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May 19, 2009

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:


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In the morning, it had softened a bit more and was ready to be cooked on a low simmer for 20 minutes:

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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:

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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:
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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:

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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."

Indeed.


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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There's something about reading "YOU SICK FREAK" in all caps that has me laughing rather uncontrollably. Nice post, thanks.

Grant Achatz seems really smart but a shot of cold soup with a mushroom floating in it does not seem to be among his most creative culinary achievements.

Anyway, I just got home from a long day and had some pasta with fresh tomato and fava beans and then when I was done I had a new Alinea at Home blog entry to read. Thank you for being part of my perfect evening (again).

Personally, I would've hung on to the katsuobushi. It lasts quite a long time. My grandmother would keep ours in the freezer (since it defrosts extremely quickly), which would make it last even longer. Also, looking at the pictures from your previous post, I'd guess that the katsuobushi you used this time was the delicate kind again (as opposed to the bigger/coarser type made just for dashi), which means you could also use it as a topping for cold tofu, okonomiyaki, taiyaki, etc.

"They avoided it like Robert Pattinson avoids soap and hot water."

Thanks for the laugh with this! I'm so sick of hearing about him from my 15 year old niece and frankly, I don't see the appeal.
Thanks for another great post - the shots did look sort of alien. Glad they were good.

ohhhhh, Veronica Mars. Still miss that show.

Glad to hear your headed to Chicago! Our weather is gorgeous this week, probably in anticipation of your arrival.

Alinea will be amazing. but the real question is, where ELSE are you going to eat while you're here? Publican? Hot Dougs? one sixtyblue? Fill us in! (I promise not to stalk you and your friends....just interested in what makes it to the top of your priority pile! There are so many choices here!)

p.s. shout out to v. mars! I love it!

Yeah, where else are you eating in Chicago? Kuma's? Sun Wah BBQ? Curry Buns at LaPatisserie?

Chicago is so great for food.

I think mushroom shots sound good.

I would hope it tastes a bit like miso soup - the broth of kombu and bonito is usually known as dashi, and is the base for a lot of japanese cooking. Kombu and bonito are both really high in glutamates, that "umamai" stuff oft spoken of in hushed tones that turns out to be just MSG in seaweed-and-fish form.

So pretty much you can take that simple stock and just run wild with it. Drop the soy sauce and mirin, add miso, and you've got miso soup! Float a single green onion in it and serve it to friends, saying "it celebrates spring" in your best Iron Chef judge-voiceover tone. Add natto to it, to make natto almost palatable! The possibilities are limitless.

I suppose the servers wear the Mardi Gras masks b/c they're embarrassed to work at a restaurant with such a lame concept?

Really, the only response to that dream is YOU BE SMARTER NEXT TIME DREAMING.

Aw, man, now you've got me missing Veronica Mars. I'm going to go home, eat cereal for dinner, and get depressed.

You must be mixing up Junsai with Nameko!
"Junsai" is an aquatic plant growing in ponds.
Even though they are both covered with slimy
gelatinous substance, they tastes quite different.

Ramoner not Ramona...this isn't planet Kelly. HEHE

I suppose it provides some sort of a window to find out that you actually have a mental image of what intestinal villi look like...At least it generates an ewww...
Thanks once again for the blog- Sometimes my day sucks- and it gets better reading what you put down for us. I should send you some coffee as a thank you! (Do you have a favorite? We roast 15 different varieties) I suppose I can even forgive you for drinking Starbucks...

An idea - maybe next time don't take the picture in a bright pink container? It scared me for a minute, I was trying to imagine what I had missed that you added to make the liquid so horrifyingly 4th grade pink. Yikes.

"squicky" is my new favorite word

I heard you on the amateur gourmet/ruhlman interview this morning. That was coooool!

Emi: I thought about hanging onto it, but my storage space is so limited (even in the freezer) that it was just better to get it out of the house to I'd have room for all the other ingredients I know will be finding their way here in the next few months.

Michelle: re: Robert Pattinson, ME EITHER. I don't get any of that Twilight stuff.

Jordanbaker: HA! That would make a good caption for your next New York Post exploit!

Teri: Cartwheels are free!! (man, I loathe her and her non-brawr)

Steve: I'm always happy to be on the receiving end of coffee! And, I'm not a frequent Starbucks drinker; sometimes, it's the only option in certain neighborhoods.

Beau: Ruhlman kept twittering that damn call-in number, so I took him up on it. Glad you were listening!

As for where else I'm eating in Chicago: Frontera/Topolobampo, Avec, Publican, Sepia, and one more to be determined. If only Bristol opened super-early for breakfast, I could squeeze it in, too. Oh well, next time.

Awesome dream, hee!

Just read your account of the plane ride on Twitter - thank you for calling that windbag Burris out, and glad you made it here safely!

Eager to hear about the Alinea meal. Avec is always a good time as well - I highly recommend the chorizo-stuffed dates and flatbread (pretty much anything on the menu, really). And if the polenta cake /w mascarpone is on the dessert menu, it's fabulous. Bon apetit :-)

I spend a great deal of my grocery budget in Asian markets and have always wondered if the old ladies that worked there were talking about "the crazy white girl that's always asking stupid questions." It just so happens that my husband is fluent in several Eastern languages, so I drug him along on my next shopping trip.

Needless to say, he wouldn't repeat most of what they said because he didn't want to hurt my feelings. Kind of made me think twice about shopping at some of those places again.

So finally got to read the Carol Blymire twitter on Burris - good girl!...ya know here in Canada our internet news still comes via cable....LOL

I do something similar to this dish all the time, only I simmer the mushrooms in virtually the same stock until it is reduced to a glaze coating the shrooms (I will use either beech mushrooms or instestinal villi), which I then use as a powerful complement to steamed fish or rice. It is damn, damn good, IMHO...

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