Roots and Rootlessness

Every new year, we promise ourselves new lives, new looks, new selves. Yet by the end of the first week of January, how many of us still feel that motivation, that tug toward self-improvement? Think for a moment now: what if every day were lived with that sort of mindfulness and deliberation, of keeping our promises to others and ourselves? What would that feel like, and who would we become? We might not necessarily become better, or wiser, or more beautiful, but perhaps we would live with a greater appreciation for incremental change, the gradual completion of a project, the assiduous chiseling of an idea, the slow and uncertain progress that underlies day-to-day existence.


And so it is in this new year that I find myself caught in between, somewhat ungrounded, both my heart and my stomach tugged in two directions. In such a situation, the surety of any resolution seems futile. One day I am overjoyed to be in New York, land of endless eating opportunities (Vietnamese! Ethiopian! Cuban! Italian! Nepalese! Ecuadorian!), and the next I yearn for the smells and tastes of winter in Japan: an afternoon snack of fragrant tangerines and genmaicha, soothing soups and hot pots, rice cooked with chestnuts, a piping hot bowl of udon on a frigid day. My appetite is rootless, torn between the rich, long-cooked comfort foods of childhood and the sustaining, earthy fare I came to know and love in my life halfway across the world.

Reaching a compromise between these two desires in my own cooking has not been easy. However, one of the best answers I have found to date came in the form of a simple sweet potato and miso soup, by way of Cooking in the Momentby Andrea Reusing. You’ve probably heard of her already, as both she and her book have received a fair amount of good press, all of it well-deserved. (Her restaurant, too, is apparently worth a visit, though I have not had the pleasure of eating there.) Simply put, this book is an understated gem. As soon as I began to peruse Ms. Reusing’s recipes, I sensed a kinship with her cooking sensibility and way with food. This is uncomplicated, unfussy fare, driven not by technique but largely by the products of a particular region.

Sound familiar? It should, but please don’t let that turn you away. Perhaps local is old hat by now, but the beauty of this book is that it gives the concept of eating locally a unique voice and context. Again and again, the stories in Ms. Reusing’s book remind you that she is committed to one place and, by extension, the people, the weather, the foods, the history, and the memories that make that place come alive for her. Thankfully, her writing elucidates these ideas beautifully and honestly, without a hint of pretentiousness.

Yet where her book really sets itself apart is in the nuanced handling of far-flung flavors – a sprinkling of fruity cardamom enlivens creamed spinach, and the nutty richness of black sesame offsets the bite and snappy crunch of watercress, and rusty red shichimi tōgarashi provides a beautiful visual contrast for vibrant green edamame. The soup takes a similar tack, pairing white-fleshed sweet potatoes (known as satsumaimo in Japan) and puréeing them into silky submission with sweet white miso and a touch of cream. Staying true to the ethos of the recipe, I used three orange sweet potatoes in lieu of the four white ones called for in the recipe. A few snow-white parsnips and pale yellow carrots filled in for the missing tuber, while two extremely tart apples tempered any excess sweetness from the vegetables. The result? The best of both worlds, I’d say.

 

White (Or Orange) Sweet Potato and Miso Soup

The rich, sweet flavors of the root vegetables in this soup are amplified by the miso, sake, and mirin – all ingredients used to build complexity in Japanese cuisine.

Adapted from Cooking in the Moment by Andrea Reusing

Serves 6 to 8

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

3 medium-large onions, thinly sliced (about 5 cups)

2 tablespoons chopped fresh ginger

3 garlic cloves, chopped

Kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup dry white wine

1 1/2 pounds (about 3) orange sweet potatoes, peeled and and sliced into 1/2-inch thick rounds

2 medium parsnips, peeled, cored if necessary, and sliced into 1/2-inch thick rounds

2 medium yellow carrots, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch thick rounds

1/2 cup sake

2 tablespoons mirin

1/2 cup heavy cream (optional)

2 tart apples, peeled, quartered, cored, and cut into 1/2-inch pieces

3 tablespoons sweet white miso (shiro miso / 白味噌)

Crème fraîche and thinly sliced scallions, for garnish (optional)

Heat oil in heavy stock pot over low heat. Add the onions, ginger, garlic, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Cover and cook over low heat until onions are soft but not browned, about 20 minutes.

Add wine and cook, uncovered, about 5 minutes, until reduced. Add sweet potatoes, parsnips, carrots, 5 cups water, sake, mirin, cream, and 2 teaspoons salt.

Cover and simmer until sweet potatoes are half-tender, about 6 minutes. Add apples and cook until sweet potatoes and apples are tender, about 10 minutes more. Remove from heat, add miso, and puree. Thin with water if desired and check seasoning. Garnish with crème fraîche and scallions.

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