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During these soggiest dog days of high summer it seems as if fall is a dream that might never come. But as the fresh foods that appear on the market shelves remind us, the seasons roll on, and soon we will enjoy the crisp fall air and colorful maple and ginkgo trees. The first sign of impending autumn, the noble matsutake (called mattake in some parts of Japan) mushroom, returned to greengrocers this past week, and other fruits of fall will soon follow.

The key to great matsutake is freshness.

The matsutake is the king of all mushrooms in Japan, and — some aficionados would say — the world. It grows wild in large stands of red pine, and is not successfully farm-cultivated as are shiitake and other mushrooms. Matsutake appear naturally in Japan, Korea and China. Wild spores have also been introduced in the American Northwest and Canada, among other areas, from where a large number of these delicacies are now imported to Japan each year.

Most Japanese chefs would laud homegrown above imported mushrooms, but the real criterion is not so much quality as freshness. Very fresh mushrooms flown from overseas are rare, and thus foreign-grown varieties cannot usually stand up to just-gathered local fungi. The best approach when selecting matsutake, however, is to compare choices within your price range, rather than being overly concerned with the place of origin.

In his new cookbook, Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, chef/owner of the chic Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills and Nobu in Manhattan, claims that food is fashion as well as culture. Several years ago the matsutake, traditionally loved in Japan, became fashionable with chefs around the world. They paid exorbitant prices to put matsutake on their menus, sauteeing, frying, poaching, baking, and generally over-cooking the tender mushroom. The results were anything but pleasing. Successful chefs, Nobu included, were those who stuck to old fashioned methods — lightly grilling or quickly steaming.

The classic matsutake recipe, the dish that people come from all over Japan (and, indeed, the world) to Kyoto in the fall to eat, is dobinmushi. As the soup course, served after the first presentation of sashimi, the o-tsukuri course, dobinmushi could end the meal and still send customers home content. Whether you attempt making it yourself, or seek out a little restaurant that serves the perfect pot, add dobinmushi to your fall food calendar.

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Dobinmushi

A dobin is an earthenware pot with a pouring spout and a handle made of bamboo or other wooden material. Musu means to steam. Thus dobinmushi is literally a delicacy steamed in an earthenware pot. While anything prepared and presented in this little pot could technically be referred to as a dobinmushi, the name is reserved exclusively for the soup made with matsutake mushrooms that appears on menus in the late summer/early fall.

The base is a standard sumashi clear soup to which the mushrooms and a piece of chicken, or in this case hamo (pike conger) is added along with the stem of mitsuba (trefoil) and a few nuts of the gingko tree (ginnan). Choose mushrooms that are firm and aromatic, and have not yet opened their caps. Slice the matsutake thick enough (2 cm) so that it stays firm when cooked briefly. Ginnan may be found fresh over the next month or so but are difficult to handle and can be purchased preserved in water at any grocery store. Choose ginnan that are not artificially colored, but have an ivory to light green color. Serve fresh halved sudachi citrus fruit on the side — as the soup is poured into the drinking cup a dash of sharp sudachi is squeezed in to complement the rich mellowness of the broth. This dish may be prepared in any soup bowl, but steaming in the traditional dobin lends a flavor that cannot be replicated.

Sumashi

4 cups (800 ml) dashi
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon usukuchi shoyu (light soy sauce)
1/2 teaspoon mirin
1 teaspoon sake

Garnish

1 medium-size matsutake mushroom
4 pieces (6 cm each) hamo
8 (for each person) ginnan
20 pieces (3 cm each) mitsuba stem
2 small sudachi

1) Heat the dashi and add the salt and soy sauce. Just prior to pouring the sumashi into the individual pots, add the mirin and the sake.

2) In four individual dobin pots arrange the sliced mushroom, the hamo and the ginnan.

3) Ladle the hot sumashi into the pots, cover and place in a steamer.

4) Steam for 10 minutes, adding the mitsuba to each dobin for the last minute.

5) Serve with a small cup to sip the soup and half of a sudachi to garnish. Serves four.

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