In my last post I made dashi with Chef Isao Yamada, who I cooked with recently. So now that we had some beautiful dashi, the fundamental stock of Japanese cuisine, what to do with it? Yamada-san didn't waste any time cooking a slew of fantastic dash-based dishes, including this one, Braised Kabocha Pumpkin and Chicken. I had asked Yamada-san to teach me something about nimono, the technique of simmering. Simmering is a central cooking style in Japanese cuisine, and an incredibly versatile method to prepare fish, meat, vegetables and poultry.
What I love about nimono -- and all of Japanese cuisine -- is how it relies on such a remarkably constrained palette of seasonings to create so many different tastes. We're talking soy sauce (2 kinds mainly), mirin, sake, sugar, miso and dashi. Within these half-dozen ingredients, four are brewed and fermented with variants of the same koji mold (soy sauce, mirin, sake, miso), or prepared from fermented ingredients (dashi) -- so the components that make up these foods (rice, soy beans, kombu, bonito, sometimes barely) have been broken down and their flavor compounds released and blossomed, in other words, their umami, their incredibly intense umami or sense of savoriness. So cooking with these seasoning means infusing foods with and irresistible flavor fundamental to human beings (breast milk is extremely rich in umami compounds, fyi). That's why Japanese cuisine is so appealing, even though it traditionally has not relied on butter or olive oil or other fats to create flavor, like in other cuisines.
With nimono, foods are simmered in umami-rich liquids so they (a) taste incredibly good, and (b) cook quickly because the flavor is already so developed in the seasonings -- you don't have to cook for hours to tease out the flavor (think French braising).
Here's how Yamada-san cooked kabocha and chicken:
1/2 kabocha pumpkin, sliced and edged
4 ladlefuls dashi (20 fl ounces)
1/2 ladleful mirin (2.5 fl ounces)
1/3 ladleful usukuchi soy sauce (about 1.5 fl ounces)
2 tablespoons sugar
Small piece of kombu (2 inches approx)
2 deboned chicken legs, skin on
1 teaspoon arima sansho
First, some notes:
Kabocha: This squash must be ripened for at least a month after harvesting to convert its starches to sugar. The result is a luscious, sweet squash. Here's what Yamada-san did to bring out this lovely natural flavor: First, he carefully cut the kabocha in half and seeded it. Then he cut it in half again. He pointed out that the quarters have a thicker top part, and a thinner bottom part. When he cut the kabocha one more time (into eights) he cut the thicker side a little smaller -- so all the chunks had the same weight. Now he cut each chunk into even slices that weighed the same. The aim is to have same size slices so they all cook evenly. Once he finished the slices, he processed to trim the edges of each slice (called mentori I believe). Why? A couple of reasons: To create more surface area of the kabocha to absorb flavor, to make the slices aesthetically beautiful and to remove hard edges, so when the kabocha slices cook and hit each other, the delicate ingredient won't break apart. Finally, Yamada-san tapped the heel of his blade into the kabocha's skin to cut nicks into it, so when the kabocha cooks and the flesh expands, the harder skin will be able to expand with it and the slice won't crumble. Wow.
Okay, I went through all this description to give you some small idea of what it means to become a top-notch Japanese chef. What amazed me about cooking with Yamada-san was how aware he was of his ingredients, to such a deep level of specificity and sensitivity. Incredible. Watching him was just breathtaking. Now, of course, at home you don't have to get this deep, but keep in mind what Yamada-san did, and become more aware of your own ingredients. I know I have.
Ladlefuls: Why the heck am I talking about "ladlefuls" in the ingredients list? Well, if you know how much liquid your ladle holds, it's faster and easier to measure out ingredients using it than pouring liquids into a measuring cup! I'm all about expediency, so I know that my ladle (a shallow Japanese otama) holds 150ml or about 5fl oz of liquid. How much does your ladle hold?
Now, the method:
Add the kabocha to a medium sized saucepan, skin side down. Add the dashi, mirin, sugar and kombu. Place over medium heat and bring the liquid to a boil. When the liquid boils reduce the heat so the kabocha just gently simmers. Cook until the kabocha is just cooked through -- a skewer or toothpick will go through it easily. When the kabocha is ready, turn off the heat and add the usukuchi soy sauce. Let the kabocha steep in its cooking liquid for at least an hour (more is fine, even a few hours - don't refrigerate). Once the kabocha has steeped, carefully remove it and set aside, and reserve the cooking liquid in the saucepan.
For the chicken, preheat a skillet over high heat. When the skillet is hot, add the chicken, skin side down, and brown for a minute or two to give the skin color. Now transfer the chicken to the saucepan with the kabocha cooking liquid. If you need more liquid, add some dashi. You want to just cover the chicken. Bring the liquid to a boil. Reduce the heat so the liquid simmers and place a drop lid over the chicken (I'll get into drop lids in detail in another post, if you're not familiar with them. For right now, cut a piece of aluminum foil to fit inside the pot, poke a couple of holes in it, and place directly on top of the liquid and chicken, which will help the cooking). Cook for 15 minutes.
When the chicken is done, transfer to a cutting board and slice across the grain and set aside. Place the kabocha back in the cooking liquid and bring it just to a boil over medium heat. As soon as it boils, turn off the heat. Plate the dish by piling chicken slices besides kabocha slices. Top with sansho arima (sansho peppercorns cooked tsukudani-style)
I know, what a hell of a long post! I guess that's an observation, not a note. But Yamada-san is just so hardcore, I learned a ton spending time with him. So please bear with this brain dump. Now, one thing that struck me as odd when we cooked this dish was that Yamada-san added mirin, which is sweet, and sugar, ditto, to cook sweet kabocha. Isn't that sweet overkill? Au contraire, answered Yamada-san (but not in French). He explained that adding sugar and mirin to the dashi in fact keeps the sugar that naturally occurs in kabocha inside the ingredient when soy sauce is added. If there was no sugar in the cooking liquid, he explained, the salty soy sauce would pull the sweetness out of the kabocha. So you'd have a flavorful stock, but a flavorless kabocha. So the sugar in the stock keeps the natural sweetness of the kabocha intact.
All in all, sooo much to learn from this simple dish... thank you, Yamada-san!
Here are a few pictures to help your cooking along: