Years ago, my mom and I would make frequent trips to a small, dark and claustrophobic Asian market that was located in Cleveland Heights. The two narrow aisles and cooler were crammed from floor to ceiling with all manner of foreign and mysterious packaged foods, beverages and cooking utensils – I’m pretty sure this was where our first wok came from. The cooler was home to a few boxes of produce, and if we were lucky, some days the bottom shelf held a deep container of water filled with freshly made tofu; soft and custardy ivory cubes made from soybean milk gently bobbing and beckoning. We would always bring some home. It was from this teensy shop where I first encountered and learned to appreciate another type of soy in the fermented version called miso.
I’ve read that miso, rich with live enzymes and probiotics, can exist pretty much indefinitely with proper refrigeration and I’ve been slowly, albeit unintentionally, putting that theory to the test in the narrow upper shelf of my own fridge. Yesterday, I counted no less than eight distinctive styles of the salty umami-intense pastes happily existing in their chilly prime penthouse real estate; several jars of which have been with me for over three years and still taste as good as the day they were opened.
A jar of miso to me is like another person’s jar of peanut butter. It’s my emergency food ace in the hole. On days when I’m sprinting around in a whirlwind of daily activities without a moment to sit and eat a meal properly, spoon in hand, I’ll open a jar and scoop out a bit to lick and nibble on while quelling gnawing hunger pangs. And, like so many brands of peanut butter, I can opt for a “chunky” or “smooth” style. Ranging in flavor from sweet and tamely salted to deeply pungent, there is a miso suited for everyone’s taste.
Miso is not always derived from the soybean. I’ve relished miso made from fermented barley, chick peas, brown rice, millet, azuki beans, dandelion greens and wild leeks, most of these mail-ordered from the Massachusetts company, South River Miso. Skillfully and artisanally crafted, these certified-organic fire roasted varieties are extraordinary. Some are aged for one year, some for three, but all are full of chunky cheese-like nubbins of the grain or bean they were fermented from, and all are delicious.
Aside from the pleasures of eating out of jar, or making a quick miso broth, I’ll add the paste to dips, spreads, dressings, marinades and sauces. A quick lunch is as easy as mashing up half of a ripe avocado with miso to spread on grainy bread or crackers. Miso is also a super way finish to finish a stir fry or dish of pasta (Note: pay attention to only add the miso after your pan or pot is off of high heat as you don’t want to destroy any of the inherent live-enzymatic and probiotic qualities).
In this recipe, dark mineral-tasting kale combines beautifully with the whole grain pasta and a hearty miso. The fried egg on top often makes this a complete meal in a bowl for me.
Whole Wheat Spaghetti with Kale and Miso, Sunny Side Up
Serves 2 generously
Adding miso to finish my simple pasta with garlicky greens lends a profound earthy note, while the sunny, runny yolk of egg binds the tangled dish with a silken finish.
1/2 lb. whole wheat spaghetti (I like Bionaturae)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves of garlic thinly sliced
Generous pinch of red pepper flakes
One bunch of Lancinato (also known as “Dinosaur”) kale, leaves stripped from stems
2-3 tbs. dark miso (I used South River’s garlic-red pepper)
Grated zest of one organic lemon
Sea salt and coarsely ground black pepper to taste
1 organic egg per person
Olive oil for frying egg
Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil and salt generously. Add the pasta and cook to al dente, reserving one cup of the cooking water(you might not need the full cup).
While the pasta is cooking, in an unheated saute pan large enough to later accommodate the pasta, pour in the olive oil and add the garlic and red pepper flakes. Turn the heat to medium-low and begin to slowly saute until the garlic reaches a pale golden color. Meanwhile, place the kale leaves in a food processor and pulse/process to tiny confetti-like bits.
When the garlic is just a pale gold in color, scrape the kale confetti into the pan along with a nice pinch of salt. Saute until the the kale turns a bright green and just begins to soften. If the pasta is not yet finished, turn off the heat. If pasta is ready, turn the heat down to the lowest setting.
When the pasta is cooked to al dente, drain and add to the pan with the kale. If you haven’t already, turn the heat under the pan to low. Add the miso (start with two tablespoons), and a splash of the cooking water, and with a set of tongs, begin turning the pasta in the sauce, combining all of the ingredients well, and slowly adding in just enough pasta water by dribbles until everything is well-coated and amalgamated. Taste a couple of strands and determine whether you would like to add more miso – the brands differ in degrees of saltiness and pungency; you be the judge. Add salt and pepper to taste. Turn off the heat, cover, and set aside while frying the eggs in another pan for topping the pasta (I preheat another pan with oil while finishing the pasta so it’s already to go).
Serve each portion of pasta with a sunny side up egg on top.