In the last few weeks, a bunch of people have written me a version of this (paraphrased) message: “I love experimenting with new ingredients, but am reluctant to keep buying them because I use them once in whatever recipe calls for them, don’t know what else to do with them, and then they languish in fridge/pantry purgatory for all eternity.” I get this.
The key is having a few different recipes (maybe three or four to start) that use the ingredient, ideally in a few different ways. As you cook your way through those recipes, you begin to get a feel for the ingredient: how it tastes, how it behaves, how it enhances various types of dishes. Eventually, you become comfortable enough to experiment, you use it more, you add it to recipes that don’t even call for it, and soon enough it’s part of your cooking life and has a permanent slot in your pantry or fridge.
I started a running list of ingredients that I think would be good candidates for this, but please let me know if you have any in particular you’d like to explore. In the meantime, I want to start with one of my favorites, something that instantly adds incredible amounts of flavor and depth to anything it touches: Miso.
Quick primer: Miso is a fermented, aged paste made of soybeans, grain (usually rice or barley), salt, and the Aspergillus orzyae bacteria. It’s sold in plastic tubs, tubes, jars, or plastic bags and keeps, refrigerated, for a long, long time—months, at least. The best is organic, unpasteurized, traditionally made miso, which contains live cultures (pasteurized miso is no longer a living food). There are many kinds of miso, but generally speaking most fall into three categories:
Sweet miso is usually white or light beige in color, smooth in texture, and has a hint of sweetness. It may be called mellow miso, white miso, or sweet white miso. This miso is best used in dressings; some people use it as a dairy substitute.
Medium or mild miso, which can be used as an all-purpose miso, is usually smooth textured and golden colored. It is sometimes called yellow miso.
Red miso, barley miso, and hatcho miso are darker in color, saltier, and earthier flavored; they are best when used in soups and stews. Their textures range from smooth to chunky.
I use these misos more or less interchangeably; they last forever in the fridge. (I mean, I literally just threw some out because it had fallen behind the vegetable bin and was two years after the sell-by date; it was probably fine.) Regardless, the recipes below will help you use up your supply in no time (assuming you don’t lose it). There’s one all-time staple (miso soup), the Cadillac of miso dishes (miso-broiled black cod, which is usually a sustainable choice), and a handful of simple condiments, some surprising, that you’ll start to use on everything all the time (miso butterscotch is no joke). Or try this too-simple-for-a-real-recipe recipe: Slather some chicken cutlets on one side with miso, dredge that side in panko breadcrumbs, drizzle with some olive oil (or melted butter) and roast in a 400 degree oven until the breadcrumbs are browned and crisp and the chicken is just cooked through.
Grab some miso, start here, and see where it leads. Until then, have a wonderful weekend.
When this miso article came out in the New York Times Magazine a handful of years ago, this is what I wrote: “Limiting miso to soup is like limiting Parmesan to pasta. You can dry it and turn it into a condiment (which happens to be reminiscent of Parmesan); you can use it to create a fantastic compound butter (David Chang of Momofuku showed me this five years ago); you can stir it into mayonnaise, which is consciousness-expanding. And then there’s miso butterscotch, which sounds like dessert — and indeed can be — but is better imagined as a step beyond the caramel sauce you may know from Vietnamese cooking. Talk about umami! All of these can be steered in a variety of directions by combining them with other seasonings.”
With all due respect to packaged ramen, this is probably the best “instant” soup there is. At its simplest (which it is here), miso soup is basically tea: miso whisked with water. Add on if you like. Tofu and scallions are traditional, but do what you want: carrots, peas, beans, greens, sea greens, and so on, or soaked Asian noodles, chopped leftover cooked meat or seafood, or a couple cooked scrambled eggs stirred in right before serving.
Black cod with miso is a dish that was popularized in the U.S. by Nobu Matsuhisa, the chef at Nobu in New York. His time-consuming recipe, which calls for soaking the fish in a sweet miso marinade for a couple of days, is a variation on a traditional Japanese process that uses sake lees, the sweet solids that remain after making sake, to marinate fish. If you broil black cod with nothing but salt, you already have a winning dish. If you broil it with miso – along with some mirin and quite a bit of sugar – you create something stunningly delicious (and no long marination is necessary). Any fish that is suitable for the broiler can (and should) be prepared this way.
Photo: Burcu Avsar & Zach DeSart
This colorful dressing is the high-quality version of the goopy stuff they put on salads in many Japanese restaurants. I make it in the food processor, but if you prefer something smoother, just throw everything in a blender. Use this as a salad dressing, but also on warm or chilled chickpeas or edamame. Or toss a few spoonfuls into any plain cooked whole grain.
Talk To Me, Goose!
Questions, comments, brilliant suggestions? Just want to share the recipe for your grandma's potato salad, or your mom's meatloaf, or your uncle Drew's three-day 100-percent rye loaf (yes, please)? Don't hesitate to reach out anytime.