Wednesday, March 25, 2009

miso madness

Whenever I feel sick, whether it be a stomach bug accompanied by nausea, or a head cold where I'm all stuffed up, my first instinct is to make some miso soup.

I'm not Japanese, but I was raised by parents who were into food counterculture, which at the time meant whole-wheat bread, lentils and rice, and home-made yogurt and sprouts. It also meant tofu and miso, foods that in the early 1980s in rural Cape Breton were firmly in the territory of the "back to the land-ers" like my family. There are photos of me on my second birthday, merrily covering myself with tofu chocolate pudding, a treat which to this day I still love smearing all over my face. I mean, eating.

Miso soup is delightfully simple, light on the palate, delicate and still, somehow, earthy. When you're stirring the pot, depending on what you've put in, it feels like you're stirring "beach brew" - that sandy soup that kids make from seaweed and other bits they've found on the shoreline.

I use a recipe from an early Moosewood cookbook, New Recipes From Moosewood Restaurant, copyright 1987, The Moosewood Collective, published by Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, California. This book is stained and dog-eared, just as any treasured family cookbook ought to be. On page ten, "Miso Broth," they write,

This recipe is for a basic miso broth, a stable of Japanese cuisine. Miso Soup is simple and nutritious and is especially satisfying during the depths of winter, when it can warm you from the inside out. Move over, chicken soup!

Like their recipe, I start off with six cups of water in a soup pot. I add two tablespoons of tamari (soy sauce - but use the good stuff) and bring it to a simmer. Then I add my chopped veggies, which can be (but are not limited to) onions, carrots, peas, chopped spinach or lamb's quarters, and dulse. Also, I strongly recommend the two tablespoons of grated ginger they call for. It doesn't overpower the finished soup, but adds a delightful fragrance.

You'll want to chop your veggies small, unless you're a "chunky vegetable" person. Something about the delicacy of miso calls for thinly sliced onions and carrots.

Add the veggies, then bring to a simmer, and leave it there for 30 minutes or so, until the vegetables are cooked and tender.

Then it's time to add the miso paste. Miso, as far as I can tell, can be bought in just about any big supermarket these days, but is also still available from Asian grocers and health food stores. There will also be a variety of types, from soybean to barley to rice miso such as the one in my photo above. I'm not a connoisseur and so far I don't have a preference. It's all good to me!

Take two tablespoons of the miso and put it in a cup, like my green one. Add a little of the heated broth, and stir until the paste is dissolved. Then add a little more, until the mixture in the cup is totally liquid. Then add this back into the soup pot, and stir it all around to get rid of any lumps. After this point, you don't want the soup to come to a boil, or else you'll kill off the digestion-aiding enzymes in the miso, but you can still simmer the soup, to re-heat it.

When serving, I often open up a can of sockeye salmon and add some pieces to my bowl, then pour the soup over it. You can also add the salmon, or some tofu, or whatever else you prefer, during the cooking phase. The cookbook also suggests serving with a handful of toasted sesame seeds and a few drops of "dark sesame oil for its wonderful fragrance."

Because we have a room off the house where things stay cool, I put leftovers still in the soup pot out on the back porch, in winter at least. In summer I put leftovers in jars in the fridge.

In Japanese culture, people eat miso for breakfast! While I'm pretty hooked on my morning porridge, I might give it a try sometime. For now, though, I'll stick with eating it for lunch and supper. I hope you try it too!

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