Who Needs Parmesan? Olive Oil and Miso Paste Pack This Hearty Vegan Polenta and Kale Soup With Flavor

polenta and kale soup
A thick polenta and kale soup flavored with miso, soy sauce, and scallions. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

Welcome to the fourth year of The Vegan Experience! All month we're exploring the vegan lifestyle, from dining out to eating in, developing a slew of delicious recipes for vegan appetizers, snacks, and entrees along the way. For more posts in the series, check here!

A couple weeks back I was sitting at the upstairs cafe at Berkeley's Chez Panisse sipping on a bowl of their signature polentina—a simple polenta and kale soup flavored with chili oil and Parmesan cheese—thinking to myself, damn, nobody does simple, delicious, ingredient-focused food like the Italians do.

Good lord, how on earth am I going to survive going vegan without Parmesan cheese?!?

But the more I thought about the Italians and simple food thing, the more I realized that it wasn't entirely true. Take Japanese food, for instance. And I'm not talking wacky multi-ingredient sushi rolls or crazy street foods. I'm talking the simple, ingredient-focused style of cooking that is at the heart of Japanese cuisine. If anything, it's even more stark than Italian food, but just as delicious. The interesting part is that with both cuisines, you see a few common themes—approaches to food that get used over and over again.

It generally starts with one or two pristine ingredients that are prepared very simply. Simmered, grilled, or lightly fried, perhaps. Next, those fresh ingredients are paired with a powerhouse condiment, and I use that term loosely here. In Italy it might be really good extra virgin olive oil, or perhaps some anchovies, or a grating of well-aged Parmesan. In Japan, it's good soy sauce, miso, or a light dashi stock. It's these condiments that add depth and bring out the innate flavors of the primary ingredients. Oscar-worthy supporting actors of the pantry, if you will.

So I wondered: What would happen to this polentina soup if I were to simply swap out some of those Italian flavors with some more Japanese ones, keeping the base ingredients the same?

Deliciousness, that's what.

This soup couldn't be easier: sweat some leeks, garlic, and chili flakes in a good amount of extra-virgin olive oil (olive oil and soy sauce are a great combination!), add some homemade vegetable stock (if you don't want to make your own veg stock, I find that the Better Than Bouillon No Chicken Base is better than any bottled option out there; just be careful if you're an ultra-strict vegan, it contains refined sugar), stir in some coarse cornmeal (aka polenta), then let the whole thing simmer until the polenta is tender.

Finally, stir in some kale and heat it until wilted, then flavor the whole thing with a couple tablespoons of light miso, a dash of soy sauce, and a shower of sliced scallions.

kale and polenta soup

The soup comes out rich, thick, and hearty, with a great aroma from the olive oil and miso. Though toasted sesame oil is not a particularly common Italian condiment, I really like how it tastes with the other flavors in this bowl (and, let's be real, we long ago threw tradition out the window with this recipe). The miso-in-place-of-Parmesan trick is so simple, tasty, and downright interesting that I plan on breaking it out many more times in the future. I highly suggest you try it, whether you're a vegan or not.