Adventures in Miso

Miso aubergines and brown rice. Chopsticks from my trip to Tokyo

Miso aubergines and brown rice. Chopsticks from my trip to Tokyo

Relax, I won’t be posting yet another recipe for pumpkin-shaped biscuits or ‘spooky’ cupcakes.

I have had quite a few conversations about Hallowe’en this week, mainly asking me what I am doing.  Well, actually… absolutely nothing.  Being a 30-year-old childless woman with a flat quite inaccessible from the street, it seems that Hallowe’en is not meant for me.  That being said, I do rather like seeing all of the neighbourhood kids walking about all dressed up with their little bags of swag.  When we were children, we loved Hallowe’en, despite the fact that we were forbidden by our parents from going trick or treating.  We had a party at school with fancy dress, apple bobbing and ghost stories.  My mum would dress me up as a witch and my brother as a devil.  I think she may have been trying to tell us something.

So my week has actually been rather normal.  No quest for orange food colouring (completely unobtainable in the second half of October) or joining the everlasting queue outside the Angels fancy dress shop on Shaftesbury Avenue.  During this very normal week, however, an unexpected parcel arrived at my desk:  a jar of Yutaka miso paste.  Something I had actually been meaning to buy for some time, but had not got around to.

Sure, something that has been made by fermenting soya beans with salt and fungus doesn’t sound appetising, but it is one of my favourite flavours.  I first fell in love with it when I travelled in Japan, and this intensified when I went on a Japanese food-binge on my return to London.  In the west, we most commonly encounter it in miso soup, but is used in a range of other Japanese and fusion dishes.  It’s umami flavour with a slight hum of fermentation, lends itself well to a range of fish, beans and vegetables.

Aubergine works especially well with miso as it soaks up flavour when cooked.  Some recipes advocate grilling or roasting the aubergines with a miso glaze, and others recommend marinating the aubergines in the miso sauce to maximise the flavour.  The recipe I have been working on is far quicker, and therefore very suitable for a speedy weeknight supper.  The aubergines are fried; first in sesame oil and then in a miso sauce that also combines rice wine, mirin, sugar and vinegar to provide a balance of flavours.  A few dried red chillies provide just enough heat without overwhelming the other flavours.  I served mine with brown rice and sugar snap peas for a healthy vegan supper.

Miso Aubergines

2 large, or 3 medium, aubergines
5 tbsp sesame oil
2 dried red chillies
4 tbsp Shaoshing rice wine
4 tbsp mirin
4 tbsp caster sugar
3 tbsp rice vinegar
4½ tbsp red miso (I used Yutaka)

Cut the aubergines into bite-sized pieces and lay out on a tray.  Sprinkle with salt to draw out some of their liquid and leave for ten minutes.  Wipe away any moisture with kitchen paper.

Heat the sesame oil in a wok and, once hot, crumble in the red chillies and add the aubergine.  Stir fry for about eight minutes until the aubergine is tender and starting to brown.  Turn the pieces occasionally with tongs.

Meanwhile, combine the rice wine, mirin, caster sugar, rice vinegar and miso in a bowl and whisk together to a smooth sauce.  Lower the heat under the wok and add this sauce.  Cook over a medium heat for a further eight minutes.  In this time, the sauce will reduce and thicken and form a glaze for the aubergine pieces.  Serve right away.

One Year Ago:  Gingerbread Cake

Vietnamese Prawn Vermicelli Noodle Salad

Vietnamese prawn and vermicelli noodle salad

Vietnamese prawn and vermicelli noodle salad

So it’s been a while, huh? 

A couple of weeks ago, I sat down to write and ended up putting it aside to write my thank you cards for the wedding presents.  Each time since there has been a similar distraction which has kept me away from this blog.  It isn’t that I haven’t been eating – far from it – more that other things have got in the way.  I think we all have this problem.

Yesterday I spent much of the day on the couch with a bad bout of asthma.  As is often the way when I feel sorry for myself, much of my sustenance came from the toaster and the biscuit tin.  When I finally mustered the energy to pop down to the local shops and buy myself some Lucozade (magical restorative potion of choice), I went past the greengrocers and realised that something had to change: I needed vegetables.

Although the temperature has dropped in London in the past few days, I find that I am still in love with the no-cook meals I have discovered during the recent heatwave.  After all, nobody wants to slave over an oven and a hob when it is in excess of 30 degrees.  There has been a lot of raw vegetable consumption in my household over the summer, and I have to confess that I am feeling all the better for it.

Asian salads are one of the best ways to eat raw vegetables as the punchy, spicy dressings are the perfect cure for the sometimes monotonous taste.  They usually consist of vegetables, and often fruit, shredded very finely and combined with noodles or beansprouts and often meat or fish.  The art of creating the perfect dressing is getting the balance of the four elements right: hot, salty, sweet and sour, the basis of a lot of Asian cookery.

This salad is a typical Asian medley of vegetables with vermicelli rice noodles and prawns.  Although it isn’t strictly a no-cook recipe, the few minutes spent stir frying the vermicelli noodles and beansprouts in a wok barely counts.  Using cooked prawns is the easy option, but you could cook your own if you wish.

Vietnamese Prawn and Vermicelli Noodle Salad
Serves 2-3; adapted from a recipe from taste.com.au

For the dressing
2 tbsp dark brown sugar
2 tbsp fish sauce
90ml lime juice
2 birds eye chillies, deseeded and finely chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped

250g fresh vermicelli noodles
75g beansprouts
1 large carrot, cut into thin batons
1 cucumber, deseeded and cut into thin batons
2 birds eye chillies, deseeded and finely chopped
300g cooked, peeled prawns
2 tbsp each of finely chopped mint, coriander and basil

Combine all of the ingredients for the dressing in a bowl, whisk to dissolve the sugar and set aside.

Stir fry the vermicelli noodles and beansprouts according to packet instructions and then transfer to a large bowl.  Add the carrot, cucumber, chilli, prawns and herbs.  Pout over the dressing and toss to combine.

Two Ways with Spring Greens

I am one of those awkwardly pretentious people who loves quotations.  I have a dictionary of quotations that my grandfather gave me when I was a teenager, and have  been drawing on it for inspiration ever since.  I have a number of them written in a little notebook I carry around, have them engraved into gifts and almost always write them in birthday cards:  something about age and wisdom for the younger ones and, for the older ones, something about how bloody old they are.

One of the most overused quotations is, incidentally, one of my favourite books, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.  It’s been quoted in a number of terrible romantic comedies and sitcoms, but in the case of the week I’ve just had, it rings very true:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Last Thursday I organised a very fun and glitzy party that was scuppered somewhat by my waking up with the cold from hell.  This cold persisted into the weekend and on Saturday, with a red nose and sore throat, I celebrated my hen night with twenty of my dearest and, thankfully, healthy friends.  Of course, after a couple of gin and tonics start to blur your brain, it is easy to forget that you are ill until it hits you tenfold the next morning.  Let me be the one to tell you that martinis and decongestant tablets do not mix.

Since then, my cold has developed into a throat infection and a chest infection, which has rendered me more or less housebound for the past few days.  As is always the way when I’m ill, I go running for the same list of things that will make me feel better:  a box set of two or more seasons (this time it is House of Cards, which I am completely obsessed with), several bottles of original Lucozade, an abundance of tissues and as much fruit and vegetables as Ollie can carry back from the supermarket.  Ordinarily I would make my ultimate cold-buster, the Chicken ‘n’ Dumplings of my dreams, but south east London is a muggy old place right now, and jointing and stewing a chicken in my tiny kitchen seems far more unappealing than it does in the winter.

Stir fried lamb with spring greens

Instead, I have been upping my intake of green vegetables.  The wonderful thing about spring is the availability of more greens to break up the monotony of purple sprouting broccoli and kale we live on all winter.  I go crazy on asparagus, samphire, gorgeous peppery watercress from my home county of Hampshire and nettles, which I discovered a few years ago.  One of the best arrivals of the season, however, are spring greens, which have the benefit of being both versatile and cheap.  They are the first cabbages of the year and have a strong iron-rich flavour and robust texture that lends itself well to a variety of different dishes.  I have often used spring greens as a substitute for other leafy green vegetables such as spinach, pak choi or kale when I have been unable to get my hands on these, or simply have greens in the house.

Risotto primavera

Risotto primavera

I picked up a couple of these cabbages from the Co-op in East Dulwich for about £1 and had enough to make two main meals.  The first was a take on Nigel Slater’s stir fried lamb with broccoli (you can guess which ingredient I replaced) that took from my Asian storecupboard of chillies, fish sauce and lime; and the second was from Italy, a risotto primavera, which succeeded in using up some odds and ends of green vegetables I had in the fridge and freezer:  an old courgette, almost ready for the bin, a rogue celery stick and the ends of some bags of peas and broad beans lurking at the back of the freezer drawer.

The most important thing about cooking with spring greens, at least for me, it to remove the rough stalks in the middle of the leaves.  I can hardly ever get them to cook to a point where they are tender, and always end up picking them out.

Stir Fried Lamb with Spring Greens

  • 4 spring onions, finely chopped
  • 3 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 red birds-eye chillies, seeds removed (keep them in if you like it hot) and finely chopped
  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 350g minced lamb
  • Juice of 1½ limes
  • 1½ tbsp fish sauce
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1 head of spring greens, stalks removed and leaves finely shredded
  • Handful finely chopped coriander

Heat the oil in a large wok and stir fry the  spring onions, garlic and chillies for a couple of minutes until they are soft but not coloured.  Add the lamb mince, breaking up with a spatula, and cook until it is golden brown, about 10 minutes.

In a small bowl, mix together the lime, fish sauce and sugar then pour this mixture into the hot pan and stir through the lamb, cooking for an extra few minutes until some of the liquid has reduced.

Remove from the heat and check the seasoning.  Stir in the spring greens and half of the coriander and cover the pan for a few minutes until the leaves have wilted in the residual heat.  Sprinkle the remaining coriander on top and serve.

Serves two.  Adapted from a recipe by Nigel Slater.

Risotto Primavera with Feta

  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 1 stick of celery, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 300g arborio rice
  • 150ml dry white wine
  • 1 courgette, diced
  • 1l vegetable stock
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 head of spring greens, stalks removed and leaves finely shredded
  • 1 handful broad beans, podded
  • 1 handful frozen peas
  • 25g butter
  • Salt and black pepper
  • 50g feta, crumbled

Heat the oil in a large frying pan or chef’s pan and gently cook the onions, celery and garlic until soft but not coloured, this should take about 10 minutes on a low heat.  Add the rice and stir thoroughly to ensure that the grains are coated in the oil.  Turn up the heat and add the white wine to the pan, letting it bubble until almost all of the liquid has been evaporated.  Stir in the diced courgette.

Keeping the pan on a medium heat, start adding the vegetable stock to the rice mixture, a ladle at a time, stirring regularly.  Add the next ladle of stock only when the previous one has evaporated.  Keep adding the stock, stirring as you go, until you have used three-quarters of it.  Taste the rice, it should be cooked but slightly al dente.  If the rice is still too hard, repeat the process of adding stock and stirring until it has reached the consistency that you like.

Remove from the heat and stir in the butter, seasoning, spring greens, broad beans and peas.  Put a lid on the pan and leave for a couple of minutes until the butter has melted and the greens have wilted.  Stir again and serve in large bowls, topped with the crumbled feta.

Serves two for dinner and then one for lunch the following day.

*Apologies for my photography – it’s terrible.

Prawn and Cashew Nut Summer Rolls

Prawn and Cashew Nut Summer Rolls

Prawn and Cashew Nut Summer Rolls

I first became addicted to summer rolls, or gòi cüon, on a trip to south-east Asia in the summer of 2009.  I had finished my exams, and with a long, study-free summer ahead of me, I took off for a four-week trip through Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand with some friends.  Unsurprisingly, this trip sparked my love of south-east Asian cuisine in general and has inspired a lot of my cooking and restaurant choices since.  We ate beef phò for breakfast, bought countless bánh mi prepared from little motoribke/hotplate combos by the side of the road in Saigon, drank little cups of Vietnamese coffee sweetened with condensed milk to help with our hangovers and tried to pluck up the courage to try the foul-smelling, but apparently delicious, durian fruit (I still, to this day, have not sampled this delicacy).  The weather was extremely hot – 46 degrees on the day we went to visit Angkor Wat – so we often wanted cold and refreshing food.  Shredded mango and papaya salads are ubiquitous in this region, usually laced with a lip-numbing amount of chilli.  Summer rolls are also common, and a great cool starter or snack.

Summer rolls are a very traditional Vietnamese dish, but are also widely found in Cambodia.  It was in Siem Reap, in fact, that we learned to make them; on a cooking course at Le Tigre de Papier restaurant.  Summer rolls consist of a filling of vermicelli noodles, vegetables – usually lettuce, finely julienned carrot and beansprouts, herbs – usually coriander, mint and chives and a protein such as pork, prawns, tofu or nuts.  They are wrapped in rice paper, dampened in hot water to make it malleable.  They have a similar shape to the more widely-known spring roll, but are not deep fried. Summer rolls are commonly served with a dipping sauce of soy sauce, fish sauce, lime and chilli, although it has become common in recent years, particularly in Vietnamese restaurants outside of south-east Asia, to serve them with hoisin sauce, Sriracha or even sweet chilli sauce.

Although relatively simple to make, summer rolls require quite a bit of patience as the rice-paper wrappers can be quite fiddly.  The best way to approach making summer rolls is to prep all of the ingredients in advance and lay them out in front of you so that you can take a bit from each of them for each roll.  Using pre-cooked vermicelli, often found in supermarket chillers next to the pre-prepared Asian vegetables, will also save you time.  The trickiest part is knowing how long to soak the rice paper rolls for:  not enough time and you will have rice paper that is too stiff to roll well, too long and you will have soggy rice paper that will split when you try to use it.  There is no specific timing with this and you simply have to use your judgement, although it does get easier with practice.

Prawn and Cashew Nut Summer Rolls

For the rolls:

  • 12 round rice paper wrappers
  • 2 little gem lettuces, tough stalks removed and leaves shredded
  • 100g pre-cooked vermicelli noodles
  • 50g beansprouts
  • 1 large carrot, cut into fine batons
  • 48 small cooked prawns
  • Handful chopped coriander
  • Handful chopped mint
  • Handful chopped cashew nuts

For the dipping sauce:

  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1 birds eye chilli, chopped
  • 1 tbsp chopped ginger
  • 1 tbsp granulated sugar
  • 3 tbsp fish sauce
  • 2 tbsp soy sauce
  • 2 tbsp lime juice

Prepare all of the ingredients for the rolls and set them out on boards in front of you.  This will make it easier when you come to assembling them.  Fill a large shallow bowl with boiling water.

To make each roll, place a rice paper wrapper into the bowl of boiling water until it has softened.  Remove it and place it flat on a board or work surface.  Leaving plenty of space around the edges, pile a small amount of the lettuce, noodles, bean sprouts, carrot, four of the prawns, coriander, mint and cashew nuts.  Fold in the paper on the left and right of the filling, fold over the piece of the rice paper closest to you and roll away from you until the roll is complete.  The moisture in the rice paper will create a seal.  (YouTube has some video guides on how to roll summer rolls, so it may be worth watching these if you aren’t sure.)

To make the dipping sauce, place the garlic, chilli, ginger and sugar in a pestle and mortar and pound until you have a smooth paste.  Stir in the fish sauce, soy sauce and lime juice.  Pour into small pots or ramekins and serve with the summer rolls.

Adapted from a recipe by BBC Good Food.  Makes 12 rolls.