First, a little theory: Nimono, or simmering, is a primary Japanese cooking technique, and a vast one. Nimono dishes are considered one of the classic kaiseki courses, as well as a mainstay of home cooking. There are numerous simmering methods for fish, veggies, meat (see pages 218-224 of Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art to see what I mean), but they all involve cooking ingredients in a flavorful, balanced and deeply umami-laden cooking liquid that contains one or more of the following: dashi, soy sauce, mirin and/or sugar. (Click here for a post where I get into this in more detail.) Okay, that's it for theory. Now, what about dinner? My wife and I love to cook very, very simple nimono dishes with ingredients we happen to find in the fridge and/or stuff we pick up at the Japanese grocer, like the chicken and root veggies in the picture above. There's really no set recipe, but a few simple techniques to follow. Let me try to explain how I cooked the chicken dish:
Here were the basic ingredients: A small lotus root, six inches of burdock root, a large carrot, 1/2 cup of snap peas, a package of konnyaku, two boned chicken legs. I also soaked four dried shiitake in a quart of water for a four hours to make shiitake dashi. Add to this sugar and soy sauce. Now, if you don't have any one of these primary ingredients, you can also try it with potatoes, taro roots, turnips or daikon. (Or kabocha pumpkin, like my friend Chef Yamada showed me on this post.)
Okay, lotus and burdock are hard roots, so they need to be precooked. Peel the lotus and scrape the skin off the burdock with a back of a knife. After rinsing, cut them into pieces using "rangiri" style cutting, which means rolling the root a 1/4 turn, cutting on an angle, rolling another 1/4 turn, cutting on an angle, and so on. The result of this cutting style is it enables you to produce even-sized pieces from an odd-shaped root, so the pieces cook uniformly. Add the lotus and burdock pieces to a small saucepan, cover with shiitake dashi and start cooking. When the liquid came to a boil, reduce it to a simmer, for about 15 minutes.
While the lotus and burdock were simmering, Prep the rest of the ingredients by cutting into bite sized pieces. For the konnyaku, cut little hash marks on the surface, to make it easier for flavor to absorb, then tear irregular pieces off by pressing down with the corner of a water glass (I hope this is clear, if not, lemme know in comments and I'll try to explain a different way). For the snap peas, quickly blanch in boiling salted water, then shock in cold running water and set aside. Cut the carrots rangiri-style, and slice the chicken and rehydrated mushrooms into bite-sized chunks.
Once the lotus and burdock are ready, turn off the fire and set it aside. In another saucepan large enough to hold all the ingredients add a little oil, and place over medium heat. When it was hot, add the chicken and carrots and cook and stir until the chicken turns white, which firms it up. Then add the lotus and burdock with the mushroom stock., as well as the mushrooms. (Alternatively you can use part mushroom stock/ part dashi or all dashi.) Make sure there's enough liquid to cover all the ingredients. Now start simmering. When the liquid comes to a boil reduce so it gently simmers, and skim off the scum and fat that accumulates on the surface. Make sure to thoroughly skim.
Five minutes into simmering, add about 1 tablespoon of sugar to the liquid. Taste it. It should taste lightly sweet, but not overpowering. If you can't taste any sweetness add a little more sugar but don't overdo it. Simmer for another 5 minutes and add soy sauce, about 1 1/2 tablespoons (or 1:1.5 ratio with the sugar). Now here's where your judgment comes in. Taste the liquid. It should taste savory sweet, I my mind, a touch more savory than sweet. What does that mean? It's really up to you. The savory and sweet should seem balanced. Do you like how it tastes? Then it's fine. If not, add a little more soy sauce. If you add too much, balance with a little more sugar (I'm omitting mirin in this method, to make this simple, but you can add a splash of mirin, too, which gives body, umami and sweetness). The amount of seasoning depends on the quantity of ingredients, the amount of liquid they release, the flavor of the entire combination mingling with each other. Sounds complicated, but really it's not.
Now let the ingredients simmer on low heat - so it barely boils - for a while until about 1/3 or so of the liquid has evaporated, and the flavors have mingled and absorbed. You can use an otoshibuta at this point (see this post or make one yourself with aluminum foil, but fashioning it to sit directly on top of the simmering ingredients and poking a few holes so the steam escapes).
Taste the chicken and veggies. When tender and delicious, serve with a bit of cooking liquid, lay a few of the reserved snap peas on top, and sprinkle shichimi togarashi on top if you'd like.
Whew, a lot of blah-blah-blah to explain a so-called "simple" dish! But I wanted to walk through everything in detail. If you think about it, it's pretty straightforward -- cut ingredients, simmer. Give it a try and let me know how it works!