Thursday, November 2, 2017

Double Pleasure, Miso Soup with Nameko Mushrooms

by Mary Ellen Kozak

My early memory of Miso Soup brings me to Madison, Wisconsin where I attended University. It was 1980, it was November, dark and cold. I have one very clear, happy memory though, and it was walking over unshoveled ice and snow into a little restaurant on my way home via State Street. It was a tiny place called "Living Waters", and all things on the menu were macrobiotic (aka the Pursuit of Hippiness). My sister who was in graduate school and following the Macrobiotic Diet at the time, would meet me there. So would my future husband, Joe, who proudly followed a different kind of "macro" diet. We would sit in the warm glow of the yellow painted walls on some wooden benches. The place was always empty but warm, and the food was welcoming and nourishing. The Miso Soup was hot and was served with a thick piece of sprouted wheat toast slathered in a corn oil concoction. Joe would disappear for a moment and return to our table with a greasy paper bag, out from which would slide a glistening gyro from the Greek place next door. With his back to the ordering counter he would feast, fingers glistening with cucumber sauce and meat fat. Hence was coined the secret code for the meeting place: "Troubled Waters". Whenever I think of Miso Soup I remember this time; the cold, the studying, but mostly those happy moments spent with a bowl of soup, family, and a few good laughs. Yin Yang. Double pleasure indeed.

Remembering Troubled Waters Miso Soup

Decades later, after eating Miso Soup in Japan and trying to make the authentic version here at home, I've settled on the simplest of all versions which is reminiscent of my first "Troubled Waters" bowl. It is made with a quick make-ahead vegetable broth and stored in the refrigerator. If you have on hand tubs of blanched or lightly steamed fresh vegetables, cubed tofu and a container of miso paste, you can make this soup in a few minutes. Having Nameko available to include in the soup is simply a gift. Only those who are fortunate enough to get Nameko really fresh can experience the pleasure of this very special addition.

If you've never had Miso Soup, the earthy taste of just miso can be unfamiliar with its almost yeasty tang. Hang on though, it is the addition of bright fresh vegetables and the other little nuggets of interest to the palate that are key to loving this soup. You can make this with whatever you have on hand or as the season dictates. Shiitake mushrooms are delightful in Miso Soup. Carrot strips, snow peas, Asian greens or spinach, nuggets of cooked, chewy short grain brown rice or clear glass noodles; all create a feeling of well-being and interest when a steaming bowl of this soup is presented to the lucky diner. Nameko mushrooms simmer for just a short time in the broth before serving so that the mushrooms maintain their glassy claret color and fruity taste. Best of all the texture is silky on the tongue, but crunchy between the teeth. The mushrooms are like little amber jewels bobbing in a rich translucent broth. You can even make this soup with a cup of hot water and one tablespoon of miso paste, and pour over your add-ins (warm them up first though). Just make sure you do not boil once you've added the miso paste. I find the miso-based broth is a little too strongly "miso," so I prefer to cut back the miso paste to 2 tsp. per cup and substitute the water with the flavorful broth, below.

Cold weather loving Nameko. Harvest early for use in Miso Soup!

1 bunch of scallions, chopped, use all parts
1 chopped carrot
1 4-inch piece of dried kombu (strip of kelp found in the Asian section at most large grocery stores)
1/4 c soy sauce
2 T mirin or rice wine
8 c cold water
1 tsp sugar and 1 tsp salt, to taste

Combine all ingredients, bring to a near boil and lower the heat for about 30 minutes. Adjust broth with more salt at the end of the cook time, but go lightly, as the miso you'll be adding is also salty. Strain and keep the broth refrigerated, about 1 week. Let the kombu dry out after you use it, as you can reuse it another time or two.

The Soup:
Vegetables: prepare vegetables ahead; shredded carrot, torn greens, blanched filet beans; tiny cubes of cooked winter squash; whatever vegetable is in season and can be blanched or steamed to maintain color and crunch.

Miso paste: 2-3 tsp per cup of broth (many varieties available, start with the mild white miso if you are new to the flavor and go from there. Kept in the refrigerator, the paste will keep for a long time).

Protein add-ins: cubed tofu; either sauteed or baked until browned beforehand (or not), panko crumb coated fried shrimp, skewered and served across the top of the bowl is very special.

Pre-cooked soba, udon or glass noodles, cooked short grain brown rice, or none!

Nameko mushrooms, rinsed to get rid of any bits of bark or soil. Nameko harvested early in the fall after a cool spell can occasionally have some insect problems, especially if harvested when the caps are open. Parboiling these briefly and rinsing before adding to the soup will take care of the problem.

Heat a cup of broth per serving, taking a few tablespoons from it as it heats to smooth out the miso paste. When the stock is hot, add as many Nameko mushrooms as you like at this time (just a few per cup of soup is usually enough, but add more if you have them)! Simmer for at least 5-10 minutes (be careful not to boil) to cook the mushrooms through. Add the miso paste/broth mixture, and simmer for another minute or so. Add 1/2 c vegetables and tofu per cup of broth. Serve.

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