After watching live the two towers of the World Trade Center come down — the blessing and the curse of modern technology and communications — and spending a very sleepless night filling my head with the horrific images of the aftermath, I slipped away to the otherworldliness of a quiet Zen temple in Hyogo Prefecture.
Taking advantage of a long-awaited two days off in a row, I had made reservations to eat shojin vegetarian temple cuisine at Kogen-ji. As I climbed to the top of several hundred moss-covered stone steps, the 350-year-old main temple soon came into view. The considerate, reassuring words of the head monk and the quiet contemplation of course after course of delicately precise temple food served in bright-red bowls helped to calm the storm of emotions that had been brewing in my mind. I was reminded that despite the cruelties that humans heap upon one another, we can still overcome.
The pictures on my TV screen two days later when I returned from my mountain retreat — images of rescue workers and volunteers working tirelessly around the clock — proved that we as a people cannot be hijacked spiritually, and while it may take time to heal, and although some wounds cannot be easily patched, there is relief for those who trust in the human spirit. The intersection of food and the soul and the comfort it brings again reminded me of the power of what we put into our mouths three times a day, seven days a week.
This dish, a pot of various vegetables simmered together in a stock fortified with duck or chicken and thickened at the end of cooking, is a native of Kanazawa City and the San’in region of Japan. Served from early fall throughout the winter, jibu-ni is a warming addition to any meal. At fine restaurants, it is presented in individual covered dishes, but I prefer to partake from a communal bowl, as served in more casual home-style restaurants.
Jibu-ni is not a nabe — a style of stew that is cooked at the table by the eaters — but rather a ni, or nimono, from niru (to simmer). Nimono are cooked in the kitchen and presented in a serving dish at the table. Most often served hot, nimono are sometimes served the next day as cold leftovers, which are surprisingly quite tasty. This nimono, however, because it has been thickened with kuzu (called kudzu in English) does not fare well after it has cooled.
One of the star vegetables of this version, togan — written with the characters for “winter” and “melon,” but in season throughout summer and early fall — is best described as a watermelon that is all rind. The white flesh of the precooked togan absorbs flavors readily and is well-suited to simmering. The little satoimo (taro root) are creamy-smooth potatoes that are characteristic of fall nimono.
For a vegetarian version of this dish, use a dried shiitake stock, replace the duck with fu (wheat gluten) and in the final step add a few drops of tamari for a robust flavor.
200 grams duck breast
20 grams buckwheat flour
4 shiitake mushrooms
1,400 ml katsuo dashi
100 ml mirin
50 ml usukuchi shoyu
1 tablespoon kuzu or katakuri-ko
2 tablespoons wasabi
1) Score the skin of the duck breast and slice fairly thin, 3-5 mm. This is best accomplished when the duck breast is partially frozen. Set aside the raw duck slices.
2) Peel and cut the carrot in 10-mm-thick rings. Blanch by bringing to a boil, and then immediately shock (stop the cooking process) by running under cold water. Drain and set aside.
3) Remove the stems, score the tops of the shiitake mushrooms with a sharp knife and set aside.
4) Remove the seeds, and cut the togan into 3- to 4-cm pieces. With a sharp knife, remove carefully the outermost peel, leaving most of the green-colored meat on the togan. Into boiling, salted (to preserve the color) water, drop the togan and cook until a toothpick can be easily inserted into the center. Shock under cold running water, carefully remove the togan pieces to a colander and set aside.
5) Wash and peel the satoimo and place in a pot of water, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 5-10 minutes until a toothpick can be easily inserted. Cool under running water, drain and set aside.
6) In a large pot, combine dashi, mirin and usukuchi shoyu. Then add reserved carrots, shiitake, togan and satoimo. Bring stock to a boil, and carefully add buckwheat flour-dusted sliced duck pieces. The stock will thicken slightly from the flour. In a small dish, moisten kuzu with several teaspoons of water and add to pot, thickening the stock finally to a nappe (thick enough to coat the back of a spoon).
7) Turn off heat — thinly sliced duck will overcook quickly — and stir in freshly grated wasabi. Adjust salt to taste, and present immediately in a prewarmed dish. Serves four.