Japanese Cooking 101, Lesson 3: Nimono (simmered dish) basics

This is Lesson 3 of Japanese Cooking 101: The Fundamentals of Washoku.

If you have been following along on Japanese Cooking 101, so far you have learned out to make proper dashi, the base stock used in many savory dishes in Japanese cooking (as well as miso soup and clear soup using that dashi), and also learned how to make proper Japanese style rice.

In Lesson 3 we'll be making vegetable nimono, one of the most common types of dishes found in washoku.

What is nimono?

The ni part of nimono (煮) means to stew or simmer. A nimono dish in Japanese cooking means that it's been simmered in dashi flavored with sugar, sake, mirin and soy sauce, plus some salt on occasion. The ratio of the flavoring ingredients differs according to personal taste, regional preference and so on but the basic combination is the same.

Making "2nd dashi" (niban dashi)

The dashi you use for making nimono can be regular "1st dashi", as we made in Lesson 1. But if you look back at that recipe, you'll see that we kept that used kombu seaweed and katsuobushi and stuck the little packet in the freezer:

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That once-used dashi ingredient mixture will yield even more goodness, called "2nd dashi" or niban dashi (二番だし). 2nd dashi is not as flavorful or refined as 1st dashi (ichiban dashi), but it's flavorful enough for simmering vegetables and so on where we'll be getting plenty of flavor from the ingredients anyway. Since I tend to make miso soup more frequently than nimono, I just keep the used kombu seaweed/katsuobushi in the freezer and pull out 2 of the little packs at a time to make niban dashi.

Making niban dashi is very simple. Just put it in as enough water as you need (for today's recipe we will be needing around 400 ml or about 1 3/4 U.S. cups, so add that plus a bit more to allow for evaporation) in the pan with 1-2 used-dashi-ingredient bundles. Bring to a boil, lower to a simmer, and simmer for 5-6 minutes. At this point you can put in a small handful of fresh (unused dry) katsuobushi (bonito flakes) to boost the flavor a bit, or even 1/4 teaspoon of dashi stock granules. Let the dashi ingredients settle down in the pan, then strain through a fine mesh sieve.

If you forgot to keep the used dashi-making ingredients, just make a batch of "1st dashi" following the Lesson 1 instructions. Water plus dashi stock granules is fine too, if not as flavorful.

So let's try making a potful of delicious simmered vegetables, Japanese-style!

Winter vegetable nimono

I stuck to using ingredients that 1. most people should be able to get a hold of, 2. that are inexpensive, and 3. don't need any pre-processing for this dish.

Yields: About 5 cups of cooked vegetables, enough for 2-3 Japanese meals as a side dish

Time required: 10-15 minutes prep time, 20-25 minutes cooking time (does not include time for making the dashi or soaking the mushrooms, which can be done in advance)

Ingredients

The cooking liquid:

  • 400ml (about 1 3/4 U.S. cups) 2nd or 1st dashi stock (see previous section), or 400ml of combined shiitake mushroom soaking liquid and dashi, or 400ml water with 1/2 teaspoon dashi stock granules. (In other words, 400ml of liquid with flavor.)

The vegetables:

  • 1 large or 2 medium carrots, peeled
  • 1 large or 2 medium-small boiling type potatoes, peeled
  • 1 medium onion, peeled and root end and top removed
  • 4 small or 3 medium dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked in water until rehydrated, OR 4 small or 3 medium fresh shiitake mushrooms, OR 5-6 button mushrooms
  • 3-4 snow peas or mange-tout, for garnish (Other garnishes you could use: small broccoli florets; green beans. Or for uncooked garnishes, chopped up green onion or mitsuba would work.)

The flavorings:

  • 1 teaspoon sesame oil, olive oil or vegetable oil
  • 1/2 tablespoon white or raw sugar
  • 1 tablespoon sake
  • 1 tablespoon mirin
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • salt (optional)

Equipment needed: Cutting board, sharp kitchen knife, a small saucepan, and an otoshibuta - which I'll explain below.

Proper traditional Japanese cooking (washoku) is all about getting little details right. They really don't have to take a lot of time once you've learned them, but they make all the difference both in taste and texture, as well as final presentation. If you want this dish to turn out as nicely as it can, please read through and follow the cutting instructions. Of course it will all turn out pretty good even if you cut up the vegetables the way you want to...but humor me and follow along at least once. ^_^

1. Cut the carrots.

The most common cut used for carrots in stewed dishes is called ran-giri (乱切り) which means 'random cut' or 'rough cut'. You want each piece to be fairly even in size, but with multiple surfaces so that they cook evenly. It's quite simple to do: Put your peeled carrot on the board, and cut at even intervals while giving a quarter-turn to the carrot each time.

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You'll end up with pieces like this...

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...sort of trapezoidal in shape. These pieces cook very nicely and evenly. (I cut my carrots like this for curry too.)

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Now this is very much optional, but if you want to give your final dish an extra flair cut some regular round slices from the carrot and make some flowers out of them. I didn't include the cutting how-to here since it was already way too long, but if you have some small bento cutters you can just cut out some flowers or other shapes (see this post for example.)

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2. Cut and prep the potatoes

Next up are the potatoes. After peeling them, cut them into fairly even pieces like so:

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The next step is optional but will really make the final dish that much better. Since potatoes are starchy, the sharp cut edges tend to melt and disintegrate into the cooking liquid. This makes them look a bit messy, as well as clouding the liquid. To prevent that, just shave the edges of each piece to round them off. This cutting method is called mentori (面取り) - 'taking off the edges'.

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The potato pieces will look like this. The reasoning behind this is related to the reason why vegetables are 'turned' in classic French cuisine but it's a lot more simple to do. It's not necessary to "mentori" all vegetables - carrots for instance stay firm and intact after cooking unless you overcook them. The most commonly "mentori"-ed vegetables are the starchy ones like potatoes and kabocha squash, plus daikon radish - the ones that literally tend to lose their 'edge' during cooking.

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But a frugal Japanese home cook doesn't throw away the trimmed edges. Save them for a soup or a stir-fry by rinsing off the starch in water (to prevent them from browning) and wrapping tightly.

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Put the cut up potato in a bowl of water, and then drain to rinse off the surface starch. This step will make the final dish that much more clear shiny. Don't let the potato bits soak too long in the water though - we don't want them to get waterlogged.

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3. Cut the shiitake mushrooms

Tightly squeeze out the rehydrated dried shiitake mushrooms, saving the soaking liquid. Cut off the stem, which is usually too chewy even after rehydrating. Cut each cap in half - but instead of just going straight up and down, make a slanted 45 degree cut.

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The reason for doing this is purely for aesthetics. The diagonal cut shows off the pale beige inside part of the shiitake, which offsets the dark brown cap nicely. A small, simple yet nice decorative touch. Do this cut for fresh shiitake also. Regular white button mushrooms can just be sliced in half (you can leave the stems on); if you have brown cap mushrooms the diagonal cut may work well too.

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4. Cut the onion.

Just cut the onion into 1/8th wedges.

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5. Let's cook some nimono!

Once you've prepped the vegetables, the cooking is pretty easy.

Heat up your pan with the teaspoon of oil. Sesame oil will add a bit more flavor, but any vegetable oil is fine here. (Olive oil is great too.) Put the onions in first and stir around for 2-3 minutes until the edges start turning a bit translucent.

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Add the potatoes and carrots and continue stirring for a minute. This short sautéing step helps to bring out the sweetness of the vegetables.

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Add the mushrooms and stir a bit more.

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Add the dashi stock (or combined dashi + mushroom soaking liquid). There should be enough to just about come to the top level of all the vegetables in the pot - if there's not enough, add the a bit more dashi or even plain water, but do not overfill with liquid or the end results will be rather blah.

Bring it up to a boil and lower the heat to a simmer. Some scum will rise to the top, which should be removed so that the final dish will have a clean taste and appearance. I use this specialized scum-scooper ladle but any ladle will do fine - even a large spoon will work. Try to take off just the scum and leave the liquid.

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Add the flavoring ingredients in this order: sugar, mirin, sake, and then finally the soy sauce. You can even reserve the soy sauce until the very end to retain its maximum fragrance if you prefer. I just dump it in at this stage though.

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Finally we want to let it simmer on its own. But before we leave the pot, let's put on an otoshibuta (落としぶた) or "dropped lid". This is one of the things that may be unique to Japanese cooking, although other cuisines use similar techniques sometimes. It's essentally a lid that is smaller than the diameter of the pot, that is placed directly on the surface of the food that's being cooked. it prevents the surface from drying out, allows moisture ton condensate on the backside and then drop back into the cooking liquid, and keeps the ingredients in the simmer from shifting around and falling apart. I've explained the otoshibuta several times already on this site, and used it whenever I've made a simmered dish. The most traditional type of otoshibuta is made of wood - but it's still hard to get one of these outside of Japan. But a makeshift one works just as well really. The simplest form of makeshift otoshibuta is simply a pot lid that belongs to a pot that's smaller than the one you're using, preferably one. You can also use a piece of crumpled up aluminum foil or kitchen parchment paper with a couple of holes punched into it for ventilation.

I do happen to have an otoshibuta, which I bought in Japan...it's made of silicone. The 'handle' part is a pig face, with the snout acting as ventilation holes. It's also a pun, since the word for pig in Japanese is "buta". So...otoshibuta... ^_^; (OK so I do like my silly puns.)

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So, leave the pot to simmer with the dropped pig...I mean, dropped lid on top, for around 20 minutes. If the heat is too high, lower it or take the pot off the heat for a couple of minutes before putting it back on. You may want to give it a stir up from the bottom halfway through. (Experienced cooks can take the pan and give it a good toss to mix the contents up, but don't do this unless you are confident you can.)

In the meantime, blanch 3-4 snap peas (or other greenery you are using as garnish) in boiling water for a minute or two, and set aside.

Come back to check on how tender the vegetables are, and if they are done turn the heat off and let it rest for a few minutes. Taste a potato and see if it needs a touch more soy sauce, or even a pinch of salt, and adjust according to your taste.

6. Finishing up

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Arrange the vegetables attractively in a bowl, pouring a little of the cooking liquid over it to add shine and flavor. Garnish with the snow peas or other green garnish of your choice to make it "pop". jc101-nimono-sm.jpg

Store any leftover nimono in the cooking liquid. It will improve in flavor that way. Nimono like this will last in the refrigerator for at least 3-4 days, so make enough to use in a couple of meals and bentos. After a couple of days you may want to heat it through before using.

Nimono summary

  • Use 2nd dashi or niban-dashi to be frugal
  • Cut the vegetables according to their nature; shave the edges off the starchy ones
  • Sauté the vegetables in a little oil to bring out their flavor and to add more flavor from the oil
  • Add the soy sauce last, to retain its flavor. Add the sugar, sake and mirin first. (See also: SaShiSuSeSo.)
  • Use an otoshibuta (dropped lid) while simmering
  • Use some green garnish to make the final dish pop.
  • It's worthwhile making nimono in some quantity, since it tastes better the next day and keeps for several days in the refrigerator. Reheat before eating at home, or reheat then let cool down again if using for bento.

This basic procedure is the same for most kinds of nimono, whether they are all-vegetable or have some meat or other protein such as tofu in them.

As usual, please leave any questions, etc. in the comments below or on the Facebook page!

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