From time to time I plan to write about some of the basic ingredients which are fundamental to our cooking, such as salt, oils, sea vegetables, vinegar, whole grains, and beginning today with miso. For me, miso is one of humankind’s great culinary inventions, and one of the reasons I respect the genius of Japanese culture so much.
WHAT IS MISO? Simply stated natural miso consists of soy beans which have been cooked, mixed with koji mold spores and salt and allowed to ferment, usually along with rice or barley. Aged six months to as long as three years, the resulting product is generally a smooth, thick paste in consistency and can be anything from deep, dark brown to a creamy, pale yellow in color. Find it, usually in plastic containers, in the refrigerator section of your natural or Asian food store.
WHY WE LIKE MISO The slightly alkalizing effects of a bowl of miso soup is a great alternative to coffee as a morning pick me up, and to me miso just tastes good. As a fermented food containing lactobacillus, it is easier to digest than simply cooked beans. Miso is 12-13% protein, only 5% (unsaturated) fat, and about 27 calories per tablespoon. If you are worried about salt intake, consider miso a form of salt, but also remember that miso is only about 12% salt, and conveys a much fuller, more complex flavor than salt. Substituting miso for salt could help you reduce your salt intake while still leaving you with a lot of flavor.
HOW WE COOK WITH MISO Another great quality of miso is that it will keep almost indefinitely in your refrigerator and is really simple to use. Want a an easy recipe? Dissolve one or two teaspoons (quantity to taste) of miso in a cup of very hot water, stir, enjoy. If you plan to cook with miso frequently, I’d suggest having several kinds on hand. The three shown above would be a good place to start. Generally, lighter misos are sweeter, less salty and aged for a shorter time than the darker misos. The red and white misos above are both rice misos, the center one is a barley miso, saltier and stronger tasting. When making soup, I’d suggest using the darker misos to provide more depth of flavor, while the light miso lends a creamy sweetness to the surface. Put the miso in a small, wire mesh strainer, dip this into the soup, and push the miso through to easily dissolve it into the liquid. Add small amounts of the different misos, taste. Stop when you’re really happy with the result. You may find yourself using dark miso more in cooler weather, light miso more in warmer weather. Most of the soups I make, even if they’re not called miso soup, do have miso as a background ingredient and I also use it in gravies, sauces and salad dressings. If you are still curious about miso, you can’t do better than to consult “The Book Of Miso” by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi, originally published in the 1970’s and an absolute classic.
CORNELLIA AIHARA’S TOFU-SCALLION MISO SOUP
From “The Calendar Cookbook” (no longer in print, but used copies are available on Amazon)
3 scallions, cut 1/4 inch koguchigiri (straight across in small rounds)
1/4 block tofu, cut in 1/2-inch cubes
3 tablespoons barley or white rice miso
5 cups water
Dilute miso in 1/2 cup water.
Bring 5 cups water to a boil and add the scallions and tofu. Bring to a boil again, then reduce the heat until the stock is boiling slightly. Then add the softened miso.
Miso soup should not be boiled since the high temperature ruins the flavor and the nutrients. For this reason the miso is added last. After the miso has been added, the soup is ready to serve.
GARY’S MISO TAHINI SPREAD (OR SAUCE)
Made thicker this is an addictive spread for bread or crackers, thinned it becomes an equally delicious and versatile sauce for grains or vegetables.
1 1/2 cups tahini (lightly roasted, ground sesame seed paste)
2-3 tablespoons barley miso
2 teaspoons dried Italian herbs
1 or 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 tablespoon fresh parsley or green onions, minced (optional)
Stirring constantly, roast tahini and herbs in a cast iron or other thick-bottomed pan over medium heat until the tahini smells fragrant and slightly browns on the bottom. Combine roasted tahini and remaining ingredients in a food processor and puree, adding water to create a smooth, creamy consistency. For sauce, thin with additional water and check seasoning as you may need to add a little more miso or soy sauce. To use as a spread, serve at room temperature or slightly chilled. For sauce, reheat gently at low heat. Too high a heat may cause the sauce to separate. Refrigerated leftovers will keep 5-7 days. Yields about 2 cups.