Here's an example of the spontaneity of Japanese cooking: My mother-in-law Nobuko is here to visit our baby (not us, but the baby :) ), and yesterday we took her to our local farmer's market here in Brooklyn. It's a one of the smaller markets in town, but it's got great stuff, a bounty of veggies, lovely eggs, and more. A terrific fisher from the North Fork of Long Island sells her catch here, too, and we bought live soft-shelled crab, clams and scallops. By the time we got home we were ready for lunch. Looking over the seafood, we thought... hot pot! But we didn't make rice ahead of time. I remembered I had a few bricks of fresh-frozen udon noodles in the freezer. Could we make a hot pot with seafood and udon, I asked Nobuko? She thought for a moment. She never cooked something that before, she told me. But if would kill the crabs, she'd give it a try. Deal! Nobuko's one of the most amazing cooks I've ever met -- of any cuisine -- so I had no doubt the hot pot would be fabulous. She didn't disappoint.
Here's a description of how Nobuko prepared the dish. Follow it and trust your taste buds, and you'll do great. Don't worry about exact measurements; this is hot pot cooking, which is very forgiving. Taste often, and add other ingredients, if you'd like, too. Here we go:
The ingredients we used:
2 live soft-shelled crabs
4 littleneck clams
4 scallops cut in half horizontally (that is, across)
1/2 bunch scallions, trimmed and cut into 2-inch pieces
A bunch of mushrooms (I used shiitake and another variety that resembled giant shimeji), trimmed and cut into pieces
Bricks of fresh frozen udon noodles
Usukuchi soy sauce (the saltier, lighter colored soy sauce of the Kansai region)
Add a six-inch or so piece of kombu to a cooking vessel half-filled with water. (We used a shallow Le Creuset pot I have that resembles a traditional Japanese earthenware hot pot.) Allow the kombu to infuse the water for at least 1 hour. In the meantime, prepare your ingredients. For the crabs, I used a heavy knife to cut them in half, to kill them (a deal is a deal), then cut off the legs and cut the body into quarters. For the shiitake, Nobuko removed the stems and cut the caps in half. For the fresh-frozen udon, bring a large pot of unsalted water to a boil and add the udon (1 brick per person), and cook just until the udon separates and is heated through. Drain the udon in a colander and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking. Set aside.
Place your cooking vessel on a burner over high heat. When the water begins to boil, randomly add the crab pieces, clams and mushrooms. Sprinkle salt and add a little usukuchi (1 or 2 teaspoons). Taste the broth. It should be a little salty, which is fine (to be offset by the noodles). Simmer until the clams open. At this point, you'll notice the amazing fragrance of the crab and clam-infused broth. Add the scallops and scallions and cook for about 2 minutes more. Add the noodles, and cover the pot. Cook for about 2 minutes or until the udon is heated through. Serve immediately, with the ingredients in the broth.