the hinata diaries

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Heaven in a bowl of soup

I recently started watching a Japanese anime series titled Yakitate Ja-pan! It's the story of a young Japanese boy, Azuma Kazuma, with a talent for baking, and whose goal is to create a definitive bread for Japan. The series is very much a slapstick comedy, and a running gag features the exaggerated expressions of rapture and astonishment as people sample Azuma's latest inventions.

A bite of Azuma's first creation, soy toast, for example, sends his grandfather surfing stormy seas of miso soup on a board of soy toast, and swashbuckling his way through pools of natto in a fetching Kill Bill outfit.

A later creation, a breakthrough 324-layered croissant (apparently most regular croissants only have 54 layers - I subsequently tried counting my stale Simply Bread croissant and couldn't find more than 30) sees a teary Japanese cosmonaut landing on the moon (croissant-crescent-moon...), and launching said croissant into space while dramatically proclaiming "One small step for the baker, one giant step for the bread world!"

And so on.

I oftened laughed out loud watching these scenes - they were so exaggerated, so ridiculous, so plain fun that you really can't help it.

But either the series is really getting into my head, or there's some truth to these crazy scenes, cos last night, when I tried Neil Perry's Scallops with Sage and Burnt Butter in Pea Soup, I swear the universe stood still for a moment and fireworks exploded overhead.

In The Food I Love, Neil Perry's recipe for Cream of Pea Soup is footnoted with the statement:

"This soup makes a magical sauce for barbecued seafood and meat. Pan-fry scallops with sage and burnt butter, pour some pea soup into a bowl, add the scallops and then pour the burnt butter over - sigh, heaven!"

The man wasn't kidding.

I'd first tried the pea soup on Sunday afternoon, and served it with sliced fillet steak as the main course of a light Sunday brunch. A combination of peas, romaine lettuce, chicken stock, leeks and shallots, it was homey, tasty, simple and yet sophisticated, and the visual contrast between the bright green soup and the pink fillet steak made for a pretty picture.

Fortunately, we had lots of leftover soup by virtue of using it more as sauce than as soup, so yesterday evening seemed a perfect opportunity to try out the lauded scallop recipe.

And it turned out to be in a class of its own, quite simply one of the most fantastic things I've ever tasted, period. This can definitely be attributed to the amazing combination of ingredients, cos goodness knows it's also one of the quickest and most foolproof recipes ever (think about it - you're supposed to burn the butter, it's like free license to muck up as you please!). You pan-fry the scallops in a bit of butter, remove and plonk in the soup. You then continue frying the butter, adding more as necessary, and toss in some sage leaves. Fry the leaves till they're crispy, and then pour the lot over your soup and scallops. I ended up with the rough ratio of 1 scoop of soup: 2 scallops: 4 sage leaves: 2 tablespoons of burnt butter per bowl, which seemed pretty optimal.

The one big surprise that came out of this dish (aside from the metaphysical experience of course) was just how good sage tastes. I'd been pretty prepared to fish out the sage leaves and put them aside (I'm a big picker of food), but figured out I'd try just one in the name of culinary due diligence. I ended up gobbling all the rest. Those leaves taste pretty damn good - sharp and peppery, kinda like a cross between Thai basil and curry leaves. The taste and scent of the leaves blended very quickly with the butter, and resulted in a luxurious, caramel-coloured drizzle that elevated the humble soup into something really divine.

With this dish, words can only convey so much, so I'll stop here. Please try this when you can, and let me know what weird and wonderful world it transports you to ;)


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