Off the Beaten Aisle: Sweet White Miso

By: J.M. Hirsch
miso mac and cheese
Fermented bean paste? Doesn’t exactly scream party in your mouth.

And yet we happily slurp it in that salty, savory soup doled out every time we sit down for sushi. That’s because miso really is a flavor bomb worth knowing.

So let’s start there. Miso is a broad term for pastes made from fermented cooked soybeans that are aged, sometimes for years.

Miso has origins in China, but is best known for its role in Japanese cooking, where it is used in soups, sauces, marinades, glazes and dressings.

There are many varieties of miso, which can vary widely in color and flavor intensity based on how long it is aged and which ingredients are added.

Sweet white miso, for example, is made from fermented soybeans and rice, then aged for just a few months. The result is a smooth paste with a sweet, salty, savory flavor and a light golden color.

Move up to red miso -- usually made with barley instead of rice and aged for up to three years -- and both color and flavor get more intense.

Your best bet is to stick with sweet white miso. Its mellow savory-sweet flavor is versatile and pleasant; the stronger miso can be an acquired taste.

Misos are widely available at most grocers, usually refrigerated in the produce section alongside other Asian ingredients. While there are less expensive options, try to get an organic brand. Many cheaper varieties are poorly made and use flavor and color additives to compensate.

Now that you have it, what do you do with it?

Soup is a gimme. Bring some water to a simmer and add thinly sliced veggies -- carrots, shiitake mushrooms, cauliflower -- and some cubed tofu. Simmer briefly, then add 2 to 3 tablespoons of miso mixed into ¼ cup of water (this helps it dissolve better than adding the miso directly to the soup). Simmer briefly, then slurp.

Miso also makes a great glaze for salmon. Mix ⅓ cup miso with 2 tablespoons lime juice, 1 tablespoon water, 1 clove minced garlic, 1 teaspoon wasabi powder and 1 teaspoon soy sauce. Spread over salmon, then broil 3 minutes uncovered, then another 5 minutes covered with foil.

Asian food not your style? Miso still can pack tons of flavor in the foods you love. Mix 1 or 2 tablespoons into mayonnaise for a killer burger condiment. Or heck, mix the miso directly into your ground meat before forming the patties.

Also try sweet white miso mixed into tomato rice soup, mashed potatoes and cream sauces for pan-fried chicken.

Or give in to total comfort and try it in this 20-minute easy mac and cheese.

Miso Mac and Cheese
Start to finish: 20 minutes
Servings: 6
1 pound elbow pasta
1 tablespoon olive oil
Two 3 1/2-ounce containers (2 cups) shiitake mushrooms, thinly sliced
8-ounce container creme fraiche
3 tablespoons sweet white miso
1½ cups grated Parmesan cheese
1½ cups shredded Cheddar cheese
1 teaspoon garlic powder
¼ teaspoon hot sauce
Salt and ground black pepper

Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook according to package directions. Reserve ¼ cup of the cooking water, then drain and set aside.

Meanwhile, in a large, deep skillet over medium heat, heat the oil. Add the mushrooms and sauté until well browned, about 6 to 7 minutes.

Move the skillet off the heat. Mix together the creme fraiche and miso, then stir that and the Parmesan, Cheddar, garlic powder and hot sauce into the mushrooms.

Once the cheese has melted, add the drained pasta. Mix, drizzling in some of the reserved pasta cooking water to get desired consistency, until the pasta is coated. Season with salt and pepper.

Nutrition information per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 519 calories; 123 calories from fat (24 percent of total calories); 14 g fat (6 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 26 mg cholesterol; 70 g carbohydrate; 30 g protein; 4 g fiber; 1,058 mg sodium.

J.M. Hirsch is the national food editor for The Associated Press. He is author of the recent cookbook, “ High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking .” He also blogs at jmhirsch.

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