Natural Foods Guides

Miso: What It Is and How to Use It

Miso soup

A ubiquitous staple in Japanese and Chinese cookery, miso, or fermented soybean paste, is a powerhouse of concentrated flavor and nutrition. Three types of miso are commonly available in the Western natural-food market: soybean miso, rice miso, and barley miso (rice and barley misos actually combine soybeans with the grain). Within each category of miso exists a range of earthy hues and subtle flavor variations, all more or less in the realm of a pungent saltiness. The texture resembles that of peanut butter. Miso is best known as the base for simple, broth-type soups, although it is equally useful as a basis for sauces, dressings, and dips. more→


Common Culinary Herbs and Spices

Spice jars with various spices

As the popularity of healthy, ethnic cooking home grows, our spice rack should expand to accommodate the seasonings give vegan dishes their unique characters. Volumes can be written on the healing aspect of herbs (in fact see our review of the terrific book, Healing Spices), the focus here is culinary. This section will give a brief overview of those seasonings most commonly used to flavor global whole food recipes. more→


Ginger: Fresh and Flavorful

In recent years, this knobby root has made its way from being a specialty item in Oriental groceries to becoming a fixture in supermarkets and produce stands. Its fresh, biting, and slightly sweet flavor and aroma are essential to many Asian cuisines, and it is one of the most characteristic flavorings in Indian cookery. In its powdered-spice form it is useful for baking, but aficionados agree that dried ginger should not be used when fresh is called for.

Ginger - fresh and powdered

When buying fresh gingerroot, it should feel rock hard, and the tan skin should look smooth and taut. Any root that feels light or has wrinkled-looking skin should be avoided. It’s best to buy a small amount at a time, say, a root section that fits into your palm. Store the root in a plastic bag in the crisper of your refrigerator. If you don’t anticipate using it up within a week or two at the most, wrap the root in a paper towel to absorb moisture before placing in a plastic bag.

One unpredictable factor in buying fresh ginger is whether it will be fibrous. A root that was harvested when more mature will have more stringy fibers, making it more difficult to use, especially when fine grating is called for. If you’ve got a stringy specimen, opt for mincing it with a sharp knife rather than grating it, to minimize the problem.

Another alternative for ginger that is stringy or nearing the end of its freshness is to cut it into thin slices and use them in recipes where simmering is called for, as in soups, sauces, and curried vegetables; remove and discard the slices before serving. When ginger is not fibrous, adding it to a recipe grated is desirable, since its flavor will permeate readily. Use a very fine grater. Some gourmet cookware shops may carry a special Japanese grater made especially for this purpose. Ginger is usually peeled before using, mostly as a matter of aesthetics.

A good alternative to using fresh ginger is finely grated ginger that comes in a jar. It’s uniformly even and very easy to measure and use. Freshly grated and jarred ginger are interchangeable in recipes; don’t use dried (powdered) ginger in recipes calling for fresh. Dried ginger is best used for spicing up baked goods.

Ginger - fresh and dried on table

Ginger has been esteemed since ancient times not only for its remarkable flavor but also for its medicinal qualities. It has long been used, in both Oriental and European cultures, for its ability to settle to stomach and relieve nausea caused by motion sickness and pregnancy. This belief was born out of scientific studies in the early 1980s, which proved ginger more effective than Dramamine. Ginger has also been used in many cultures as an aid to digestion and as an appetite restorative, since it seems to stimulate the production of saliva.

As previously mentioned, ginger is used extensively in many Asian cuisines, particularly Chinese, Japanese, and Indian. It is also favored in West African cookery, where one specialty is a bracing beverage called ginger beer. The warm, spicy flavor of ginger also enhances sauces and dressings in a very special way. Ginger is used in many recipes on this site; use the search tool to find them.


Carob: Not Quite Chocolate, But Still Good!

This naturally sweet powder is ground from the pods of the evergreen carob tree. In the past, carob was once known as locust bean or Saint-John’s-Bread. Saint John the Baptist is said to have survived in the wilderness by eating carob pods and wild honey. Carob is most commonly used as a substitute for cocoa due to the similarity of color, texture, and cooking properties. Does it really taste like chocolate? Opinions vary, but it’s hard to deny that it is at least similar. more→


How to Buy and Use Wasabi


Wasabi is sometimes known as Japanese horseradish, an apt description, since its flavor is so reminiscent of the horseradish we know. The word wasabi is translated from the Japanese as “mountain hollyhock,” and it is from the ground, dried root of this plant that the hot spice is derived. Its fresh, pungent taste has made it a traditional condiment to serve alongside sushi and other Japanese dishes. more→


Kañiwa: A “new” ancient supergrain

kaniwa salad

Recently, I was introduced to kañiwa, and was surprised that another South American quinoa-like superfood is making its way to the market. Kañiwa is a relative of quinoa, and like the latter, grows in Peru and Bolivia. It’s an excellent source of protein and amino acids, is exceptionally high in iron, and is gluten-free. Dark reddish-brown in color and about half the size of a tiny quinoa seed, kañiwa cooks up quickly to resemble a smaller version of red quinoa.



Baking with Whole Grain Flours

Whole Grain flour

Few sensory experiences offer more pleasure than the wonderful flavors and aromas of homemade baked goods. Or better yet, the hearty, nutty-flavored whole grain baked goods.  Whole wheat flour is just one of several players in this healthful field that includes barley, oat, rye, and spelt flour, among others. Even if you don’t have the time to make your own yeasted bread, quick baked goods can be equally rewarding. more→


Go Nuts for Goodness Sake!

Almonds on table

How often I’ve heard friends respond to my offer of nuts by saying, “Oh, no thank you, they’re too fattening.” In other instances, people who simply cannot stop eating them tell me, “I know nuts are bad for me, but I just love ‘em.” Many people are convinced that nuts are unhealthful because they are high in fat. What they fail to realize is the fats contained in nuts are actually beneficial. more→