Whetting desires for winter one-pot meals
On my recent business trip to Fukuoka, the lady manager of a local restaurant told me, "When you prepare hakusai napa cabbage for nabe stew, you should cut the leaves lengthwise." Indeed, if the leaves are cut vertically into long strips, the white fleshy part remains crisp and flavorful. I readily agreed this was the way to savor this vegetable at its seasonal best.
At home, I am feared by my family as the bossy nabe chef. But to confess, I never knew I was chopping the cabbage the wrong way--that is, horizontally. In my own defense, however, it's not such a terrible thing to let the cabbage cook through and flavor the broth, which will be used to make zosui (rice porridge) at the end of the meal. Actually, some people prefer their cabbage thoroughly cooked and soggy, while others are horrified by the very thought. To each his own, and ultimately it's the chef's call.
Around this season, the morning frost adds sweetness to napa cabbages. The other day, I visited Yachiyo, Ibaraki Prefecture, one of the foremost hakusai farming regions in the country. Trainee farmers from China, the home of this leafy delicacy, were busy harvesting the vegetable. Wielding special blades, they sheared the heads off, each big enough to be an armful, and lined them up in two layers.
After the outer leaves are peeled off, the snowy white heads were exposed, looking like they had just been washed clean. Maybe it was their pure whiteness or perhaps their "buxom" roundness, that made me think they looked almost erotic. Though these were being boxed in the fields, I recalled a haiku by Kenkichi Kusumoto: "Washed clean/ The hakusai bask in the sun/ Like a row of white buttocks."
A nabe dinner, consisting of common ingredients and stewed on a portable tabletop stove, is just right for these economically lean times.
According to Dentsu Communication Institute, which published a list of popular consumer items last week, uchi-gomori (staying at home) is the buzzword that defines people's interest in saving money and enjoying quality time at home.
It's already December. In this day and age, the future is uncertain, no matter how you look at it. Perhaps this is the time to focus on today and enjoy it to the max. And I always welcome a nabe dinner at home, with its delicious aromas of seafood, vegetables and other items tickling the nose, and everyone smiling happily as steam rises from bubbling broth.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 1(IHT/Asahi: December 2,2008)