Q: I love miso soup and can’t seem to get enough of that unique and slightly salty flavor. What is miso, anyway, and what else can it be used for?
A: Miso is a simple but ancient art form to preserve soy beans. The beans are cooked, mashed, and then salted. Finally, a rice fungus is added to begin the fermentation process, which can take up to 14 weeks, depending on the moisture in the air. Instead of rice, you can use other grains to produce different types of miso. The most common here in the U.S. are white and red miso. White miso is accomplished when you boil the soy beans, and red miso is made by steaming.
When I first wanted to learn this ancient art, I had a hard time getting Japanese chefs to tell me their secret to making great miso. Finally, after a long conversation with one such chef, I found that great miso starts with great koji (fermented brown rice).
The flavor of good miso is like that of good wine: It can change drastically, depending on where you are making it, air circulation, humidity and region. Even miso made from one side of your house to the other can create subtle flavor adjustments. It took me a long time to realize that miso is never mastered: It is nurtured.
So here, I give you the love from my heart, what I call, Miso American Style. I chose to put a little of myself into my miso by changing the soy beans out with split peas, kidney beans, black bean and even sweet and delegate lentils. The first time I made it, it developed a slight unexpected sweetness. The Japanese chef who taught me chose to eat it with nothing more than sliced cucumbers. I share with you my recipe for the best sea bass you’ll ever eat.
YELLOW LENTIL MISO-CRUSTED SEA BASS
Ingredients for Miso:
800 grams yellow lentils
300 grams kosher salt
600 grams koji (fermented brown rice)
Cook lentils in water until soft. Reserve excess liquid. Blend 75 percent of the lentils until smooth, and then add the remaining 25 percent unblended back into the mix. Once cooled to 120 degrees, fold in the salt and koji, and place into a clean, dry container (at least 6 to 8 inches deep). Be sure to fill in tight to eliminate all air pockets. Cover with parchment paper and let sit in well-ventilated area with no direct light.
Here in St. Louis, it should take at least six to eight weeks to ferment. This is best made in mid to late spring, but could be made year-round. Keep in mind that flavor profile will change. During the process, a thick mold will form on top. Do not disturb until the full eight weeks are up.
Once it’s ready, scrape off the top layer of mold, about one-quarter inch below the mold to make sure all mold is removed. Place miso in containers and refrigerate until needed.
Ingredients for Sea Bass:
2 6-oz. portions sea bass
6 baby bok choy
1 red bell pepper, julienned
2 T grape seed oil
1 T sesame oil
1 t sake
1 t mirin rice wine
1 t sesame seeds, toasted
2 sprigs cilantro
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a hot sauté pan, heat grape seed oil until it just starts to smoke. Sear sea bass on one side. Once crust is golden, turn the sea bass over and place on a small cookie sheet. Spread fresh miso over the sea bass, and place in oven for about 7 to 10 minutes, depending on thickness of the fish.
Using the same searing pan, sear the baby bok choy until it begins to caramelize and brown. Add red peppers and sesame oil. Deglaze with sake and mirin, and then remove from heat. Add fresh picked cilantro leaves—the heat from the vegetable will cause the cilantro flavor to bloom. Remove sea bass from oven and let rest while you put your plates together.
If you have questions about the recipe, or want to try it before making it, stop by 1904 Steak House at River City Casino. Or, reach me through Facebook (facebook.com/ChefJohnJohnson), Twitter (@Johnson_Chef), or Instagram (Johnson_Chef).
Chef John Johnson is executive chef at River City Casino. For questions or recipe requests, email him at John.Johnson@rivercity.com.