Layering Flavor into Vegetables

Layering Flavor into Vegetables


During the staff meal break the other night at Matsuri, I noticed Chef Ryuji cleaning a pile of fiddlehead ferns. Ryo is the Chef du Cuisine at the restaurant. I love watching him in action -- this man knows how to cook. During the break I can usually find Ryo by himself behind the line, working on something in the remaining quiet moments before service -- and its attendant frenzy -- begins.

"Fiddleheads mean spring is here," Ryo said while rinsing them in water. While we think of these fleeting, curled ferns as native to New England, they're also prized in Japan, where they're called warabi. I was curious to see how he prepared them, Japanese-style.

"Vegetables are the most difficult ingredients to cook," Ryo explained. Meat has a powerful taste, but vegetables are much more delicate, of course. To bring out their flavors, he continued, Japanese cooks rely on a basic technique called shita aji, which I believe (correct me if I'm wrong!) literally means "underlying taste."

With this preparation, vegetables are poached briefly in boiling water, shocked in an ice bath, and then marinated in konbu-katsuobushi dashi with a touch of soy sauce. "We don't sauté vegetables with strong flavors like ginger and garlic," said Ryo. Instead, this marinade adds a subtle but sublime dimension to vegetables that fits the sensibility of Japanese cooking.

As I watched Ryo prepare the fiddleheads shita aji, I noticed him adding usukuchi soy sauce to dashi, a lighter-colored soy sauce from the Kansai region that wouldn't overwhelm the bright green color of the ferns. But how much soy sauce? I spooned a little taste from his mixing bowl. It was a bit salty but not overly so (keep in mind that usukuchi soy sauce is saltier than the usual, darker Japanese soy sauce, so use with care -- and taste often). Ryo marinated the fiddleheads for about 15 minutes.

I tried this at home with asparagus, which were delicious. In the picture above you'll see slices of shiitake mingling with the bright green stalks (the poaching and shocking really brightens the colors). I grilled the shiitake briefly in a dry cast iron pan to dehydrate them a bit and concentrate their flavors -- another one of Ryo's techniques. Thanks, Ryo!

Posted by Harris Salat in Technique | Permalink | Comments (4) | Email | Print

Comments (4)

I just started working for, an online specialty food store, and fiddlehead ferns just came into season. We make them available to individual consumers and I have yet to try them, but I'm excited to give this simple technique a go. They're supposed to taste like a cross between asparagus and an artichoke - it doesn't get any better than that!
This is brilliant, it is precisely this treatment of ingredients that makes me enjoy japanese food so much.
Hello. I am reading your blog for the first time today. (I came here from the Visual Thesaurus newsletter email.) I have lived here in Tokyo for 35 years. The food here is one of the main reasons, I think, that I ended up staying. Just a short comment about the translation of "shita-aji": since it refers to the flavoring of ingredients prior to their "actual" cooking, I think that "pre-flavoring" or a similar term is more accurate than "underlying taste". "shita" does mean under, below etc. and "aji" is taste or flavor, but I think your "sensei", Chef Ryuji will tell you that he is bringing out the flavors. Cheers Nick
I, too, am reading your blog for the first time today, and enjoying it thoroughly. Although I live in Japan it's sometimes nice to be able to read recipes and descriptions in my native language - far more relaxing. I think you've managed to confuse the two wild vegetables of zenmai (fiddleheads) and warabi (bracken). Both are eaten in the spring in Japan, and look quite similar. I had no idea you could eat bracken until I moved to Japan, though as an Ontario girl I'm familiar with fiddleheads. Cheers, Skye

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