It is true that the art of making any kind of stew begins with patience. The perfect mix of seasonings and liquids takes time to get an irresistible flavor. A stew that is done too quickly will miss the opportunity for its best flavor and may give you a tough meat if you decide to use it as an ingredient.
Nimono is not for the faint of heart. This Japanese dish is a stew that has been simmered in dashi or an Asian stock made with sake, soy sauce, mirin, sugar, and salt. Every cook has a ratio of ingredients that works well based on personal taste, but here is how I tried to match the nimono approach to create a southern counterpart.
What In the Dashi is in the Stew Sauce?
Of course, my first tendency is to go with the base used for making Brunswick stew. This traditional sweet and mildly spicy dish uses tomatoes as a base and adds garlic, onions, butter, Worcestershire sauce, brown sugar, black pepper and chicken stock. Southern stews are usually made for an entire neighborhood or extended family, so they are often prepared in a large outdoor kettle. The nature of making this meal almost ensures that the ingredients will be cooked to tiny morsels.
Kentucky burgoo also uses Worcestershire sauce, but the two major requirements are that you should use more than one kind of meat and that you add some of the best bourbons to the mix. Like Brunswick stew, burgoo also is cooked outside over an open pit by many of the best cooks.
Chicken mull is a favorite stew dish from the Carolinas and Georgia and uses a whole chicken as a key ingredient. As with Brunswick stew, all the ingredients boil down to shreds, but the broth is thin and buttery. Some versions add milk and eat this stew with saltine crackers and a pulled meat sandwich on a hamburger bun.
If I were to combine one of these stews with the techniques used to make Nimono, I would choose the chicken mull because it is the thinnest broth and easy to modify. I would definitely add mushrooms, shredded carrots, and green peas as ingredients. My dashi would be made with butter, white wine or some southern homemade variation, soy sauce, and mirin. Its the American South meets Japan in a simmered dish.
The Southern Significance of the Simmered Dish
There is something deeply southern about simmering. Perhaps it is the way the pot keeps all the ingredients of your stew just below the boiling point and makes you wait for the goodness that is sure to come when it is all done. Simmering is a gentle, relaxed gesture, much like the overall etiquette and human exchange that drives southern culture. The simmered dish in this U.S. region gets much respect because everyone believes that one of the ingredients is a whole lot of love.
There are many southern cooks and chefs who will literally tell you that love is the first ingredient, in their true dashi if you ask them how they made a stew. This cooking method takes on a new power when it is used for greens. The slow simmer of greens is an art form. Every cook has his or her own ideas about how to get leafy green vegetables tender and slightly sweet.
The resulting dishes are the nimono of the south. Not only does the process yield delicious greens, but it also yields liquid, called pot liquor, that is nutritious and just as coveted as the greens. This liquid delicacy is used for dipping cornbread, biscuits or other bread. Some just place it in a cup and drink it like an elixir.
What to Stew for Down South Nimono?
Although many people do not think of cabbage as a simmered dish, it is one that is best prepared by simmering. I tend to cut the head of cabbage into thin strips, saute it in olive oil and a small bit of butter, add seasonings and then add chicken or vegetable stock and let it simmer until tender. My dishes often do not contain cabbage alone. I add garlic, green peppers, shredded carrots and red peppers.
When I am feeling festive, I add curry powder rather than red pepper flakes to give it a little spiciness. Some cooks add a splash of vinegar or lemon juice to minimize the smell that cabbage can leave in the house. My family likes the smell. The juice is a luxurious dashi that can be mixed with rice or potatoes.
If you are looking for something a little more hearty for a southern style nimono, I am going to suggest lamb. It is sometimes served slightly rare, and often baked or broiled, but it can be cut into smaller pieces and stewed. I love the taste of it after an olive oil, garlic, salt, pepper, rosemary, cayenne, red wine and coriander marinade. If you are making a stew, it is best to let the meat marinate and then simmer in its dashi-like liquid for at least 6 hours.
Most people add peas, carrots, and potatoes to thicken the stew, and this makes it hearty and delicious. I also love to eat lamb with roasted butternut squash. I cut the squash into half medallions then coat them generously with an olive oil, salt, and lemon juice splash mixture. Bake them at 350 degrees until tender. Make a garlic, parsley and honey sauce to drizzle over the squash when it is done.
Nimono techniques as a practice are to be respected for the amount of patience it takes to get to the final dish. A delicious dashi for the simmer ensures a delicious stew that is usually light and filling. The simmered dish can lose its meaning in a fast-paced world. What always brings us back to it, though, is remembering that it is created with respectable waiting and a whole lot of love.