This time of year I like to take a day or two to unplug from everything and do a kind of mental & physical detox (yes, I know "detox" is a ritual not a scientific or medical fact). But New Year is all about ritual, isn't it? It's about starting over. There's a Japanese tradition of cleaning out the house just before the New Year so that you start with a nice clean home. So extending that, in a sense, to mind and body appeals to me as well. As part of that I often take a trip the first weekend of January to someplace that is, simply, away. I turn off everything, I disengage from everyone. I am mindful of what I eat -- moreso than usual -- to make sure there is as much fresh, healthy food as possible. It's purely ritual, yes, but one that brings me peace and a sense of newness for the year. It's my own deeply personal Thanks-giving.
It started almost by accident one year when I took a trip to a little hot spring resort in a forsaken part of northern Japan called Aoni Onsen. From where I lived* -- a place already deep in the frozen, forgotten north -- I had to take a bullet train, three local trains, two buses, and a snowmobile to get to the inn. By design it is lodged up in a snow-covered mountain that has no electricity. Everything is cooked by fire, seen by kerosene lamp. It's a perfect spot for a little soul-searching, and the food! The food! I did it the first year, 2006, because I wanted to get away and travel at this time of year is comparatively cheap since everyone's already done their holiday traveling. I loved the experience so much that I kept it up afterward for as long as I lived in Japan, and then in B&Bs or other remote locations once I returned to the States. So when I think of this time of year I inevitably think of starkness. Of a steamy bath by snowfall and candlelight.
Something else that I associate with this time of year is miso stew. If you've ever been to any place that served sushi or Japanese food (even teppanyaki), you've probably had "miso soup" that consisted of powdered miso flavoring and reconstituted tofu. Usually it's vaguely beige, lukewarm, watery broth with little bits of seaweed floating around in it.
What I'm talking about here is something heartier, something winter-ready. What I'm calling miso stew is in Japanese called nabemono, or just nabe (nah-bay). It's "stuff" (the mono part) that's simmered in a donabe, or earthenware pot. You could also call this dish hotpot. Around this time of year I make Ishikari nabe, or Hokkaido-style hotpot, at least once a week.
To give you some context, Hokkaido is as far north as it gets in Japan before the chain of islands turns into Russia. It's enormous, cold, full of cows and potatoes, and not very densely populated. Think of it as the Maine of Japan. It's known for dairy, spuds, a life-changing cookie and -- to help everyone deal with the weather -- beer and sake.
Ishikari is a river that passes through Hokkaido, and the salmon stew that shares its name features the kind of cold-weather foods one would expect from a such a place. I love it because it's one of the few soups out there to feature salmon, one of my all-time favorite foods. You can make it with anything, though, you're certainly not limited to salmon or even fish at all. Below you'll see a large list of things one can make into nabe.
Remember the drill? Scroll to the bottom for the concise, picture- & commentary-free recipe.
*Trivia: as of this posting, the Wikipedia article for Ohasama, Iwate is the one that I wrote back in 2006. I'm probably also the only person to read it since it was written.
Ishikari Nabe - Miso Winter Stew
Traditionally, nabe is prepared tabletop in an earthenware pot called a donabe. There is nothing in the world preventing you from using a regular soup pan. If you do use a clay nabe pot, just be sure to always keep the bottom dry (to prevent cracking) when you turn on the heat. I bring mine up to heat slowly just to be extra careful, but you don't have to.
In terms of what you put in the soup, nabe is all about your own tastes. For Ishikari nabe in particular there seems to be a consensus of salmon, potato, tofu, spinach, and mushrooms (particularly enoki) as the base. In addition to these there can be any number of seasonal foods. A partial list of options I found based on a dozen or so different recipes in both English and Japanese were: corn, carrot, daikon radish, leeks, scallions, shrimp, parsnip, rutabaga, cabbage, napa cabbage, bok choy, burdock (called gobo in Japanese), shrimp, and even chrysanthemum (shungiku). Your instincts here about what would go in a winter stew will serve you well.
For this recipe I had salmon plus a small handful each of: carrot matchsticks, shredded leek, cubed red potato, sliced parsnip, cubed firm tofu (rinsed & drained), a mushroom blend, and spinach.
Place the salmon into the pot first:
Surrounded by all of the goodies except for the spinach:
The stew base is miso soup, Real Style. Miso soup has two main components: a fish stock called dashi and a soybean paste called miso (hence the name). You can buy miso paste sometimes even in regular grocery stores. It tends to hang with around the wonton wrappers and tofu. Now, I happen to buy my miso paste with the dashi (fish, usually tuna) flavoring already in it. If you'd like to make your own dashi, there are several options:
- Boil up some leftover fish bones/heads to make a true seafood stock (hardest, best flavor);
- Do it Japanese-style with tuna flakes and seaweed (medium difficulty, close second-best flavor); or,
- Use the instant stuff, called hondashi (easiest, but artificial flavor).
Just a few of the options.
If making a separate dashi isn't in your schedule (understandable), you can also opt for the instant miso soup found in the Asian section of most grocery stores:
Keep in mind when you go to buy instant miso soup (the stuff that's "just add water") or miso paste (where you have to add the seafood stock) it comes in two flavors: white (shiro) and red (aka). The instant soup mix is also likely to have some stuff floating in it, like seaweed and dehydrated tofu. The instant's not that bad, really, and honestly I've used it on many a lazy afternoon. When I use instant I like to mix half white and half red for variety.
If you're going the miso paste route, then about 2 tablespoons of shiro (white) miso is what I used. You'll need to mix it up with some hot water to dilute it before putting it into the stock.
Hot water makes it easier to dissolve.
You can also do this in the soup ladle without using a separate bowl, but that's harder to photograph.
Cover your ingredients with dashi (if using) or water (if dashi is already in your miso paste or if using instant), and add in the miso flavoring:
Be very, very sure the bottom of your pot is totally dry before you switch on the heat in order to prevent cracking. I do the opposite of the normal simmer approach: I start on low heat for 10 minutes to warm up the pot (again, to prevent cracking) and then turn it up to a medium or medium-high for another 20 minutes or so. Usually about 30-40 minutes of total stovetop time is more than enough.
Fish is done when it flakes apart. It doesn't actually take 30 minutes for the fish to cook all the way through, so if you like your veggies crunchier or if you have sushi-grade fish (i.e. safe to be eaten raw -- be sure to check first!) you can shave off some cook time.
Next I take it off the heat and toss a handful of spinach on, then re-cover it. (Note: donabe lids get really hot, so use a potholder.)
About 5 minutes is all it takes for the steam to wilt the spinach to my liking. If you like yours more thoroughly cooked, go ahead and toss it in with the rest of the veggies at the beginning.
And that, my dears, is that!
It was realllllly hard to get pictures of this without the lens fogging.
This can be served over pretty much any kind of noodle. Udon and konnyaku noodles are popular choices (also called shirataki, konnyaku noodles are gaining popularity here Stateside lately). Just be sure to boil the noodles separately and ladle the stew over it, or else they'll soak up all the liquid and you'll have a noodle dish rather than a stew with noodles in it. I often have mine just alongside plain rice, or sometimes I mix the two together like a savage. Either way it's delish, and truly one of my all-time favorite comfort foods. I could eat this every day for the rest of my life and die happy. Really.
Look at all those colors!
I've seen some recipes add butter, milk, or sake at this point to add some depth to the flavor and as a nod to the dish's Hokkaido roots. I never do, but nothing's stopping you if you want to.
I added a little pinch of scallions at the end, just for fun.
Ishikari Nabe - Miso Winter Stew
Ingredients (adjust amounts and options to your taste):
- Used in this recipe:
- salmon fillet (skin can be left on if desired)
- 1 small red potato, cubed
- 1/4 cup diced firm tofu
- 1/4 cup mushroom blend
- 1/4 of a parsnip, peeled and cut into disks
- 1/4 cup fresh spinach (could sub frozen)
- 1 small leek, shredded
- 1 scallion, diced
- 5 baby carrots, cut into thin matchsticks
- 2 tablespoons miso paste with dashi flavoring + water
- could sub dashi/seafood stock + miso paste, OR
- instant miso soup mix + water
- Additional options:
- frozen corn
- daikon radish, peeled and cut into disks
- cabbage, napa cabbage, or bok choy
- burdock root (gobo)
- enoki mushrooms
- chrysanthemum (shungiku)
- Place the salmon filet in the bottom of the pot. Pile all veggies except for the spinach on top.
- If using miso paste: dissolve the miso paste into hot water.
- Cover the vegetables with water or dashi stock (if using), and add either miso paste or instant miso soup mix. Cover.
- After ensuring the bottom of the pot is completely dry, turn the heat on to low for 10 minutes to allow the pot to warm up.
- Turn the heat up to medium and allow to cook for an additional 20 minutes, or until liquid is boiling and fish is thoroughly cooked.
- Remove from heat, add spinach, and re-cover. Beware of hot lid if using donabe. Allow spinach to wilt, approximately 5 minutes.
- Serve over noodles or with rice.