Like many people, after weathering the cold and hectic frenzy the winter holiday season seems to bring into our lives (not to mention the additional celebratory poundage), I feel the need to eat something hearty and belly-warming but not coma inducing. But where-o-where does this elusive gastronomic Pegasus reside? Like its Western counterparts, Japan has chilly winters and an extensive array of 煮物 nimono or stewed dishes to make you all toasty and happily sated. Another bonus is that these delicious stewed wonders are savory yet light on meat and fat. In fact, it’s very easy to make them vegan without losing out on taste cuz like many Japanese dishes, the small amount of meat present is really for flavor rather than protein content. The heartiness comes from those starchy potatoes that have soaked up all that savory broth while the sweet carrots and peas provide a nice counterpoint. The vegan version is actually one of my favorite incarnations of nimono as the meaty shiitake provide a lot of flavor and the 厚揚げ atsuage (fried tofu) really soaks up all the flavors well. Actually, this dish also gets bonus points for tasting even better the next day as the veggies continue to soak up that yummy broth. Oh, and the fact that 1 serving has a mere 222 calories (427 if eaten with 1 c of steamed rice) is the icing on the cake. Actually, if you want to shave off some more calories forego the rice and add another 2 pounds of potatoes to the stock so you have an additional 1/3 pound of potatoes per serving for your starch dropping the calorie count down to 338 for a high fiber, high vitamin (A, C, niacin, and B6), high mineral (potassium, phosphorus, thiamine, and selenium) and low fat meal 🙂
Ingenuity with a soupçon of practicality:
Since I’m all about making my life easier, the first time I saw an 落し蓋 otoshibuta was on my favorite cooking show cookingwithdog during the delectable 豚の角煮 buta kakuni (braised pork belly) show–you can always tell when Francis is really interested based on his body posture, I thought for sure his nose was going to get burnt cuz he was so close to the pot! Needless to say, I was thrilled and chagrined to realize that for years I was limping along with constantly having to monitor my little pot to keep it from boiling over and needing to reduce an enormous amount of liquid when I could be using an ingenious drop lid. So what is it?
It’s basically a lid that is smaller than the diameter of your pot allowing you to lightly press down on the solids in your broth so that they stay submerged thus allowing them to cook faster. Simple and practical, no? Traditionally they’re made of wood but I prefer the metal or plastic ones cuz they’re so low maintenance (you need to soak the wood lids first otherwise that thirsty wood will soak up your savory broth and over time they can warp and split) as well as perforated which allows the steam to easily escape (the wood ones are solid so will start rocking with a brisk simmer). They’re also super cheap just a few dollars for the metal or plastic ones and a few dollars more for wood. So where can I get one of these wonders? Any Japanese grocery store or home goods store will have them but if you’re not lucky enough to live near one, you can also find them online at Marukai or you can even get a fancy, spendy hi-tech piggy on with nostril vents from the design innovators at MOMA. For you DIY warriors out there you could also make one at home with a round food-safe and heat-safe plastic lid (like say a repurposed tupperware lid) that’s been drilled through with some holes and then loop a food-safe plastic cord through two holes placed in the center for a convenient handle to pull the drop lid out of the pot like the ones pictured above. w00t!
1 tsp vegetable oil
8 oz thinly sliced pork or beef **if cooking vegetarian/vegan substitute 4 oz fried tofu + 1/2 c shelled edamame (soy) beans + 2 oz shiitake mushrooms, stemmed with shallow “X’s” on the cap
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 medium-sized sweet onion, roughly chopped
2 large carrots, peeled, halved lengthwise, cut into 2-inch pieces
4 large potatoes (~2 lbs), skin on (traditionally these are peeled but I like the extra fiber and texture from the skins) and in 2-inch chunks
4 c dashi stock (I use konbu seaweed kelp dashi)
4 tbsp light soy sauce (I like Yamasa) **If cooking gluten-free look for tamari soy sauce with no wheat in the ingredients label as not all tamari is wheat-free
4 tbsp mirin
1 tsp sugar
1 c frozen peas
In a large ~3 quart pot over med-hi heat, heat oil till a drop of water evaporates in a second. Brown meat ~1 minute per side. Remove meat from pot and set aside. **If cooking vegetarian/vegan start with the next step (sautéing the onion and carrots). Sauté onion and carrots till onion is soft and translucent ~3-4 minutes. Add potatoes, stock, soy sauce, mirin, and sugar. **Add tofu, edamame, and shiitake here if using. If you have an 落し蓋 otoshibuta place it on top of the vegetables to push them down into the broth otherwise add additional water if needed to cover the vegetables. Simmer till ~1 to 1 1/2 c of liquid remain~20-5 minutes. Stir in peas and meat, if using, then simmer for another 2-3 minutes. Serve over steamed rice and season with freshly ground pepper to taste. Makes 6 servings.