When Julia Cotts, executive director of the Garden School Foundation, invited me to teach a Japanese cooking class to the garden club at 24th Street Elementary School in Los Angeles, I chose two classic Japanese dishes: miso soup and onigiri, or rice balls. Basic miso soup is made with seafood stock called dashi and seasoned with miso paste. Tofu, scallions and seaweed are familiar ingredients in everyday miso soup. Onigiri is a portable rice ball made with short-grain rice; it’s filled with a morsel of meat, fish or pickled vegetable and wrapped in nori seaweed.
What was different from my usual Japanese cooking classes was the choice of ingredients I was given to work with. “We will use the vegetables and fruits grown by the children,” Cotts explained. I was ready to discover new flavors for my miso soup and to teach how to make onigiri by hand.
The first things you notice upon setting foot into the elementary school’s garden are the beautiful pepper trees. They help diffuse the noise of the nearby freeway and filter the dust of the city. In 2003, a group of teachers and parents came up with the idea of turning the school’s old concrete parking lot into a community garden instead of paving it with new asphalt. Ten years later, the garden is thriving. A variety of winter root vegetables and leafy greens as well as herbs grow in the raised beds. One entire section of the garden is devoted to growing fruit trees. The kumquat and Satsuma tangerine trees have clusters of bright orange fruit ready to be picked. Bird feeders made from pine cones smeared with peanut butter hang on tree branches. I am enchanted with this garden. It reminds me of the garden in the novel “The Secret Garden” — one that has magical healing powers. Only this garden is real. It’s an exemplary garden where children can learn to appreciate nature and develop life skills by learning how to grow food.
For the cooking class, more than 50 children and parents, mostly Latinos, came to watch as I made miso soup and onigiris. Some of the parents only spoke Spanish, but the children were eager translators. “Hojas de Marisco,” someone said about the big kombu seaweed I dropped in the soup to make the dashi broth. Most of the children had seen seaweed washed up on the beach but never eaten it. “Seaweed is like a vegetable,” I said as I took the hydrated seaweed out of the broth. “It’s full of good nutrients like vitamins and fiber.”
I cut up the seaweed and passed it around for everyone to try. Some brought it up to their nose to smell. Some thought the seaweed felt rubbery. I loved hearing their reactions and giggles. “Don’t you sauté some onions in oil first?” asked one parent. “No, I don’t use any oil to make miso soup,” I said.
Next, I threw in a bag of dried bonito flakes, which look like wood shavings. The konbu seaweed was strange, but the bonito flakes looked even stranger. I strained the ingredients to finish the dashi broth. Everyone was entranced by the aroma of the amber-colored dashi.
Nontraditional ingredients flavor miso soup
To flavor the soup, the children harvested broccoli, kale, Swiss chard, cauliflower, lettuce and a variety of herbs like parsley, dill, oregano, chives, cilantro, epazote and savory — not exactly what I would consider candidates for making miso soup. But it was up to the children to decide, and let’s begin by saying freshness is the best ingredient for all cooks.
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They washed and chopped the vegetables and filled the stock pot all the way to the rim. I let the soup simmer awhile and then added the miso paste. It was the most colorful, complex and fragrant miso soup I ever concocted. Everyone tried using the chopsticks to pick up the morsels of vegetables from the soup. Some used them as a skewer. Who would have thought of using these herbs in the soup except the children who grew the foods in this garden?
A long soup line formed immediately, and everyone was drinking it with gusto. Some fathers gathered around the pot of miso soup asking for more. “It’s like menudo but healthier,” one father remarked. “This miso soup is so delicious,” shouted Cotts, who gave some to her toddler son.
We then moved on to making the onigiris with the rice I brought, and we decorated them with herbs, flowers, fruit and vegetables. The rice grains stuck on fingers, so I told them to dunk their hands in the bowl of water before handling the rice. Japanese rice is stickier than the long-grain rice Latinos are used to eating. Some children were already familiar with nori seaweed from eating sushi. Onigiris are like sushi’s distant cousin — another finger food, but without the fish on top. The pack of 50 sheets of nori disappeared in no time. Some children decorated the onigiris with nasturtiums and kumquats. I have never seen onigiris so colorful and original. I was relieved that none looked like Hello Kitty. Those few onigiris that were not quickly eaten sat on the vinyl floral tablecloth bathing in the sun with the loveliest expressions.
1 (6-inch long) piece of Kombu seaweed
4 cups filtered water
2 cups bonito flakes (Katsuobushi)
1. Take the kombu and make several crosswise slits in it using scissors.
2. Steep the kombu in 4 cups water over medium heat. Just before the water comes to a boil, pluck the seaweed out of the water. Discard or use it to make optional secondary dashi (see below).
3. Turn heat to low, then add 2 cups dried bonito flakes. Do not stir. Let the bonito flakes steep gently like tea for one minute. Turn off the heat.
4. Strain the mixture in a sieve lined with a paper towel or cheesecloth, and then the dashi is ready to be used for making soups and sauces. Discard the flakes or use it to make secondary dashi.
Variation: For added umami flavor, add one or two dehydrated shiitake mushrooms to the dashi. First, soak the dried mushrooms in 1 cup of water overnight. Add the soaking liquid and the mushrooms to the broth. Keep it in the broth to simmer. Follow Step 4. Discard the mushroom or slice it up and eat it with a little soy sauce or put it in your miso soup.
To make secondary dashi, combine the used kombu seaweed and bonito flakes with 4½ cups of filtered water in the same saucepan. Bring to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes, then strain. It is great for use in miso soup.
Makes 4 servings
This miso soup is made with turnips, snow peas and tofu. You can use a variety of vegetables in your miso soup.
4 cups prepared dashi, divided
2 baby turnips, thinly sliced
5 to 8 snow peas, veins removed
⅓ of a tofu brick, sliced into half-inch cubes
3½ to 4 tablespoons white or red miso paste or a combination of both
1. Pour 3½ cups of dashi into a medium-sized saucepan and bring to a boil. Add the turnip and snow peas and cook over low heat for 1 minute.
2. Thin the mixture with a half cup of dashi broth. Add enough to lend flavor without making the broth too salty.
3. Add the tofu to the broth. Bring to a simmer until the tofu is heated, about one minute.
4. Add the miso paste and mix thoroughly into the soup.
5. Divide the broth between four bowls. Garnish with scallions and serve.
Tip: Miso soup does not improve in flavor when reheated, so you will experience full flavor once all the ingredients are added.
Makes 4 onigiris
Onigiri molds come in different shapes and sizes. Moisten the mold and place it over a slightly damp cutting board to prevent the rice from sticking. You can also use your hands to mold the onigiris.
2 cups freshly cooked short-grain rice
Salt to taste
Onigiri mold, or you can use your hands to mold the onigiris
A small bowl of water to dunk your hands and mold
1. Season the rice with salt to your taste. Fill the mold halfway with rice and make a small dent in the middle and place the filling (see below) in it.
2. Cover the rest of the mold with rice and pack it in well without pressing too hard.
3. Turn the mold over to take out the onigiri. Dunk your hands in the bowl of water and moisten your hands lightly. Press the onigiri with your hand so it holds its shape.
4. Wrap the onigiri with a strip of nori seaweed or serve it plain or with furikake (see below).
Tip: Stick your wet finger into a bowl of salt and dab the salt on your palm before molding the rice.
• Umeboshi (pitted pickled plum)
• Grilled chicken
Sprinkle ideas for the top of the onigiri, called furikake
• Roasted black or white sesame seeds
• Various nuts
• Katsuobushi (bonito flakes)
• Nori seaweed cut into strips
• Shiso leaves
Top photo: Children in the cooking class taste the miso paste. Credit: Sonoko Sakai