There's no end to the protean imagination and adaptability of the Japanese cook, and last night I was witness to yet another example of this fact. This fall, cookbook author, chef-consultant and popularizer of Japanese cooking techniques Hiroko Shimbo will launch her third cookbook, Hiroko's American Kitchen. To give it a test run, she gathered a group of journalists at her sprawling loft apartment near Union Square to sample some of its dishes.
Shimbo's smart idea is to offer the home cook six basic mother sauces, which can be made in large quantities and frozen, ready to pull out to create deeply-flavored dishes ranging from Japanese comfort foods like omuraisu (fried rice wrapped in an omelet) and okonomiyaki (a savory pancake stuffed with cabbage, noodles, seafood or meat) to hybrid dishes such as miso-braised lamb and a version of an Italian-style white bean soup flavored with sausage and dashi (dried skipjack tuna and kelp) stock.
This dish, made with mushrooms and poached eggs, was inspired by her visit to a Madrid restaurant specializing in mushrooms, El Cisne Azul. There, a mix of local and exotic mushroom was sauteed in garlic-infused olive oil and topped with runny, sunny-side-up eggs. Shimbo's adaptation pairs a mix of sauteed button, portobello and shiitake mushrooms with her mildly sweet-sour white sumiso sauce and konbu (kelp) stock for a double dose of umami.
The chef noted that one of the icons of Japanese cooking, Yoshihiro Murata of the Kyoto restaurant Kikunoi, has divined the optimal temperature at which to extract the utmost umami from konbu stock: 140 degrees Fahrenheit. In her "chef's method" for making the stock, you wipe a 1-ounce square of konbu off with a moist, clean kitchen towel and immerse it in a large pot of water over medium heat. When it reaches 140 degrees, adjust the heat carefully to maintain that temperature and cook it for an hour.
There were many other delicious dishes: a dashi-based soup filled with cornstarch-coated, fried wedges of avocado and salmon, infused with grated daikon radish and garnished with dill; thick, creamy eggplant rounds sauteed then steamed and topped with Shimbo's spicy miso sauce, and thin slices of tempura-style fried beets, squash blossoms, and okra. The chef's two secrets for super-crispy tempura are to slice vegetables very thinly (unlike in Japan, where thicker slices are the rule), and if you don't have tempura flour, use a blend of 80 percent cake flour and 20 percent cornstarch.
One of my favorites dishes was a whole branzino simmered in a mix of water, sake, mirin, and Shimbo's "super sauce," (a blend of soy, mirin, konbu and dried skipjack tuna flakes) garnished with shredded ginger. She removes impurities by blanching the fish in boiling water for 30 seconds then dipping it in ice water before steaming it. This typically Japanese process of removing impurities (she'll brown short ribs or spare ribs and then pour boiling water over them) can cause consternation among Americans, who fear the loss of flavor, but Shimbo likes the cleaner flavors that result. I recalled that at Brushstroke, chefs either pre-salt fish and then wash it off with water or sake to remove impurities, or will even pre-saute the fish.
You might even see some of Shimbo's six sauces--kelp stock, dashi stock, white sumiso sauce, spicy miso sauce, best basting and cooking sauce (BBC, a sweet soy and sake sauce), and super sauce-- on the shelves of your grocery store one day; she's exploring ways to bottle and sell them commercially.