I have the best husband ever. In true Santa fashion, he gave me just the thing I really wanted for Christmas but hadn't even thought of putting on my list... a Japanese hot pot and the perfect hot pot handbook to go with it, Japanese Hot Pots by Japanese chef Tadashi Ono and writer Harris Salat. I have a favorite udon noodle hotpot I love to order when we go out for sushi in the winter. I've tried replicating the luxurious broth at home without much luck. But with my first try from this book, I found the flavors I was looking for. You know that feeling you get when you sit in a hot springs (or hot tub) outdoors in the cold or better yet, in the snow? You get warm and radiant all the way down to your core. You feel like a wet noodle afterwards, but in the best, most relaxed way. Eating a good hot pot can give you that same warm, comforted and nourished to your core feeling, with noodles!
First, about the pot. A Japanese clay hot pot is called a donabe (pronounced doh-nah-beh). These traditional earthenware vessels conduct heat evenly and retain that heat better than any other cooking material. They have a rounded unglazed bottom and a domed, glazed lid that allows heat to circulate. The lid has a small hole which acts as a steam vent and gives you a heads up when your soup is boiling. The towns of Iga and Shigaraki in central Japan (where my hot pot came from) are famous for making these pots in the traditional way. One important thing to note: you must temper your new hot pot before using it. This is easily done by cooking rice in it and then allowing it to cool in the pot, then clean it and allow it to dry completely before the first use. I'd advise doing this on a separate day from when you plan to cook your first hot pot. It makes the cooking process a little simpler and less time-consuming and you won't be in a rush for your pot to dry. The most important thing about hot pot cooking is to make sure that the pot is completely dry before you fire it up. If not, the water in the unglazed portion of the pot could expand when heated and crack it. Check out this video for step-by-step instructions on how to temper your new hot pot.
If you don't have a hot pot or want to try a few recipes before committing, you can use an enameled cast-iron pot like a Staub or Le Creuset.
In Japanese culture, sharing a meal from a single pot is thought to bring people closer together. We cooked ours on our gas stove and then brought it to the table to serve. But if you have a tabletop burner, you can cook it right there at the table. I was pleasantly surprised by how our donabe retained heat throughout the entire meal. The soup was steaming when we brought it to the table. But even after taking a few photos and leisurely eating our meal, the last bite was still quite hot at the bottom of the bowl.
I made a mushroom hot pot. The recipe in the book uses a variety of mushrooms, tofu, napa cabbage, tofu and spinach. I switched the tofu to chicken and the spinach and cabbage to boy choy. Feel free to use whatever you like. That's the fun of a hot pot.
The first thing you'll need, after your cooking pot, is the dashi, or broth. If you're wanting to make your hot pot quickly as a weeknight meal, I'd advise making the dashi ahead of time so it'll be ready to go. The recipe below is the base dashi recipe from the book. You make it with kombu (seaweed) and dried bonito flakes. You can find these at Whole Foods in the Asian aisle or at an Asian or Japanese market. You can also find kombu and bonito online at Amazon.
Dashi (Kombu-Katsuobushi Dashi)
8 cups + 2 tablespoons water
2 6-inch pieces of kombu
1 1/2 ounces (about 3 cups packed) dried, shaved bonito flakes
Pour 8 cups of water into a large stockpot. Add the kombu. (Do not heat yet.) Let steep for at least 30 minutes.
After steeping, bring the kombu and water to a boil over medium heat. When the water has begun to boil, carefully remove the kombu. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of water.
Now add the bonito flakes and give them a gentle stir to break up the clumps. Bring the mixture up to a boil, then lower heat and simmer for 5 minutes. If any foam or bubbles form on the top of the broth, remove them from the surface with a spoon.
Turn off heat and let steep for 15 minutes.
Strain through a fine sieve or cheesecloth. (The book says not to squeeze or press on the bonito, just let it strain through.)
At this stage, you can use the broth immediately or let cool and then refrigerate for up to 3 days.
Makes about 6 cups.
Mushroom Hot Pot (Kinoko Nabe)
4 cups dashi (from the recipe above)
1 cup sake
1/2 cup mirin
1/2 cup soy sauce
4 heads of baby bok choy
1 pound chicken tenders
1/2 pound small shiitke mushrooms (about 16), stems removed
2-4 trumpet mushrooms
1/2 pound enoki mushrooms, trimmed and pulled apart into bunches
2-3 serving bundles of frozen udon noodles, defrosted
Shichimi togarashi (citrus, sesame, chile seasoning)
Combine the dashi, sake, mirin and soy sauce in a bowl. Whisk together to combine. Set aside.
Place your tempered hot pot or enameled cast iron pan on the stove or burner.
Cut your defrosted udon noodle bundles into quarters. Place them in the outside bottom edges of the hot pot. Leave space in the center for the chicken. Place chicken tenders into the center of the hot pot. Cover with dashi about 3/4 full - save some broth in reserve, if it gets too full. You don't want your pan to boil over. Place the lid over the pot.
Bring the hot pot with noodles and chicken up to a boil over high heat. When it reaches a boil, decrease heat and simmer for 5 minutes.
Remove the lid and add the mushrooms and boy choy to the pot. Cover and simmer another 5 minutes. (If using spinach, add it in the last minute before serving.)
Turn off heat and take the hot pot to the table — place on a trivet or heat-safe surface. Serve sprinkled with Shichimi togarashi.
Adapted from Japanese Hot Pots by Tadashi Ono and Harris Salat.
To learn more about Japanese food, check out the Japanese Food Report blog by Harris Salat.
If you're in NYC, check out Tadashi Ono's restaurant, Matsuri.
Postscript: Listen to KCRW's Good Food (Jan. 9, 2010) for an interview with Harris Salat and Tadashi Ono about hot pots.