Thursday, April 17, 2014

Making Miso 101

My home-made chickpea miso is the key ingredient to making flavorful vegan kimchee.

Koji is key to miso fermentation.
By now I’m sure most everyone has had miso soup; it’s made with a thick savory paste that is as ubiquitous to the Japanese table as ketchup and mustard are to ours; miso adds umami to soup stocks, vegetables, fish, chicken and pork. The most common type of miso is kome, which ranges from off-white (shiro) to dark red (aka) depending on how long it has been aged; it’s made by fermenting a paste of soybeans, salt and koji—rice treated with a cultured fungus called Aspergillus Oryza. Other varieties use cultured grains such as barley, buckwheat, hemp and rye. One variety, mame miso, is made with steamed soybeans and no grain. It’s similar to Korean doenjang.

I took an intensive workshop with chef Natsuko Yamawaki where I first learned the traditional method of fermenting kome miso. Natsuko is an accomplished chef who focuses on innovative macrobiotic Japanese cuisine. Since her workshop I’ve experimented with other beans—the flavor and texture of my chickpea miso outperform any of the commercial brands, some which use wheat fillers, MSG, alginate, corn syrup and preservatives. All these additives flatten and deliver a compromised flavor. Others are pureed and fermented at higher temperatures to hasten fermentation.

Authentic, traditional miso is rich in probiotics, micro nutrients and antioxidants; it has all the essential amino acids which form a complete protein. Miso is said to lower LDL cholesterol and protect against radiation and heavy metal poisoning. That being said, I just love the way it tastes; it’s high in glutamic acid which gives it a complex salty, nutty and sweet umami flavor. So get your beans ready and let’s make a small batch of white miso. You can purchase koji online or at most Japanese grocery stores—the brand that I use is Cold Mountain but there are a few North American brands.

You’ll need:
  • 12 oz dried soybeans
  • 10 oz dried koji
  • 4 oz fine sea salt (not iodized salt)
  • 1.5 oz coarse or fine sea salt (for salt cap)
  • water for soaking and cooking
  • stock pot with lid or pressure cooker
  • glass jar and small tub for mashing beans
  • silicon spatula
  • colander
  • wire mesh skimmer or small strainer
  • vodka or grain alcohol and a paper towel for cleaning
  • plastic wrap
  • large clean mason jar (1/2 gallon)
Sort and discard any impurities and discolored soybeans. Soak them overnight in the refrigerator (12 to 18 hours) using twice the volume of water than beans; for a small batch you can use a pitcher. The soybeans will have expanded into plump ovals. After soaking drain and rinse beans well in cold water by rubbing them with your hands.

In a stock pot: Place the beans in a stock pot and fill to twice the volume of beans with water. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer for an hour stirring every 15 minutes; remove the foamy film and any loose skins that float to the top with a small strainer or wire mesh skimmer. Cover and simmer for another 1 1/2 to 2 hours until the beans are very soft. You should be able to crush them with your fingers. Drain the beans in a colander and reserve the cooking liquid.

In a pressure cooker: I have an old-fashioned stove top pressure cooker... the one with the nozzle on top. Although I’ve never had a mishap with mine I’m terrified of it so I follow the instructions and cooking chart for soaked beans carefully. Cooking time will vary with different models. Repeat the instructions for simmering and skimming as for the stock pot, then attach the lid securely.

My Presto Pressure Cooker instructions call for cooking at high heat for 12 minutes; the nozzle starts dancing and hissing, the pressure lock pops up and then I leave the room with my my cellphone set to 911 on speed dial as I try to block out the childhood memory of an exploding pressure cooking in our kitchen... after that I turn off the range and allow the pressure cooker to rest for 40 more minutes. Heat and pressure are directly proportional, this fact shortens cooking time. When the pressure lock returns to the safety position, I remove the lid and then drain the beans in a colander reserving the cooking liquid for later.

When compared with slow-simmering in a stock pot, my Presto pressure cooker cuts cooking time in half.

Koji and fine sea salt
Allow beans to cools to around 88-92°F; higher temperatures will kill the active aspergillus oryza fungus in koji. You can use a thermometer or just check with your finger.

Work with clean hand before handling koji! Wash well with warm water and soap and dry with a clean towel. This will ensure that there is no contamination. NEVER use anti-microbial solution to clean your hands or work surfaces and tools, this will destroy koji and any beneficial microbes. Return any unused portion of koji and refrigerate. You can use the original product container or a clean plastic bag.

Place koji into a clean bowl and with mix with 4 oz of fine sea salt until all contents are evenly distributed. Set this dry mix aside. Place the warm soybeans into a small tub and crush them with the bottom of a glass jar or a bean masher. The goal here is to create a texture with verisimilitude, not to make peanut butter. This paste should have some broken beans, but no whole beans. As you mash with a dragging motion, scrape down the edges of the tub with a spatula and add a some of the cooking liquid a half-cup at a time until you achieve the thickness and texture of lumpy mashed potatoes. You’ll notice the tiny threads of protein that form by crushing and mashing.

The reserved cooking liquid is used to add moisture to the cooked soy beans as you mash.

I’ve used a food processor for milling soybeans and found that the texture was consistent but had a light sandy texture. After that batch of miso was fully fermented I found that it lacked depth and was not as flavorful as when I had mashed it by hand, but it did cut down on fermentation time.

Add half the amount of koji to the soybean paste and mix well with a spatula, then add the remaining portion of koji and mix until all contents are evenly incorporated. Add more of the cooking liquid if your paste is too thick. In the end your paste should be as firm as dough. Roll balls that are about 2" in diameter and throw them into a clean mason jar. When the jar is one-third full pack with a spatula to remove an air pockets. Repeat until there is at least an inch of space from the mouth of the jar.

Koji and salt are incorporated into the mashed soy beans to make a thick paste.
Clean and sterilize the mouth and mason jar with a little vodka and a clean paper towel. Remove any residue on the threads; it will make removing the lid almost impossible over time. Cut a square of plastic wrap that is about an inch wider than the jar and place in the jar on top of the miso. Make a “salt cap” by pouring 1.5 oz of fine sea salt over the plastic and place lid on tightly. Be sure to label it by date. Ferment at room temperature out of direct light; a kitchen cabinet of food pantry work perfectly. Check your miso for any contamination every two weeks and clean the outside of he jar as needed. after four months, use a small spoon to taste your progress. Taste it once a month to ensure quality. Kome miso will ferment from six months to a year, depending on the flavor and texture you prefer, after which you can store it in the refrigerator in several small containers.

Now wait a minute, I have six months to a year until I have miso? Yep, and azuki bean miso made with cultured barley is preferably aged for three years. White miso takes the least amount of time, but it does build more character and complex flavor with age. When it takes on an amber tone, it’s considered ready. After a year when it turns walnut brown it takes wonderful salty, tart quality. Using more koji than soybeans (5:4 ratio) hastens the process; some say it’s ready in four weeks. Using more koji makes a light colored miso that’s sweeter with less nuance. Hastening the process may also shorten the shelf life and viability of this living food.

You may want to use other beans, or combinations of different beans. My red lentil miso was ready in six weeks, but it’s not as good as miso made with soybeans. I use it for soups, marinades and making other fermented foods, but I’d never serve it at the table. Chickpeas are slightly grainy in texture but will also ferment in a shorter amount of time, around four to five months. I have yet to try black beans, green lentils or raw peanuts. For your first white miso it’s worth the wait for at least six months to get the full umami experience, and if you’re going to wait that long make a larger batch to make it worth your while.

ETA six months to a year until this shiro miso umami bomb will be detonated, but some types of miso only take six week.

Brooklyn Spring

Spring is here, despite the recent dip in temperature. This is when Brooklyn shed’s her winter coat and dons her colorful apparel. Behind the urban facades, Brooklyn harbors so many secret garden’s. For the past years I have had the privilege of shaping and maintaining my friend Judy’s backyard hide-away. The jewel in this crown are two fill-size 25' tall plums trees that I pruned into a diminutive shape that is worthy of the Unicorn Tapestries.

Freezing weather will not stop these plum trees from baring it all and showing off their floral finery.

I took the crepe myrtle down in size so that it wouldn't upstage these two plum-perfect beauties.

Six blueberry bushes stand where tall Pampas grass once rules.

It took three years of branch and roots pruning to turn two tall plum trees into a elegant dwarfs.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Food Fight: Doenjang vs Miso

Too fresh to eat, mashed chickpeas will transform into sweet and savory miso in about six to eight months.

Soybeans are simmered and cooled.
I started making my own miso after taking an intensive work shop with Brooklyn-based chef Natsuko Yamawaki. She specializes in macrobiotic Japanese cuisine. I learned so much about the process. I made three type of miso this past Sunday: traditional soybean, chickpea and red lentil. By winter 18 pounds will be ready to eat—a long slow fermentation that’s worth the wait. Hand crafted miso adds a deep savory flavor to my vegan kimchee. Korean doenjang and Japanese miso are both rich in nutrients, amino acids and glutamic acid, each going through distinctly different microbial transformations.

Doenjang (which means thick paste) is made by slowly simmering dried soybeans, grinding them into a rough thick paste and then forming blocks (meju). These blocks are covered with dried rice stalks, a source of bacillus subtilis, and are dry-cured for two to three months. The bacterial activity produces a strong, pungent aroma as the nitrogen in soy protein breaks down into ammonia. These fermented blocks are further fermented in an earthen vessel of brine until it separates into liquid and solids which are further refined into Korean soy sauce (ganjang) and a heavily salted paste called donejang. In general I think doenjang has a more intense, rustic quality in flavor and texture than its Japanese counterparts; it’s slightly sour and salty, with a light nutty flavor, with a base flavor that harkens to kimchee.

Miso, on the other hand, is fermented with a cultured mold called koji, instead of bacteria. Koji is made by inoculating cooked rice with aspergillus oryzae. It is the essential ingredient used to make rice wine (saki), a rice sweetener (amazake), soy sauce (shoyu) and of course miso. It can be sold as dried or fresh. As with doenjang, dried soy beans are slowly cooked until they soften. The cooked dried soybeans are pounded into a fine paste then mixed with koji, fine sea salt and the reserved cooking liquid to form a firm paste. Unlike miso, doenjang is fermented purely with soybeans and salt; rice grains or other starches are not used in production.

Dried soy beans are cooked and pounded into warm paste. Koji and salt are mixed in as the beans cool.

Fresh miso paste is rolled into balls then packed tightly into a clay jars and covered in a thick layer of salt. It will cure for six months to a year to develop a complex savory flavor known as umami. Miso will darken as it ages. Color and flavor vary with ingredients; red miso is made with barley koji and red azuki bean instead of soybean. Some types of miso are aged for over three years.

“Why make miso when there are many store bought brands?” I’m often asked. I’m guaranteed a better quality when I make my own and I’m assured of purity. When you read the label you’ll find that some brands use wheat or corn starch as filler. Some brands also add corn syrup, MSG, preservatives, food dye and emulsifiers. Higher quality miso is made with rice, beans and sea salt only. Miso that is mechanically blended is very smooth, which shortens fermentation, but lacks subtlety and depth of flavor. I’ve used a food processor to make miso, but have concluded that I prefer the texture made by mashing the cooked beans; it has depth, verisimilitude and texture that sits well on the tongue. If I want a more refined texture I mash it further with the broad side of my knife. Making miso and doenjang is a time-invested production but worth the toil. Depending on the flavor you are trying to achieve, both can take from several months to years to make.

But one simply can not make everything. I have never made my own doenjang; I buy a good quality pre-made brand to make ssamjang, a seasoned Korean condiment. It’s rather pricey and it does have fillers and corn syrup, but it is very convenient. Making doenjang is not an ideal task for the home environment; the strong aroma it creates as it ferments might evoke Federal activity. Miso on other hand barely emits an odor as it cures, which makes it suitable for production in an urban setting. My miso is heavily salted. It’s not meant for eating but for making my vegan Korean chili paste for kimchee fermentation.

Balls of fresh miso are packed tightly into large jars and sealed with a layer of salt.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Isn't Kimchee Naturally Guten-free?

It’s time to restock! 50 lbs of Napa cabbage kimchee will be ready in five to six weeks. Pogi gimchi is made with quartered or halved heads that are rubbed with Korean chili paste and stuffed with julienned radish, ginger and peppers. My kimchee is vegan and gluten-free. But isn’t kimchee naturally gluten-free?—this questions comes up often. If you’re a label-reader, as I am, you’ll find that wheat is often used as a filler in some Asian products. I’ve found it in miso, fermented black bean, soy sauce and Korean chili paste (gochuchang). For those who have celiac disease or choose to exclude wheat from their diet, this is an important matter to note.

Rice and millet were first cultivated in China as far back as 7,700 BC. Wheat traveled the Silk Road to Western China around 2500-2000 BC along with other occidental influence. Prized for it’s gluten component, wheat is commonly used for making pasta (a Chinese invention); other Asian noodles are made from root starches and bean flours. But what is gluten? It’s a protein that naturally occurs in wheat, barley and rye grains. Gluten is composed of two molecules, gliadin and glutenin, which when activated with liquid form a simple protein. On its own it is not bad thing; this protein is used to make a meat substitute known as seitan (mein chin in Chinese) after all the starch is removed.

For those who have celiac disease (an auto immune disease) purity is crucial; eating foods with gluten triggers a reaction in which the body attacks and destroy the small intestine’s villi and microvilli, which leads to malnutrition and painful gastric symptoms. The consequences are much more dire than a wheat allergy. The common wisdom is to avoid gluten-based foods and test regularly for antibodies.

Although some grains are naturally free of gluten, they might be cross-contaminated in a shared kitchen, whether it be yours or a commercial facility. All surfaces and non-reactive tools need a thorough cleaning with bleach or vinegar and hot soapy water. Tools and equipment made of porous materials (plastic, wire mesh, wood, aluminum, etc.) should be designated for non-gluten use only.

When you make your own Korean chili paste (gochuchang) it’s not an issue. Click here for pictorial instructions from my blog that show you how to make a batch of gochuchang, and mak kimchee. Be sure to use coarse Korean chili flake (gochucaru), there is not substitute for this ingredient. It’s sweet, mildly spicy with a smoked grassy fragrance. Make it a fun afternoon with a group friends.

MUL-tini, Shaken not Stirred

Kick back, relax and have a MULtini to start your weekend. It’s made with my Brussels sprouts mul kimchee. My friend Nata Traub, mixologoist extraordinaire, has perfected what most only try to attempt—a kimchee-based cocktail that will rock your world.

Mul kimchee is not spicy, Koreans served it as a soothing summer soup for those scorching hot days. It’s a relatively short fermentation, two weeks at the most, just long enough to go tart.

I’m not sure if I can tout the health benefits, but I can tell yo this is one fine martini with notes of juniper, ginger, burdock, wasabi and just a hint of garlic, garnished with a wedge of fine-aged Brussels sprout. It soothes the tongue like a good pair of kid gloves and blooms in your mouth like a cool summer evening.

A few weeks ago some of our Eat/Share/Eat group from Facebook met up in real time in the West Village. Over brunch I presented Nata and Justine each with a small vac-sealed bag of freshly made Brussels sprouts mul kimchee. The first thing Nata said was “Cocktails!” and thus the Mul-tini was born. Save those olives for snacking, and leave the pickle-back for the kids. Check out Nata’s blog for cocktails and more. Here’s her recipe for this innovative Korean libation:

Friday, March 28, 2014

Gluten-free Kimchee-Bacon Pajeon Recipe

Here’s a recipe from my Kimcheelicous ePUB cookbook for gluten-free Korean crêpes—kimchee-bacon pajeon made with scallions. Not all Asian cooking employs wheat, this recipe uses two rice flours. You’ll need a good blender to make the kimchee batter and you can make your own rice flours in a coffee grinder. Prep time is short but the batter should rest for an hour to allow the starches to bloom. Cook your bacon ahead of time, a microwave makes this task easier.

About the kimchee... this recipe is a great way to use kimchee that has gone sour, you know, that jar that you’ve had for months that’s been languishing in the back of your fridge. Muk Eun Ji (literally meaning old kimchi) is Napa cabbage that has been aged for two to three YEARS, not months. Fresh kimchee (under a month old) is best suited as a side dish, but it looses all of it’s flavor and character when cooked. Muk Eun Ji is used for making stews, marinating or braising meats and for making pajeon. You can use Napa cabbage kimchee (baechu or mak work well), but I prefer fermented radish (kkakdugi); it has more flavor when used in cooking, especially after it has become very tart.

To make rice flour in a coffee grinder first make sure you clean it thoroughly. Wipe down the blades and interior with a spoapy sponge, let it dry then mill 1 tsp each of white rice and baking soda to absorb any residue. Discard and wipe clean with a dry paper napkin. Blend rice grains 1/4 cup at a time, mill until you achieve an even consistency. If you plan to make more than this recipe requires, store your flour dry in a closed container. DONE! Now grease-up that griddle and get that bacon ready, it’s time for some pajeon pageantry!

Kimchee-Bacon Pajeon
Yield: 8-10 crêpes
  • 1 cup brown rice flour
  • 1/2 cup white rice flour (not sweet rice)
  • 1/4 cup tapioca or potato starch
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 2 tsp sugar
  • 2 tbsp roasted sesame oil
  • 1/2 cup kimchee, roughly chopped
  • 2 bunches of scallions, cut 3" in length
  • 10 pieces of bacon, cooked, drained and crumbled 
  • blender
  • large griddle or cast iron pan
  • vegetable or canola oil to grease the pan
Add egg, water, kimchee, sugar and sesame into a blender and puree until smooth. Add rice flours and starch and blend until smooth. Add more water and blend if the batter is too thick, but no more than 5 tbsp. It should be as thick as yogurt. Place batter in a covered bowl and refrigerate for an hour.

Cook two pajeon at a time. Pre-heat griddle to medium and grease with oil. Arrange two beds of scallions, roughly 3" by 5". Pour 1/2 cup of batter over each bed of scallions and sprinkle with bacon bits. Let it sit for two minutes then flip to other side for another two minutes. If you want your pajeon well done, cook each side for another two minutes. Store in a warm oven until ready to serve. Sprinkle with grated parmesan cheese or toasted sesame seeds and serve with your favorite egg dish. You can freeze pajeon for future meals, allow then to cool completely, wrap them well in foil and freeze. Thaw and reheat when ever you want!

Thanks again Maangchi for sharing my recipe! You are an inspiration and a book of cooking wisdom, but mostly you remind of the all the great food back home that I miss so much. 감사합니다!! Visit her website for Korean recipes, cooking videos and more at
@maangchi #KoreanFood #kimchi

Monday, March 24, 2014

A Sweet Cabbage Rose for Spring

Early roses of cabbage line my work table. It’s spring, but you wouldn’t know it today, as the temperature dropped back down to 27°F this morning. Yesterday the Q was packed with people trying to take advantage warm 55°F Sunday. I came back with all the essential ingredients for making Korean chili paste. Stock is low and it’s time to make more kimchee.

Salt is ubiquitous to the lacto-fermentation process, not only for conditioning vegetables for rubbing with paste, but for creating an environment that allows lactic acid bacteria to colonize. For that matter I never use anti-bacterial soap or hand lotions.

With so many pastes pre-mixed and available, I’m often asked why I bother make my own. Reading over the FDA labels, I found that most commercially made chili pastes (gochuchang) and miso use wheat as a filler. Some brands list corn syrup and MSG at the front of the list. My fine-aged foods are gluten-free and free of preservatives, the only way to ensure that my goods are naturally flavorful I make all my pastes, and my own miso for that matter. On the chopping board today I have make and pogi baechu kimchee (Napa cabbage) and two varieties of mul kimchee made with Brussels sprouts and green beans.