Tuesday, December 16, 2008

CSA week three - sukiyaki with hon tsai tai

I had heard the term sukiyaki and had a passing familiarity with the dish when I decided to make it, but I really didn't know what I was getting into. It's a dish more suitable for a family or party than one guy, but once I get an idea in my head for this sort of thing I find it tough to change course.

Sukiyaki, if you break it down to its basics, has two main parts: a sampler platter of chunks of raw ingredients and some sauce to simmer them in.

I used the most complicated sauce recipe I could locate which I found here.

"Warishita (Sukiyaki Sauce):

1/2 Cup Soy Sauce
3/4 Cup Mirin
1/2 Cup Sugar
1/4 Cup Water
1/4 Sake
1/4 tsp Dashi No Moto(optional)
1 clove garlic smashed (optional)

Combine Warishita ingredients(except for dashi no moto) and bring to a boil while stirring, turn down heat and simmer for 3-5 minutes to burn off alcohol. Remove from heat and add dashi no moto, if desired. Remove from heat and cool. Let the sauce "rest" at least 20 minutes, or over night."

Dashi, in case you're unfamiliar, is a fish/seaweed broth which is probably the most common broth in Japanese cooking. It's available in dried granulated form. From the 1/4 teaspoon measurement I'm pretty sure that's what Kirk K., whose recipe I'm filching, means. Which is a good thing as that's what I've got handy.

This sauce is the good stuff. Sweet but with several layers of rich savory flavors even before I start to simmer anything in it.

As for that anything, there's a a lot of variation--regional I think--about what goes into the pot. There's most agreement on beef, enoki mushrooms and yam noodles. Beef I'm using, of course, enoki mushrooms I wish I had but I'm not willing to go out shopping for them right now. Instead I'm using shiitakes, also common, and creminis. Yam noodles are pretty bland and have a nasty rubbery texture so I'm substituting in egg noodles, a move sure to appall purists. Also going in are sliced bamboo shoots, onion, (scallion if I wasn't just about out of it), tofu, and hon tsai tai.

I didn't turn up any sukiyaki recipes that actually called for hon tsai tai, but I did find plenty using spinach and one using mazuna so it should fit in fine.

A sidebar on the hon tsai tai before I continue here. One common thread I noticed in the sparse documentation on using hon tsai tai was complaints about the woody stems. Our batch this year seems rather better on that score than last year's. I think that's because this is younger. I don't see the distinctive yellow flowers and many of the stems are still green. The more purple the stem the woodier it is so I'm avoiding the worst this time around.

There is still some woodiness, though, so I'm going to pick through the bundle harvesting the leaves and keeping only the most tender stems. Everything else I'm packing away for the next time I make stock.

Last year I suggested cooking the hon tsai tai like kale, but I think this batch is more on par with spinach so it's not going to need a long braise, just a quick simmer in the sauce.

So, step two, after making the sauce (and pre-cooking the noodles), is to brown everything that needs pre-browning. In my case that's the tofu and the beef. Traditionally, a cast iron pan is greased down with a chunk of beef fat. I've still got some lard kicking around so I used that. And can I point out that my fresh-rendered lard is substantially less hydrogenated than the big block from the supermarket so it's no worse for me than butter? First I fried the tofu (which isn't traditional but I like a little texture on my tofu), removed it from the cast iron pan and let it rest to crisp up. Then, when I was ready to eat, I seasoned the beef with a pinch of salt and a few drops of soy sauce, browned it quickly on both sides and gathered it up into a pile at the side of the pan.

Next I poured in the sauce and added the greens. I wanted them to wilt down before adding anything else so I put them in right away to let them cook as the sauce came to a boil.

Once it got there, everything else went in--each to its own sector of the pan--and I simmered at medium heat for three minutes before it was ready to serve.

The traditional method of eating sukiyaki is too keep the pot simmering away. Everyone sits around it picking out what they want and cooling each bite by dipping it into a small bowl of slightly thinned beaten egg. Yeah, I know and I understand your trepidation. Japanese folks accept a wider range of food textures than most anyone else. But it's not a problem in this case; There's no raw egg mouth feel at all. The boiling hot meat and vegetables cook the egg they come in contact with and the tiny bit that sticks to them mixes with the clinging layer of sauce to add body and temper the sweetness--improving flavor and texture as well as doing its job as a heat sink. It's actually an essential step that does a lot for the dish.

I don't have a hibachi to set up on a table--heck, I don't have a dinner table--so I had to eat at the stove which is not a dignified operation let me tell you. I think I had the burner cranked up a bit too high because the beef overcooked pretty quickly; I probably should have used skirt steak or the like instead of the more delicate cut I had in the freezer. The onions passed through a properly cooked, firm but not raw, stage at around five minutes and then started cooking down. On the other hand, the noodles and the mushrooms stayed good throughout which was nice.

The hon tsai tai turned out to be much tougher than it looks and took a very long time to soften up. The leaves aren't as thick as most tough greens, but they're very fibrous. It's like chewing on a strip of fabric if it's undercooked. On the other hand, its slightly bitter flavor played against the sweet sauce beautifully. Even with the textural issue, it was the best component of the dish.

Overall, an interesting experience but I could use a bit of practice to get this right. On the CSA end of things it wasn't the best possible use of hon tsai tai. That really needs a braise. If we get any more I'm just going make up a mess of greens southern-style with a chunk of salt pork and a dollop of molasses and be done with it.

I also made a daikon/cucumber salad but since I accidentally made enough food for four people, I didn't eat much. I'll give it a separate post tomorrow.

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