Every Sunday, during the summer months, various brass bands play at the bandstand on the green at the end of our road. We’ve been away many weekend so have missed it so far but last weekend we were finally here so I made a Japanese themed lunch in my lovely “new” lunchbox.
I bought it just before Christmas when we went to a local shop where everyone else bought decorations for on and presents for under their tree. However, I saw this lunchbox and fell absolutely in love with it. It reminded me of the bento’s they have in Japan. There, everyone eats their lunch from compartmentalized boxed that contain great goodies. At new year, the hearth is traditionally extinguished for tree days so before this happens, the women of the house prepare an elaborate meal that is kept in a big bento and eaten over three days. I was full of good intentions to prepare this but with all the holiday madness it never happened and afterwards it seemed a bit silly to do it at the inappropriate time.
So last Sunday it was finally christened with a variety of Japanese dishes. In the top layer, I put soba noodles I’d come across made according to a Nigella recipe accompanied by Takuan pickles (or the Korean variant, from the Chinese supermarket) and soy simmered mushrooms. This is a recipe I learned in my first Japanese cooking class and have been addicted to ever since. In the second layer, I made various shapes of sushi with the same sake-toro filling, which is easily made by mincing some fresh salmon, spring onions and a dollop of Wasabi finely with a big knife. In the final layer, there was some salmon sashimi with soy and leeks in a Miso-vinegar dressing. It all looked great, but threatening clouds were appearing so I quickly went into the garden, which was a good idea as minutes later, rain came pouring out of the skies so we decided to have our picnic at home instead. But once we had finished all the tasty bits, it had cleared up again so we decided to go down after all. There were a lot of people there and most were elderly. But as it started to rain it was the young ones that disappeared first while the older generation dried of the seats with their hankies and pulled out their umbrellas. The most remarkable was an old man, dressed top to bottom in waterproofs that wondered down the hill holding on to his zimaframe, to the chairs where he sat happily tapping his feet in the rain. I really hope that when I reach that age, I will still brave the heavy rain to come and listen to some Sinatra.
Soy-simmered Dried Black Mushrooms (Shiitake no Umani)
Makes about 1/3 cup
3-4 dried shiitake
pinch of sugar
3/4 cup basic seastock
1/2 cup liquid left after softening the mushrooms
1 tbsp sake
1 tbsp sugar
3 tbsp shoyu
*Remove the stems from the mushrooms (they are very chewy but can be used to make a vegetarian stock). Soakthe caps for at least 30 min and up to several hours (or even days if you want to make this in advance) in warm water to cover. Adding a pinch of sugar hastens the softening process. You can weigh down the mushrooms with an otoshi-buta (dropped lid) but I generally use a small plate or glass to make sure the mushrooms are completely submerged.
*When the mushrooms have softened, strain to remove the gritty bits and resoak the capes in the stained liquid for 5-10 min (the caps should be fully reconstituted before cooking; I often skip this step as I'm not to fussy about little bits). Strain again and save the liquid.
*Combine 1/4 cup of the mushroom liquid (save the rest for soups) with half the dashi. Season with sake and bring to a simmer in a small saucepan.
*Add the softened shiitake caps and cook for 10 min maintaining a steady but gentle bubble, again trying to keep the mushrooms submerged. Skim away froth before adding the sugar.
*Add the sugar and cook 3-4 min stirring occasionaly, then add the shoyu and cook 4-5 min until the shiitake become glazed. Allow the caps to cook in the cooking pot and transfer them into a clean glass jar. They can be kept in the refrigerator for up to 5 days
Note: Dried mushrooms are not interchangable with fresh ones as they have very different flavours. The left over liquids can be used to make miso or noodle soup. The mushrooms are lovely on their own or cut into slices in salads.