The only time I take stocks a bit more seriously is when I make clear soups. Hearty of chunky soups are very forgiving and will hide the imperfections of a store bought stock, but clear soups are a totally different story. They are all about the broth, and if it's not good enough, the soup is not worth eating.
My little discovery this weekend was that if you take a virtual trip to Japan, it's possible to make a perfect home-made stock in minutes! This stock is called dashi, and it's the foundation of Japanese cooking. It smells like the sea with smoky undertones and makes fantastic clear soups. While you can find it in powder, the real thing has only 2 ingredients (kombu and bonito flakes) and takes literally 5 minutes. I am not exaggerating. This is not like Rachel Ray's 20 minute meal that takes 45 minutes in real life (when you don't have all your veggies pre-washed and pre-chopped). Dashi is indeed a 5 minute undertaking even for someone whose only kitchen skill is knowing how to boil water.
Kombu? Bonito flakes? I know what you are thinking: "What on earth is that and where am I supposed to get it?" Kombu (a.k.a. dried kelp) is a sea vegetable. In the picture below, it's the slightly wavy black sheet. Bonito flakes are tissue thin shavings of dried bonito, a species of small tuna. In the picture, they are the pink fluffy things that look like packaging material. You can buy both at most Whole Foods markets or at an Asian grocery store.
Kombu does not lend itself nicely to cup measurements since it looks like big flat dried up leaves. To figure out how much to use, look at the package. If your package has 60 grams (2 oz) of kelp, use roughly half of it.
Adapted from Gourmet Magazine, May 2000
For 6 cups dashi
6 cups water
30 grams (1 oz) kombu (dried kelp)
10 g bonito flakes (about 1 cup)
- If possible let kombu sit in cold water for at least 30 minutes and up to 1 day before making dashi. If you don't have time, start at step 2.
- In a medium pot, bring the water and kombu to just under a boil (180F), you'll see little bubble form on the bottom of the pot, and barely start to break the surface of water at the edges. Take the pot off heat.
- Add bonito flakes to the pot and stir to get them moistened.
- Wait 3 minutes.
- Strain the liquid into a bowl through a sieve or colander lined with dampened paper towel.
What can you do with dashi? The possibilities are endless. I like to simmer it with some ginger, season it with Japanese soy sauce, Mirin (sweet rice wine), and a squirt of lemon, then pour over a bowl of udon or soba noodles. Add some thinly sliced scallions, sugar snapped peas, and shitake mushrooms and you have a lovely soup. To make it into a meal, just plop in a piece of delicate fish seared on the skin side (or whatever side you want if the fish doesn't have the skin) right into a bowl of soup. In 3-5 minutes, the soup will cook the other side of the fish to medium-rare making it custardy soft. Not all fish taste good or are safe to eat undercooked, but King or Atlantic salmon are very yummy and safe prepared this way.
To cook salmon, dry it well on paper towels. Sear it in a very hot, non-stick skillet, skin side down for 2 minutes. Drain on paper towel to remove access fat and keep it crispy. Take the pan off heat, add 1 Tbsp soy sauce and 1 Tbsp Mirin (for two pieces of salmon, 6oz each), and put the pan on medium heat. Return the salmon to the pan skin side down and wait for the glaze to caramelize, 30-60 seconds. Watch it very closely! After the first 15 seconds, check it every 5 seconds. This sauce can go from beautiful caramel to black in a flash. Place the salmon in the bowl of soup skin side up being careful not to get the skin wet.