Thursday, December 1, 2011

I'm been making miso soup from the packet. It's fine but I'd like to build a more distinct flavor. Is there an easy way to do this?

If you've ever enjoyed anything but sushi in a Japanese restaurant, chances are you've devoured more than a few preparations with a foundation of dashi - a fragrant, delicious broth.  It is the base for tentsuyu, that liquid dip for tempura that I always sip when no one is looking. It turns up in dressings, in marinades, and it is what composes the ubiquitous miso soup.
Because of the exacting nature of Japanese cuisine, it can be intimidating.  Having heard stories of sushi chefs passing their first eight years in the kitchen mastering the technique for sushi rice - I have steered clear of the cuisine for the sake of terror. 
Which is unfortunate, because much of it is startlingly simple, involving few ingredients, few steps, and yielding delicious results.  Dashi Epitomizes this, with two ingredients and 15 minutes cook time, and it leaves you with a delicious and very versatile product.

Kombu (aka- kelp) - A long and tall type of seaweed that is harvested from shallow waters around Japan.  Bigger pieces are typically considered to be better.  And don't sweat the powdery look of the surface, it is a naturally occurring form of MSG.  (I really like this article about the stuff)

Katsuobushi (aka- bonito flakes) - Usually made from bonito, a fish not so different from a small tuna, is produced by a process of cooking, drying and smoking that leaves you with a condensed plank of fish-goodness.  Traditionally this would be shaved as needed using what looks like a wood plane.  These days this is very tough to find, but most Asian markets will carry some form of katsuobushi flakes.  Just check the label [translation] to make sure that it contains only bonito.  Cheaper options sometimes contain mackerel or other fish, and this results in a fishier dashi.  (though I held out hopes that it wouldn't)

I've read countless recipes for dashi, calling for different amounts of ingredients in various forms of measurement - I don't understand what four inches of kombu is and wouldn't risk a "handful" of bonito flakes.  I use weight in this recipe, but you should know that it doesn't have to be so precise, you'll still achieve a delicious broth.  I also use a higher ratio of bonito than most recipes call for,  maybe the bonito close to my house is weaker or maybe I just prefer a stronger bonito flavor.


50g kombu (about 1.75 oz.)
50g katsobushi (about 1.75 oz.)
4 quarts water

1. Place the kombu and water in a medium sized stock pot. Let this sit for between 30 minutes and 2 hours.  This rehydrates the seaweed. (some recipes call for 12-24 hrs soaking, some for non at all)
2. Place this pot over medium high heat and watch it - a watched pot never boils - and that's the point. Just before boiling, turn off the heat.  Remove the kombu and set it aside. -  Boiling kombu releases very intense flavors and not-so-good flavors.
Look for signs such as foam starting to form and vigorous steaming.  Kill the heat at the first sign of bubbling.  

3. Immediately add the katsuobushi and let this steep for exactly ten minutes.
4. Dump this liquid through a very fine strainer lined with a tea towel, cheese cloth or coffee filter.
It should be a feint and transparent tan color and smell terrific.
That's it, you've made dashi.
Now what? Bring it to just below a simmer and stir in some miso, tofu, wakame seaweed, and any veggies you like and you have miso soup.  Add mirin and soy sauce and you've got tentsuyu, that tasty tempura dip.
Or my favorite, lightly simmer various vegetables in the dashi.  The veggies take on the delicious smokey flavor of the dashi, and they lend some interesting aroma to the broth.

You can also re-boil the used kombu and katsuobushi for 10 minutes for a second broth.   It will be stronger in kombu flavor and a little murkier, but still delicious. 

Shitake mushrooms, Japanese sweet potatoes, carrots, kabocha squash, leeks, hard boiled eggs, various radishes and shredded kombu (the one used to make the dashi) all simmered in dashi. 
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