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Monday, April 18, 2016

Japanese Comfort Cooking: Donabe

My gal pal Alice is a foodie. Well, we all are… we like to eat good food, but Alice, she also knows where to find good food at local eating establishments, and though I haven't been invited, she swears she is a good cook, and I have no reason to doubt her word.

She passed along to me a webpage from www.bonappetit.com (the image is from there, too) which lists some creative recipes for Japanese foods that they swear (lots of effing swearing in this blog today) are not only tasty, but are easy to eat.

Hells, if the homemade recipes are less expensive to make, and taste even 50 percent as good as some of the tasty concoctions Alice has had, then I think we may have a wiener… which is, I believe, why she sent me this stuff in the first place.

So… let's start with Donabe. I've certainly eaten this concoction many a time while in Japan… it's a soup that has a ton of things in it, specific things, but not specific things.

I only made it sound more complex than it really is.

Donabe is a one-pot meal… but don't freak out… cook stuff in a sauce pan… pour into a soup bowl. You don't need to rush out and buy all the expensive but pretty Japanese earthenware. I'm sure someone would appreciate it if you did, but the point is, we're trying to save a few bucks here. 

As anyone who has ever eaten at a Japanese restaurant outside of Japan can attest, Japanese food is stupidly expensive. It is so much more expensive than any other cuisine's cooking.

I am talking about fair value for one's meal, so yes, I am aware that sometimes we pay for ambiance… but hell… just look at the cost of food at a local take-out Japanese restaurant… all I know is that after a meal, I'm still hungry… and if I had paid the same amount of dollars for Chinese food, I would have had seconds and thirds and still have plenty for seconds for tomorrow!

Ah… but the Japanese will have you believe that its cuisine is all about the aesthetics of comfort rather than the aesthetics of my stomach is full. Again… this is a slap at restaurants OUTSIDE of Japan… I've been well-fed in Japan, and not felt like I need to wait till next pay day before I can eat again.

So… Donabe… it's a noodle, meat and veggie dish.

You can put whatever the hell you want into the pot, but note that the key to a great donate is a fowl to fish combination.

Yup… you can use duck or turkey or chicken, but you should also use a seafood, like shrimp, or fish… 

Because we are talking about a quick meal to produce, ensure all veggies are sliced rather than chunked.

Lastly… the point of a donabe is to fill the pot (or in this case your bowl), with as much food stuff as you can stuff into it to allow the broth to keep it in place to maintain the heat - to lightly poach it all.

Here's me stealing directly from the http://www.bonappetit.com/recipe/anything-goes-donabe recipe.

To Serve 4
I am always leery of the whole serving thing… The recipe says four… let's say 2. I'm  a man with an appetite. I assume you have an appetite, as well. if not, you birds can assume it does indeed serve four.

Ingredients:
Bean thread noodles - one ounce;
Dashi - four cups;
Mirin - 1/2 cup
Light Soy Sauce (usukuchi) - 1/2 cup;
Scallions - 4 (2 thinly sliced on a steep diagonal, 2 sliced two-inches thick);
Napa Cabbage - 1/4 head, sliced into two-inch pieces;
Littleneck clams - 4 (just clams);
Jumbo Shrimp - 4, with head on, but no biggie if it's not;
Fish - 16 oz, red snapper or black bass fillet, sliced crosswise 1/4-inch thick;
Chicken - large, skinless, boneless thigh, cut into one-inch pieces;
Firm Tofu - 6 oz, sliced 1/2-inch thick. Mmmm.
Oyster Mushrooms - 4 oz, torn to bite-size pieces;
Enoki Mushrooms - 3 oz. (use any mushroom, is you want.)
Carrot - 1, small, peeled, halved crosswise, thinly sliced lengthwise. 

As an aside, this is the professional recipe… if you can follow the directions, do so… otherwise, there's nothing wrong with a bit of ad-lib cooking. The important thing is to make it so that 1) you can find the ingredients; 2) don't go broke finding the ingredients; 3) you like the ingredients.

Everything else is fluff.

Okay… the food is cut to the exacting science of typical Japanese cultural cuisine… and yes, sometimes the way it looks is important (especially if it is better to look good than to taste good), but I say the proof is in the pudding.

Let's cook - it's actually pretty damn easy now:
  • Place noodles in a large bowl and add cold water to cover; let soak 15 minutes. Drain.

  • Meanwhile, combine dashi, mirin, and soy sauce in a medium bowl.

  • Place thinly sliced scallions in a small bowl and add cold water to cover. Soak until they begin to curl, 8–10 minutes. Drain; squeeze to remove excess water.

  • Lay cabbage in a large donabe or Dutch oven (you don't want my Dutch oven).
  • Arrange clams, shrimp, snapper, chicken, tofu, mushrooms, carrot, 2" scallion pieces, and noodles on top; add dashi mixture.  (Don't worry about the order of the ingredients, save that the dash mix goes on last).

  • Cover donabe and heat over medium-high until liquid is just simmering. Uncover, reduce heat to low, and gently simmer until clams open and chicken and fish are cooked through, 5–8 minutes.

  • Serve topped with drained scallions.
Now… you'll note that this recipe uses clams. What if you don't like clams? Or you aren't really sure how to choose good ones at the store… and what if the clams don't open up after cooking (don't eat them). Use shrimp. Or don't use anything. You already have fish and chicken… just use more fish and chicken. Hell, use deli meat if you want.

This is a comfort food. The point is you put in stuff that your are comfortable with, and that will provide comfort to you when you eat it. It's even better if your belly is full afterwards.

Some of the ingredients are important. Like mirin, the soy sauce - you don't want things TOO salty or thick. Dashi is also important.

The noodles… I have no idea what offing bean thread noodles are. But, a quick perusals of Google shows me that they are cellophane/glass noodles. They are thin, gelatinous and are made from ground up mung beans. The pre-soak is key, so don't forget to do that.

I believe, however, that this type of noodle is key to the recipe, but whatever… as long as it's cooked, c'est la vie nest-ce pas?

Fish - your choice, really. I would use eel. But that's because I like eel. A lot. Don't be afraid to stray from the exactness of the recipe to create a donabe that is uniquely yours.

Of course, follow the recipe as is for a first try… then go nuts on ways you think you could improve on it.

Itadakimasu,
Andrew Joseph 
PS: Itadakimasu, is what one says in Japan before a meal. It's not a prayer, but rather a polite statement that you have received this food and are about to eat it. It is a thank-you to the cook, but really, it's a thank-you to the living creatures that gave their life for your meal. It seems pretty damn dramatic, but yes, it's a thanks to the scallion, carrot, chicken, fish… it's an important part of Japanese culture, but i wonder just how many people think about what they are saying when they say it. Not being Japanese, I have no way of knowing. I am certain many people take it seriously, but I have no doubt that many others do it because that's the way it has always been done. Every culture is like that. No judging here.
PPS: I'm still awaiting that invite ;)

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