ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN LIP SERVICE WEB MAGAZINE’S ‘MEATLESS MONDAYS’ COLUMN
In many parts of the world, the idea of going meatless is not a new or novel approach to eating. Being part of affluent (and, let’s admit, indulgent) cultures, it’s easy to forget there are many people for whom a mostly meatless diet is historically the norm. These cultures’ cuisines are a great place to look for delicious, healthy ideas for your Meatless Monday menus, so don’t overlook them.
Few cuisines make the most of every ingredient while retaining clean, simple flavors like Japanese. Though many of us may picture standard sushi bar fare when thinking about Japanese food, there is an extensive variety outside raw fish, teriyaki, and tempura in the cuisine. The beauty is, the approach remains the same, simple clean flavors with an economy of common ingredients. For today, we’ll keep it super-simple with vegan miso soup and soba noodles, a great light dish for hot summer nights.
Dashi is the master broth of many Japanese recipes, so a great staple for starting to explore Japanese cuisine. Granted, traditional dashi requires katsuobushi (shaved bonito), so we’ll tinker a bit to make it appropriate for Meatless Monday by substituting mushrooms, which will offer their own hearty umami flavor. The upside: an additional treat (the cooked mushrooms) to add to your meal.
Having moved from the melting pot of Southern California to not-so-diverse Florida, I know how difficult it can be to find authentic ingredients outside larger cities. Sometimes, specialty food chains carry a wide assortment of ethnic ingredients, but often at a premium. This is mind, I went a step further and substituted the more common brown crimini mushrooms instead of my favorite shitakes, just to be sure the broth will work using the most affordable and easiest-to-get ingredients. I’m fairly sure konbu, the seaweed base of dashi, should be available at any specialty or gourmet market at an affordable price. Of course, this is a must-have for making dashi, so has no appropriate substitute, anyway. Hopefully, you can get your hands on some, if not in person, then online. (Many authentic dried and non-perishable ingredients are available to order on the interwebs.)
Always make sure to check for ethnic markets in your area, too. They may be a little off your beaten path, but are worth the trip to get great ingredients, often at a significantly lower cost. Think of it this way, unless you live near a cultural enclave, your regular grocery store will consider ethnic ingredients as specialty items (and we all know what happens to prices when that happens). An ethnic market will consider those same items pantry staples, ingredients people buy (and they turn over) regularly, so the costs will reflect that shift in perception. If you’re not sure where to find markets, check out some of the great food resources online, like the helpful community at Chowhound.
Other groovy suggestions:
Want a more substantial bowl of soup? Add some fresh vegetables before ladling in your soup. Just a few options are: shredded carrots, cabbage, and daikon radish; lightly steamed cabbage; bean sprouts; minced water chestnut; sliced bamboo shoots; chopped spinach; steamed broccoli.
Not a fan of tofu, but still want to get your protein? Make a delicious miso porridge-like soup by substituting egg for tofu and steamed rice for noodles. This, of course, will render your vegan soup vegetarian, but still meatless. Before you add your miso base, keep the broth boiling and reserve a bit more in case you need to make more miso base. Beat 4 eggs well in a spouted vessel (like a pyrex measuring cup). Pour the beaten egg into the bubbling broth in a thin stream while stirring vigorously to create little ribbons of egg. Let the egg strands cook for a few moments until they set before removing the pot from the heat to add your miso base. If the taste is right for you, add the reserved broth back to the pot; otherwise, use it to mix more miso base. When serving, instead of noodles on the side, add steamed rice to your soup bowl (along with the wakame and scallion garnishes) and ladle the soup over to make a hearty, porridge-like soup great on cold days for any meal.
Braise some baby bok choy in a cup of your base broth (without miso) for a great vegetable side. Add a cup of water plus a little extra of your base ingredients at the start of cooking to have enough broth for braising liquid. Clean the bok choy well and cut into quarters length-wise. Bring the braising liquid to a boil, then add the bok choy and stir until the edges of the leaves just start to wilt. Then, cover and simmer at the lowest heat possible until the thicker portions of the stalk are cooked through (this should probably take about 20-30 minutes). Bring extra flavor to your bok choy by adding a bit of soy, sesame oil, ginger, etc. to the base broth for your braising liquid.
Spinach also works great with Japanese flavors and is readily available anywhere. Heat a TBSP each of canola and sesame oil on MED in a large pot. Add a TBSP of minced garlic and 1 tsp grated ginger. (Porcelain ginger graters are readily available at Japanese markets or online and are a HUGE time/energy saver.) Stir well for about a minute. Add spinach by the handful, stirring until the leaves begin to wilt before adding more. Then, add a drizzle each of soy and rice vinegar and mix well until all the spinach is completely wilted and flavors are incorporated. Serve immediately.
Pickles are a tasty Japanese staple food. One to three days before your meal, prep your vegetables (slice or shred into small pieces) and let them brine in the fridge in a mix of 2 TBSP kosher salt, ¼ cup sugar, 2 cups hot water, and 1 cup vinegar (or a touch more to taste if you like tart pickles – rice, cider, or plain old white vinegar work well), maybe even a touch of soy if you’d like to add some umami saltiness. If you want to get a little tricky (and spicy), try adding a bit of wasabi or a few Thai red chili peppers to the mix. If the brine doesn’t cover your vegetables, mix another batch more until it does; your vegetables need to be immersed. Mix well a couple times a day. Your pickled vegetables will keep in the fridge for at least a week, so make extras to munch as a healthy, crunchy snack. Some readily-available vegetables that work great for quick, cold pickling are Persian cucumbers (or peeled/seeded regular cukes), radish, daikon radish, shredded cabbage, shredded carrots, cauliflower, green beans, and green tomatoes.
Well, that’s the Meatless Monday lot for this week. Hope your week is a good one! See you next week with more recipes and food porn!