Friday, September 5, 2008

Simmered Mackerel -- Saba no miso-ni

Before I left the US, I'd already decided I was going to do this blog, so I asked some people what they might like to see in it. A couple of people said "recipes!" pretty forcefully, so here goes.

Mackerel is very popular in Japan. Technically most of it, called saba, is Spanish mackerel, which is considered by Western gourmets to have a milder, more delicate flavor than its Atlantic cousin. It's a fairly small fish, perhaps 18 inches long and quite narrow. It's got dark, somewhat oily flesh, and you have to be a little careful to avoid it becoming "fishy" in the unpleasant sense. The most important part of that, of course, is to buy it extremely fresh, which isn't difficult to do here as its prime season is August-October.

You can eat it raw, but it's unusual to do so; when you have it as sashimi, it's normally very lightly pickled, which is to say you fillet it, peel off the outer skin, and rub it with very mild vinegar and a little salt. 15 minutes later, you rinse it off and it's ready to slice. If you've had mackerel at a sushi restaurant--which you probably have if you've had much sushi, as it is not expensive and it holds up to cold-storage quite well--you've had it in this pickled form, though probably it was pickled longer and harder than this.

What people do at home, though, is different: you make saba no miso-ni (鯖のみそ煮), which is simmered mackerel in miso. When I first spotted these things looking great in the market, I had my wife look up what to do with it, and she found more than 100 Japanese recipes online... and then discovered that almost all of them, like literally 85-90 of them, were for this dish.

I decided to serve this with fresh tofu and yuba (湯葉 soymilk skin) from the local tofu-maker I just found, served chilled with garnishes (hiya yakko); rice (always); and then a stir-fry of okay-looking broccoli because I thought we ought to have some veggies.

Here you can see everything that went into dinner. Front and center is the little plastic dish of yuba, still in its protective bath of soy milk. Clockwise from this, the broccoli stalks sliced medium-thin, cut bite-sized; my mediocre vegetable knife that I use for everything because I haven't got anything better; the tofu (silk style, very soft), cut in cubes and bathing in ice water. In the metal bowl are the chunks of mackerel fillet, which I've blanched very briefly and then are soaking in ice water. Soy sauce, the broccoli florets, a mixture of miso and mirin (sweet cooking sake), julienne negi (giant scallion/leek) for garnish, a bowl of julienne ginger and chunks of negi (which you can't really see here), and then a bowl of shimeji mushrooms. Behind the yuba are, left to right, two cloves of garlic, a shiso (perilla) leaf, a stub of very young ginger, and some thin rounds of negi. In the very back you can see Maia's bum, which did not go into dinner.

Miso-Simmered Mackerel (Saba no miso-ni)


To make the mackerel itself, you need (for 2 people) a medium-sized mackerel. This dish is quite filling, especially as you're serving it with rice, and it's really not necessary to use more. But on the other hand it is extremely easy to make, so it's a good thing to serve to a small crowd if you can get the mackerel filleted. I bought bone-in and filleted it myself, functionally but not well--I'm working on that one.

Then you need:
1 knob ginger
1 negi (giant Japanese scallion/leek)--I'd substitute 4 fat scallions
a cup or two of mild but firm mushrooms, like shimeji, shiitake, etc. (optional)
600 cc (3/5 US cup) water
2 Tb sake (cooking sake is adequate for this)
1 1/2 Tb sugar
1/2 Tb soy sauce
2 Tb miso (use the medium-amber stuff, not red or brown)
1 Tb mirin (sweet cooking sake)

(The mushrooms are an optional addition to the mackerel. You could also use various other similar things that will stand up to serious simmering and retain some flavor and firmness. You don't want greens or anything else that will strongly flavor the sauce, which is why again mildly flavorful mushrooms are perfect. I bet you could find a way to do it with eggplant chunks, too, though I've never seen this.)

All of this is easily available in grocery stores all over the US, even in rural Vermont, because it keeps well. The only thing that may be troublesome is miso, but if need be you can order this on line. It stores almost forever in the fridge so long as you keep the surface covered with the plastic that comes with it and the lid on the box.


To prepare, cut the mackerel fillets into large bite-sized chunks, about the size of a piece of nigiri sushi, if that helps. Cut an X about 1 inch in each direction, just barely through the center of the skin, to prevent the fish from curling as it cooks. Bring a medium pot of water to a rolling boil, and set up a big bowlful of ice water next to the stove. Put one or two pieces of fish skin-side down on a wide slotted spoon or spatula (a spoon is easier) and dunk the fish into the water for about 2 seconds, then immediately drop into the ice water. Repeat until all the fish is in the ice water. This process helps remove any lingering fishy smell.

Cut a bunch of 1 1/2-inch julienne of the white of the negi, for garnish. Cut the rest of the negi into 1 1/2-inch lengths. Cut the ginger into a skinless block, then cut planks with the grain, then stack the planks and cut into fine julienne. If using mushrooms, clean and cut or tear into bite-sized pieces.

In a fairly small heatproof (e.g. Pyrex) bowl, put the miso and the mirin and stir until more or less smooth.

At this point you can leave everything for a while, but you really ought to cover the negi and ginger with plastic and put into the fridge. If you're fast with a knife, it would be better to cut these aromatics at the last minute. The fish can wait in the fridge, under the cold water, for a couple of hours.


Put the water, sake, and sugar in a saute pan or saucepan, ideally just wide enough to hold all the mackerel in one layer. Put the bowl of fish, a dish with the soy pre-measured, the bowl of miso/mirin paste, and the bowl of negi chunks and ginger (and mushrooms, etc.) within easy reach. Have ready either a curved lid for a pot one size smaller than the saute pan, which can therefore sit easily on the bottom of the pan, or a circle of parchment paper that again will fit inside the saute pan; if you're used to using parchment lids for braising, note that it is not necessary to make a vent in the center. You also need a smallish ladle and a big slotted spoon. Pick out a deep serving dish and put the negi garnish next to it.

Put the pan over high heat and bring to the boil. Add the mackerel, skin-side up, and boil about 5-10 seconds. Add the soy and shake gently. Turn off the heat. Tip the pan a bit, and scoop a few ladlefuls of the hot liquid into the bowl with the miso/mirin paste. Stir this paste mixture thoroughly, dissolving the miso completely. Pour over the fish in the pan. Add all the negi chunks and the ginger, scattering them more or less evenly over the fish. Turn on the heat to medium-low, put the lid over the top of everything, and let simmer 10 minutes.

Note that this whole process should take very little time--the quicker the better. Once you understand what's involved, you'll see that the whole procedure can be done in under a minute without much trouble. It's not a problem if it takes a couple of minutes, but the fish and liquid must not be allowed to cool significantly.

Remove the fish with the slotted spoon and put in a shallow mound in the serving dish. Cover this with the negi chunks, ginger, and any mushrooms or whatever that you may have added. Pour the liquid gently over the top. Garnish with the white negi julienne and serve immediately.

Serves 2 people. Total cooking time, 12 minutes. The dish multiplies well.

Note that this technique of dropping a lid into a pot is very common here, because braising on top of the stove is an extremely popular technique (dishes made this way are called nimono). Traditionally, you use a wooden lid just a hair smaller than the pot, and float it on top.

Cold Tofu (Hiya Yakko 日や奴)

Personally, I wouldn't bother making this at home, because the tofu is almost always dreadful, but some people like it--and some probably have access to truly fresh tofu. It couldn't be simpler: ice-cold silky-smooth tofu with a little garnish.

1 pad super-fresh silken tofu
best-quality soy sauce
negi cut in fine slices
fresh-grated ginger
small wedges of very sour citrus (yuzu, sudachi, kabosu, lemon, lime...)
mild aromatic leafy herbs, in chiffonade (shiso, parsley, perhaps basil...)
white sesame seeds
high-quality bonito flakes (katsuo bushi), shredded

All you need is the tofu and the soy. Pick as many or as few of the rest as you like, based exclusively on what is very fresh and perfect.


Fill an attractive serving bowl with ice-cold water; it can have some ice in it, but not much and not big cubes. Rinse the tofu very gently in cold water (if it's really super-fresh, made in the last couple of hours or so, just remove it from the water it's in) and place on a plate or a plastic cutting board and cut into medium cubes. Transfer the cubes carefully to the ice water, which should just cover the tofu. Place in the fridge until ready to serve.

Each guest gets a pretty saucer. Within reach should be some sort of attractive dish with all the garnishes, carefully separated and nicely presented. Put the tofu in the middle, in its water, and provide a wide, shallow spoon, ideally finely slotted, to serve. Each guest takes a piece of tofu, puts a little soy on it and sprinkles on a little of whatever garnishes he feels like, then eats it.

Note that I only have mediocre-to-bad dishes, so this doesn't look nearly as good as it tasted.

If you have ultra-fresh high-quality tofu, this is lovely. If you have the usual stuff I can find outside the Asian markets at home, this is pretty mediocre, shading toward nasty. If your choice is between super-fresh firm tofu (the usual Chinese preference) and the stuff in a box or made by some hippy-dippy moron and packaged two weeks ago, go with the firm stuff. All tofu should be labeled to tell you when it was made. If it wasn't made in the last couple of days, skip it.

Chances are, if you're horrified by this dish and thinking, "that's nasty," you've never had halfway decent tofu. It's not so easy to come by in the US.


I just found our local tofu maker, and I bought some tofu about two hours after she'd made it. I also bought some yuba, which is soymilk skin (on the left in the picture above). Let me explain.

You make tofu by making soy milk, heating it, and adding nigari, which is actually a general term for a number of different chemical compounds (ideally the naturally-occurring forms, but it's all pretty harmless and used in very small quantities). This makes the milk curdle, like cheese. You drain the curds and press them in a cheesecloth-lined box, and this makes tofu.

Now when you heat soy milk, it's just like milk: it tends to form a skin on the top. So what you do is, you very carefully lift this skin off like a sheet, and you hang it briefly to firm up, and then you fold it or roll it and put it in a little cold soy milk so it won't dry out. This is yuba.

Kyoto is sort of the center of the universe when it comes to yuba. I mean, Kyoto-ites will tell you they're the center of the universe for a lot of things, of course, but even in Tokyo everybody knows that the best yuba is in Kyoto. There are shops that specialize in the stuff! I just bought it from the tofu maker, but it was really good. It's soft enough that you can sort of cut it with chopsticks, and then we ate it pretty much the same way as the hiya yakko. Wow!

Stir-Fried Broccoli (ブロコリのスターフライ)

1 fat head broccoli
2 Tb canola oil, in all
1 Tb soy sauce
1/4 cup water
pinch salt
2 cloves garlic, minced
a little sesame oil


Cut the florets off the broccoli. Cut the stalks into medium-thin planks, then cut in half or so to produce bite-sized pieces. Heat a wok or an unlined skillet over maximum heat until very, very hot. Add 1 Tb oil and swirl around. When it smokes, in a few seconds, add the sliced stalks. Toss constantly for about 30 seconds to a minute, until you start to see a little browning happening. Add the soy sauce and the water in one go, swirl the pan to distribute, and let it alone. In a minute or two, when the water has almost completely boiled off and the broccoli is starting to fry, add the remaining oil and toss to distribute. Add the florets and a pinch of salt. Toss constantly for 30 seconds or so, until very bright green. Add the garlic and toss for another 15-20 seconds, until very fragrant. Pour into a serving dish and garnish with the sesame oil.

If the broccoli is fresh, this is wonderful. You can also add a pinch of dried hot pepper flakes with the garlic--I love that, but then my son Sam wouldn't touch it. Oh well.

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