Hot-Stone Fish Stew

Ko Karei no Ishi Yaki Nabé

I first sampled this unusual dish at a traditional inn in Wajima, a city at the tip of the Noto Peninsula, which juts dramatically out into the Sea of Japan. Wajima is known for its exquisite lacquerware, and many of the plates used in serving the meal that day were lacquered wood.

But this grand bubbling pot was quite different. A huge sturdy ceramic bowl was brought to the table, filled with lightly grilled miniature sand dabs, slivers of daikon radish, bunches of bright green nanohana (a vegetable resembling broccoli rabe), and a scattering of brightly colored edible flowers in a miso-thickened broth. The chef proceeded to bury white-hot rocks in the broth, and immediately the stew began to bubble! Not only was the dish spectacular to behold, but the melding of flavors and textures was truly memorable.

Ingredients

  • 8 small sand dabs, about 3½-4 ounces each, or 2 halibut steaks, about 6 ounces each
  • 1 tablespoon saké (Japanese rice wine)
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon vegetable oil, optional
  • 6-8 ounces daikon (Japanese white radish)
  • 1 large bunch broccoli rabe, about 5 ounces

Broth

  • 20 square inches dashi kombu (kelp for stock making)
  • 6 cups cold water
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon mirin (syrupy rice wine)
  • ¼ cup shiro miso (light fermented bean paste)
  • 8 edible flowers (squash blossoms are particularly pretty)
  • 3-4 clean smooth stones, each about 2 inches in diameter

Method

  1. Scrape the scales off each sand dab; slit each belly open and clean it, but leave the head and tail intact. Rinse the fish and pat them dry. Moisten the fish with the rice wine, then sprinkle them with the salt.
  2. You can either broil or grill the sand dabs. For a crisper texture, or if you think they might stick to an outdoor grill, dip a pastry brush in vegetable oil and lightly paint the sand dabs before broiling or grilling. Two minutes on each side should be sufficient to barely cook the fish and attractively char the surface. (This can be done several hours ahead, even the previous day, and refrigerated.)
  3. If you are using halibut, cut each steak in half, then moisten them with the rice wine, sprinkle with salt, and broil.
  4. Peel the radish, then cut it into 1½- to 2-inch-long sticks, each the thickness of a pencil.
  5. Rinse and trim the broccoli rabe. Cut the stems into 1-inch lengths. Bring a pot of water to a rolling boil, add the broccoli rabe, and remove the pot from the heat. Stir, then drain immediately. Allow the rabe to cool to room temperature naturally. (This may be done hours ahead.)
  6. Make the broth: Place the kelp in a pot with the cold water, and bring it to a rapid boil over high heat. Remove the pot from the heat, season the broth with the soy sauce and syrupy rice wine, then whisk the bean paste into the broth. Discard the kelp, and strain the broth into a 2-quart container. (This broth can be made several hours ahead, even the day before, and refrigerated.)
  7. Fill the casserole: Alternate radish sticks and bunches of broccoli rabe on the bottom, then lay the lightly broiled or grilled fish over the vegetables. Just before bringing the casserole to the table, pour the broth over the fish and vegetables, and scatter the flowers over all.
  8. Heat the stones in a barbecue, outdoor pit, or even a home oven. It should take no more than 30 to 40 minutes at 500 degrees to make the stones hot enough to “cook” the stew.
  9. Bring the hot stones to the table and add them to the broth with tongs. The broth will begin to bubble and steam immediately. Allow the stones to cook the stew for 4-5 minutes before dishing out the fish and vegetables moistened with broth. The leftover broth makes a delightful soup that the Japanese eat with white rice and pickled vegetables.

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