Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Winter Miso Soup with Shiitake Mushrooms, Ginger and Greens

This miso soup is almost a stew, thick with slices of pungent ginger root, dried shiitake mushrooms and dark leafy greens surrounded by a savory broth. The white miso paste which is the basis of the broth is mildly sweet and not too salty; rice vinegar and rice wine add a subtle sweet- sour dimension.

Ginger root is classified as one of the most warming herbs in the traditional Chinese herbal pharmacopeia. Shiitake mushrooms are strengthening and beneficial for healthy immune function. Together these two ingredients transform this soup into a fortifying meal for cold winter days.

The recipe can be made in ten minutes or less. It does not require precise measurements but the quantities noted below will yield two generous servings.


6 dried shiitake mushrooms
3 cups fresh water
1/3 cup thinly sliced leek
1/3 cup thinly sliced celery
3-4 slices fresh ginger root
1+ 1/2 tablespoons white miso paste
1- 2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 tablespoon mirin rice wine*
2-3 handfuls baby lacinato kale leaves (or baby arugula, spinach or other leafy green)

1.  Place mushrooms in a ceramic bowl. Boil about half the water and pour over the mushrooms. Cover the bowl with a plate and allow mushrooms to rehydrate while you slice the vegetables.

2. Slice  ginger root into slabs and then into matchsticks. Thinly slice the celery and leek.

3. When cool enough to handle, remove mushrooms from bowl one at a time and squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Reserve the soaking water. 

4. Slice the mushrooms with a sharp knife.  If the stems are tough, slice as thinly as possible; they will soften with further cooking.

5. Place the sliced vegetables into a pot, add soaking liquid and remaining water.  Cover and simmer gently over a low to medium flame for five or six minutes.  Add more water if there isn't enough to just cover the vegetables.

6. Place miso paste, rice vinegar, mirin and a few tablespoons of broth in a small bowl and stir until fairly smooth.  Add mixture to the soup.

7. Stir the greens into the soup, cover and turn off heat. Allow to rest for three or four minutes until greens wilt. Taste broth and adjust seasoning.  Reheat the soup very gently before serving but do not boil.   

*Note: Mirin rice wine is a traditional Japanese product; it is a versatile staple to have on hand and is commonly available in natural food markets. 

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Grasping the Stinging Nettle

The sting of the nettle (Urtica dioica) is caused by three substances contained in its tiny hollow needles: acetylcholine, histamine and 5 hydroxytryptamine. Contact with the needles can create an unpleasant burning, itchy skin rash in most people. The Latin verb urere means "to burn" from which  the nettle derives its botanical name.

A common wild plant found throughout North America, Europe, North Africa and Asia, the nettle's sting has not deterred humans from gathering it for use as food, tea and medicine for thousands of years. Its fibers have been woven into cloth; today there is renewed interest in uses for this plentiful fiber.

Like many edible wild greens, the nettle plant is highly nutritious, containing valuable antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and an unusual quantity of protein for a leafy green. Brief cooking neutralizes the sting; thus the nettle becomes edible when steamed, sauteed, added to soups or other cooked dishes.

Nettles are now being cultivated by growers in California and I recently discovered some beautifully fresh ones at my local farmer's market. I prepared them using a simple technique which takes no more than five minutes and can be used to cook many varieties of  leafy greens.

Cooking the Nettle:
Heat a tablespoon or two of olive oil in a cast iron skillet, and using tongs or chopsticks to handle the nettles, pile them into the pan over a medium flame. Although an entire produce bag of nettles may look like a lot, they will quickly reduce in size as they heat.  Keep adding more nettles until they all fit into the skillet, pressing them down gently with the tongs.

With a kitchen shears roughly cut the longer stems into manageable segments. Stir the nettles and sprinkle with a tablespoon or so of rice wine and a few tablespoons of water; the resulting steam will quickly complete the cooking process. By now the nettles will be tender and much reduced in volume. Immediately transfer them to a warm serving dish. Garnish with sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste.


"Grasping the nettle" means to confront a problem head on. Linguists posit that this expression is derived from the notion that one is less likely to get stung by the nettle if it is grasped firmly in the hand rather than handled timidly; this flattens the tiny needles making it less likely that they will puncture the skin and inject their irritants.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Hoshi Shiitake: A Little Mushroom Magic

Edible mushrooms have been a vital source of nutrition for Homo sapiens for thousands of years.  Millenia before humans began farming they foraged for wild mushrooms as they wandered forests and grasslands. Under the proper conditions mushrooms grow quickly in great abundance; to this day they are sought for their exceptional flavor, nutrients and health promoting qualities.

Hoshi Shiitake (literally "dry wood mushroom")  are among my most treasured kitchen staples, especially during cool weather when my thoughts turn toward warmer fare. A few shiitakes can add almost magically delicious depth and complexity (umami) to simple vegetable dishes.

Although produce markets offer many varieties of fresh mushrooms, I much prefer the dried ones, which are far more flavorful and can be conveniently stored for months without any loss of quality or nutrients. I don't think of dried shiitakes as a lesser substitute for fresh; they are simply in a category of their own with unique culinary characteristics.

Many groceries sell packaged dried shiitakes. Look for those which have thick, plump caps and which display the characteristic markings seen in the photo above. A one pound package of shiitakes will make many meals; most recipes require only a handful at most. (Sliced dried mushrooms should be avoided, as their quality is inferior).

Dried shiitakes must be re-hydrated before cooking; this requires a bit of planning but is simple to do. Rinse the mushrooms in cool water to remove any extraneous material, then place in a glass or ceramic  bowl with enough fresh water to cover. I rarely soak them for more than one hour but some sources recommend up to eight hours for best flavor and texture. They can be stored overnight in the fridge while soaking. 

Once the mushrooms have softened, remove from water. Squeeze one at a time with your hands to remove remaining liquid. Don't discard the soaking water; it is highly flavorful and can used as stock. Place the mushrooms on a cutting board and using a sharp knife, slice to the desired thickness. If the stems are very tough, set them aside for use in long simmered dishes.

Hoshi shiitake have a multitude of uses. In Japanese cooking they appear in miso soup and rustic vegetable stews, and are added to rice dishes. I have used them in the mushroom barley soup made by my mother and grandmother - although they prepared it with the highly prized aromatic dried Russian mushrooms which were always kept on hand. Recently I have added thinly sliced shiitakes to black beluga lentils and also to home made tomato sauce, with excellent results.

Remove dried shiitakes from their original package, place in a clean glass jar and store in a cool dark place. They will keep for many months, always on hand for a little culinary mushroom magic.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Essence of Summer, Season of Joy

According to the traditional Asian calendar, Summer is the Season of Fire, the time of "Ultimate Yang". Energy is high, daylight is plentiful and growing things flourish and reach the apex of their ripeness and fullness. This is the season of the Heart, whose dominant emotion is Joy.

Midsummer farmer's markets in Northern California are brimming with exquisite produce of the utmost freshness and flavor. Almost everything I have sampled in recent weeks is of extraordinary quality.

This is the time to revel in the abundant colors, flavors and fragrances of nature. Farmer's market  purveyors offer many luscious varieties of produce such as plums, peaches and nectarines which are seldom found in commercial supermarkets.

Don't forget to select red, yellow and orange sweet peppers, crimson dry farmed tomatoes, fragrant melons and bunches of aromatic basil. (If you can't use all the basil, tie a cotton string around the stems and hang it up to dry in a warm spot in your kitchen for later use.)

Produce of this quality is dense with nutrients, requires little preparation and is great for casual snacks and meals. Ultra ripe fruit is at its best eaten out of hand. Make a simple gourmet meal with sliced dry farmed tomatoes sprinkled with olive oil, sea salt and fresh basil leaves. Eat slowly and savor the essence of Summer, the Season of Joy.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Basic Black: Beluga Lentils

These beautiful tiny black lentils, which are named for the Beluga caviar they resemble, are deeply flavorful and high in protein, vitamins, minerals and fiber. Lentils require no pre-soaking and since Belugas are so small, they cook thoroughly in thirty minutes or less. A batch prepared ahead of time can be stored for several days in the fridge,  ready to become a satisfying meal in minutes. 

Basic Black Beluga Ingredients:

3 cups black beluga lentils
6 + cups fresh water
3 cloves garlic, unpeeled
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon sea salt (or to taste)


 Place lentils and water in a heavy pot with a well fitting lid. Bring to a boil, then lower flame so that lentils are gently simmering. Add garlic, cloves and bay leaves. Cover and allow to simmer for about thirty minutes. If you have a flame tamer, place it between the burner and the pot to distribute heat evenly and prevent scorching.

Stir lentils occasionally and add a little water if needed. Lentils are done when tender.  Remove garlic cloves and place in a bowl. Mash the cloves with a fork; the garlic skins will separate easily. Stir the mashed garlic back into the pot. Add sea salt to taste. While lentils are still hot, place them in clean glass jars and cover tightly. Lentils handled this way will keep well in the fridge for up to one week.

Serving suggestions:

1. Steam or saute any dark leafy greens which you have on hand; serve with hot lentils.
2. Chiffonade a stack of leafy greens. Place the ribbons in a layer on top of lentils as they heat in a covered pot. When greens have wilted, remove and serve with lentils.
3. Puree lentils in blender, thinning with some water or plain unsweetened nut milk. Heat and serve.
4. Toss a few tablespoons of chilled lentils into your favorite raw salad.


Try any one or a combination of these garnishes: Freshly squeezed lemon or lime juice, chopped red, orange or yellow sweet pepper, dried red pepper flakes, freshly ground black peppercorns, chopped cilantro, parsley or basil leaves. When sweet corn is is season, remove kernels (cooked or raw) from cob and add to lentils.

Black Belugas, ready to heat and eat.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

"Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?"

    Painting by Paul Gauguin, 1897. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston*  

Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?  

The title of Paul Gauguin's masterpiece poses questions which have concerned Homo sapiens  for millenia, perhaps ever since our evolution 200,000 years ago in East Africa. A brilliant and engaging book which examines these questions has recently been published.

Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, Ph.D.  (Harper Collins, 2015).

From the book jacket:

"In Sapiens, Harari delves deep into our history as a species to help us understand who we are and what made us this way. An engrossing read." -- Dan Ariely, Duke University Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics.

"An encyclopedic approach from a well-versed scholar who is concise but eloquent, both skeptical and opinionated, and open enough to entertain competing points of view... The great debates of history aired out with satisfying vigor." -- Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)

"Harari's account of how we conquered the Earth astonishes with its scope and imagination... A bravura retelling of the human story... brilliantly clear, witty, and erudite... It really is thrilling and breathtaking; it actually does question our basic narrative of the world." -- Ben Shephard, The Observer (London)

* * * *                                         

Professor Harari has created a fascinating video lecture course based on his book which "... surveys the entire length of human history, from the evolution of various human species in the Stone Age up to the political and technological revolutions of the twenty-first century." The series is available on You Tube via the link below.

A Brief History of Humankind

"D'ou venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Ou allons nous?" 

* Public Domain

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Mallow: Not Just A Common Weed!

If you live in San Francisco, you've walked past wild mallow plants growing out of cracks in the sidewalk, in neglected gardens and other untended patches of urban land. A hardy plant which appears early in the spring, the common mallow is one of the many members of the botanical family Malvaceae which includes hibiscus, okra and cotton.

All parts of the mallow are edible; roots, leaves, seed pods and flowers. Mallow has been foraged for centuries for use as a highly nutritious food and and as a versatile medicinal herb. It thrives in poor soil and requires little water, and thus has been a valuable resource in times of food shortage.

Young mallow leaves are tender and mild, with no hint of bitterness. They can be used like any other leafy green - raw in salads, steamed, sauteed or even blended into smoothies.  Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cooks add them to traditional stews; the large mature leaves are used as wraps in place of grape leaves. The seed pods are high in protein and healthy vegetable oils.

Our prehistoric ancestors survived for millennia on their impressive ability to gather and hunt wild foods. Many edible plants thrive in urban settings, though they are usually dismissed as nothing more than nuisance weeds. Learning about wild plants provides us with a valuable connection to our ancient origins and an appreciation for the vast changes in our food supply and the manner in which it is procured.

Foraging should always be undertaken with caution. For those who wish to learn more, there are many informative web sites devoted to the topic. Here is the link to one such site:


Mallow Seed Pods