Junsai, bonito, soy, mirin
I got yelled at today at my local Asian market, H Mart. Why? Well, last week when I was shopping for the ingredients to make this dish, I bought too many bags of bonito shavings and needed to return some. I walked into the store and made a beeline for the customer service desk, receipt in hand, bonito in shopping bag, smile on face:
"Good morning," I chirped. "May I please return these items? I'm afraid I bought more than I needed." (I always end up sounding like Donna Reed when I need to return something because I feel totally guilty about it; ugh.)
As I handed her the receipt, she scowled and mumbled something to herself then barked, "YOU COME THIS WAY." She snatched my shopping bag from the counter, walked over to the nearest unoccupied cash register, and began rapid-fire punching the buttons like a secretary in a steno pool in those movie scenes depicting a busy office in Manhattan in the 1940s and 50s.
I held my breath until the cash register drawer shot out toward her, the register spit out the return receipt, and she counted the money I was getting back. As she pressed the bills and change into my hand, she held on for a few seconds and looked me in the eye and snapped, "YOU BE SMARTER NEXT TIME SHOPPING."
Believe me, I will. Yike-a-roonies.
And that, ladies and germs, was the most stressful, difficult part of making this dish.
For anyone out there who thinks all the recipes in the Alinea cookbook are too difficult (scaredy-cat), are all full of chemicals (probably the biggest, most ill-informed misconception), or too frou-frou* for them (get over yourself, it's just food), this one is for you. These ingredients are not hard to find and this couldn't be easier to make. If you can soak, pluck, and pour, then you can make this dish.
(* I apologize if the frou-frou reference gave you RHoNY flashbacks to Ramona and her buggity crazy eyes calling out Simon for being "too-too-frou-frou" and then dancing with him at that whack-ass fundraiser. Kuh-DOOZ! *snerk*)
The kombu (dried kelp) was a little stinky upon opening the package, but once I got it soaking its lovely green self in a big bowl of water, it smelled more ocean-y. I let it soak overnight at room temperature on my kitchen counter:
In the morning, it had softened a bit more and was ready to be cooked on a low simmer for 20 minutes:
After its 20 minutes of simmer time (no, I did not put on Hammer pants and scuttle side to side on the floor singing "can't touch this"), I poured the contents of the pan through a chinois into a large mixing bowl. Then, I added the bonito shavings. Again, I used already-shaved bonito just like I did in last week's dish.
Sorry, I forgot to take photos of this part of the prep. No specific reason or excuse other than I just spaced out and forgot to do it. I'm not perfect. Please don't yell at me like that lady at HMart did. I just couldn't handle it. "YOU BE SMARTER NEXT TIME COOKING." Nooooooooooooo!!!!!!!
I stirred the kelp liquid with the bonito shavings in it for about 30 seconds or so, maybe a minute. Then, I poured that through a cheesecloth-lined chinois (the book says to use a coffee filter, but I don't own any and didn't want to buy any for this purpose, since I knew cheesecloth would be fine -- I doubled it, just to make it as close to a coffee-filter as I could).
Then, I added the soy sauce, mirin, and rice vinegar, and chilled the liquid for two hours in the refrigerator:
I know the title of this dish is "Junsai," which is a specific type of Japanese mushroom, but there were no junsai to be found.... and believe me, I've been looking and calling and searching high and low. I know that young, fresh junsai have this gelatinous coating on them that is supposed to be wonderful and add to the mouthfeel of whatever you make with them, so I was disappointed not to be able to find them anywhere. As you know, I'm not usually a fan of certain squicky textures, but I've heard a lot about how great these mushrooms are, so I was more than a little bummed that I couldn't find them fresh, or canned/bottled, anywhere. After doing a little digging around and making some phone calls to friends with greater expertise in this area than I have, I decided to use fresh bunapi (white beech mushrooms) instead:
Not quite the same, but they were the right size and texture, and they have a little more heft to them than enoki mushrooms (which is what I imagine our intestinal villi to look like, so, ew) and I knew they wouldn't suck (which, honestly, is the yardstick by which I sometimes reluctantly measure things for this blog because mama didn't wanna fail again).
I lined up six shot glasses on the dining room table and poured some of the kombu-bonito-mirin-soy-vinegar liquid into each one, then dropped in a few mushrooms:
I think these look beautiful, if maybe, perhaps, a little alien.
The kids had zero interest in tasting this one. They looked at the shot glasses with great scorn and abject horror. What were those things floating in there? MUSHROOMS??! Are you kidding me?!?!?!?! That's disgusting, I'm SO NOT EATING THAT NOT EVEN FOR A MILLION DOLLARS, YOU SICK FREAK. Okay, so none of them actually said those things, but I know it's what they were thinking.
To be honest, the grownups weren't all that into the idea of being the first one to taste it, either. So, I explained what it was, what the ingredients were. They just stared at me. "Oh, fer cryin' out loud," I said (rolling my eyes for effect, because that's always the mature, helpful thing to do), knocked one back and because I didn't choke, gag, or vomit, I think the others began to feel more brave.
The adults each had one, but the kids avoided it like... well, "the plague" isn't an apt metaphor, really, because plagues are, like, sooooooo nine centuries ago. They avoided it like Robert Pattinson avoids soap and hot water.
So, what did it taste like? Cold miso soup with mushrooms instead of tofu. In some ways, I think I expected it to have more layers of flavor, but in looking at the ingredients and knowing how to make miso, this made sense. I actually think I should have steeped the liquid with the bonito shavings a little longer. It felt like it needed more oomph, since I used mushrooms that were a little flat in the flavor department. I just did it as one shot -- tossed back the glass' contents into my mouth, chewed the mushrooms a bit... it was nice. Nothing earth-shattering or mind-blowing, but nice. Easy. Comfortable. Familiar. Tasty. Good.
After I had mine and the adults had theirs, there was one left on the table in front of us. While all the other kids left to go home, my 12-year old neighbor, Grant (he of the famed lobster jelly and dental office sea urchin tastings) looked to the left, looked to the right, picked up the glass and did the shot like an expert (this kid will someday be able to down Jagermeister with great aplomb, I have no doubt). He did not barf. He did not gag. He did not spew. He did not rush to the sink to spit it out and pour himself a glass of water to get rid of the taste. Instead, he chewed thoughtfully, head cocked to one side, then swallowed and said, "Wow, that wasn't so bad. It was even kind of good."
Up Next: PB&J, peanut, bread, grape.... or (big tease), it may be a recap of my upcoming dinner at Alinea in a few days, which, I am sooooooo looking forward to. Some friends from DC are joining me in making the trek to Chicago for a few days of eating, and I can't wait! In fact, it's even invaded my unconscious, because I had a dream last night that Grant changed the whole Alinea concept the day we got there and renamed the restaurant "Saucier," (a recording of Tom Brokaw's voice saying "sohs-YAY" in a French accent played when you walked through the front door) and would only serve sauces "in the Escoffier tradition" in demitasse cups. The servers wore Mardi Gras masks and black cargo pants with camouflage t-shirts, and instead of wine, they served only 7-Up and RC Cola. There was a multiple-choice quiz you had to take before each sauce was brought out, and the only answers on the cards were a) Tom Brokaw, b) Tom Brokaw, and c) Tom Brokaw. And, I was the only one at our table who was freaked out by all of this and saying things like, "who DOES this? I mean, this is not AT ALL what I thought we were going to have. Where is the FOOD? I haven't eaten anything today and now all I'm getting is M-Fing lukewarm sauce in a coffee cup? What the F is going on here, people? And what is all this Tom Brokaw nonsense?!!??!??" Everyone else at the table looked at me, totally perplexed by my outrage and said, "Um, Tom Brokaw is Grant's father, what's WRONG with you? And how could you not know he was doing sauces now? I mean, duh. EVERYONE knows; how could you not know?" Clearly I need to have a second glass of wine with dinner from now on, because sleep is supposed to be relaxing and restorative, NOT STRESS YOU OUT ABOUT YOUR UPCOMING VACATION.
Resources: All ingredients from HMart in Wheaton, MD. Where We Loudly Chastise You For Returning Things.™
Music to Cook By: Under the Influence of Giants; Under the Influence of Giants. I first heard of these guys when they called themselves Hometown Hero and one of their songs was on a very early episode of Veronica Mars (2003 or 2004, I think?) and liked their sound and still do. They haven't put anything out since 2006, and I have no idea if they even exist as a band anymore, but their tunes are great for cooking on a weekend afternoon -- solid pacing, fluidity, and nothing too jarring or obnoxious.
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