Like cooks everywhere, I scan recipes in newspapers, magazines, cookbooks, online. But I also have a private habit I don't tell many people: If I'm drawn to a recipe in a cookbook in a store, I have been known to scribble down the basic ingredients and their ratios without buying the book. Back at home over the stove top, I get out my cooking instruments and riff. Culinary jazz!
The first time I "borrowed" the ingredients from a cookbook page, I was visiting my future in-laws in Maidstone, England. I had offered to bake banana bread, my first attempt to impress them in the kitchen. But I couldn't remember the proportions and I did not want to embarrass myself by overdoing the baking powder, resulting, I knew from sad experience, in a bitter taste. In the W.H. Smith's bookshop on the High Street, I checked out the cookery section. Banana bread is not a tradition in England as it is here, but I did find a recipe for a "banana cake." The end result from my penciled notes passed the test. I'm not sure plagiarizing ingredients from a cookbook is the best way to ingratiate oneself to one's in-laws, but it didn't seem to damage our bond and in years to come, my mother-in-law and I would spend many a happy sherry-soaked afternoon competing over cutthroat Scrabble.
The recipe that follows is another such derivative of something I found in a newspaper. The original called for a litany of Japanese ingredients I wasn't familiar with then: mirin, sake, enoki, shiso and nori. But it also called for toasted sesame oil, tamari, ginger and garlic, which I did know. I'm a sucker for those ingredients, especially marinated together. The toasted sesame oil, in particular, is an item I'd carry with me to a desert island along with the works of William Shakespeare.
But enough with the rapture! I skipped the other ingredients, made notes of the proportions and improvised a new soup with the ones I liked.
Omitting some ingredients made my effort much faster. Whereas the original recipe takes over an hour, mine was ready to eat in 20 minutes. I'm sure foodies would argue that the longer-cooking soup has, like older wines, a more "complex" flavor, and they're probably right. But I'm not that discerning an eater or a drinker, and for impatient cooks like me, my simple version will satisfy anyone, especially on a chilly, overcast day. With no meat or dairy, this silky soup is particularly suited for vegetarians or vegans, but its woodsy mushroom and miso base would make it popular even among meat eaters.
The original recipe called for shiitake mushrooms and king oyster mushrooms (also called eryngi or trumpet), but I've tried white button, shiitake, portobello and cremini, and they all work.
Miso is an Asian product worth getting to know. It's made from fermented soybeans and grains (rice or barley), which together create the rich taste known as umami — meaty without being meat. Like most people, I was introduced to it in sushi restaurants, where miso soup is a thin broth — tasty, but a little too watery for my preferences. After some experimentation, I now incorporate miso and its mega health benefits into many recipes. It's a probiotic, full of friendly bacteria, and helps with digestion. One caveat, however — miso is high in sodium, so I never add salt to this recipe.
Health benefits aside, does the soup taste any good? Glad you asked. My answer is rhetorical: How can any recipe with toasted sesame oil, tamari, garlic and ginger not be good? Mind you, I love garlic, so I use a lot. This soup is so comforting, I call it Chicken Soup for the Vegan Soul.
Mushroom Miso Soup
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 to 4 large garlic cloves, minced
1 onion, chopped
1 pound mushrooms of any type, chopped
3 tablespoons yellow miso
3 teaspoons tamari or soy sauce
2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
1 pinch powdered ginger.
Warm the olive oil in a 3-quart saucepan. Add the garlic and onion and sauté for 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms and sauté another minute. Mix in the tamari or soy sauce, sesame oil, ginger and miso, stirring until the miso is dissolved. Add water to cover the ingredients and simmer for 8 to 10 minutes.
When the mushrooms are soft, ladle some of the soup (or all, if you're not into chunky soup) in the blender and purée until it's smooth.
Louisa Rogers has abandoned chunky soups in favor of purées, and wonders what this suggests about her personality development.