Why It Works
- A homemade vegetable stock is the best base for a tasty soup.
- Miso paste, soy sauce, and scallions add depth of flavor to a very simple soup.
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 chile 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 starker 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 chile flakes in a good amount of extra-virgin olive oil (olive oil and soy sauce are a great combination!), add some homemade vegetable stock, 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.
The soup comes out rich, thick, and hearty, with a great aroma from the olive oil and miso. Though toasted sesame oil is definitely not an 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.
This recipe was cross-tested in 2022 and lightly updated to reflect test results; it no longer calls for Better Than Bouillon, a stock product that contains salt. Its removal (and the added specification that any stock used should be unsalted) should address comments about salt levels in the recipe.
6 tablespoons (90ml) extra-virgin olive oil
1 large leek (about 10 ounces; 283g), white and light green parts only, finely chopped (about 1 1/4 cups)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 medium cloves garlic, minced
Large pinch red pepper flakes
1 cup dried polenta (5 1/2 ounces; 156g)
3 1/2 ounces (99g) stemmed and roughly chopped lacinato kale (about 1 packed quart, from one 8-ounce bunch)
2 tablespoons (30g) white miso paste, plus more to taste
2 teaspoons (10ml) soy sauce, plus more to taste
4 medium scallions (about 3 ounces/85g total), thinly sliced (about 1 cup), divided
Toasted sesame oil, for serving
In a large saucepan, heat olive oil, leeks, and a pinch of salt over medium-low heat, stirring often, until very soft but not browned, about 6 minutes. Add garlic and red pepper flakes and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add vegetable stock.
Whisking constantly, slowly pour in the polenta. Stirring frequently, bring to a boil over high heat, reduce heat to low, cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, until polenta is tender and the soup is thickened, about 15 minutes.
Stir in kale, cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, until kale is tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in miso, soy sauce, and half of scallions until miso is fully incorporated. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and/or additional miso and soy sauce, if desired.
Serve, drizzling with sesame oil and sprinkling with remaining scallions. Extra soup can be stored in the refrigerator in a sealed container for up to 5 days.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 6 to 8|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 14g||19%|
|Saturated Fat 3g||13%|
|Total Carbohydrate 25g||9%|
|Dietary Fiber 3g||12%|
|Total Sugars 3g|
|Vitamin C 31mg||154%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|