Miso Popcorn with Aleppo Pepper

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A few weeks ago Aaron and I went to get a cocktail before dinner at a new restaurant near our apartment. Because we had worked with about half of the front of house staff, that cocktail turned to two, turned to dinner, turned to taking a drunken tour of the kitchen and pinky swearing with the chef. When we got home, I realized I was very intoxicated and needed something to soak up all the booze. And so I drunkenly made miso popcorn- salty, buttery, and addictive- as a midnight snack.

Of course, the story continues with my darling husband taking a video of drunk me and then SENDING IT TO MY BOSS. Highlights of the video include me hitting the phone out of his hands, responding “f*** you” and laughing when he asks me what I’m eating, and telling him I made the popcorn with booze. I’m still getting flack at work for that one. Aaron’s lucky he’s cute.

I’ve been holding onto this recipe for at least a year. I make it often- sometimes once a week- but it’s always been a bit too weird, a bit too approximate to share here. When I make it for other people there’s an even 50/50 split of people who devour it and people who politely take one taste and then not another.

So, you may love this. Or you may not. I think it all depends on how you like your popcorn. If you’re someone who prefers your popcorn dry, sprinkled with only with salt, this isn’t your recipe. (But you should still try this proportion of oil to popcorn while cooking, because it makes the most even and fluffy popcorn that I’ve found.) But if you’re like me and grew up popcorn drenched in butter, this might just be your jam. If you’re into strongly flavored popcorn that’s not airy and crispy, but has soaked up all the buttery flavor, you should make this. While it makes an excellent drunk snack, it’s even better when you’re sober and can taste the nuance- earthy and savory and salty and spicy and just slightly sweet.

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Miso Popcorn

You could play with the toppings here. Sesame seeds would be fantastic, as would any other number of spices. If you can’t find Aleppo pepper (Penzeys has it, as does the spice shop I wish Minneapolis had), I would substitute in chili powder or omit it entirely. My beloved crushed red pepper flakes would do more harm than good here.If you use a dark miso, it will still be delicious, but I would start with less salt and adjust as you desire.

Makes about 6 cups

2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup yellow popcorn kernels
1 1/2 tablespoons light miso
1 tablespoon butter
2 teaspoons nutritional yeast
1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt

In a medium, heavy bottomed pan with a tightly fitting lid warm the olive oil. Drop a few kernels of popcorn into the oil. Once they’ve popped, add the rest of the popcorn and place the lid on the pot. Cook, shaking the pot often, as the popcorn pops quite aggressively. Once the popcorn has expanded to the volume of the pot and the popping slows, turn out into a large bowl. If there are more kernels on the bottom of the pot, return the pot to heat and cover again and let the final kernels pop.

In a small pot add the miso with 1 tablespoon of water. Use a spoon to mix together, making sure that the miso and the water are very well combined. You don’t want any chunks of miso in this- just a smooth paste. Place the pot over low heat and add the butter. Use your spoon to stir constantly as the butter melts- you want this to be well emulsified and smooth. You’re essentially making miso beurre. It will not take long.

Pour the miso beurre over the popcorn. Sprinkle the nutritional yeast, Aleppo, and salt over the beurre. Toss the popcorn well, making sure everything is evenly coated. Eat immediately.

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Adzuki Bean, Squash, and Miso Soup

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Yesterday I was debating with Aaron about whether it was really that cold outside. My argument hinged on the fact that my eyes didn’t burn when I walked outside. I may be wearing fur-lined boots, mittens over gloves, and layers of wool, but if I can feel my face then it has to be at least -10 outside. As you may expect, Aaron won.

January is brutal. It’s sharp and cruel. It’s ironic, or perhaps appropriate, that January is the month so many of us are trying to do things better. Survival can be dicey- or at least it feels a bit uncomfortable. But I think that the sharpness of January helps spur us to make changes. For all of January’s hard angles, there’s a sparse brightness that’s beaconing. January is clean and spare. The days are getting longer, minute by minute. The sun is out once again. If we can do well in January, why can’t we do well in any month?

I wrote a bit about New Year’s resolutions in my last post. One of my resolutions is to keep creatively engaged with the work I do. I want to try out new ideas, new techniques, new point of view. To that end I’m going to try and cook from a different book every month. For January, in honor of this spare wildness, I’m using Amy Chaplin’s revered and weighty At Home in the Whole Foods Kitchen. Amy writes passionately about grains, vegetables, beans, and a wide variety of superfoods and condiments that I’ve yet to use. It’s a beautiful book, but most excitingly it’s a fundamentally useful book. And although we play with a lot of the same tools, Amy uses them in a completely different way.

This soup, for instance. If I were to make a hearty winter miso soup, I’d probably caramelize onions in butter, add some squash, kale, and a can of beans, add water, and stir in a tablespoon or two of miso once everything’s cooked all together. I imagine it would be tasty, but it likely wouldn’t end up here.

But Amy’s soup is a beast, hearty and perfect for January. She has you soak then cook adzuki beans from scratch with kombu and shiitake mushrooms, then cooks onions, carrots, and squash in sesame oil. You add in kale, wakame, and 2 types of miso, then stir in a hit of fresh ginger juice. It tastes savory and earthy and sweet and bright. It’s warming and hearty. It’s a soup that’s a match for January, meeting intention for intention and sharpness with warmth.

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Adzuki Bean, Squash, and Miso Soup

adapted from At Home in the Whole Foods Kitchen by Amy Chaplin

This soup calls for a small amount of ginger juice, which is very easy to make at home. Finely grate ginger, then squeeze using either your hands or cheesecloth to extract the juice. For the 4 teaspoons specified, I needed about 2 inches of fresh ginger. As for ingredients, I’ve found kombu, dried shiitakes, and wakame all at both natural food stores and Asian markets.

Serves 4

1/2 cup adzuki beans, soaked overnight
3 dried shiitake mushrooms
1 two-inch piece of kombu
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 medium onion, quartered and thinly sliced
1 medium carrot (or 3 small carrots), halved and thinly sliced on the diagonal
2 cups winter squash, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1 cup thinly sliced kale
2 tablespoons dried wakame
3 tablespoons dark miso
3 tablespoons light miso
4 teaspoons ginger juice
thinly sliced scallions, to serve

Drain and rinse the adzuki beans. In a medium pot combine the beans with the shiitake mushrooms, kombu, and 8 cups of water. Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer. Cover the pot and cook the beans until they’re tender all the way through, 30-50 minutes. Remove from heat. Remove the kombu and discard. Remove the shiitakes and thinly slice, then return to the pot.

In a large pot warm the sesame oil over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally until the onions are soft, about 3 minutes. Add the carrots and squash and cook for another minute. Add the beans and their liquid and bring everything to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, and cook for 10 minutes. The vegetables should be soft by this point. Add the kale and wakame and cook for another minute. Place both miso into a medium strainer and lower the strainer into the soup. Stir well, so that the miso dissolves into the soup. By the end there will only be husks left of the miso. If you don’t mind a less than perfectly smooth broth, you could add the miso husks to the soup. Stir in the ginger juice and remove from heat. Serve topped with scallions.

 

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Baked Sweet Potato Fries with Miso Aioli

Fries

Mayonnaise. It’s a component in so many things- deviled eggs, all sorts of not-salad salad sandwiches (chicken, tuna, etc.), dressings, sauces, and apparently Ina Garten’s pesto recipe (thanks Anne!). It’s creamy and mild. Who doesn’t love mayo?

I don’t. I’ve never liked it. I’ve never liked the way it coats my mouth as I eat it, the way it jiggles, the eggy aftertaste. I’ve also never liked ketchup, which is a whole different story. Sufficient to say, I’m generally not condiment friendly.

But I love aioli. And I can hear those among you who are familiar with food exclaiming, “Aioli? It’s just flavored mayonnaise”. And you’re correct. But for whatever reason, aioli is different to me. Perhaps it’s that I make it by hand, so it’s looser than mayonnaise and doesn’t have the same jiggle factor. Perhaps the flavorings (generally garlic) cover up the eggy aftertaste. Or perhaps all the whisking makes me hungry. But regardless of the reason, I love aioli, and mostly eat it at home. And aioli is best consumed with fries.

The tension inherent there, that I prefer to make my aioli and eat it with fries, is that frying fries at home is a headache. Everything smells of oil, it splatters everywhere, and I have to monitor the temperature pretty closely. I’ve done it, but only once or twice. And there’s the fact that the fries are not any better than those you can find in a restaurant. And there’s the whole issue of whatever metric you’re using to determine the nutritional value of the food you consume, you’re getting a lot of oil by deep frying fries and dipping them in an oil-egg emulsion. I want to be clear that I will still eat fries and aioli with this information on hand. But that pushes it out of a regular treat and into a “sometimes” food.

The best compromise I’ve found is to bake my fries, which requires a bit of technique. If you just throw strips of potato (or sweet potato, as is the case here) into a hot oven, by the time the middle cooks through the whole thing is a soggy mess. Those fries are not worthy of the term fries, much less to be dipped in aioli. But if you boil the fries first, the middles are cooked through before they are baked. And then you can take them for a jaunt in a hot oven, where they’ll get delightfully crispy. They may not be as addictive as hot fries doused in salt straight out of the fryer, but they are still very good. And I’m a firm believer that compromise is one of the keys to a good life.

Baked Sweet Potato Fries

2 large sweet potatoes, sliced into 1/2 inch batons
2 tablespoons olive oil
salt
pepper

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Salt the water and add the sweet potatoes. Boil for 8 minutes, until the batons are tender. Drain. Let the sweet potatoes dry. (I used a cooling rack laid over a cookie sheet.)

When the sweet potatoes are dry preheat the oven to 450. Toss the sweet potatoes with the olive oil, salt, and pepper, and then spread out on a cookie sheet. Bake, tossing the sweet potatoes with a spatula once, until crispy, between 30 and 40 minutes.

Miso Aioli

The first step to making a successful aioli is to not be afraid of the aioli. My very unscientific survey has revealed that aioli can smell fear, and if you go into it thinking it will break it most certainly will. I’ve had the best luck while making aioli using a small bowl and a small whisk. If your bowl moves around a lot, it might be a good idea to place the bowl on top of a damp towel to stabilize it. Make sure to pour the oil slowly- it’s better to go too slow than too fast.  And finally, if you get tired, you can stop pouring the oil for a bit, but don’t stop whisking.

2 tablespoons miso
2 teaspoons water
1 egg yolk
1/4 cup olive oil
3/4 cup canola oil

 

Meanwhile make the aioli. In a small bowl combine the miso and the water and whisk (making sure to use a whisk, and not a fork) well until it creates a smooth paste. Add in the egg yolk, and whisk until combined. Combine the two oils into a container that can easily be poured, like a liquid measuring cup with a spout or lip. And then whisk the egg yolk while slowly pouring in the oil in a thin stream.

Be sure to keep whisking, and to pour the oil very slowly. The oil may look like it’s not combining at first, but if you stop pouring the oil and keep whisking it will. Whisk continuously while streaming in the oil, and once it’s all added in whisk until you have a smooth mass. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary (adding a drop of vinegar, or a hint of salt, for instance, if you think the aioli needs it).

If you’d like a thicker, more mayonnaise-y aioli, you could whisk in more oil into your aioli.

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Caramelized Onion Miso Stew

 
Restaurant week. Customers love it- two courses for twenty five dollars. Three courses for thirty. They come for the bargains, for the chance to try the restaurant that always sat in the someday list without the someday price tag. It’s raucous and frantic and your server doesn’t linger because someone else needs bread, or water, or dessert hands. For a certain type of customer it’s the ideal.

Perhaps restaurant week is also the ideal for a certain type of cook, but I am not that cook. Restaurant week is coming in early and staying late, and coming home too exhausted to read but too wired to sleep. It’s plating desserts in flights, of four chocolate, five chocolate, six chocolate coming in all at once, and putting tickets after that on hold. It’s washing my hands every fifteen minutes because no matter how careful I am they’re always coating in sugar and caramel. It’s trying to shout to servers “Dessert hands please” in a way that’s both urgent, because this ice cream is going to melt and soon, and polite, because they also have a difficult job and we work best together when we’re being respectful. It’s plating a hundred plus desserts a night as efficient as a robot but as careful as a painter. It’s not having time for dinner and stealing pieces of bread and cheese for sustenance. It’s hell. It’s a rush.

In the past, I would have tried to survive restaurant week or other times like this with a mess of my comfort food- mac and cheese, popcorn, pizza, pasta. Carbs and cheese are my weaknesses. These foods all satisfy me emotionally, and there’s space for that. But as I’ve grown up a little bit I’ve realized that eating only emotionally during hectic times speeds my crashes, rather than preventing them. During busy times I need vegetables.

I made this caramelized onion miso stew together for lunch before work earlier this week, and when I finished my last restaurant week shift all I wanted to eat was the leftovers. It’s easy as anything. You slice yellow onions into thin moons and slowly cook them, caramelizing the sugars, in olive oil. Once they’re at the level of caramelization you want you add in water and miso paste, a handful of greens, and some somen noodles. A few more minutes cooking and you’re done. The result is a thick, noodle-y stew that’s sweet from the caramelized onions, nutty and salty from the miso, and filling from the noodles.

I can imagine making this over and over, changing out the greens for whatever other vegetables I have on hand (cooked sweet potatoes! mushrooms!), adding aromatics (ginger! garlic! chilis!), and toppings (chili oil! a 7 minute egg! cilantro and scallions!). It’s my favorite kind of back pocket meal- endlessly adaptable, and deliciously easy.

Caramelized Onion Miso Stew

Serves 2

Miso paste and somen noodles should both be available at a well-stocked supermarket. If you can’t find somen, you could substitute another noodle of choice. In that case, just be careful to follow the packaged cooking directions for said noodles.

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 large yellow onions, thinly sliced
salt
4 cups water
3 tablespoons miso paste (I used a mellow brown rice miso)
handful of spring mix lettuce, or other soft green (optional)
4 ounces somen noodles

In a heavy bottomed pot such as a dutch oven, warm the oil over medium heat. Add the onions and a pinch of salt. Stir well. Cook the onions over medium heat, stirring well every few minutes, until the onions are caramelized. They should darken and taste sweet but not burned. This will take somewhere between 20 and 30 minutes.

Stir in the water, being careful to scrape up any brown bits on the bottom. These are where all the flavors live, and you want them. Bring the water to a simmer, and whisk in the miso paste. Be sure to taste as you go, as different brands of miso have different strengths. 3 tablespoons was perfect for mine, but yours may vary. Add the greens if using, and the somen noodles. Simmer until the greens have collapsed and the somen noodles are tender, about three minutes. Serve.

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