Food & Drink

Savor the flavor of donabe dishes

Salmon and hijiki rice is one of the clay pot recipes in “Donabe” by Naoko Takei Moore and Kyle Connaughton.
Salmon and hijiki rice is one of the clay pot recipes in “Donabe” by Naoko Takei Moore and Kyle Connaughton. credited to Eric Wolfinger

As summer becomes a memory and leaves turn to fall colors, the donabe makes its seasonal debut. A donabe is a Japanese clay pot used for making soups, stews, steamed rice dishes and other communal meals, some which are cooked right at the table.

Pop the lid on a donabe that’s filled with simmered pork shoulder or steamed vegetables, and the aromas wafting from the pot signal that a hearty, warming meal will soon be underway.

For those around Sacramento who enjoy cooking Asian recipes, a donabe isn’t usually as well known as, say, a wok. But it’s easy to add donabe cooking to your culinary repertoire, especially through the recently published “Donabe: Classic and Modern Japanese Clay Pot Cooking” (Ten Speed Press, $35, 328 pages). Authors Naoko Takei Moore and Kyle Connaughton guide newbies through the basics of using this clay cooking vessel and provide a variety of recipes, including classic hot-pot meals for the family, cold-busting soups and much more.

If it’s tricky to get everyone to sit together for dinner, just bring out the donabe.

“Japanese donabe cooking is typically meant for sharing at the table,” said Moore, via email while visiting Italy. “It’s not just the beauty of the food, but also how it’s served. Donabe cooking works as a tool of communication and bonding among family and friends.”

The history of these Japanese clay pots stretches back hundreds of years, with some of its deepest traditions in the province of Iga, situated about 250 miles southwest of Tokyo. Pottery made from the clay in this mountainous area, or Iga-yaki, is renown for its heat retention qualities, making these finely crafted pots prized cooking utensils.

Their rustic craftsmanship and decor can also be savored. Over time, through many cooking sessions, a donabe can develop color changes that gives it an individualistic touch.

“I collect Iga-yaki donabe and I have so many different styles and designs,” Moore said. “They are like my children, so I love all of them equally. They all have different characters, and the more I use them, the more they develop characters.”

Although hand-crafted Iga-yaki donabe can cost more than $100, those who are new to this type of cooking can find authentic donabe around Sacramento for less money. Sakura Gifts, one of few remnants of Sacramento’s Japantown area near 10th and V streets, carries Japanese-made donabe that cost less than $50. Oto’s Market on Freeport Boulevard also carries donabe, with most pots selling for around the same price.

Some donabe are made specifically for cooking rice, such as the double-lid pot called a Kamado-san. Others are better suited for different duties, including a three-piece donabe that has a grate for steaming. But no matter what style you choose, keep in mind that a donabe is intended for cooking over a flame. An electric stove or induction cook top doesn’t provide proper heat distribution with these clay pots, and can also potentially damage the donabe. In a pinch, a donabe can be used in the oven, but an open flame is always the first preference.

“After all, that used to be the only heat source for cooking in the ancient times,” Moore said. “Donabe is great for oven cooking, too. I love cooking beans in donabe in the oven.”

Now, let’s get cooking. A simple pot of rice is always a good place to start with donabe cooking. While most rice cooking methods call for bringing the rice and water to a soft boil and then quickly reducing the heat, Moore’s approach with a double-lid donabe calls for a steady medium-high heat. She also recommends cleaning then soaking the rice in filtered or soft mineral water. Cook for 13 to 15 minutes, turn off the heat and let the rice rest for 15 to 20 minutes.

“The donabe has a extra thick body, so it heats up slowly, then stays hot for a long time after turning off the heat,” said Moore. “As a result, it creates perfect gentle heat distribution to bring out the natural sweet flavors of each grain, while maintaining the texture of each grain without making the rice mushy.”

From there, a world of one-pot dishes awaits. A basic recipe can be built on just a few ingredients, such as tofu, mushrooms and dashi (Japanese cooking stock) or other quick and easy broth. More involved recipes in Moore’s donabe cookbook, such as those which transform a donabe into a smoker, can result in a delicious medley of chicken wings and vegetables. Classic chicken hot pots with simmered meat and vegetables, miso soup with kabu (Japanese turnips), steam-roasted oysters and much more are all covered in the cookbook.

Many ingredients can be found at standard grocery stores. For specialty ingredients, such as kombu for making dashi or fresh yuzu, try Oto’s Market or KP International Market in Rancho Cordova.

For those who have yet to invest in a donabe, many of the cookbook’s recipes can also be re-created in other cooking devices, including a Dutch oven or cast iron pot. We tried the recipe for “very juicy chicken-wing rice” in a Le Creuset Dutch oven with fairly successful results. The marinated chicken wings were a hit with the family, but the rice, while still tasty, cooked a bit unevenly when using the donabe method described in the book. Trying to re-create this recipe again in a Dutch oven will require some tweaks in terms of temperature and the amount of liquid used during cooking.

Or maybe it’s just best to get a donabe. With just some daikon, green onion, sliced yellowtail and yuzu ponzu, an easy shabu-shabu dish is just a few minutes away.

“Donabe is meant for everyday use, and it’s a great helper for people with busy lives,” Moore said. “Donabe makes simple food taste better.”

Chris Macias: 916-321-1253, @chris_macias

Drunken steam-fried drummettes in shochu sauce

Serves 4 to 6 (as part of a multicourse meal)

This simple dish is ideally suited to casual izakaya (Japanese pub)-style get-togethers. I find that shochu (a Japanese distilled drink) tends to make the chicken more tender and also gives it a nice aroma. I use rice shochu, but other types of shochu or even sake can work with this dish, too. Just put the ingredients in a tagine-style donabe and let it do the work for you.

Naoko Takei Moore

Equipment: One large tagine-style donabe (12 1/2 inches)

1  1/2 pounds chicken drummettes

1 teaspoon sea salt

3 green onions, halved crosswise (white and green parts)

1 tablespoon thinly sliced peeled fresh ginger

1⁄4 cup shochu (Japanese distilled drink), preferably rice shochu

3 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons raw brown sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons kurozu (Japanese black vinegar) or rice vinegar

4 to 5 green cabbage leaves

Minced chives, for garnish

Ichimi togarashi (Japanese ground chilies), for serving

Season the chicken all over with the salt and allow to marinate for 30 minutes, or cover and refrigerate overnight.

Spread the green onions and ginger in the donabe. Add the chicken and spread out in a single layer. Add the shochu, soy sauce, brown sugar and vinegar over the chicken.

Spread out the cabbage to cover the chicken entirely. Cover with the lid and set over medium-high heat. Cook for 5 minutes. Turn down the heat to medium-low and cook for 25 to 30 minutes longer, or until the sauce has reduced by half or more, stirring occasionally. Turn off the heat and let it rest for 5 to 10 minutes.

Serve in individual bowls at the table and sprinkle with chives and ichimi togarashi.

Kombu and bonito dashi

Makes about 7 cups

This is a basic dashi (stock) that can be used in a wide variety of Japanese dishes. It’s commonly called awase dashi (blend dashi) or ichiban dashi (first dashi). Once you have dried kombu and bonito in your pantry, you can easily make it whenever you need it. I just love the smell of dashi in my kitchen. Freshly made dashi is perfect for a simple clear soup, allowing you to really appreciate its delicate umami taste. I even drink cold dashi straight just to charge me up in warm weather. I have included notes about different variations of dashi making, from more elaborate (longer) versions to shortcuts. So, you can stick to a single way that fits you the best, or you can use different methods in accordance with how rich you want to make your dashi and how much time you have.

You can also adjust the amount of kombu and/or katsuobushi to your preference. Don’t worry too much about the measurement of the ingredients or how long to infuse especially for your everyday cooking! Just make sure to get the high quality ingredients.

Kombu and bonito dashi can keep for a few days in the refrigerator. For convenience, you can make a large batch to use over several days, though there is nothing better than the flavor of freshly made dashi.

Naoko Takei Moore

2 quarts water, low mineral content preferred

Three 4-inch square pieces kombu (edible kelp), about 2/3 ounce

1 ounce katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes)

Combine the water and kombu in a donabe and let the kombu soak for 30 minutes. The kombu will reconstitute and double in size. Set the donabe, uncovered, over medium heat. Just before the broth comes to a simmer (after about 20 to 25 minutes), remove the kombu. Then quickly turn up the heat to bring to a simmer; immediately turn off the heat. Add the katsuobushi all at once.

Wait until the katsuobushi settles in the bottom of the donabe, about 2 minutes. Strain into a bowl through a fine-mesh sieve lined with a double layer of damp cheesecloth or a thin cotton cloth. Let the dashi strain by gravity or press very gently. Do not press hard or squeeze, as doing so will add a slight fishy flavor to the dashi.

For everyday use at home, I actually strain dashi directly through a fine-mesh strainer without lining it with a cloth. It’s less fuss! The residue will settle at the bottom, so when I need to use the very clear dashi, I just scoop gently from the top without stirring it.

Salmon and hijiki rice

Serves 4 to 6 as part of a multicourse meal

I’ve been making this dish for years, and it’s also one of the most popular rice dishes in my cooking class. Because everything is cooked together in a donabe, the salmon releases more flavors as the dish is being cooked (just like making dashi), and hijiki seaweed adds a nice mineral-rich taste.

The preparation starts a day before with the simple process of salt-curing the salmon overnight, but if you have access to a Japanese market, you can use already prepared lightly salted salmon (shio-jake) instead. Once you plate the rice, I like to serve this dish with a generous amount of mixed herbs on top and a good squeeze of lemon. The dish is so refreshing that you can enjoy it like a salad.

Naoko Takei Moore

Equipment: 1 double-lidded donabe rice cooker (3-rice-cup size)

2 1/2 rice cups (2 cups minus 2 tablespoons) short-grain white rice, rinsed

1 2/3 cups kombu and bonito dashi (see separate recipe)

2 tablespoons sake

2 teaspoons usukuchi shoyu (light-colored soy sauce)

2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil

1/10 ounce dried hijiki seaweed, rehydrated (see note below)

7 ounces salt-cured salmon (see separate recipe), cut into 2 to 3 pieces, or store-bought lightly salted salmon (shio-jake)

Mixed chopped herbs and aromatics (such as a handful of daikon sprouts; 1 green onion, white and green parts; and 1 small bunch mitsuba), tossed with a seeded and thinly sliced dried red chili or 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes, for serving

Lemon wedges, for serving

In the donabe, combine the rice with the dashi, sake, usukuchi shoyu, and sesame oil. Let the rice soak for 20 minutes.

Spread the rehydrated hijiki over the rice and lay the salmon on top. Cover with both lids and cook over medium-high heat for 13 to 15 minutes. Turn off the heat and let it rest undisturbed for 20 minutes.

Uncover, peel off the salmon skin (also remove the bones if using store-bought salted salmon), and gently fluff by breaking up the fish with a spatula until all the components are mixed thoroughly. Serve in individual bowls at the table. Top with some mixed chopped herbs, and squeeze lemon to enjoy.

Note: Here are the simple ways to rehydrate dried hijiki. First, soak the hijiki in an ample amount of water in a bowl for about 30 minutes. Make sure you don’t oversoak the hijiki, as it contains rich water-soluble fiber that could be lost, and the texture will become too mushy. Gently transfer the hijiki by hand into a colander, trying to leave most of the gritty stuff behind, finally, rinse thoroughly under running water and drain well.

Salt-cured salmon

Makes about 1 pound

Shio-jake (salt-cured salmon) is such a popular item in Japan that you can find a wide array of it at almost any local grocery store or department store year-round. It’s most typically eaten simply grilled and served with rice, and is a popular filling for onigiri (rice balls), too.

To make Japanese-style grilled salmon, slice the cured fillet into four to six pieces and cook over a stove-top grill or pan-fry until done. You can also roast the whole fillet in the oven for 8 to 10 minutes at 450 degrees and serve family-style. Serve with grated daikon and lemon wedges, if you like.

2 tablespoons sea salt

1 pound skin-on salmon fillet, bones removed

Rub the salt all over both sides of the fillet and wrap with two layers of plastic wrap. Place the salmon on a tray and place another flat-bottomed tray on top of the fish. Place something that weighs 2 to 2.5 pounds on the top tray. Refrigerate for at least 24 and up to 48 hours.

Remove the plastic wrap and wipe off the moisture and salt from the salmon with paper towels. Your cured salmon is ready to cook.

Pork snow balls

Serves 6 to 8 as part of a multicourse meal

These heart dumplings look like shiny snowballs, and they make me feel festive every time I make them. Pork meatballs are covered in sweet rice and steamed until the rice is perfectly sticky and the meat is fluffy. I like it with a tiny dab of yuzu-kosho for accent. Or you can serve them the more classic way, with soy sauce mixed with karashi (Japanese mustard) or ponzu.

Naoko Takei Moore

Equipment: 1 large (3-quart) donabe steamer

1 rice cup (3/4 cup) sweet rice, rinsed

1 tablespoon sake

1/2 teaspoons sea salt

1 pound ground pork

1 large egg

3 medium-size dried shiitake mushrooms, rehydrated, trimmed, and diced small

1/4 cup finely minced yellow or sweet onion

1 small clove garlic, finely grated

1 teaspoon finely grated peeled fresh ginger

2 1/2 tablespoons katakuriko (potato starch)

2 tablespoons sake

1 teaspoon soy sauce

1/4 teaspoon sea salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

Yuzu-kosho (seasoning paste), for serving

In a medium bowl, soak the sweet rice with enough water to cover the rice completely for 2 hours. Drain well and transfer it back to the bowl. Add the sake and salt and mix thoroughly.

To make the pork meatballs: Combine all the ingredients in a bowl. Knead by hand until the mixture is shiny and smooth. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let it rest in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

Divide the pork mixture into 16 portions and shape them into balls (about 1 1/2 inches in diameter) by hand. Dip each ball into the sweet rice and, using your hands, coat it completely with rice. Press down lightly on the rice so that it sticks.

Prepare the donabe according to the basic steaming instructions below, lining the steam grate with one of the suggested liners. Arrange the dumplings on the lining. Cover and steam over upper medium-high heat for about 20 minutes, or until the meat and rice are cooked through. Serve with yuzu-kosho at the table.

Basic steaming

Fill about 70 percent of the donabe body with water.

Set the steam grate in place and cover with the lid. Bring to a boil over medium-high to high heat.

Once the donabe steamer is ready, simply place the ingredients either directly atop the grate or on a plate or a bed of napa cabbage, green leaf lettuce, green cabbage, or bean sprouts. (This will help prevent the ingredients from sticking to the grate without clogging the holes, thus easier cleaning after use, and you can eat the bed, too!) Cover and cook until done.

Other options for holding the ingredients are a bowl, a sheet of parchment paper punched with holes, or a mat of bamboo leaves.