When you’re looking for something hearty and warming — but also simple and healthy — as days become shorter and colder, look to the Japanese dishes called nabemono. These “simmered dishes” are often cooked in one pot (called a “nabe”), sometimes in the middle of the dining table over a portable burner. In the West, the most famous nabemono is probably sukiyaki — beef and vegetables cooked in a broth of soy sauce, mirin (sweet sake), and other flavorings. All over Japan, you’re likely to see steaming pots of another famous nabemono called oden in convenience stores during the colder months (and, of course, oden makes plenty of appearances in standard restaurants and at home, and on some phone you’ll find an oden emoji).
A nabemono that I like to cook at home is a stew of root vegetables, Chinese cabbage, mushrooms and squash in a flavorful broth enriched by umami-packed miso and vegetarian broth. One might call it a “supercharged miso soup:” much thicker than that generic cup at the Japanese restaurant and packed with vegetables.
Many Japanese foods look simple at first glance, but when you discover how they are made, the actual process is rather complicated. This stew is the opposite of that. It looks complicated — the recipe has a lot of steps, but is actually simple — many of the steps in the recipe are vegetable slicing or adding vegetables to the pot and stirring. One could even put it into the category of ‘dump and stir’: add some vegetables, let them cook a bit, add more, let them cook, and so on. (I wonder if there is an elegant Japanese phrase for ‘dump and stir’…)
Overcooked Vegetables Can Be Your Friend
A stew filled with ideally cooked vegetables is a challenge — even impossible — to achieve without excessive effort. Each piece of vegetable is a slightly different size and the heat application uneven, so you’re bound to get a variety of textures for each vegetable. And some will be overcooked. That’s OK for this stew and possibly even a feature: as the softer pieces and the sharp edges break down, they enrich the already flavorful broth. The thick broth coats the vegetables, making each bite more interesting. (You can see an even more dramatic way of building a vegetable-rich broth from A Duck’s Oven in a pumpkin spice chicken curry.)
A Few Specialized Ingredients Make a Big Difference
This stew calls for a few ingredients that you might not keep in your pantry, but it’s worth a trip to an Asian or natural foods market to find them. The special ingredients –miso, kombu seaweed, and shiitake mushrooms (and Japanese sweet potatoes if you can find them) — are filled with umami, that savory something that chefs are so crazy about. In addition, these ingredients are that special something that give it a true Japanese flavor and aroma. As I was eating the latest batch I prepared, the subtle aroma of the kombu and miso transported me back to my visits to Japan — though certainly not as good as what I ate there, it was a tasty reminder.
Assembling a Stew Recipe
Like many recipes post here, this one is a hybrid of a few recipes, taking my favorite parts of several recipes and blending them into something somewhat new. The foundation was built many years ago in a cooking class by Ayako Iino (current proprietor of Yume Boshi, I think). Her dish, which she called a houtou, was far more ambitious than this one, with handmade udon noodles. The noodles are easy to make, and are delicious, but in my experience they are trouble after the first serving. If left in the stew they dissolve; if dried for a second serving, cooking them requires too much of effort. So I tossed away the noodles as I worked on the recipe. (If you must have noodles in your stew, a package of udon from the store works OK.)
Further pieces were contributed by the vegetarian dashi (broth) and chicken stew in Elizabeth Andoh’s Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen. My version of the vegetable stew swaps pieces of tofu for the chicken.
The final step in this journey was a piece on KCRW’s Good Food about Naoko Moore’s Kyoto Style Hot Pot. Ms. Moore’s interview inspired me to try a vegetarian version of her recipe, and that process helped refine the recipe that was simmering in my mind.
Japanese Vegetable Stew with Miso Broth
This Japanese vegetable stew of root vegetables, Chinese cabbage and squash is one of my favorite cold weather dishes. As they cook, the vegetables create a rich broth that is enhanced by umami-rich miso paste and a vegetarian dashi.
- 600 grams kabocha squash weight is unpeeled, with seeds. 3 cups after cutting. Other winter squashes might work too
- 1 tbsp vegetable oil 15 mL
- 200 grams leeks or negi 1 medium (100 grams trimmed, 1 cup diced)
- 200 grams napa cabbage about 6 cups (1.5 L)
- 300 grams carrots 4 medium
- 375 grams sweet potato 1 large. A Japanese variety like satsuma is ideal, but other varieties should work, as would waxy potatoes like Yukon Gold
- 4 shiitake mushrooms fresh or dry
- 2 tbsp sake 30 mL
- 2 tbsp miso (red, white or a blend) 30 mL
- 2 tsp soy sauce 10 mL
Ahead of Time
8-24 hours before you start cooking, start making the dashi (see separate recipe below). If you used whole shiitake mushrooms in the dashi, save them to use in the stew.
If you didn't get the 8-24 hour head-start, you can make a quick version of the dashi (see notes in the separate recipe).
Prepare the vegetables
It is probably best to prepare all of the vegetables ahead of time, but if you are a quick slicer, they could be prepared as you go while the previous vegetables are cooking. In that case, the vegetable groupings are 1) leek; 2) carrot; 3) sweet potato and squash; 4) white part of cabbage and mushroom; 5) green part of cabbage.
Mushrooms: If mushrooms are dry, soak them in hot water to soften, then drain, saving the soaking water to add to the stew after pouring it through a coffee filter or very fine strainer. Slice the mushrooms into strips. Put the strips into a bowl large enough to also hold the white parts of the napa cabbage.
Leek: After cutting off the green part and root end, quarter the leek lengthwise. Slice into 1/4" pieces. Put the chopped leeks into a bowl of water and agitate to remove any sand or grit. After a few minutes, scoop out the leeks to leave behind sand and grit.
Carrots: Cut the carrots into 1/2" long slices (a roll cut is best here). Put the cut carrots into a bowl.
Sweet potato: Cut the sweet potato into chunks that can fit onto a spoon (about 1/2" on a side). Uneven is OK (and unavoidable). Put the sweet potato in a bowl large enough to also hold the squash.
If using a kabocha squash, peel part or all of the squash (the peel is edible). If using another squash (like butternut), peel it. Cut the squash into bite size pieces. Uneven is OK (and unavoidable). Put the squash in a bowl with the sweet potato.
Napa cabbage: Separate the white part of the napa from the leafy part. Roughly chop the green parts of the napa cabbage, with the goal of pieces that will fit on a spoon without trouble (no long dangling).
Combine the white parts with the mushrooms. Put the green pieces into a separate bowl.
Cook the stew
Heat oil over medium heat. Add the leeks. Cook for 5 minutes until soft, stirring frequently.
Add carrots and broth (dashi). Stir. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a gentle simmer. Cover, cook for 5 minutes.
Add the sake and cook for about 1 minute, covered.
Add squash and sweet potato. Stir. Cover, cook for 5 minutes.
Add white part of napa cabbage and mushrooms. Stir. Cover, cook for 5 minutes.
Extract about 1 cup of the liquid from the pot into a heat-proof container (like the pan used to make the dashi).
Add the miso to the extracted liquid and whisk to distribute it evenly. You want to avoid lumps.
Pour the liquid / miso mixture into the pot.
Add the soy sauce and reduce the heat to low.
Add the leafy parts of the napa cabbage. Stir. Cover, cook for 5 minutes.
The type of miso you choose will influence the final flavor: red is bold and hearty; white is often sweet and mellow. (I usually choose red.)
Vegetarian Dashi Stock
A critical building block of vegetarian Japanese cooking, this stock is full of naturally-occurring flavor enhancers from kombu seaweed and shiitake mushrooms. Ideally, the seaweed and mushrooms will soak for many hours, but that isn't essential. A decent stock can be made in a hurry.
- 15-20 square inches kombu sea vegetable
- 2-4 dried shiitake mushrooms
- 4 cups cool water
Place a piece of kombu sea vegetable and several dried shiitake mushrooms into the water. For best results, use a glass or ceramic container.
Let this mixture steep for a few hours or overnight in the refrigerator. A long soaking allows the natural glutamates (flavor enhancers) to develop and dissolve into the water.
- When ready to make the stock, put the mixture in a pan over medium heat.
- Bring it almost to a boil, then reduce the heat slightly to keep it at a low simmer. Keep it at this point for 5 minutes, then turn off the heat.
- Let the mixture steep for 5 minutes more, and then strain into a saucepan.
Save the shiitake mushrooms for another use (recipes that call for dashi also often use shiitake mushrooms). The kombu is often discarded, though there are certainly recipes that use it (Washoku has a one for a kombu relish).
Adapted from Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen, by Elizabeth Andoh