The days are starting to get a bit cooler now, and I find I want hot food. After a long sweltering summer, I thought I never would. But there's nothing to warm the belly like hot food, and soup is one of the best hot foods I know.
It's tasty and easy to eat. It doesn't take so long to make a pot and then the pot lasts for several meals. It's a way to get more vegetables into my diet without having to cook them multiple times, important for when I'm busy teaching or come home late and don't want to cook. A quick heat up, maybe combined with some rice from the rice cooker, and I have a satisfying and filling meal, a comfort in my stomach.
I love all kinds of soups from Italian style Minestrone with pesto and tons of garlic, to creamy carrot and ginger, the Hotch Potch (we called it Hodge Podge growing up) made with cream and the new spring vegetables, and one of my Mom's favourites, Mamie's Complexion Soup. Who couldn't like a soup with a name like that? As I spooned up the slightly bitter chunky canned tomato and cream soup, I wondered about the name. No one seemed to know who Mamie was, but I guess she had a rosy complexion, something like the pinkish colour of the soup.
When I came to Japan one of the first meals I used to eat at lunch breaks was a "ramen set" at a restaurant near my school. It was a tiny shop favoured by families, workmen and young business guys alike. They had quite a few choices of big bowls of ramen, decorated with a lot of things that were mostly a mystery to me at the time but tasted great. Tomoko, the student who introduced me to the place, always accompanied me as we sat down at the bare bones tables decorated with a paper placemat, dark wood container with a glass lid full of chopsticks, and a little caddy of small jars of soy sauce, hot spicy powder, vinegar, and sesame oil.
We always ordered the set meal which was a bargain for around 750 or 800 yen because it included, besides the big bowl of ramen, a dish of cooked rice, pickles, a few tomatoes as a salad, and five plump gyoza on a little plate, along with green tea. We would break the chopsticks, pour a little soy sauce, vinegar and sesame oil on the gyoza, say "itadakimasu" ("Thanks for the good food/Let's eat") and dive in. With all the noodle slurping around us, we weren't the only ones. I never felt comfortable slurping but quietly but surely managed to eat it all. Living in a one-room apartment with a one-burner stove and half-refrigerator and no counter space at all it was usually my one cooked meal of the day.
After a few years the restaurant closed down. I never understood why because it was almost always full. I was really sad to see it go, but by that time I was on my second time in Japan and had moved on to other, more complex Japanese foods. Still, deep in my heart, that little shop, with its echoes of Tampopo, lives on forever. It is the place I first learned to love Japanese food (though ramen is originally Chinese it's been Japanized and adopted into the cuisine) and the place I first felt at home here. The smiling waitresses, the plain but to me so exotic decor, the new tastes, the warm belly, the first words of Japanese. That little noodle shop (now relocated to my memory) is where I've stored all those things.
One of my favourite soups there was the vegetable ramen with white miso. It was salty and just a touch sweet, as white miso tends to be, and it was so beautiful with the soft colours of the greens and oranges and browns of the vegetables floating in the milky mist of the broth.
I have always enjoyed miso soup in Japan, and I even learned to make a good homemade one using katsuobushi (dried bonito fish) and konbu (dried kelp). But when I became a vegetarian a few months back I started wondering how I was going to get a good miso soup stock without fish. I wondered about it all through the sweaty summer months but didn't feel the urge to try making the soup until the heat started to subside. I guess I'm an intuitive cook, or one that lets her belly decide what she wants to cook. I usually make up recipes based on what I'd like to eat that day, as much as the urge to try out something new.
In this blog, I've been mostly cooking comfort foods, and foods that are rather simple. The kind you would find in a cook's or your mother's or grandmothers rather than a chef's kitchen. Though I appreciate that kind of food too, and can cook it, I've found that in Japan there is good food to be gotten in many restaurants, and part of the learning process has been trying out authentic food cooked with time-honoured recipes.
So when I've wanted to cook, it's been to make something that I've missed from home or from my life of eating a variety of ethnic foods. Indian curries, soups from home, pasta dishes, salads, a few desserts. And I thought I would share these recipes with other folks here who might be just learning to cook, and maybe with my family who might like to try something from time to time. My son, Scott, likes Japanese food a lot, though with a young child, a business, and his work as an actor, he has little time to cook.
Since I discovered a wheat as well as a dairy allergy (and maybe gluten intolerance), along with adopting the vegetarian diet, it's meant I can eat in very few restaurants. So I have started to cook my favourites at home. Maybe there are some of you out there on gluten-free or dairy-free diets who might appreciate these recipes. Even if you don't have dietary restrictions I think you might like this soup.
It's a simple recipe for a soup with a nice Shitake flavour. It has a mild, clean taste which makes it appropriate for breakfast (or lunch) any day of the week. You can vary the vegetables using anything in season, and topping with chopped green onions. Some cooked rice makes a nice accompaniment. I used organic white miso which is pure rice miso, no wheat or additives, and dried Shitake mushrooms from my trusty local Anew store. I'm sure you can find them in any Asian market in North America. But if you can't find white miso, you could try experimenting with any light coloured miso you can find.
Shitake White Miso Soup (Vegan)
To make the stock for this soup soak about 5 dried Shitake mushrooms in a jar of (filtered) water for a few days. You should keep it in a cool place like the refrigerator or a cool room.
Pour the mushroom stock into a measuring cup and add plain water to make about 3 cups. Put into a medium saucepan. Take the now soft Shitake mushrooms and cut off the stems and discard. Slice the caps and reserve.
Put the saucepan over a medium heat and add about 1/2 sliced carrot (1/4 cup or so). Add 1 small potato sliced and halved or quartered. Make the slices fairly but not paper thin. The thinner the slices the more elegant the soup will look, and the shorter the cooking time.
Add a splash of mirin and a splash of sake (about 1 Tb. of each). Add up to a tsp. of freshly ground black pepper (not traditional but I like it a lot with miso.) Simmer the vegetables until tender (this will take only a few minutes so watch them) adding the mushrooms in the last minute. Add 2 Tb. of white miso by straining through a mesh screen that you dip in the hot soup to help it dissolve. Force it through with the back of a spoon. We have a tool with flat screen on a handle here that makes it easy, but you could use a mesh tea strainer too. Alternatively, put the miso in a bowl and add a little hot soup and whisk until dissolves and run through a mesh tea strainer.
After you add the miso never boil the soup. Add a pinch or so of salt if you are using sweet miso. Taste the soup first to see of it is salty enough. Heat through and enjoy!