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The Kitchen Coach

Miso: The healthiest of foods

Rebecca Wood —

Today's soy foods correctly rank as being both the healthiest — and the shoddiest* of foods. It's useful to discern the difference. The — undeniably most medicinal soy food is miso. Current scientific research — now supports its historical health claims. This delicious food is an effective — therapeutic aid in the prevention and treatment of heart disease, certain — cancers, radiation sickness and hypertension. Miso soup consumption is — linked with up to a 50 percent reduced risk of breast cancer according — to the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

Miso making has been considered an art form for several — centuries in Japan. Through a special double-fermentation process, soybeans — and grains are transformed into a wondrous seasoning agent with potent — healing properties. Miso has a texture similar to peanut butter and is — available in a vast range of delicious flavors ranging from meaty and — savory to sweet and delicate. While you'll most often find miso in soup, — where it serves as a rich and flavorful bouillon, it is also used in sauces, — dressings and even some desserts.

John and Jan Belleme, the country's leading authorities — on miso, have just written "The Miso Book: The Art of Cooking with Miso." — Some years ago, I enjoyed the good fortune of visiting the Bellemes and — feasting upon their own handmade miso. They'd recently returned from a — eight-month Japanese apprenticeship with miso master Takamichi Onozaki. — Thanks to their efforts, we now have available domestic miso made and — aged using time-honored methods. These methods include, for example, aging — miso for up to eighteen months. Just as you can taste the difference between — a fine and cheap wine, you can readily taste and appreciate the difference — between a quality miso and a pasteurized, high-tech miso that uses added — enzyme extracts to shorten its fermentation cycle. Look for organic miso — that states on the label that it was naturally aged in wood using traditional — Japanese techniques.

I also used to make my own miso from scratch but today — appreciate being able to buy quality miso from the refrigerated or ethnic — sections of natural food stores. The sweetest tasting misos are yellow — or beige in color, sweet and light in flavor and impart an almost diary-like — creamy flavor. They seem especially suited to Western-style comfort foods — like mashed potatoes and cream soups, whereas the more salty, savory misos — are dark red or brown, have aged longer, and impart an Asian flavor.

My current favorite is a soy-free miso made of chickpeas. — But I always have on hand the most medicinal variety, hatcho, which is — unusual in that it's 100 percent soy. Although it's as dark as dark chocolate, — you'd never confuse the two. Whenever my energy is low, immune system — is challenged, or before and after X-ray exposure, it's hatcho that goes — into my soup.

At home, refrigerate miso in an airtight container. Use — the light-colored miso within nine months and dark miso within eighteen — months. Packets of additive-free, freeze-dried instant miso soup are available — in natural food stores and are a good convenience item. They are also — great for travel.

Miso is a superior source of usable whole protein, for — it contains all eight essential amino acids. Miso's protein content ranges — from 12 to 20 percent, depending upon the variety. It is also low in fat. —

Whether you and miso are old friends, or about to become — new friends, I recommend "The Miso Book" to you. Its 140 miso-containing — recipes offer some innovative and tasty dishes. Here's a recipe I've adapted — from it.

* Note: Soy foods to avoid are high-tech products like — soy protein isolate and textured vegetable protein, a.k.a. TVP.

Creamy Squash-Coconut Soup

Serves 4

Adding coconut milk to an otherwise classic miso soup — recipe intensifies its rich, sweet flavor. When using a yellow or red — colored and tender-skinned squash, like butternut or red kuri, you may — leave its skin intact. (Trim and discard, however, any tough or warty — pieces.) It will soften, blend right into the soup and yield more flavor — and nutrients. If fully pureed, a green-skinned squash detracts from the — soup's beautiful golden color.

1 tablespoon sesame or coconut oil

1 cinnamon stick

1 tablespoon minced ginger

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

3 cups cubed butternut squash

1 large onion, diced

1 (14-ounce) can coconut milk

Pinch of sea salt

3 tablespoons sweet light miso

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/2 cup shredded unsweetened coconut, lightly toasted

Warm the oil in a 4-quart pot over medium heat. Add the — cinnamon stick, ginger and turmeric and saut? for — minute. Add the squash — and onion and saut? for 5 minutes or until the vegetables soften. Add — the coconut milk, 2 1/2 cups water and salt and bring to a boil. Reduce — the heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer for 15 minutes, or until the — squash is tender. Remove the cinnamon stick.

Place the miso and 1/4 cup of soup broth in a small bowl — and puree with a fork. Add the puree to the soup and simmer for — minute, — taking care to not let the soup boil. Season with pepper. Adjust seasonings — and remove from the heat.

Lightly puree the soup using a potato masher. Or fully — puree the soup in a blender or food processor, taking care to not burn — yourself. Divide the soup between four bowls and garnish each bowl with — — tablespoon of shredded coconut, placing the remainder of the coconut — on the table to pass around.

Local author Rebecca Wood is a personal chef and offers — individual Kitchen Coaching. Her book, "The Splendid Grain," won both — Julia Child and James Beard Cookbook awards. You may reach Rebecca or — visit her many recipes and articles, at www.rwood.com.