I Spice: Miso
Miso -- at its simplest, a paste of fermented soybeans with salt -- is an ancient Japanese condiment, but a fairly recent addition to my kitchen. While I have tasted miso in restaurant soups and salad dressings many times, I hadn’t used it until a few years ago when I was testing miso recipes for a magazine. It was completely alien to me, but with some guidance from cookbooks and friends, and some trial and error, I can now easily incorporate it into lentils, soups and dressings on my own.
There's a world of miso, it turns out, and the flavor and color varies from sweet white (shiro) miso to deeply savory dark hatcho and mugi misos. High in protein, digestive enzymes and antioxidants, miso is often called a miracle condiment by nutritionists.
Robin Absell, author of “
The New Vegetarian” (Chronicle Books, November 2009), has an abiding love. “A tub of miso is like a little magic box, stuffed with taste, chemistry and health benefits,” she told me. Miso adds salt, meatiness and a tangy, fermented taste to foods. And here's the magic: When the proteins in the base food (such as soybeans) are fermented, they are broken down into some of the most umami-rich amino acids there are.
In case the claim of miraculousness sounds dubious, Asbell recounted this story: “It was shown that after the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the people who ate miso soup for breakfast every morning had markedly lower radiation damage. That might be attributable to the fermented bonito in the broth, but you get the picture. Since then, studies have confirmed that miso prevents radiation damage, and helps prevent some cancers as well."
We talked about the various types of miso I have seen in the markets. Miso, like wine, has its terroir and cultural importance depending on what part of Japan it is from. “White miso is mild and sweet, so a little in salad dressings adds body and fullness," she said. "Deep dark misos like hatcho can take the place of fish sauce in vegan food, adding the salt and fermented qualities for those who don't eat fish." She suggests buying organic miso when you can find it. There are also gluten-free versions and low-fat versions.
While miso is most commonly made by mixing soybeans and white or brown rice with a special culture, it is also made from other legumes and beans with a variety of grains including barley or buckwheat. The fermentation and aging process can take up to several years -- so you’ll want to buy it, not make it. You can purchase it at any Asian grocery and even many supermarkets. (I purchase mine from the H Mart in Fairfax.) Keep it refrigerated, and it will last for a long time, even years. To maintain its health benefits, it should not be heated too much, but added toward the end of cooking.
Asbell suggests that one of the simplest things to do with miso is add it to lentils and beans. A pot of lentil soup, seasoned with nothing but red miso, is divine. Just mix the miso with water to thin the paste, then stir it in at the end. Or you can make this versatile Miso Paste.
Asbell referred to miso as "a secret weapon for vegan cooking," and blogger Sally Ashbrook agreed. “I can't eat dairy -- or soy -- so I use chickpea miso to add the fermented tang to dishes that would usually use cheese, like pesto or vegan mac and cheese," she said.
You don’t have to be food-challenged or vegan or even vegetarian to enjoy miso. It pairs well with pork as in Miso Pork on a Sweet Potato. Of course, it's a classic base for soup, as blogger Joseph Erdos demonstrated, but he also makes a mean vinaigrette that does more than just dress a salad. He uses it marinate fish, or to brush on fish before baking or pan-frying.
“I consider miso to be the Japanese penicillin," Erdos said.
There's only one problem with his analogy: Penicillin never tasted this good.
-- Monica Bhide
Miso Grilled Salmon
MAKE AHEAD: The remaining marinade can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 week. It can be used in salad dressing and on grilled eggplant. The fish needs to marinate in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes and up to 2 hours.
The miso marinade recipe is adapted from "Cooking One on One," by John Ash (Clarkson Potter, 2004).
1/4 cup white (shiro) miso
1/4 cup mirin (rice wine)
2 tablespoons unseasoned rice vinegar
2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
2 scallions, white and light-green parts, minced (2 tablespoons)
1 1/2- to 2-inch piece peeled ginger root, minced (1 1/2 tablespoons)
Up to 1/4 cup water, in tablespoon increments as needed
1 1/2-pound piece skin-on salmon fillet, preferably center-cut, pin bones removed
Whisk together the miso, mirin, vinegar, oil, scallions and ginger in a medium bowl. Add water as needed to form a marinade with the consistency of heavy cream.
Place the salmon in a resealable plastic food storage bag, then pour about 1/4 cup of the marinade over it and seal. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to 2 hours. Refrigerate the remaining marinade for another use (see headnote).
Position the top oven rack 4 to 6 inches from the broiler element; preheat the broiler. Have a broiler pan at hand or line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil.
Wipe any excess marinade off the salmon fillet. Place the fish skin side down on the pan or baking sheet. Broil for 6 minutes on the first side. When the fish begins to brown, turn it over and broil for 4 to 6 minutes, watching closely as the skin will begin to brown and blister. The fish should be opaque throughout.
Transfer to a platter, turning the fish skin side down. Divide into portions at the table. Serve immediately.
The Food Section
February 26, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories: I Spice , Recipes | Tags: I Spice, Monica Bhide, miso
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