Did you know that every single month, every week and every day of the year is some sort of food holiday? For example, the month of January has been proclaimed Bread Machine Baking Month, as well as Prune Breakfast Month. Not only is January National Meat Month, but the fourth week of January is National Meat Week. January 18 is Peking Duck Day, January 24 is Lobster Thermador Day. January 5 is National Bean Day.
It is my belief that the only people who actually celebrate these days are the industry groups and grocery chains that are looking for a hook to sell their products. When was the last time you took the day off to celebrate cabbage (February 17)? If you name it, will they buy?
Am I being too cynical? Perhaps they, in their collective unconscious, understand that everyday should be a holiday. After all, in January our only true holidays are New Year’s Day and Martin Luther King Day. The days are short; the month is long, the days are cold. The need for comfort, and comfort food, is never greater.
Every culture has its own version, nearly all in the Western world have fat and starch as their common denominator. Americans have macaroni and cheese. Canadians have poutine, which (I am not making this up) is french fries topped with gravy and cheese curds. Germans have something called kartoffelpuffern, which is a deep-fried potato pancake topped with lox and bacon. English have spotted dick. Don’t ask.
Japanese, on the other hand, have nabemono, which are often referred to as “hot pot” dishes. There are many kinds of nabemono. All are cooked in a liquid, usually at the center of the dining table, and shared by all the guests around the table. Guests are presented with an array of vegetables, seafood and/or meats and invited to swish the ingredients into a simmering broth in a clay donabe or cast iron tetsunabe. The donabe as a beautiful, large lidded bowl that can be cooked on a stovetop and the tetsunabe, has its own rustic charm.
The process is all very theatrical, communal and celebratory. Sort of like a fondue, only much healthier.
And the best thing is, the guests do almost all the work!
Your job is to provide the raw ingredients and the equipment—a cooking pot and a heat source. You can get donabes or tetsunabes, as well as a small propane stove at my favorite store, Uwajimaya. This may seem specialized, but I get a lot of use out of my donabe.
So I am going to give you two nabe recipes. One is a traditional New Year’s dish and the other is great for a simple but special meal.
You won’t believe how easy this is. And it is supposed to give you strength and prosperity—and has been eaten in Japan since the end of the Muromachi period in the 16th century, where it was primarily eaten by samurai. There are many variations of ozoni, but all have a combination of mochi (rice cake), broth, chicken, seafood and vegetables.
The mochi is the only tricky part because it needs to be cooked ahead of time, and it is very, very sticky. You can either coat it with oil and zap it in the microwave until it is puffy; or you can brush it with a mixture of shoyu, sugar and oil and toast it under a broiler until it starts puffing up. Cook your mocha with a fair amount of space between each other or you will end up with one GIANT MOCHI.
This is the way I like to make ozone for 4 people:
• 4-5 Cups dashi stock
• 1 T. soy sauce
• 1 T. sake
• 2 or 3 sliced chicken thighs
• One carrot, sliced crosswise
• 4 sliced shitake mushrooms
• Sliced kamboko (red and white steamed fishcake)
• 1 or 2 prawns / per person (small clams are nice too)
• 1 handful of mizuna or spinach
• 4 green onions, sliced diagonally about 1 inch long
• 4 prepared mochi disks
Simmer everything at the table in your nabe pot, adding the chicken and carrots first to make sure they are cooked through. Then add the seafood and simmer briefly, then throw in the mizuna or spinach, green onions and cooked mochi.
Guests can serve themselves in medium-sized bowls with a ladle. Give them sansho pepper to sprinkle on top.
Here is another yummy nabe, following the same methodology as above. This one has a dipping sauce.
To 4-5 cups of simmering dashi, add sliced chicken thighs and simmer a bit. Then add ½ head of nappa cabbage, sliced about 2 inches. When that gets a little soft add 8 fresh shitake, white fish pieces, shrimp, tofu blocks, 8 prawns, and a block of tofu, cut into 1 inch blocks. Then add a little spinach and 4 or 5 sliced green onions.
Make the dipping sauce ahead of time in your blender or Magic Bullet with 1 T rice vinegar, 2 T sesame oil, ½ C salad oil, 2 T soy sauce, 2 T mirin, 1 mashed garlic, 1 T sesame seeds, and ¼ t red pepper or sansho. Pour into little dipping bowls, one for each guest.
Guests ladle the mizutaki into medium sized bowls and dip the ingredients into the dipping sauce before popping the yumminess into their mouths. Serve with rice in little bowls.