I have always loved miso soup. I never go to a Japanese restaurant and not order it. It's actually one of the reasons I married my husband. He thinks it's too salty, so he always gives me his bowl.What can I say, we're just compatible. In high school when my mom would go out of town for work (which was, at points, more often than anyone liked), my dad and I would go to the same small, neighborhood sushi place. It was our thing. We ended up there so often that the owner of the restaurant got to know us. She would always ask how we were, and when I went off to college, she would ask how I was. I always ordered their miso soup, and I always loved it.
Miso was always so mysterious to me. I loved everything flavored with miso, but I didn't really know what it was. And miso soup? Who knew what the heck was in that! All I knew was it was delicious, and that was good enough for me.
Well miso, if you don't know, is a paste made from fermented soy beans. There's white miso (which is really more yellow), red miso, brown miso, and probably some others. The color really just refers to their intensity of flavor. White miso is mild and smooth, while brown miso is a much stronger flavor. They sell 20 different varieties at my local asian food market, but they also carry it at the health food store.
Then there was dashi, the broth that miso soup is based around. I remember generally reading something about dashi being made with dried fermented fish something or other and was effectively scared away for a few years. But upon further reading, it's actually not that scary. It's a bit of a process, but dashi has just three ingredients: water, kombu seaweed, and bonito flakes (the nasty fish stuff I was talking about, but really, it's not nasty at all). Again, I found the kombu and bonito flakes at my asian market, but I've seen the ingredients at my local health food store, and the bonito flakes were at Whole Foods as well. They're those ingredients you never realize are there because you weren't looking for them. Really search the asian food isle next time you're at the store and you might be surprised with what you find. Then again, if you go to a big chain grocery store, you might not be. I'm always horridly disappointed by what they carry in the asian food isle at my grocery store. It's itty bitty!
So I've reached another point on my food journey. A few weeks ago I made my own miso soup that I think could rival that of any sushi joint in the area! I stocked it with a ton of tofu, seaweed, and scallions, which made it substantial enough for dinner when I paired it with a small salad. It was salty, and savory, and delicious! Husband even had a few bowls! It really amazes me how something with so few ingredients can taste so deep and complex. The real time commitment with this recipe is the dashi. You have to be near the stove to keep an eye on it, and you have to make first dashi and then second dashi. But once the dashi is done, it's a matter of minutes to whip up a bowl of miso soup for dinner every night. I highly recommend if you're in the mood for something light, healthy, and delicious.
What's this about first dashi and second dashi? Well basically you cook the kombu and bonito in water to release their rather strong flavors. This is first dashi. This isn't the stuff that miso soup is made of. It's too strong, so it overpowers the subtle white miso. But it does make an excellent general purpose broth. I used some to cook up some brown rice for a curry, and it gave the rice a great flavor. You cook a new batch of water with the left over kombu and bonito flakes, and the delicate broth you get from this second dashi is what you want to use for the soup. This is where I went wrong the first time I tried to make miso soup. I hadn't yet heard of second dashi. Also, I used red miso instead of white. Miso soup is delicate and needs to be treated with a light hand. Red miso and first dashi have their place in my kitchen, just not in my miso soup.
Don't be scared, give it a try!
(dashi recipe adapted from Serious Eats)
For first dashi:
8 cups water
1 long strip of kombu (about 5x8")
1 cup tightly packed bonito flakes
For second dashi:
8 cups water
kombu and bonito flakes reserved from first dashi
For miso soup (one bowl):
1/2 TB white miso paste
1/4 cup cubed firm tofu
1 TB dried wakame seaweed
2 TB chopped scallions
For first dashi:
- Wipe off any excessive powder off the kombu with a damp paper towel. Some powder is desired.
- Put water in soup pot. (It's important to use water you would consider drinkable, as dashi is very delicate in flavor and bad tasting water will come through.) Add kombu to water and turn stove to medium heat. Slowly bring the water and kombu near to the point of simmering without actually letting the water boil. (This is important, as letting the water get that hot will cause the kombu to release icky tasting chemicals.) Using medium heat this should take about 10-15 minutes, depending how how cold the water was to start with (mine was chilled, so it took 20 minutes).
- Before the water boils, remove the kombu and reserve it for the second dashi. Keeping the water over heat, add the bonito flakes. Bring mixture to a boil, turn off the heat, and let the flakes sit in the water for about 2 minutes.
- Strain the mixture through a mesh strainer. Reserve the bonito for the second dashi.
- First dashi isn't used for miso soup, but it can be used in place of chicken, vegetable, or seafood stock in other applications.
For second dashi:
- In a soup pot, combine water and kombu and bonito flakes reserved from the first dashi. Again, make sure to use drinkable water.
- Heat mixture over medium-low heat at the barest of simmers for about 10 minutes. Like the first dashi, letting the water boil will result in icky dashi, so be diligent!
- Strain dashi through a mesh strainer, discard kombu and bonito flakes. Dashi should be a beautiful barely golden color.
For the miso soup:
- To prepare one portion of soup, fill a bowl with the second dashi made above. Add the miso paste, you can add more or less to your liking. I found 1/2 to 3/4 TB per bowl was a good amount. Whisk the miso around until it is incorporated fully into the dashi (it should look cloudy). Add tofu, wakame seaweed, and scallions. Give the seaweed a minute to rehydrate, then enjoy!
- You could always make this a more substantial meal by adding soba noodles and spinach.