Hot Pot Where Dreams Are Made Of*
My mother, who lives in Hong Kong, has just been in New York for my wedding. She brought with her a tin of Jinhua cured ham–China’s answer to prosciutto–and a big bag of tip-top dried shiitakes.
Dried shiitakes are nothing like dried porcinis. Porcinis are dried and reconstituted mostly for their flavor, but soaked shiitakes are plump, meaty, delicious in their own right. In fact, I much prefer dried shiitakes to fresh–the drying process concentrates the mushroom’s savoriness in the same way a the sun or a slow oven transforms a tomato, while a long hot bath protects against the sun-dried tomato’s leathery mouthfeel.
These mushrooms, I’ve learned, can vary dramatically in price. The cheaper ones are grown on sawdust and have relatively little flavor; the expensive ones are cultivated on logs and work on your taste buds like nature’s MSG. My mum did not skimp.
So I’ve been nursing myself back to pre-wedding health (hey, this getting-married stuff is hard) by combining the ham and mushrooms in a dish I have just decided I will call, in the tradition of Buddha Jumps Over The Wall (a Cantonese preparation named for its ability to entice monks to abandon their vows of vegetarianism), ”Brodsky Emerges From Under The Couch.” (Brodsky is one of my two rabbits, and he is kind of famous.)
It must be those tantalizing carrot aromas:
There are two basic categories of hot pot. The first is an “interactive” sort: a vat of hot broth into which the diner dunks his raw ingredients, cooking each morsel à la minute. This isn’t that, although I like that, too. In this, the second kind of hot pot, everything goes in at once, and is already more or less cooked when it goes in. The portable stove is only there to (a) keep everything warm, and (b) be fun.
If you don’t already have a hot pot machine, you should buy one. We’ve had one for a year and never tire of it; in fact, we’ve hot-potted three times this week. Ours is a nifty electric thing that we picked up at Fei Long Supermarket in Sunset Park for 50 bucks or so, which I much prefer to the camping stoves some restaurants use, because I have an irrational fear of gas canisters exploding, as well as an actually quite rational fear of the pot getting knocked over in the course of a fishball tussle and melting my face off. (Our pot locks onto the heating base, so you’d have to try quite hard to send it flying.) It’s a marvelous way to entertain, because you don’t really have to cook anything–you just have to slice.
To reproduce this particular hot pot–though, really, this is more of a general method than a firm recipe–you will need:
- dried shiitakes, soaked in hot water until soft and pliable, stems removed and grit cleansed
- a small amount of Jinhua ham, or Virginia ham, or ham hock, or prosciutto
- sliced carrot rounds, which you can cut into little flower shapes if you’re feeling fancy
- fresh tofu and deep-fried tofu puffs (the former is silky; the latter soaks up umami like a sponge)
- good chicken stock, emboldened with some of that mushroom soaking liquid (strained of grit, of course)
- a big fat Napa cabbage, roughly sliced
Assemble all your ingredients in the pot and cover with the chicken stock. Because nothing that goes in this hot pot is raw or cannot be eaten raw, you only really need to bring it to a simmer; the cabbage and carrots will cook in minutes.
You can vary the ingredients, of course, but I don’t recommend putting raw meat into this kind of a hot pot because the soup gets scummy quickly. But fear not: although there’s barely any meat in it and next to no fat, the combined kapow of the shiitakes and cured ham give this simple dish the satisfying, round flavor of Cantonese oyster sauce. Serve with ponzu and/or chili sauce for dipping, and a heap of chopped scallion tops for fragrance, and when all the goodies have been plucked from the pot, ladle the soup over white rice.
It will clear your sinuses, warm your house, delight your friends, and arouse the curiosity, if you have one, of your rabbit.
* An homage to the peculiar syntax of Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ ‘Empire State of Mind,’ a song whose pleasures should really have made it onto the Village Voice’s recent list of fifty euphoria-inspiring features of life as a New Yorker, particularly when it comes on the radio/out of the DJ booth while one is out of town, and one gets to dance and gloat at the same time. But it works just fine in situ, too.