I hardly know what to cook

Autumn beckons, summer slaps back. It’s dry out there for the first time in months, and then you wake up and the humidity has crept in the back door.

Epic fail for me because I assumed autumn was here and made a huge pot of butajiru again. I like autumn because you can cook up a stew-like dish on Sunday and eat it during the week until you run out. So that’s what I made and it was delicious on Sunday and Monday. Today…. it just doesn’t feel right. But that’s what I’m having for dinner.

Today’s miso soup: A loaded one with pork, deep-fried tofu, daikon, carrots and satsumaimo or Japanese sweet potatoes. Satsumaimo are a pale yellow inside and much tastier than the ones you normally find in America. I usually buy them at Whole Foods. I left this soup on the stove on a low boil and there was barely any soup left. However, the flavor of all the vegetables is superb.

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It’s cabbage time!

Every year in the autumn I plague our Japanese farmer with the same question: “キャベツはまだですか?I think they are amused by how much I look forward to their cabbage, but if you’ve ever eaten cabbage in Japan, you know how much softer and tastier it is than the American equivalent. I’m not talking about Chinese cabbage or anything exotic. It is just a plain old head of cabbage but once you’ve tasted it you can’t go back. It cooks up quickly in a stir-fry, works nicely for salad, and of course it is wonderful in any Japanese dish. Today was the day that the cabbage appeared so I’ll be eating cabbage all week. It’s a short season and I’ve never figured out any good way to freeze it so I just eat tons of it while it lasts.

Today there was a craft fair on the Common here and I was on the look out for my favorite potter. When you see a photo of my miso soup in a ceramic bowl you’ll know it comes from him. He’s a cool guy and he has a website called Wandering Mug. He likes to set his mugs free in the world and let them wander. He gave me one today and I’ll use it for a few weeks before I send it out into the world. And I did stock up on bowls, most of which will work nicely for soup.

Today’s miso soup: A simple soup of cabbage and aburaage or thin deep-fried tofu. I’m still mostly making my soup with the white organic miso. It just hits the spot and goes down so well. Beautiful bowl, right?!

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Missing Miso

Long time, no soup. It was a busy work week and I wasn’t up to eating much. But soup (?) is back today with a vengeance because it is truly an autumnal day and I decided to make some butajiru.

Butajiru translates as pork soup, but that is not a good description. It’s a mix of autumn veggies with a bit of pork. It can sit on the stove all day cooking slowly. It has a miso broth, but somehow it isn’t called miso soup. I learned to make this in Japan at my daughter’s after-school care facility. Kid from ages 6 thru 9 were eligible for this public care if both parents were working. It was between two elementary schools, and at 5 pm or so the children all walked home by themselves, usually in groups. My daughter was just six years old but lived the furthest from the center so she walked the last block alone in the dark that winter. These kids were definitely not coddled.

One evening there was a planning meeting for parents. Parents came directly to the center after work, and the kids stayed on. Everyone would have dinner together, and that’s where I first encountered this soup. Someone started it, someone added to it, someone would taste it and adjust, and as parents trickled in, they’d ladle out a helping for themselves. Normally miso gets added last because we’re told it loses its flavor if it boils. But for butajiru it is okay to add miso part of the way through and cook the veggies in the miso broth. At the end you can add a bit more.

Today’s miso soup: I was short on ingredients, but it had the requisite pork, thick deep fried tofu, Japanese sweet potato, carrots, and shiitake. Later on this year I will make it again and add leeks, daikon and burdock root.

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If I could only have one more bowl of miso soup…

The one I had today would be the one. It was always my go-to soup when I was a poor student living in Kyoto and was almost always out of money. Tofu and moyashi or bean sprouts were the cheapest way to eat a nutritious meal back then, or at least the cheapest we could think of. We used these two ingredients in instant ramen, miso soup, stir-fry and more. But my favorite was always a white miso soup with bean sprouts and aburaage or thin deep-fried tofu.

The best aburaage I had was when I visited my ex-husband’s small hometown in Fukui Prefecture. His mother would go out early in the morning and get it from the local tofu maker. She would always laugh, because they would kindly try and treat me to expensive delicacies when we visited, but honestly my favorites were the local tofu and a kind of broiled fish called sanma or mackerel. Expensive cuts of fish or fish eggy stuff was wasted on me. So was the lovely local crabmeat. I just don’t like that stuff. It’s tofu and mackerel all the way for me. It took a while for the family to realize that I wasn’t just demurring, but really wanted the cheap stuff!

My French boss in Tokyo liked to go out to eat at nice sushi bars. I’d go with him and mostly eat the vegetable sushi. I was a total cheap date. But really, the simple things are the best.
Today’s miso soup: simply the best!

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Tails

I don’t remember when or what exactly I learned about auspicious cooking in Japan, but I do know not to cut off the tail of any green bean or pea pod. When you prepare them you snap off the top, try and get the tough fiber running along the back, but you are not supposed to touch the “tail” of the bean or pod. That would be considered bad luck, as if you are just asking to shorten your life. You particularly would not want to do it if you had an older person in the house, I imagine. So somehow I can never cut off the tail of a vegetable. Doing it would be engi ga warui, or inauspicious.

Today’s miso soup: It’s all about the green with pea pods and scallions as a garnish. You don’t want to cook green things in the soup pot because they will discolor the broth. I usually cook them separately and then add them in. The exception would be something quick-cooking like baby spinach leaves. Maybe. You can see the heads of the pods on my cutting-board here, but trust me, the tails remain.

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It’s just too darn hot

Summer has returned this week and temperatures are climbing and hanging around in the nineties. I went back to my miso soup guru to find out how to whet my appetite for miso soup when it is this hot. Perusing a list of summer miso soups told me what I already knew; either you use summer vegetables or you go for something mild and add something to jumpstart your appetite.

By evening I’m just going to want some cold noodles, so I made miso soup for lunch.

Today’s miso soup: I found an appetizing combination of carrots and tofu. That goes down easy in the heat, especially with a light white miso. The suggestion was to add a sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds. I’ve never put sesame seeds in miso soup, but it did add that extra something or plus alpha as they used to say in Japan.

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Homemade miso

Yesterday at the Farmer’s Market I was happy to see that the Japanese farmer had remembered my request for miso. They make it for their family, but if you inquire, they will sell it by the pound. I’m starting out with one pound. It is truly a blessing to be able to have this miso. I’m pretty sure that I only ever bought it from the grocery store when I lived in Japan. It has a much heartier taste than any other miso I’ve ever cooked with; it is a dark red miso.

They also make takuan, a kind of yellow pickle made from daikon. But it is too early for that. You see it sold in Korean markets so they must eat it as well. There’s a nexus of foods between these two nations that I don’t entirely understand. When my daughter was in kindergarten we were living in Fort Lee, New Jersey in a neighborhood full of Asians. Her best friend was a little Korean girl across the street. One day she came home very excited. “Mommy, guess what? The Korean word for orange juice is the same as in Japanese!”

My daughter was still mostly in a Japanese speaking world at that point and for her orange juice was a Japanese word as in orenji juusu. So when her Korean friend used that same word she assumed that it came from Japanese. My son once asked me (in Japanese) how you said “tree” in English. Only he pronounced it “toree.” Lots of language stories in my house!

Today’s miso soup: Keeping it simple since my stomach is a bit upset. Tofu and scallions and the delicious miso from the farmer’s market. It practically glistens!

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