Singapore, April 15, 2009 - It had been raining all day and I was in the mood for comfort food. A stew would be perfect, I thought on the way home from work.
But I could not imagine making a stew from scratch on a work night.
That sort of thing is better suited to weekend cooking, when there is time to brown cubes of meat and then simmer them in a flavourful liquid for a few hours with some vegetables.
So I improvised and made a Japanese-style beef stew instead, from stuff I already had in my fridge and pantry.
It was just as comforting and the whole thing took about 45 minutes from start to finish, with no major clean-up afterwards.
Pretty soon, I was tucking into hot stew and rice and relishing every mouthful of nicely marbled beef, sweet onions and soft potatoes infused with the soy braising liquid.
A few nights later, I made the same stew but with sliced pork, carrots and radish. It was another winner but the beef version is a little richer.
The basis of the stew is the flavourful Japanese stock called dashi. Unlike meat stocks, which require long simmering to coax all the flavour out of the bones, this one takes about 20 minutes to make, using kombu (kelp) and bonito flakes.
Combined with Japanese shoyu (try the Yamasa brand from Japanese supermarkets), mirin, sake and a little sugar, the stock becomes a good base for the stew.
In fact, one of the best smells ever is that of carrots, onions and potatoes simmering in that flavourful liquid.
One way to ensure that the vegetables cook evenly is to use a drop lid or otoshi-buta. It sits on the simmering food and helps to distribute heat and intensify the flavours.
Traditional drop lids are made of wood but there are several other options.
I use rounds of parchment or baking paper just a little smaller than the diameter of the pot, with a hole cut out of the middle. Aluminium foil will also work this way.
But on a recent visit to Daiso, the delightful chain of $2 shops, I found a stainless steel version perforated with holes, as well as packs of ready-cut otoshi-buta going by the decidedly unglamorous name of “scum-skimmer sheets” (above).
As can be seen from the photos, this is not a fancy stew by any stretch of the imagination.
Even the potatoes look sort of mushy but that is exactly what I wanted. Instead of using a waxy potato, which holds its shape much better, I opted for floury Russets. Bits chip off while cooking and this thickens the stew.
Choosing the meat for the stew is easy: use thinly sliced beef for shabu shabu, or thin slices of pork loin or pork belly.
With very little effort, dinner is on the table in no time. This counts for a lot on a weeknight, when I am always tempted to go the easy route and get a take-out meal.
1 large onion (about 200g)
1 carrot (about 200g)
2 Russet potatoes (about 400g)
1 Tbs vegetable oil
450ml dashi (see other recipe)
1 Tbs sugar
3 Tbs Japanese shoyu
2 Tbs mirin
2 Tbs sake
250g thinly sliced beef or pork (above)
1. Peel the onion, cut off root and stem ends and cut into eight wedges. Peel the carrot and potatoes and cut into large chunks.
2. Heat the oil in a medium-large saucepan over medium high heat, add onions and stir-fry until they have softened. Add the carrots and potatoes, toss to mix.
3. Pour in the dashi, then add sugar, shoyu, mirin and sake. Stir to mix well. Bring to a boil then turn the heat down to low. Place the otoshi-buta on top of the vegetables (above) and simmer for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the carrots are tender.
4. Remove the otoshi-buta, bring the stew to a boil again. Add the beef or pork. The thin slices will cook quickly so turn off the heat as soon as the meat turns brown.
5. Ladle into a bowl and serve with rice.
1 piece kombu measuring about 10cm by 10cm
8g bonito flakes
1. Pour water into a small saucepan. Place kombu in it. Leave to soak for 15 minutes.
2. Heat the water until small bubbles appear at the edge. Remove pot from heat. Add the bonito flakes, scattering them over the surface of the water. Let sit for five minutes.
3. Strain into a medium-sized bowl. You should have about 450ml of dashi. Discard kombu and fish flakes.