Sunday, September 19, 2010
Toil and Trouble
“'Tis healthy to be sick sometimes.”
Henry David Thoreau
Though a sad but true fact, this past week I was grossly ill--the victim of congestion, a scratchy throat and a slight fever. I don't know how it happened. I exercise regularly, never touch anything on a bus if such a thing can be avoided, wash my hands in an obsessive compulsive manner (and even use a paper towel to open most doors of public restrooms), eat more than my fair share of fruits ("an apple a day keeps the doctor away!") and vegetables, and try to sleep 7-8 hours a night. Since in some ways I can be seen as a paragon of healthy living (or as certifiably insane) :), clearly, the real reason for this "back to school" cold must have been the 17 papers I meticulously graded, put comments on and received dirty and hurt looks for when I returned them.....yep, somebody had a voodoo doll with my name on it.
No, that's unfair and definitely wrong. The worst thing about this particular illness was that I could feel it slowly creeping up on me for the past two weeks (perhaps from the very moment I received the papers) and I truly gave my best effort in trying to ward it off with my usual round of self-prescribed cure-alls. Besides the much beloved hot toddy, just what exactly are my remedies of choice?
Soup. It's all about the soup. From curried split pea (an Alton Brown favorite; I eat this at least once a month) to my own take on miso soup, when sick I live both for and on soup alone. Not only is it soothing, but it also seems to magically cook itself. It's a beautiful thing to be able to throw various ingredients into a pot, bring it to a boil, lower it to a simmer, put a lid on it and then, in about 30-40 minutes, many nourishing spoonfuls of warmth await you! But really, even despite my general soup love, the crown jewel in my soup collection is simultaneously a combination of several recipes, the product of much experimentation and, most importantly, the most "recipe-free and anything goes" I allow myself to be in the kitchen; in short, it is a somewhat bastardized version of miso soup.
I first began attempting to make my own miso soup after a trip to Iowa a few years ago when I visited a friend who knows many secrets of the Japanese kitchen :). Shortly after my return from the heartland, I ordered a Japanese cookbook, a real classic, only to realize that I was a little in over my head. I love a challenge as much as anybody else, but there was no way that I was going to prepare for my Master's Exam and simultaneously make my own dashi, or stock. No way, no how. Plus, the one time I tried this, the dish was so bland that I decided homemade miso soup must have been outside my range. Fast-forward to late January/early February of 2009, a grim moment in my otherwise absurdly joyful and easy life and one of the rainiest winters of my California experience, and I turned to yet another miso recipe, one that seemed a little more in my range--of both abilities and taste buds. This is when I first started adding noodles and fresh cilantro, mixing miso pastes and shichimi togarashi, sometimes spinach, mushrooms or carrots....You get the picture; almost anything goes.
These days my favorite involves chicken, chili oil (I fell in love with chili oil after reading about Fuchsia Dunlop's culinary experiences in China), tofu, chicken broth, yellow miso paste, freshly grated ginger, toasted sesame oil, as well as veggies and tofu galore. Though there's no real recipe here (it would seem I'm not so OCD after all!), I would say that it's best to fry the chicken and carrots with the ginger and cooking oils first, and then to add the tofu and whisked miso (I like to whisk mine with a cup or so of boiling water, which really helps to separate it), so that the tofu can absorb the miso's flavor. Only after this should you add the chicken broth and let things simmer. After about 15 minutes, pour the soup over the waiting and pre-cooked soba noodles and top it with whatever you'd like: pepper flakes, cilantro, scallions, fresh ginger, etc.
And it really does work. After four days of eating this soup, sleeping a lot, a few hot toddies and one children's book (a must-read gem!) later, I was again feeling like my usual self...I was even able to enjoy the weekend a bit by taking a trip to SF's Asian Art Museum (yay for Chinese puppets!), happy hour pizza and a cocktail at Fly Bar (the photo of their exposed brick walls and lovely sparkly decorations is above), and baking delicious and healthy vegan (yes, your eyes do not deceive you) cupcakes! Secret ingredient in both the cake and frosting: avocados!. Inspiration: Joy the Baker, the woman I turn to after my grandma for top of the line baking advice.....