Japanese New Year mochi soup is a simple, comforting soup traditionally served on January 1st to kick off the new year. There are two main types; both include a dashi base, a variety of vegetables and mochi, which is associated with luck and long life in Japan. In the Kanto (Tokyo/eastern Japan) version, the broth is clear and pieces of chicken are added. In the Kansai (Osaka/western Japan) version, white miso is stirred in. This is the Kanto version. I prefer to cook the chicken separately in order to keep the broth free of fat and impurities, but it does involve an extra pan. If you’d rather simmer the chicken in the broth, marinate the chicken in the sake and salt for about an hour beforehand. Komatsuna (also known as Japanese mustard spinach) is traditional in ozoni but can be hard to find so spinach is a good substitute. You can also swap in other vegetables. Some popular choices include mitsuba, burdock root and lotus root. (Note: Be careful when you eat the mochi. It is very glutinous and sticky, so avoid big bites and chew it thoroughly.)
Preheat a toaster oven (or regular oven) to 450 degrees F.
Place the mochi on a small baking sheet, spacing the pieces at least 2 inches apart, and bake until lightly golden and puffed up, about 12 minutes.
Meanwhile, bring a medium saucepan of water to a boil and prepare a large bowl of ice water. Add the spinach to the boiling water and cook just until wilted, about 1 minute. Using a spider or tongs, transfer the spinach to the ice bath just until cooled, then drain. Squeeze any excess liquid from the spinach. Form into a tight “log” about 5 inches long, then cut crosswise into 4 equal pieces and set aside.
Combine the chicken, 2 tablespoons of the sake and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a very small saucepan. Add 3/4 cup water (or enough to just cover the chicken). Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat and gently simmer, stirring once or twice, until the chicken is just cooked through, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.
Meanwhile, bring the dashi to a simmer in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the daikon, shiitakes and carrot and cook until the vegetables are tender, about 4 minutes. Stir in the soy sauce, remaining 1 tablespoon sake and 1 teaspoon salt. Taste and adjust the seasonings if necessary.
Drain the chicken and divide it among 4 soup bowls (preferably narrow and deep). Place a piece of mochi and fish cake, if using, in each bowl. Top with the broth and vegetables, followed by a parcel of spinach. Sprinkle with yuzu or lemon zest, if using, and serve.
Combine the kombu and 6 cups cold water in a medium saucepan and let sit for about 30 minutes. (You can skip this step if you’re short on time, but it does lend a little extra flavor.) Heat over medium heat just until the water comes to a near boil, but doesn’t actually boil, about 5 minutes. Discard the kombu.
Scatter the katsuobushi evenly over the water, bring to a boil over high heat, then immediately remove from the heat. Let steep, undisturbed, for about 10 minutes.
Pour the dashi through a fine-mesh strainer into a bowl or quart-size measuring cup. Do not press down on the katsuobushi, which can make the dashi cloudy and/or bitter.
Dashi is best used the day it is made but can be cooled and refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days. Makes about 5 cups
If you like, follow Japanese custom and cut the carrot and daikon into pretty flower petal shapes using a cookie cutter, channel knife or paring knife. (You can find demos online.)
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