Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Dinner From Far, Far Away

It was a cookbook, I fell in love with,  Japanese Hot Pots, by Tadashi Ono & Harris Salat.  I already had the pan, a beautiful simple cast iron pot.  Hot pots are a traditional cooking method, used by Japanese mamas for millennia.

Here’s the procedure:  You cut up everything into  bite-sized pieces or slice the meat and veggies very thinly.  It helps if they are partially frozen first, then marinate them for a couple of hours.  Heat the broth  until it simmers.  Add the meat, noodles, and veggies at the table and watch them cook.  The family is gathered by then. It takes about five minutes to cook and the food is so fresh, finely flavored. That’s dinner from far, far away.

So it was my turn to cook, our first evening in a mountain cabin, whose generous windows looked over a gorgeous meadow.  I was there with a group of friends, other writers from the Pacific Northwest.  I’m in my early 60s, and the other women are in their late 50s to mid-70s.  They are stunning cooks, so it pays to come packing recipes from around the world and foods that are fresh from the farmers’ markets.   We’ve been writers together for about two decades.  When we started out, we were students of Joan Logghe, a poet and mentor from New Mexico.  But mainly, it was a way to write about our lives: stories generational cooking experiences, a broken foot in the wilds of New Zealand,  what it’s like to have a long-lost daughter reenter your life, and the agonies of a troublesome in-law or two.  It’s where we tell as much truth as we can muster in a safe and invigorating environment.  It’s one of the places and the ways where we can render a challenging journey into a rich and worthwhile trip.

Here’s my own tough patch.  Julie, my cousin and a cancer survivor, ran into some trouble with her bones and needed a 2nd tough surgery.  I was her caregiver, but this surgical diagnosis put me into a psychological malaise, a scary detachment.  Over lunch, I told them about my weird headtrip and my hopes of crawling back to the side of compassion at some point. 

Over the next three hours, they told me their own stories of caregiving, and what strange things that task can do to a fragile mind.  They told me what was normal and what needed attention.  They told me what kind of acceptance you need in order to be a real support to  your relative and what wasn’t at all helpful. They were as reality-based and truthful as you could wish, and they got me back where I needed to be. It was immensely comforting.

This is whom I am cooking for, and I had to do a good job.

I wanted to do a Japanese hot pot for a summer evening in the mountains.  Here’s what I made.

Shrimp Hot Pot

In a large cast iron or roaster, put a skim of oil and add 3-5 finely chopped garlic cloves and an inch or two of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped.  Saute the garlic and ginger, until they are soft.

Pour two 32 oz. boxes of chicken broth, one no-salt and one salted, in the pot.  Let it come to a simmer.  We did this on the stove, but you can do it at the table if you have candles appropriate for cooking there. 

In the meantime,  thaw a couple of pounds of frozen medium  (or larger) shrimp.  Marinate the shrimpies in garlic, soy sauce, ginger for about an hour.  Don’t peel them.  The shells add a lot of flavor.   

Add 1 pound of shitake mushrooms to the broth.  Remover the stems and give them a good swish in the sink.

Add ½ pound of pea pods to the broth. Wash thorough one bunch of scallions, although you can trim the ends just a bit.  Leave them whole and keep them together.  Add two packages of already cooked noodles to the broth.  Add ¼ cup of soy sauce.

The mushrooms and peapods will cook in about 5-7 minutes.  About 4 minutes in,  add the shrimpies, peels and all, and let them cook 3-5 minutes.  They are done, when they are opaque. Add the whole bunch of scallions  along the side of the pot.  They will cook and absorb the flavors.  Everybody that wants one, gets one.  Tell people they need to peel the shrimp; provide a couple of bowls for the shells.

At the end,  add a skim of roasted sesame seed oil, some roasted sesame seeds and a little bit of fresh flat-leaf parsley or cilantro as a garnish. Let everybody serve themselves.  The pot is too heavy and too hot to carry to the table.  This recipe isn’t in Ono and Salat’s cookbook; this is a simplified and blended version of several of their ideas.  They are thoroughly faithful to Japanese  cooking, and some of the ingredients aren’t easy to find.

                                                                                                                                           Diane Ronanye


  1. Thank you for sharing again, Barb. We are past this particular moment in our lives, but the memory is as rich as the sustaining food on that beautiful evening in the mountains. I'm grateful that we all shared this passage together.

  2. Thank you for your elegant comments. Fondly, Barb

  3. Lovely post, Barb. And the dish sound de-lish!