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Big Spoonfuls of Comfort (and Miso)

December 05, 1996|MARY CARROLL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Fall ends, winter arrives and soup's on the back burner almost all the time in my kitchen. Besides fogging up the windows, the steam and fragrance warm the winter-chilled soul, and each batch contributes a container or two to my freezer stock for the holiday rush. Soup-making may seem like a sidetrack in November, when everyone else is planning holiday hors d'oeuvres, but in two weeks or so the drop-in guests will love the big bowls of comfort.

My holiday soups are usually simple creations, chock-full of vegetables and hearty grains. One constant flavoring unites them: the Japanese seasoning called miso.

Miso is my favorite all-purpose flavor agent for soups. It doesn't come in the salt shaker but in a plastic container. It looks like dark peanut butter and smells like soy sauce. Only a tablespoon turns a blah soup into a gourmet's dream.

Most sushi bar fans have heard of miso; it's the main flavoring for miso soup. The Japanese traditionally start their day with a bowlful. Americans have gotten more interested in miso and other soy products since the 1994 blitz of articles on soy foods and their role in cancer prevention. Miso is made from soybeans and other whole grains; it's aged in cedar vats for one month to three years. Local supermarkets carry miso in the natural foods section; about five or six varieties are available.

Miso keeps for months, even years, in the refrigerator. Unlike salt or even soy sauce, miso gives a soup what chefs lovingly call "background flavor"--the sought-after taste you usually get only from long cooking times or a skilled soup cook like grandma. Miso is versatile enough to be used in practically all my soup recipes, and it has become a staple seasoning for many dips, sandwich spreads, gravies and sauces too.

Four miso varieties that you'd find in most Japanese kitchens are hatcho, barley, mellow white and deep red miso. You also can buy sweet miso, which almost tastes like chutney, often called natto miso.

Hatcho miso is the traditional soy miso, mellow and rich, aged 18 to 36 months, with a high amount of protein. Barley (or mugi) miso is rich and salty, aged up to three years. White miso is made from rice; it's aged four weeks and is mellow in flavor, pale in color. Dark red miso can come from rice or soybeans; it is salty, aged up to a year. Experienced cooks use the darker miso for colder months, the lighter for spring and summer.

Carroll is the author of the "No Cholesterol (No Kidding!) Cookbook," (Rodale Press, 1991).

SIMPLE HOT AND SOUR MISO SOUP

2 quarts defatted stock

1 ounce dried black Asian mushrooms

2 tablespoons arrowroot or cornstarch

1/4 cup apple juice

1/2 cup very thinly sliced carrots

2 tablespoons dry Sherry, optional

1/4 cup cider vinegar

Dash cayenne pepper

2 tablespoons dark miso paste

1/3 cup minced green onions

This is a simple broth soup that I make on chilly winter days or serve as a first course for an elegant supper. Start with a rich-tasting stock for best results.

Pour 2 cups stock into large soup pot and bring to boil over medium-high heat. Remove from heat. Add mushrooms and let soak 20 minutes. Drain, reserving soaking liquid. Cut stems off mushrooms and discard. Thinly slice mushroom caps.

Dissolve arrowroot in apple juice in small bowl and stir well. Set aside.

Combine remaining 6 cups stock and mushroom-soaking liquid in large soup pot and bring to boil over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms and carrots and simmer 10 minutes. Add Sherry, vinegar, cayenne and arrowroot mixture and cook, stirring, 5 minutes.

Pour 1/2 cup into small bowl. Add miso and stir well to dissolve. Return to soup. Adjust seasoning. Serve hot, garnished with green onions.

Makes 8 servings.

Each serving contains about:

67 calories; 331 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 0 fat; 8 grams carbohydrates; 8 grams protein; 0.67 gram fiber.

VEGETABLES AND NOODLES IN BLACK BEAN-MISO SAUCE

2 tablespoons fermented black beans

4 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons grated ginger root

2 teaspoons peanut oil

2 cups sliced onions

2 cups chopped bok choy

1 cup sliced mushrooms

1/2 red bell pepper, cut into strips

2 cups sliced napa cabbage

3/4 cup defatted stock

1 teaspoon miso paste (any style)

1 teaspoon honey

1 teaspoon low-sodium soy sauce

1 tablespoon arrowroot or cornstarch

2 tablespoons cold water

6 cups hot cooked noodles

Black bean sauce flavored with miso is a favorite fast topping for vegetables and Asian-style pasta. The fermented black beans for the black bean paste can be found in small spice jars in the Asian food section of most supermarkets. Always rinse them before using.

Place black beans in small strainer and rinse well under running water. Puree black beans, 2 cloves minced garlic and ginger in food processor. Set aside.

Combine oil and onions in 10-inch nonstick skillet or wok and stir-fry over medium-high heat until onions are soft but not browned, 8 to 10 minutes. Add remaining 2 cloves garlic, bok choy, mushrooms, bell pepper and napa cabbage and stir-fry 3 minutes. Add black bean paste.

Combine stock, miso and honey in small bowl. Add to vegetables and cook, covered, 3 minutes.

Combine soy sauce, arrowroot and water in small bowl. Add to skillet and cook, stirring, until sauce thickens slightly, about 1 minute. Add noodles. Cover and cook 1 minute.

Makes 6 servings.

Each serving contains about:

269 calories; 307 mg sodium; 50 mg cholesterol; 5 grams fat; 47 grams carbohydrates; 10 grams protein; 1.04 grams fiber.

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