeley make dashi for years and years (because I worked there for years and years), and I've read numerous online examples of how to make dashi.  So, that being said, my way is my way and I'm not imposing my white girl version on anyone here.  I'm simply telling you how to make it so you can start your Japanese arsenal and also get some good flavoring, Umami if you will.  If you aren't into the labor involved (its not that bad but involves somewhat specific ingredients), go to the Asian market and get Dashi granules, a powdered substance one adds to water to produce the same rich broth (sort of like bouillion cubes, actually).  Watch out for the MSG however, because many commercial products do contain it (unless you don't give a shit about that - and I'm not saying that you should...).  Anyhoo, oh, I see, you forgot how long winded my stories are... 

Okay, here goes nothing:

Seasoned Dashi (appropriate for salad dressings, this recipe, soba and udon noodle soup etc)

4 cups filtered water  (1 qt)
1 - 6" piece of Kombu seaweed (may be called Dashi Kombu)
1 large handful of dried bonito flakes
tsp salt
 Mirin (sweet cooking sake)
soy sauce

Place 4 cups water into saucepan and add Kombu.  Soak for about an hour (or longer)  1/2 hour will do, this is not a perfect science, it is cooking for chrissakes!  The Kombu is the source of the umami and other amazing properties that add a little somethin' somethin' you can't get elsewhere.  So, in short, it is okay to soak it for 75 minutes if you forget.  By the way, a little side note, Kombu has naturally based MSG in it, not the evil kind, but MSG is what everyone is freaking on when they speak of umami, the 5th taste, but I won't go into that right now.    Anyway, after the aforementioned soaking has taken place, turn the burner on and the timer on at the same time - 15 minutes.  In about 4 or so the water will come to a slight boil, turn it down to med-low and let it simmer until the timer has gone off.  Turn the burner off.  Add the handful of bonito flakes (they sink into the broth but no need to stir them in) - turn on the burner for a few seconds to bring it to a slight simmer (just look for those little bubbles).  Turn the burner off.  Turn the timer on for 12 or so minutes.  Let the bonito flakes "steep" in the water.  After the 12 minutes is done, strain the whole concoction through a wire mesh strainer (into another pot or heat proof bowl, of course).  This is your basic dashi.  Okay all you Japanese people out there, don't freak out on my technique.  It works for me! 
Anyhoo, this basic dashi can be used now to make Miso soup.  Yup, just whisk the miso in, add a little green onion, wakame and tofu, and you're done.  But oops! we aren't making miso soup right now, we are making something else...

Okay, so next add the soy sauce, mirin and salt.  Taste the broth along the way.  Tt should be a little sweet, a little salty (but not too much).  If it is a little sweet but seems to be lacking, add some more salt, it is amazing how much just a pinch more will do.  Maybe another dash of soy (watch out for this).

Okay, now you have your seasoned dashi which you will have to let cool before we proceed to the next step. 

Chawanmushi can have anything in it.  Sometimes it has spinach leaves, or bok choy or some other chopped up green leaf.  It often (almost always) has japanese fish cake.  Mushrooms are nice, so are green onions, pieces of chicken or shrimp.  if you cut them into 1" pieces, you don't even have to cook them first (the proteins, that is).  But, I like to add cooked proteins because it retains the clarity of the custard without all the excess fats etc releasing from the proteins into the custard which would otherwise occur.

So, add just a few pieces of these treats to the bottom of a custard cup, combine the said 2 cups of cooled broth with 3 eggs and whisk together.  Strain these through a wire mesh strainer (a wire mesh tea strainer works good in a pinch) and top the ingredients with it. Cover with lid and steam for 20 minutes (yes, get that steamer going a few minutes ahead of time so it is ready when you put them in).  Turn off the steam and remove the lid from the steamer.  To check for doneness the custard should be firm and clear dashi should rise up if poked with a spoon or chopstick).  Eat while hot!

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