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Poslfit Recipes: Fuki to Abura-age no Nimono (蕗と油揚げの煮物)

500 g fuki stalks
two abura-age
360 mL dashi
2 T sugar
1.5 T mirin
2.5 T soy sauce
Fuki (Petasites japonicus) is a plant that looks like rhubarb but is botanically and culinarily unrelated. It grows invasively in my front yard, necessitating frequent harvest. Fortunately, it's yummy. You can harvest the flower buds (take a sharp knife and snap off just low enough that the sepals stay together) from mid-winter until whenever they start to open up in early spring, then chop them and use them as a garnish (yakumi) for miso soup, use the petals intact as bitter greens in salads, or deep fry the whole buds as tempura. For this recipe, you want the petioles (rhubarb-like leaf stalks), which can be eaten through early summer, as long as they're reasonably tender. You can also chop and add tender leaves up to say a foot in diameter (large specimens will grow up to three feet across).
Abura-age is Japanese-style fried tofu. It's thin, chewy, and provides a contrast of flavours and textures, as well as helping to soak up the flavours of the sauce. You can if necessary substitute other fried tofu products (Chinese or Korean). You could try substituting atsu-age (which is caramelized only on the outside), but it won't taste as good because the inner portion won't pick up flavours as well. You cannot use fresh tofu, though you can if you like carefully fry slices of tofu yourself until they're caramelized and chewy on the outside (be sure to squeeze as much water out as you can first, or you'll be spattered with oil). If you really wanted to go fusion, you could also substitute any sort of chewy meat product, like bacon or sausage, though you'd probably need to rethink the sauce in that case.
Dashi is Japanese fish stock. You can either buy it in concentrated form and dilute, make it from dried bonito flakes, or substitute any other mild fish stock. Mirin is Japanese cooking alcohol. You can substitute sake or sherry.
If you're in the Toronto area and would like to grow fuki, please feel free to contact me (John Chew, 416-876-7675). Fuki thrives in full shade and tolerates drought when established, though you do need to water it heavily to keep it edible in May and June.
This page is still under development. I took an untested web recipe that looked reasonable, then asked my mom to point out the mistakes. I don't know if I have time to try it out this season (it's late June, and the fuki in my yard is looking fairly mature); if not, the update will have to wait until May 2007.
Boil the fuki stalks in heavily salted water to remove bitterness, discard the water. If your fuki is harvested later in the season, it will be more bitter and you should do this twice. The online recipe says peel, but I don't think you need to do this at this stage, as the outer skin tends to come off in the next step. Let soak overnight in fresh water to continue the process.
Snap the stalks by hand, and devein with each snap. You want to remove as many of the veins as possible, as they're much tougher than celery veins and not easy to eat. Stop when you get down to 3-4 cm lengths.
Cover the abura-age in water, bring to a boil, then discard the water to remove excess oil left over from the manufacturing process. Slice the abura-age into ribbons about the same size as the fuki.
At this point, you can finish the recipe the easy way (that I found online) or the correct way (that my mom helpfully provided). The easy way is to place all the ingredients in a medium saucepan at this point, bring them to a boil and then simmer until the fuki softens.
The problem with the easy way is that the abura-age will end up being under-seasoned and the fuki over-seasoned. So my mom says to forget the dashi ingredients listed above, eyeball a concentrated dashi with water, kombu powder, katsuobushi (bonito flakes), powdered ginger and mirin or sake. I know she would add other secret ingredients too depending on her mood and what was at hand. Simmer the sliced abura-age in your concentrated dashi until it has a good combination of salty, sweet, tangy and umami flavours. Reserve the abura-age, dilute the dashi to approximately what the original recipe called for by adding water (I'd guess a factor of three or so). Add the fuki. Simmer until it begins to soften, add sugar or other sweetener (honey, maple syrup, brown sugar) to taste. Add shoyu just before removing from heat. For kansai-style, use a richer dashi and salt rather than shoyu, which results in greener (rather than browner) fuki.
The original recipe says this serves four. Not sure how, as it's not something you eat a lot of at a time. I'd serve it as a side dish with rice and fish, as I would any other Japanese vegetable dish. Keeps for a few days in the fridge, reheats well.