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January culinary exploration leads to Japanese soups

To chase away the winter blues and defend ourselves against slipping into the comfort food habit, our family decided we would spend our last month’s meal prep time learning something new. Unfortunately short of wise grandmothers or knowledgeable friends, we checked out all the library books, found some reliable recipe websites, made a few lists, and declared it Japanese food January.

Any time you cook something new, you start by puzzling over individual ingredients and then move to an appreciation of the relationship between ingredients. When we challenged ourselves to cook something different every night, we knew we wanted to go deeper than our usual restaurant favorites. After a couple of weeks, we began to get a sense of the cycles of the cuisine.

I was fascinated by the jars of things that began to accumulate in the fridge, knowing that each one could be used as bases for different meals. I was especially interested in soups and played with that a bit. I never really understood how to make a good bowl of miso soup at home. It seemed one of those dishes that should be simple but left me stranded every time I tried. The secret I was missing was having homemade dashi on hand, a stock used in Japanese cooking for, as I learned, many different meals.

Another new soup I met was Zosui (pronounced zo-see). This bowl of goodness, also made with dashi, is ready to comfort you after a cold day. If you have Japanese ingredients stocked in your pantry, it comes together with very little effort. It uses the technique, familiar across many cultures, of stirring a beaten egg into a hot broth.

Zosui, made with dashi, rice, vegetables and optional protein at the bottom of the bowl, is a warm delight for a cold day.

Making Dashi

Dashi is a foundational base for many Japanese soups and sauces. Make what you need or make extra to keep on hand in the refrigerator. Scale the recipe up according to how many you are serving. Strained ingredients can be reserved for a second batch of stock with a lighter flavor (“second dashi”) or discarded.

Dashi

INGREDIENTS

2 1/2 cups water

8 inches dried kombu seaweed

2 handfuls (about 10 grams) dried bonito flakes (katsuobushi)

Use kitchen scissors to cut the kombu, if needed. Bring water and kombu to a near boil. Turn off heat. Add nice. Let stand for 5 minutes. Strain.

Vegetarian Dashi

INGREDIENTS

2 cups water

4 inches dried kombu seaweed

4 small dried shiitake mushrooms

Bring all of this to a near boil. Turn off heat and cover. Steep for 1 hour. Strain.

Dashi, a foundational base for many Japanese soups and sauces, can be used for stir fry as well.

Beginner’s Miso Soup

For 1

INGREDIENTS

2 cups dashi

2 tablespoons miso

Garnishes: wakame seaweed, cubed tofu, chopped scallions, sesame seeds

DIRECTIONS

Bring dashi to a near boil. Add miso to the top of a mesh strainer placed over the serving bowl. Ladle the hot broth over it and stir a little. Choose your garnishes and enjoy.

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