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A bowl of magic on Converting day: miso soup with vegetables, seaweed, tofu, and shitakes

A few days ago, at the request of students, I posted on Facebook a recipe for miso soup I always make during a baking class.

The class, Converting Practicum (about which I’ve written before), is an all-day laboratory for our Chef’s Training students. Working in pairs, students take a conventional baking recipe (with white sugar, refined flour, and processed ingredients) and convert it step-by-step to a more whole, vegan alternative. It’s a brilliant exercise in how minimally refined sweeteners, whole grain flours, and natural additives work.

Each student group makes 6-8 batches of their cookie, cake, or muffin recipe in the course of a day. By a rough, conservative estimate, we make 700 portions of dessert. Heaven knows the students try their best to taste judiciously, but all that sugar and flour (even the “healthier” choices) eventually gets to them. Imagine the challenge of remaining intellectually focused with starches and sugars as your mind’s only fuel.

The Converting day process

That’s where the miso soup comes in. Making a big pot of this Asian elixir is – and has always been – an integral part of the Converting class. It’s our chosen antidote to expansive, acid-forming sugar and flour. A bowl of alkalizing miso soup, chock-full of vegetables, live with digestive enzymes and rich in minerals from seaweed, is the perfect balance for a sugar high. When the students eat it, I actually see them “come down” almost immediately and re-focus on the task at hand. And they consume the soup greedily throughout the day.

So when a student asked for the recipe last week I decided to post it on Facebook for other students who asked too. I was more than a little surprised when 62 people quickly “liked” it and 26 people enthusiastically commented on it. There was a lot of waxing sentimental over some simple miso soup among those comments.

Now I didn’t invent miso soup – and I didn’t even re-invent it. Students remember my recipe fondly, yes. And yes, I’ve gladly accepted the unstinting praise it garnered. But I rather think what students really remember is how the soup worked its magic to soothe sugar-induced nausea and confusion.

This reminded me of a simple, profound truth that is the foundation of our work at NGI: whole foods have a power to restore balance, to heal – if we know how to use them. Ask any Chef’s Training student how to cure an upset stomach, nausea, bloating, a headache, a hangover, insomnia, a sugar binge, and they can give you an effective food remedy. Food and healing – it’s our thing.

Elliott’s Miso Soup Serves 6-8

2 tablespoons sesame oil (NOT toasted)

1 onion, saute slice

1 carrot, matchstick

2 ribs (pieces) celery, diagonal slice

8-10 shitake mushrooms, sliced

6 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

1 piece of kombu

1 teaspoon salt

¼ cup wakame, soaked 15 minutes and drained

¼ cup arame, soaked 15 minutes and drained

½ lb. tofu, diced

2 quarts (8 cups) water

ginger juice to taste

lemon juice, to taste (not traditional) (a student of mine suggested rice vinegar – awesome too)

1 cup (or more) miso of choice scallions, sliced, for garnish

1. Heat oil in a 3-quart pot. Add onions, carrots, celery, shitakes, garlic, kombu, and salt. Sweat for approximately 15 minutes on low heat, covered.

2. Add wakame, arame, and tofu. Continue to sweat for another 10 minutes.

3. Add water, bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer for another 15 minutes. Turn off heat. Let broth stand for 5-10 minutes. Add ginger and lemon juice.

4. Temper miso mixing with 2 cups of the broth. Add tempered miso back into the soup. Serve, garnished with scallions.

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In Chef’s Training we offer a baking class unique among cooking schools: the Converting Practicum.  I teach this class frequently, and it never ceases to receive raves from students for the learning experience it provides.  I don’t know who first created it, but I marvel time and again at how much I learn from this class.

Here’s how it works: over the course of 5 hours, each student works with a partner to convert a conventional baking recipe (replete with white sugar, butter, refined flour, processed additives, and eggs) to a more whole, vegan alternative.  We work with typical home recipes for muffins, cakes, and cookies.

Preparation actually begins in a prior class, the Converting Lecture.  The lecture is a general road-map for the practicum where students learn guidelines and rules they will use to replace traditional baking ingredients with less processed choices.

Baking is an exact science and a finicky art.  The smallest changes in ingredients, procedures, and proportions can result in profound (sometimes disastrous!) changes in the final product.  In a classic pastry training scenario, a student is shown precisely how to execute a recipe or technique in the hope she will reproduce that recipe with reverent fidelity.  While the science behind the technique will be taught, experimentation is not encouraged.

The Converting Practicum joyfully and effectively turns this model on its ear.  Students are first given the guidelines then set free to experience what happens when refined flour is replaced with whole grain flour, white sugar with more natural sweeteners, cow’s milk with vegan alternatives, butter with oil, etc.

It’s easy to take the sacred trinity of white flour, butter, and eggs for granted; these 3 ingredients have worked seamlessly together for centuries.  Substituting less processed, vegan ingredients for these stalwarts can be done effectively, but it’s not always easy or successful.  Every substitution is fraught with the possibility of adversely changing a product’s texture and/or flavor.

In this class, students are likely to make their chosen recipe 6 to 10 times.  Each repetition of the recipe includes a new substitution of a refined ingredient with a less processed, vegan alternative.  And each repetition includes all successful changes made in prior versions.  Fiascoes and disasters at any given step require the students to repeat that step again.  Throughout, students make careful observations, notes, and adjustments to perfect their product in the face of considerable obstacles.

The beauty of the class, in my opinion, is that it’s not about making a flawless product at every stage.  If it were that easy, what would anyone really learn?  Students are encouraged to make bold, but educated choices that may succeed or fail.  Through experimentation, collaboration with teammates and the instructor, and minute adjustments, the day often ends with a vegan product that exceeds the qualities of the original.

Throughout the process, your cookie may look by turns like a chunk of fossilized dung or a gooey primordial mass, but what you learn is invaluable and hard-won.  Hard-won particularly because the intellectual rigor needed for the exercise is under constant siege by the necessity of tasting each batch of cookies to gauge its success.  The onslaught of bizarre but, for the most part, mild symptoms that result from our baking marathon never fail to amuse me.

The day begins with high spirits, segues quickly into a manic phase, and then descends into the inevitable dizziness, fogginess, confusion, and occasional hysteria that sugar can induce.  It’s not at all uncommon to hear a student exclaim something like:  “Oh, no, I just put my brownie in the oven, but I may have left out the cocoa!”  Good times.

Natural Gourmet would be remiss as the leading school in health-supportive eating if we didn’t provide an antidote to Sweetener Madness.  I first advise students to taste judiciously – tiny bites at most.  Human nature and desire being what they are, this tactic doesn’t always work.  That’s when I bring out the big guns:  I make a big pot of miso soup.  Baked goods are mostly comprised of acid-forming flours and sugars; miso soup counteracts their effects with alkalizing miso, vegetables, and seaweed.  The students eat the soup halfway through class with gratitude and appreciation.  Visibly, within minutes, their focus and mood are grounded again.  Imagine if all pastry art programs had miso soup at the ready!

The day ends with each group presenting all their finished products and explaining what happened at each stage of substitution.  All in all, students leave class with more useful knowledge that will serve them well in their impending careers as ambassadors of healthy eating.

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