I am used to having the planning of a meal consume my brain for the better part of a day…or days. But this might be the first time I woke up in the middle of the night with an idea as clear as day. This is starting to look a lot more like how my dad ate through life, but decades earlier. It might only be a matter of time before I am actually getting out of bed and trying to concoct said vision at 3 a.m. Lucky for me, I tucked it away, fell back asleep and did not start my obsessing until the next day. And my idea went like this….
We love chawan mushi in this house. It is a silky, delicate egg custard, subtly flavored with dashi- a broth of kombu (seaweed) and katsuobushi (dried, fermented bonito)- which gives it both an umami depth and smokey sweetness. Often there are tiny treasures inside or on top- crab, lobster or the thinnest slivers of roasted shiitake. The idea is to let the custard shine and only provide a few surprise flavors throughout.
I recently borrowed a friend’s Momofuku cookbook where David Chang had taken this broth to a whole different place by substituting smokey bacon for the fish flakes. I made a dish of his that simmers potatoes and clams in the smokey broth and found it to be a lovely twist. And this twist was central in my thinking that night at 3 a.m. I wanted an egg custard with a twist. Something summery and decadent but still dainty. While I thought of what makes that perfect balance of flavors and what might pair nicely with the smokey bacon, I settled on the tomato.
But it had to be just the bare essence of a tomato. And I thought of tomato water. Something I had tasted and read about but never made. I wondered if it would be possible to infuse the smokey bacon into the tomato water using the whole mixture as my dashi. And so was my quest.
I know it is not nearly tomato time, but once an idea is hatched it is hard to beat. So I fetched a few very ripe beautifully ugly heirloom tomatoes from the store. Once home I roughly chopped them, smashed them with a potato masher and tied them in some cheesecloth over a bowl. It would take several hours and some gentle squeezing here and there but I managed to get 2 1/2 cups of deeply flavorful, almost clear liquid out of 2 1/4 pounds tomatoes. I saved the flesh thinking I could make a quick tomato sauce, but I won’t keep you in suspense. They tasted awful- absolutely all the flavor sucked out just like that book Bunnicula I read as a kid. Don’t know it? This bunny was really a vampire and he sucked all the juice out of vegetables. I remember nothing else but it has served its purpose.
Once I had the tomato water I simmered 2 slices (about 3 ounces) of smokey bacon in the juice for about 20 minutes. I strained it and put it in the fridge to separate the fat. I saved the bacon, julienning and browning it for garnish. Once the fat had hardened on the top of the tomato love (truly it was so flavorful I could have just swallowed the juice right then) I scraped it off and strained 1 1/2 cups into a bowl. I whisked in 4 eggs, 1 t. soy sauce a pinch of salt and 1 t. mirin. I then strained it again through a fine mesh strainer into 4 cups and steamed one for about 20 minutes.
Meanwhile I picked some baby arugula leaves and chives from the garden, sliced some cherry tomatoes and eagerly awaited the custard. Sighs and alases, it had curdled a bit. Besides the wonderous flavor of a chawan mushi is the silky texture and the broth that surrounds it. I was feeling pretty glum about what I found but decided to doll it up and try it anyway. I have to say that I really liked the flavor and did not find the texture to be that disastrous, but I knew if this dish was to ever to meet its potential I would have to improve it.
Some quick research turned up a fascinating book I have not yet read called Ideas In Food: Great Recipes and Why They Work. From the excerpt I read it seems the issue could have been cooking it too hot or too long or, more likely, too much acid. Blast! It seems you can use sugar to combat the curdling effect of an acid, but I did not want to add too much as the tomatoes were very sweet on their own. I also thought of maybe using half the tomato liquid mixed with a separate bacon-steeped liquid.
This is not something I am going to tinker with every day and perhaps will even wait until end of summer when we have tomatoes coming out our ears. In the meantime I’ve written the author of said book to see if he has ideas. I still really like the concept and though Ryan thought it was too tangy/tomato-y tasting, it is a known fact he does not cherish tomatoes the way I do and I thought it was just what I was after. Until this issue is solved I will, instead, work on a recipe for turning that luscious tomato/bacon water into a completely kick ass bloody mary.
UPDATE: Alex Talbot, author of Ideas in Food, wrote me back to let me know I could add an extra egg yolk to the mixture to combat the slight curdling. So I suppose I will be back to the drawing board to give it a go.