Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Miso soup, my way

Miso soup: comforting; warm; and importantly - cheap.

A simple cup of miso soup and a conbini onigiri is probably the cheapest (and perhaps healthiest) lunch you can grab on the run in Japan. Miso soup is usually made with dashi (fish stock), miso, and something else - maybe a bit of wakame (seaweed) or negi (Japanese leek - my favourite), or sometimes tofu or clams. In Washoku, the author gives a recipe for dark miso soup with sweet potatoes. Two weeks ago or so, I bought an admirably large specimen - sweet potatoes in Japan can feed a family of four, if need be. Then I did some stuff, and some other stuff happened, and I got a bad cold, and I didn't cook much, I just lay around the apartment and survived on chocolate chip melonpans. (Colds respond nicely to chocolate chip melonpans - they don't cure you, but they make you feel better about things) And the sweet potato waited patiently for me, in the bottom of my cupboard. When I finally felt better, I opened up my cupboard, and took it out, with every intention of following the recipe in Washoku.

But all that non-cooking had gotten to me, and I felt the need to mess around with stuff, so I came up with my own recipe, inspired by that one. I call it "My Way Sweet Potato Miso Soup", because I'm sure if I fed this to a Japanese person, they'd be surprised. You don't want to mess around with miso soup on a Japanese person, it's upsetting to them. It's like, if you were making a peanut butter sandwich for a kid, and you went and added - I don't know - slices of chocolate cake. Or brownie chunks. You know, they'd eat it, and they'd definitely enjoy it. They might even ask for another one. But you'd be hard pressed to get that kid into agreeing it was a peanut butter sandwich.

So here it is. I had some small-batch miso (hatcho and aka) from a small soybean shop in Takayama that had a nice depth of flavour. But if you have regular miso on hand, that's fine too. Don't worry about it too much. I also had some chili oil made from Takayama chilis and some of the shichimi togarashi I got there, as well, that I used as a garnish.

My home-made chili oil:
My Way Sweet Potato Miso Soup

4 cups sweet potato, diced
4 cups dashi (or meat stock)
1 Japanese Leek (negi) thinly sliced, or three green onions
4 tbsp. miso (I used two hatcho; two aka)
3 tbsp. sesame oil
2 tbsp. mirin (or a few pinches of sugar at the end)
1 tbsp. soy sauce (use the good stuff, please - no V-1!)

Peel and cube your sweet potato. In Japan, they're yellow inside, and susceptible to discoloration, but the orange ones available in Canada should be fine. In a big soup-making pot, heat the sesame oil, then saute the negi in the oil until they go limp. Add the miso, and cook it stirring to prevent burning for another three minutes or so. Add the mirin and soy sauce, and a little sake if you have it on hand. Toss in the sweet potato, and stir it around to coat it in the miso mixture. Let this cook for a few minutes, just to get the miso flavour into the potato a little. Then add your dashi, and lower the heat. Cover the pot, and let the soup simmer until the potatoes are soft all the way through. Then blend it smooth with a food mill or immersion blender or similar. Or don't - just mash the potato up a bit with a fork to thicken the soup.

I garnished my soup with sprinkles of shichimi togarashi, shredded negi that had been soaked in cold water for 10 minutes to take out the harshness, and swirls of homemade chili oil. We ate our soup with bowls of rice mixed with sesame seeds (a la Soup Stock Tokyo) and tsukemono, but this would go well with fresh bread, too.

I have a lot more to say on the subject of sweet potatoes. I will post more about them later.

As for the miso, you might be looking at this recipe and thinking, "Wow, it looks good, but do I really need a tub of miso lurking at the back of my fridge for months and me with only one recipe for it?" Fear not, kids. I will post about more fun things to do with miso. Stay tuned.

(And for my friends in Korea - you can use Deonjang as a miso substitute. Not that you cook, or anything.)

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Simple Potatoes, on the side

As I've mentioned before, one of my favourite things about going to a Korean restaurant was enjoying the side dishes, or panchan, included free of charge with the meal. These side dishes were made from whatever vegetables the kitchen decided to use, and varied seasonally, and with the moods of the staff. Part of the fun of going out to dinner was the anticipation for the side dishes - to paraphrase Cartman from South Park, wondering what side dishes we would be enjoying with the meal.

Somethings were quite common, and very Westerner-friendly - such as pan-fried spinach with sesame oil and garlic, or small boiled quail's eggs with salt and pepper for dipping. Barbecue restaurants often featured some sort of creamy salad, like pasta or potato salad. (And cheap places offered mounds of shredded cabbage with a mayo-ketchup dressing) Other panchan were more challenging, like raw crabs fermented in chili sauce, or raw-oyster studded kimchi.

I always enjoyed getting a potato panchan, because thanks to my North American upbringing, a meal never quite felt complete unless it involved some sort of potato. Normally, this craving could be satisfied with the aforementioned creamy salad. But other times there might be whole baby potatoes, simmered in soy sauce and malt syrup (better than they sound). One of my favourites was extremely simple, and I remembered it the other day, when I was staring crankily at two runty potatoes that were malingering in my kitchen.

In Korea, this panchan came with matchstick potatoes fried in sesame oil, garlic, salt, and green chili. Since I wanted to make this to fill out my bento, I made it without the garlic, as I always feel shy about using a lot of garlic in Japan. Instead, I cut the two potatoes into thin matchsticks, heated up a frypan, and added about two tablespoons of sesame oil. The potatoes go in for about five minutes - the key is to madly toss them about in the hot oil, getting them coated, and cooking them no more than until they're still a little firm when you bite them. (Try not to lose too many behind the stove; this really annoys the person tasked with cleaning up.) Then, I season them heavily with the shichimi togarashi I'd bought in Takayama. This is a a flavourful seasoning that isn't particularly spicy, and worth picking up if you're curious about it. If not, try using Montreal steak spice. This takes only minutes to make - most of the work is in cutting the potatoes. It's great for lunch the next day, or in a morning omelette.