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This Japanese Sauce Will Reignite Your Love of Vegetables

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When you’re in a committed, long-term relationship, it’s natural for things to grow old. There'll be aspects you tire of, pet peeves you can’t kick.

I’m talking about me and broccoli rabe, but you likely deal with a similar situation (kale, perhaps?). I buy rabe every week for its mineral undertones and bitter brace, but also because it lasts a while in the fridge. I can then spend many days thinking about how I want to eat it this week so that it’s not like how I ate it last week (blanched then sautéed with olive oil, chile, and garlic). I’m not sick of broccoli rabe—I’m sick of the one way I like to cook it.

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Broccoli Rabe Goma-ae
Broccoli Rabe Goma-ae

Our love was recently rekindled, though, one night at a chic, candlelit, secret Brooklyn bar called Karasu. They served broccoli rabe goma-ae. My beloved was hardly recognizable: Cold, in an acid-sweet soy dressing, a nutty coating of cracked sesame seeds, and with a river of another, creamier miso dressing over top. And while spinach goma-ae, which means "dressed in sesame sauce," is fairly common in Japanese restaurants and home kitchens, Yael Peet, one of the chefs at Karasu, said they hadn't seen rabe goma-ae until their own.

“Goma-ae is usually made with toasted sesame seeds that are ground in a suribachi (a Japanese mortar that has grooves) until the seeds begin to release their oils but aren't quite paste,” Miyoko Schinner, a prolific vegan chef and author who also runs an artisan vegan cheese company, told me. “It's then combined with soy sauce, sugar, mirin or sake, maybe some dashi.”

Japanese Mortar and Pestle

Japanese Mortar and Pestle

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Natural Stone Mortar & Pestle

Natural Stone Mortar & Pestle

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When coated in the concentrated dressing, a blanched, hum-drum vegetable like spinach (or broccoli rabe) takes on a pungent, addictive sheath. That it’s eaten cold or at room temperature and gets better with time means it’s asking to be your to-go lunch or part of your make-ahead dinner.

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Where else could you put this sesame stuff? Any blanched greens are fair game—spinach and komatsuna are most typical, but turnip greens, kale, green beans? Sure! Miyoko also suggests it drizzled on fried or grilled eggplant or tofu. Roasted carrots or squash or broiled cabbage would also be great.

Turnip Green Gomae

Turnip Green Gomae by Fairmount_market

Broccoli Rabe Goma-ae

Broccoli Rabe Goma-ae by Ali Slagle

In Practical Japanese Cooking by Shizuo Tsuji and Koichiro Hata (the original, 1986 edition of which has an endorsement from MFK Fisher—"Tsuji and Hata have given us best of the old and the new”!), the authors suggest putting the sauce on broccoli, corn, or endive—and using cashews or macadamia nuts in place of sesame seeds. Some recipes floating around call for tahini in place of sesame seeds, but don’t do that please—you’ll lose the crackly-crispy seed coating and the lightness of the dressing.

So the next time you gaze upon your most adored vegetable and say, what am I gonna do with you?, look to the special sauce.

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Broccoli Rabe Goma-ae

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Serves 4 as a side
  • 1 bunch broccoli rabe
  • 3 tablespoons sesame seeds
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons mirin
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
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Tell us: What vegetable to you grab every time you're at the market?