Now that summer, I mean the real thing -- 90 degrees, sticky and humid -- has finally arrived in New York, I want to share some simple Japanese dishes perfect for these scorching days. First up, a recipe out of the current issue of Saveur that accompanies my story on Chef Nakahigashi. As many of you know, I've written about Mr. Nakahigashi and his son Atsushi on the JFR before (here, here and here); they've both taught me so much about Japanese gastronomy. The technique in Saveur is a simple one for infusing vegetables with classic Japanese umami flavors. When I was training in Japan this past spring, I saw it used in every kitchen I worked in, it's extremely versatile.
All you have to do is, first, prepare the dashi following the steps in Saveur (I'll list those at the end of the post); second, blanch and shock assorted summer vegetables; and finally, steep the veggies in the dashi for at least 30 minutes, but overnight, if possible. Serve cold. These veggies keep in the fridge so you can cook once, then enjoy over a few days. At the restaurants I trained in, the cooks used different dashi for different vegetables, adjusting proportions to perfectly match the nature of each particular ingredient. But for home cooking, do what I do, make one dashi for all the vegetables. It'll work fine and taste fantastic, I promise.
Okay, here's how to prepare the vegetables, and the recipe for dashi:
Pick a nice assortment of summer vegetables, whatever you like. I perused the farmers market at Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn, and found beautiful okra, green beans, wax beans, shiitake, broccoli, and heirloom red and yellow cherry tomatoes. Quantities and proportions are up to you. You want enough for about servings 4, remembering that leftovers keep nicely. We'll get to these veggies in a minute.
For the dashi, follow this recipe from Saveur, Aug/Sep 09 issue, page 44:
1 1/2 ounces kombu
1 3/4 ounces katsuobushi
1/3 cup light soy sauce (that means usukuchi soy sauce, lighter in color, but not flavor)
2 teaspoons sugar
Prepare an ice bath and set aside. Place the kombu in a medium saucepan and cover with 6 cups of cold water; let it soak for 30 minutes. Bring to a boil over medium heat, and skim off any scum that appears on the surface. Remove from heat; remove and discard the kombu. Add the katsuobushi to the pot and let it steep until saturated, about 1 minute. Strain liquid through a sieve lined with cheesecloth or paper towel into a bowl. Do not squeeze or press the katsuobushi. Cool the bowl with liquid in the ice bath. When cool, add the soy sauce and sugar and mix until dissolved. Taste it. Do you like it? Add a touch more soy sauce or sugar, if you'd like, up to you (I added a splash more soy sauce, for my taste, at least). Now the dashi is ready for the veggies.
For the veggies, prepare an ice bath and set aside. Bring a large pot of water to boil over high heat. Now, cut the veggies into chopstick-friendly size. For the beans, trim the tops and slice on an angle. For the broccoli, break into bite-size florets. For the okra, rub with salt to remove the outside hairs, rinse under running water, and cut on an angle. Stem the shiitake and if the caps are large, slice on an angle in half. Cutting these vegetables on an angle, by the way, exposes more surface area of the flesh, which makes it easier to absorb the dashi's flavors. (And it looks good, too.)
When the water is boiling, add each batch of vegetables, one at a time, so everything blanches evenly. That is, cook the beans, then the wax beans, then the okra, etc. -- each variety of veggie will require a slightly different time. Blanch the veggies quickly, maybe 1 minute. You want them to just cook through and lose their rawness, but still retain their integrity (in Saveur this state is described as "crisp-tender," which I think is perfectly put). Taste a piece to check. When ready, quickly transfer the veggies to the ice bath and blanch the next batch. You can add all the veggies to the same ice bath, of course. The ice "shocks" the veggies and stops the cooking process. When the tomatoes are cool, peel off the skins.
Gently add the veggies to the bowl with the dashi. Stick in the fridge to marinate for 30 minutes to overnight. A longer steep is ideal. To serve, arrange the veggies artfully in individual bowls, drizzle a few tablespoons of dashi over the veggies, and deliver the bowls to the dining table. Enjoy!