Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Dashi to die for

The weather is getting cooler (finally!) which in my mind, makes it soup season.  All kinds of soup!  I'm starting this season off with soups based on the ingredients my mom had around the house when I was a kid - Japanese influences, tasty bits.  Lots of things like tofu and miso, petals of chicken and fish.

The bases of many Japanese soups and broths is dashi - the seasoned fish and kelp stock that is the corner stone of many kinds of soup.  Without good dashi, you don't get good soup - the nice thing is, the definition of good dashi is entirely up to the person who's holding the spoon.  That is to say, my mom might say I'm doing this wrong, but it's been damn tasty.  For example, I use shiitake and I like to make the flavors a little stronger in my batches, as I find it lends well to freezing and reheating.

So, with that in mind, I'll lay out the basic instructions for simple dashi - feel free to change the recipe to your taste.  For example David Chang of Momofuku fame makes a bacon variety that I'm dying to try making!  I'll let you know when I get around to it.  In the meantime I've made a couple dozen batches using the guidelines below and find it gets better every time.

The ingredients:
  • Konbu - or Kelp - you can pick this up in most Asian food markets.  It looks something like this
  • Bonito flakes - dried bonito (or Sarda, a type of mackerel), shaved down into flakes, sometimes mixed with dried shaved sardine flakes as well
  • Mirin (Japanese cooking wine) - mine looks like this but I haven't found much difference between brands
  • Dried shiitake mushrooms - re-hydrated in water with a splash of soy sauce and a splash of mirin - dried shiitake have a richer flavor than fresh, this would be one instance where I would say don't bother with the fresh version.  I should mention - shiitake mushrooms have a spectacularly earthy rich smell and flavor to them.  If you're one of those people that doesn't like things like truffles and mushrooms, skip this.  Otherwise let them soak for a couple of hours until they're soft, and save the soaking liquid.

  • Soy Sauce - I'm going to take this opportunity to get on a little soap box about soy sauce.  There are a ton of brands out there that aren't real soy sauce - they taste like soy sauce but they involve things like caramel color, even sugar sometimes but no soy beans.  Read. The. Label.  While real soy sauce comes in several varieties every variety should start with soy beans.  If it doesn't say soy beans put it back on the shelf.  Good ingredients make good food so I think it's worth paying attenuation.  
  • Water is the last thing - I like to make a big batch and freeze the dashi so I can use it over the next couple of days, so I'd start with around 6 cups of water. 
Put the water into pot large - I use a three quart pot.  You want to make sure there's enough space so the broth won't boil over.  Slip one sheet of konbu into the water - don't worry about washing it or anything, just straight out of the package, into the water.  Bring the water to a simmer and let the konbu steep until it's tender enough to cut into with a fingernail or edge of a spoon.  Then turn the water off, and let it sit for another 15 min or so.  The water should have developed a briny-kelp fragrance and a slight olive tinge.  Many recipes call for taking the konbu out much earlier but I rather like the flavor so I let it steep.

Next add the fish flakes - and be generous with them!  I use 1 or 2 generous handfuls, or roughly two cups lightly packed.  The water should be hot but not necessarily boiling - if need be, turn the heat on medium to low and bring the liquid to a simmer again.  Put a lid on the pot and let it steep as well, the flakes will sink to the bottom which is your signal to move on to the next step.

Strain the flakes out, using a sieve or cheesecloth.  I use a conical strainer sometimes called a chinois (although I'm not certain mine is actually a chinois as it's not mesh)  Season the resulting broth with splashes of mirin and soy sauce to taste - I tend to leave my dashi a little on the less-seasoned side, to accommodate the various flavors that come from adding it to different recipes like miso soup.

The next step is optional, I love the taste of shiitake mushrooms so I think of it as part of the base I pour the soaking liquid from the mushrooms into the broth, then slice up the shiitake and drop them in as well.  That gives me a head start the next time I want to use the broth, but it also means I have shiitake in anything I make with the broth. That makes me happy :)

I pour the dashi into one cup lidded containers to freeze them for later use (there were actually two more, but I couldn't help myself...they never had a chance.)

Now you have dashi!  Dashi can be used as a base for noodle soup, or hearty but delicate soups.  Dashi is also the key ingredient in miso soup - without it miso paste just makes salty water, or as the base for the sauce for tempura and age dashi tofu.

And sometimes, I like to just have a mug of it by itself to warm up on a chilly day.


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