Let's talk about how to make a dashi before we get to this simple, delicious soup. Everything I've read about preparing konbu-katsuobushi dashi (kelp and dried, shaved bonito) says to first add the konbu to a pot of water and bring it to just a boil, then to remove the konbu before the water starts to really boil. Atsushi took a totally different approach.
First, Atsushi soaked a six-inch piece of konbu overnight in a pot of about two cups of water. Then, he brought the water up to a boil over medium heat -- and kept boiling with the konbu inside. He told me that he spoke to his father about preparing dashi here in New York, and his father advised to boil the konbu because our water is much harder than in Kyoto (harder meaning containing more minerals).
Atsushi fanned the aroma of the liquid to his nose as he watched the konbu boil, and tasted the liquid. He explained that when white bubbles appear on the surface of the liquid and you can really sense the fragrance of the konbu, it's ready. At this point, he turned off the heat and removed the konbu, after about five minutes of boiling.
Now Atsushi waited for the liquid to cool. Technically the liquid should cool to 80-degrees Celsius (176-degrees Fahrenheit) before adding the katsuobushi, he said. After a couple of minutes, he estimated that the water cooled sufficiently, and added a handful of katusobushi. He tasted the liquid, and added another handful. Remember, the liquid is not being heated at this point. After a few minutes, the liquid developed a rich katsuobushi taste and aroma. The dashi was ready. At this point, Atsushi strained the liquid through a sieve lined with a sarashi, a thin cheesecloth-like piece of cotton fabric (cheesecloth will work, too).
Preparing dashi in this manner is clearly a game of finesse. All I can suggest is to practice making it and taste, practice making it and taste. At one point as we were cooking, Atsushi turned to me and said, "I want to bring you to my father's restaurant again to taste real dashi." Atsushi's on to something. If there's a Japanese restaurant that you particularly love, why not ask the chef if you can try his or her dashi? That'll give you a flavor baseline you can use to get your own dashi down.
Once you've strained the liquid, you can use the cooked katsuobushi to prepare niban dashi, or "second dashi." (You don't reuse the konbu.) Place the katsuobushi and two cups of water in a pot and bring to a boil. When the liquid is boiling, add another handful of fresh katsuobushi (called oigatsuo, if I got it right -- "chaser katsuo"). Now turn off the heat and after about five minutes, strain the liquid through a sarashi.
Okay, on to the miso soup!
Here's what you need:
- Two cups of dashi
- One cake of silken tofu (softest tofu)
The technique: Heat dashi to a boil and turn off heat. Now dissolve about two tablespoons of miso into the liquid. What kind of miso? Up to you, but I used a coarse, rustic barley miso I found at Sunrise Market that had a pleasing salty/mellow flavor. But any good miso works. Use a strainer to dissolve the miso (I recommend you a find special miso strainers at Japanese markets -- they're cup shaped with a handle, inexpensive but invaluable). Taste the broth. It should be pretty strong, stronger than typical miso broth. Tofu has a lot of water in it, so you need a salty broth to balance that.
Now add to the broth an entire cake of silken miso, which is the softest consistency of miso. Try to buy silken miso from Japanese or Asian markets, which tastes much, much better than the health food store variety (Westbrae, et al).
Turn up the heat and bring the broth to a boil. Let it boil for a few minutes so some of the water introduced by the tofu evaporates. Turn off the heat. To serve, scallop chunks of the tofu with a spoon and add to a bowl, then pour the broth over it. This soup is so simple but makes a beautiful presentation and tastes fantastic, the delicate sweetness of the tofu balancing the savoriness of the miso.
By the way, as the miso was boiling, I asked Atsushi if that was okay, since I thought miso shouldn't boil. In this case, he explained, you have to boil the miso broth to reduce the water content.
When you try this dish, I'd be grateful if you could let me know in the comments how it turns out. Did it work? Any questions or thoughts?