The temperature? Just above freezing -- in the sun. Wind? High. Perceived weather: Arctic. But the calendar said that spring would arrive in 24 hours, and the farmers' market was on message: one stand offered a harbinger of the coming season: young spring alliums, specifically garlic and shallots, with their bulbs barely formed and their greens bright and eminently edible. Think scallions, but thinner and with different flavors.
I'd never seen spring shallots before, only garlic and onions, so I grabbed two bunches of them and strolled through the market with some sort of stir-fry on my mind. Shiitake mushrooms, grown locally, leapt to the eye, and so did a Long Island fish I don't see every day: silver dory, a deep-water cousin of the excellent john dory with glistening, almost metallic skin.
On the way home, with that stir-fry in mind, I tried to think of a set of flavors that would push the ingredients into Chinese mode. But I kept returning to those shiitakes and what a good addition to quick Japanese-type stocks -- dashi -- their stems are, and by the time I crossed the threshold I had dropped the idea of cleaving to any particular cuisine: I'd just aim for deliciousness with an Asian inflection.
I started with a non-traditional dashi: I put some dried kombu seaweed in three cups of cold water to soak for five minutes. Meanwhile, I cut the stems from about six ounces of fresh shiitakes and sliced them (the stems) thin. I added these to the kombu along with some sliced ginger, a small clove of garlic, lightly crushed and salt. I brought it slowly to the boil, then turned off the heat and strained the broth.
For another source of deliciousness -- umami -- I added a tablespoon of ishiri (fermented squid sauce), which Jackie and I got to like at an Italianate restaurant in Japan, to about three tablespoons of soy sauce and set this aside.
I cleaned the spring shallots under running water, stripping away the outer layer and cutting off the roots, then cut them into two-inch lengths, greens and all. I cut the shiitake caps into 1/8-inch slices and minced about 3/4 inch of ginger root. Finally, I cut each of three small dory filets (totaling about 14 ounces) into three or four pieces, depending on size. As all this was happening I made a pot of plain Thai jasmine rice and left it, covered, to stay warm until dinner.
As usual with stir fries, the actual cooking took no time (which is why I made sure the rice was ready). I lightly sautéed half of the ginger in neutral oil then added the shiitakes. When they began to soften I added a quarter cup of dashi, covered the skillet and simmered until the mushrooms were done -- just a couple of minutes. I transferred them to the dish on which dinner would be served and kept them warm in a 150-degree F oven. I repeated that with the spring shallots; when they were just about tender I added a couple of tablespoons of soy-ishiri mixture and let it reduce a little before putting the shiitakes back into the skillet and stirring to combine. After tasting, I added more soy-ishiri and a few drops of toasted sesame oil and returned the mixture to the serving platter in the oven.
I lightly salted the fish and, in the same skillet, cursorily cleaned and with a thin slick of oil, I cooked it, skin-side down, for a couple of minutes, then turned it and added a little dashi and soy-ishiri. When the liquid had reduced to a near glaze, the fish was done -- think of it as having been braised -- and I slid it out onto the bed of vegetables.
The tender shallots, which had seemed quite aggressively oniony when I was cleaning them, softened in flavor as they cooked: they retained their identity, but gained a freshness and slight sweetness that mated well with all those umami-rich ingredients. The fish could possibly have been nothing more than an afterthought, but since it had been cooked with the same seasonings it was integrated into the dish -- as though everything had been stir-fried together (which would in fact have been a train wreck).
Spring weather remains a fantasy here in the North-East, but those early alliums in the market made it seem a fantasy that just could become reality. Some day.