Here's another amazing dish I cooked during my recent session with Chef Isao Yamada. I asked him to teach me a method for sardines, a delicious (and sustainable) fish that I feel more of us should be eating. The last time I was in Japan I stopped by a tiny izakaya on the Tokyo Bay that featured sardines cooked thirty ways, and I wanted to learn some of their fishy tricks. Yamada-san graciously obliged, and explained a few ways to prepare sardines, including the simmering method here.
Okay, before we get into the method, brush up on the otoshibuta, and your understanding of nimono (simmering), here and here. Got everything? Good, let's push on! In this dish, Yamada-san cooked iwashi with sake and umeboshi, salt-pickled Japanese apricots. Both of these ingredients naturally diminish the fishiness in sardines, plus the acidity of the umeboshi softens the small bones in the fish, which you can eat. Cool, eh? Make sure the sardines are nicely trimmed, with heads, tails and belly flaps removed. Finally, you'll notice Yamada-san doesn't call for dashi in this method. Why? The sardines themselves will create a heavenly fish broth while they cook. Cool, eh? Here are the ingredients:
1 (3 inch) piece kombu
6 sardines, cleaned and heads, tails and belly flaps trimmed
2 or 3 fat, plump whole umeboshi
3 ladlefuls sake
1 ladleful mirin (so ratio of 3:1 sake to mirin)
2 tablespoons soy sauce (or more depending on taste)
2 tablespoon ginger, thinly cut into needles (hari shoga)
Place the kombu on the bottom of a saucepan. Arrange the sardines on top of it, in a neat row (the kombu both adds umami and prevents the sardines from burning). Add the umeboshi. Pour in sake to just cover the fish and umeboshi. Add the correct ratio of mirin. Place over high heat and bring to a boil. Boil for 2 minutes, then place an otoshibuta over the ingredients. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for about 15 minutes, or until the liquid has almost all evaporated.
Remove the otoshibuta and add the soy sauce, and taste the cooking stock. Does it seem well balanced between savory and sweet? If it feels too salty, add a little sugar to balance it, depending on your taste. If it doesn't feel salty enough, add a little soy sauce, again, depending on your taste. Replace the otoshibuta on top of the ingredients, and increase the heat to high. Boil for about 2 minutes. Remove the otoshibuta, and break up the umeboshi with chopsticks. Boil until the cooking stock has become thick and glossy for maybe another 30 seconds -- but be careful not to burn it. Turn off the heat. Spoon the cooking stock over the fish. Serve by piling the sardines on a plate and topping with the cooking stock and bits of umeboshi. Finish with the hari shoga. Go to town.