Bites and Pieces: Chawanmushi (or what to do when you have a cook book with ridiculously complicated recipes)

We have a few cookbooks written by chefs. We bought The Figs Table, by Todd English, with some of our wedding money. I haven’t made much from it, though the olive oil & basil emulsion is a lovely addition to many recipes. Pesto without pine nuts. Some years later, a friend of ours gave us a cookbook on ceviche by Guillermo Pernot, the chef of Passión in Philadelphia. Last Christmas, my parents gave us the Bluestem cookbook, by the chef/owners (Colby and Megan Garrelts) of my favorite restaurant in Kansas City. The level of cooking there matches anything I’ve had in NYC/DC/SF.

A frequent problem that arises for me with recipes in such books is a combination of difficult to find ingredients and complicated recipes. Something along the lines of making two cups of basil emulsion of which you will use two tablespoons. That’s great for a menu for which you’ll serve 100 plates. Not so good if you’re left with 1 3/4 cups of basil emulsion. I tend to go out to restaurants where they make something I don’t have the time or skill to make and these cookbooks drive that philosophy home. Tom Sietsema’s recent review of high end steak houses drives that point home. It doesn’t take great skill to cook a great steak. Cassoulet is something else entirely.

Fortunately, there are the occasional gems that you can make at home without tying up your kitchen for a day. Tonight’s offering is one such recipe. It’s a light custard based on dashi stock. Dashi is the basis for miso soup. You can find powdered dashi stock at Asian markets, though the real thing is pretty easy to make. What caught my eye was that I had the ingredients on hand and it looked promising.

Chanwanmusi, hon shimeji, scallion dashi

Heat an oven to 275 degrees.

Dashi stock

1 ounce kombu (dried kelp)

4 cups water

~18 grams bonito flaks

Rinse the kombu under water and cut a few slits into it to release the flavor. Add to the water and bring to a boil. Turn off the heat, remove the kombu, and add the bonito folakes. Let steep for a minute or two until the bonito sinks to the bottom. Strain the stock and set aside. [Note: you can find freeze dried dashi stock and skip this.]

Chawanmushi broth

Combine 2 ½ cups of the dashi with 1 tablespoon of soy sauce, 1 tablespoon of mirin, ½ tsp. of rice wine vinegar, and 3 large eggs. Mix at low speed in a food processor or whisk together. Divide evenly among 4 small bowls and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Place the bowls in a casserole dish with one inch of water. [Note: I was a bit nervous about this, but the plastic won’t burn if you’ve plenty of water.] Put the casserole dish with the bowls of chawanmushi in the oven for about 40 minutes. The custard should be just set—a little jiggly in the middle, but firm overall. This is a light custard, so don’t sweat it.

Meanwhile, slice up a few mushrooms and sauté in sesame oil. Well, or butter, because let’s face it. Butter and mushrooms are a transcendent combination. If there’s anything else you want to use as a garnish, go for it. Combine the remaining dashi with soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, and mirin (about 1 tablespoon of each).

Putting it all together

Take the custards out of the oven. Pour a couple of tablespoons of the spiked dashi over the top, top with the mushrooms (and whatever else you want) and serve. This is a five star dish without that much effort. My guess is that you could get away with using chicken stock in place of the dashi and still have a stunner of a dish.


10 Responses

  1. Thomas Keller in the introduction to his French Laundry book openly admits that his recipes are beyond the ken of most cooks. At that point it all becomes a kind of food porn, beautiful dishes you have no chance of ever having.

    I used to order steak a lot until I read Anthony Bourdain or someone similar say to make the kitchen work for you since anyone can pepper a slab of meat and put it over fire. Since they I try to order the most unique (and yes, there are varying degrees of uniqueness, it’s not exactly like pregnancy) dish or the most exotic protein or the one with the most ingredients.

    The other night at the otherwise mediocre restaurant at our motel I had lobster stuffed haddock. The presentation was wonderful with the haddock wrapped around a lobster stuffing and topped with a sauce. There is no way I would even think of attempting that at home even if I did have the ingredients.


  2. That’s a side benefit of overfishing. Now that all those fish that used to eat lobster are mostly gone, lobster populations have skyrocketed. So, it’s quite affordable. I might pick up some lobsters this week and try grilling them.



  3. WordPress needs a “Like” button. I have nothing to add, but . . . Like!


  4. A comment will more than do.

    I forget if you’re Kentucky or Tennessee based. I had a fun road trip with the kids in June. We stayed overnight in Moorhead, ate at Doodles in Lexington, and then made our way down various parkways to Paducah.



  5. I had a meal last night in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island which sort of illustrates this. It was a bit of a froofy place my wife and found on TripAdvisor as being highly rated but it was nearly empty on a Sunday night.

    The meal I go was their ‘surf and turf’ which was pork belly and sea scallops. Both were well seasoned and cooked, but not overcooked, to perfection. This is not a meal I could have ever done at home.

    It was served with mashed potatoes on the side which were not special in any way put prepared to the exact consistency I like. It’s nice to get a meal where everything in nearly perfect top to bottom.


    • Yellow – PEI. I’m envious. Sounds like they did an interesting take on bacon wrapped scallops. I had pork belly, once at Eat Bar in Arlington. I can’t say as I’d go for it again, but it’s an interesting experience.

      Goose – I’m guessing that’s the NPR piece of the cheddar cheese song. It was pretty fun. The first time I heard God Save the Queen, I realized the brilliance of the colonists converting the national song of England into a patriotic anthem for the nascent USA.



  6. And this really deserves to be in a Bites & Pieces post. Be sure to listen to the songs. . . those wacky Brits!!


  7. Paul: spot on, old chap!


  8. I’m in Tennessee. I’ve never been to Kentucky, despite the fact that’s it’s right there on top. One day . . .


  9. I sympathize, Kevin. We went up to Baltimore, once, for an Orioles game. It is a great stadium. I haven’t been back, though should go.

    I’m in oyster heaven at the moment. There’s a Clyde’s near us, which has access to great oysters and has half price ones for happy hour. Raspberry Point and Watch Hill oysters are among my favorites and both are available right now. At about $1/each, it’s a great deal.



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