Thursday, March 15, 2018

Miso Soup

Hello again! It's been a while. At least month ago, I wrote a long, rambling thing about the Aziz Ansari situation. It was a good piece of writing, but I couldn't find a recipe to go with it. I'd been talking to a college friend, so I tried to recreate this squashy-pasta I used to make in our dorm kitchen. Turns out, it really isn't that good. I probably shouldn't have been surprised - all it contained was CSA squash, a dollar box of pasta and "parmesan" from my dining hall's salad bar- but at the time it felt magical. The ability to nourish myself was an accomplishment I held onto in those years, something I could do when my mental health and poor coping skills left me incapable of doing anything else. Realizing that squash pasta wasn't as good as I remembered-  I remember it tasting like butter, but in reality it was dry and under-seasoned- hurt. I cook better now, I suppose, which is good- as everyone around me has learned to cook (I am, after all, nearing 30) I haven't lost the feeling that food is part of who I am.

The squash-pasta era certainly wasn't the darkest point in my godawful journey of mental health and hopelessness, but when I look back it feels like a turning point. I had friends and parents who loved me, access to treatment, and I was teetering on the edge of functional, still energetic enough to have buckled down, taken my meds, and taken advantage of all the opportunity. I could have learned to write crossword puzzles, or another language, or done a semester at sea, or even just finished college on time instead of four years late.

I know regret is pointless, just as I know comparing myself to others is destructive. I do, I do know these things. But I'm not sure I can really stop. I desire so desperately- I want to see everything, eat everything, be everything, with a passion and ambition that I know are ludicrous but also my strength. Instead I can cook- a skill I'm proud of, an activity I love, and a hobby I wonder if I'm wasting my time on as I watch others finish PhDs and start medical school and create things worth sharing and selling. Nonetheless I do it- with love, with creativity, with the strange assurance that feeding myself, packing my lunch and sometimes my dinner- is something to be proud of when I'm lost.

I should really just rename this blog "Soup in Snow".

There's still magic in it, too. I'm not fastidious enough with most recipes to have moments when I've perfected them- with notable exceptions, I just give up if something doesn't work. I also stay away from kitchen projects that require too much alchemy (see: most baking)- most of what I do, I can stop and check along the way if something is turning out right. Nevertheless, the first time I got miso soup right, it was impossibly thrilling. I hadn't really expected it to work- and the midpoints were suspicious, and all of a sudden I had created something my mother didn't teach me how to make.

I attempted miso soup once in college, but it didn't work- in fact, it didn't work quite dramatically. I'm pretty sure the box of miso languished in the refrigerator until I, or more likely one of my roommates, tossed it. I'm not historically great at getting rid of food I'm ashamed not to have used (see rotting garden squash, that tin of sardines, a kombucha in high school...). Somehow, in reading that miso soup was dead easy (it is) I'd missed the fact that when a recipe has five ingredients, they are all essential. It was just last year that I learned to make dashi, the fish and kelp stock that cracks the code on so much Japanese cooking, and damn. Magic.

So yes, I finally followed the instructions and it turns out they work (kind of a theme around here). I still think you should all know about it. I mean, many of you probably do- 'make dashi' is a pretty damned basic kitchen thing, like 'brown an onion' or fry an egg', so if there was any Japanese cooking in your house growing up you're probably rolling your eyes at me right now. If, however, miso soup was something you grew up eating out- well, here's how you do it at home, and I'm not sorry.

Ingredient notes! (Because I like pictures when I go shopping for ingredients I don't usually buy)

Bonito flakes: I couldn't find the exact ones I use online, but they look just like this.

Kombu: Same situation. On the other hand, kombu is pretty distinct- it's thick, and the packages often tell you they're for making dashi.

Miso: I like red miso for miso soup, as it's the most fermented and flavorful, but feel free to use whatever you've got. It will probably turn out looking different than mine, however. Miso is often, although not always, made with grains that have gluten- barley, etc. You should be able to tell by reading the ingredients on a label, but as I can't read Japanese that doesn't really help. Anyways, when my celiac roommie moved in, I bought a bunch of this stuff, which is delicious but surprisingly dark in color. Now if I could just find celiac-safe bonito flakes...

Seaweed: Miso soup is typically made with wakame, but I pretty consistently have sushi-nori (the kind of seaweed they sell in sheets) so that's what I use. It's inauthentic, but it still tastes great.

Makes six cups

Note: I make six cups at a time, because that makes me one block of tofu's worth of Miso soup. I'm all about minimizing food waste around here. Additionally, I like recipe with hands-off and idiot-proof components (aka soaking kombu overnight) but this is just as doable if you're planning more last minute. Just head the water and kombu together over low heat until the water is approaching a simmer and then remove it- boiling kombu will apparently make everything bitter and slimy. You see why I went with overnight? Less to mess up :D

6 cups water
1.5 cups loosely packed bonito flakes
~six square inches of kombu

Put the water & kombu in a small pot and leave overnight. The next day, remove the kombu and bring the pot to a simmer over medium-low heat. If you're starting with unsoaked kombu, see the note. When you've hit a boil, add the bonito flakes, stir, and then let the whole thing boil gently/simmer aggressively for about five minutes. Strain out the bonito and clean your strainer immediately. At this point, you may have less than six cups of dashi- evaporation and all that- so add water until you're back to six cups.

Fun fact: dried fish flakes are TOUGH to get out of a strainer.

Miso Soup
Serves just me (huzzah!) or two people out of those tiny standard miso-soup sized bowls

2 cups dashi
1/2 sheet of sushi nori, cut into strips with scissors
2 Tbsp red miso
1/3 block silken tofu, cubed.
1 green onion, white and green parts thinly sliced

Put the dashi and nori into a small pot, and warm over medium low heat. Put the miso into a bowl, preferably the one you're going to eat out of (fewer dishes!). When the dashi is close to boiling, pour about a half cup into the bowl, and use a small whisk to combine it with the miso. Pour it back into the pot and add tofu. Cook over low for another couple minutes, until the tofu is warmed through. Pour the whole thing back into the bowl and add green onions.


  1. Very interested in the long rambling thing about Aziz. Also, really loved this post in general. I'm nearing 30 and can't cook very well and yet I read food blogs all the time because I like the thoughts that accompany them so much. The bit about the squash pasta reminded me of this essay: It's really good - definitely recommend reading through!

  2. Thank you! What a lovely piece of writing- I can't get the idea of youth and inexperience as delicious out of my head. I'm glad to know someone else reads food blogs for the writing- I do the same thing, but I think we're the minority.