December 4, 2013

Exploring One-Pot "Nabe" Cooking with Gramercy Tavern's Eric Takahashi

Chefs Takahashi and Romano.
Photo by George Hirose

One of the best things about the arrival of winter is the return of cold-weather comfort foods. For the Japanese, that means nabe-ryori, or one-pot cooking, preferably done tableside. It’s warming, it’s social, it’s delicious, and much cheaper than a tropical vacation.

To celebrate this tradition, Eric Takahashi, a cook at Gramercy Tavern, offered a nabe workshop a group I belong to called JAJA (Japanese Americans and Japanese in America). On hand to act as his assistant was recently retired Union Square Hospitality Group director of culinary development Michael Romano, whose work in Tokyo I recently chronicled.

Chef Takahashi likes to shop at the greenmarket, so the idea was to stage a summit between the greenmarket and the hot pot, a pretty enticing idea for a season in which staving off root vegetable fatigue is a major challenge. The demonstration took place in the kitchen of a loft near Union Square, generously offered by a JAJA member. 

Exhibit A was yosenabe, most often a mix of fish and meat trimmings (yose means “to put aside”), but in this evening's rendition, featuring flavorful rack of pork from Heritage Foods. Chef Takahashi started by building a dashi, or broth with konbu (dried seaweed), and water.  Most of the konbu available here is harvested in Hokkaido, the chef informed us, where very cold waters promote wide ribbons of seaweed. He prefers the narrower, and more intensely flavored konbu from the warmer waters of Okinawa. 

Next, strips of Napa cabbage, carrot, shiitake and white honshimeji mushrooms, cubed firm tofu, long scallions and shirataki (konjac yam noodles) went into the pot. Traditionally chrysanthemum leaves or spinach add a dash of green, but Chef Takahashi used locally grown mizuna from Lani’s Farm instead. He dislikes overly salty food, so he added salt and soy sauce sparingly.

Since this is a fairly light dish, it’s enhanced by dipping the pot’s components in a ponzu sauce before eating. This was Exhibit B. Chef Takahashi likes to makes his ponzu

Exhibit C: Zosui.
Photo by George Hirose

with a ratio of two parts dark soy sauce, one part yuzu, lime or sudachi juice, half part sake (alcohol burned off), a square of dried konbu (4” square per two cups of soy sauce), and one part bonito flakes. Let this marinate overnight or up to a week in the fridge, then strain the bonito and konbu and save for another use.

One fun suggestion of the chef’s:  you can make a great furikake, (a condiment for sprinkling on top of steamed rice) by cooking down the marinated bonito flakes and konbu with a little soy sauce in a non-stick pan until it’s completely dry and crunchy. Optional adds include some rehydrated dried hijiki and toasted sesame seeds.  

 For Exhibit C, chef Takahashi showed us how he makes a thick rice porridge called zosui with the rich broth that is left when all the nabe contents have been eaten. He simply juliennes the konbu that was used to flavor the nabe, adds cooked rice and beaten egg to bind it, and a little salt. The addition homemade pickled vegetables made with nuka, or fermented milled rice bran, gives the zosui that zing that completes the dish.

Stay warm this winter, friends, and eat nabe!