Miso Soup

Miso soup is like the vegetarian equivalent of chicken noodle – it’s great when you’re sick because it’s hot, thin, high in protein and other nutritional goodies, and of course delectable.

Start out by mixing up a batch of broth – you can skip this step because the miso will also contribute to the taste of the base, but I prefer the extra flavor (and I think I would die if I went a day without consuming any Better than Bouillon).


Chop up some firm tofu!


Add the tofu, and some dried wakame seaweed – be conservative with the seaweed! That stuff expands to many times its original size when reconstituted in liquid! Bring to a boil and cook for a few minutes:


Then, take it off the heat, and spoon out a big heaping spoonful or two of miso paste and dissolve it in the broth. Stir like crazy! It’s easy to lose a chunk of undissolved miso in there and only find it when it turns up in your leftovers the next day. You can also reduce the incidence of this by squishing the hunks of miso paste between two spoons a few times before introducing them to the soup. After you’ve dissolved the miso, bring it back to a boil, but only just; remove it from the heat and serve. If left unattended, miso soup will settle with all the miso at the bottom. Just stir it up again and it’ll be fine.



No Post This Week

Sorry – some photo fubar obstructs my attempt to post about guacamole. I’ll see what I can do about double posting next Monday to make up for it. 🙂


This is another one with actual measurements, but there’s still room to play around with the recipe. You’ll have enough batter for about a dozen pancakes – maybe fifteen if you like them little.

Start with either 1 or 1.5 cups flour – the former if you’re planning to add an extra dry ingredient or two, the latter if you’re going for straight-up plain pancakes.


Add 3.5 teaspoons baking powder, a scant half teaspoon salt, and a quarter cup sugar.


In this batch, I added both bran and quick oats – half a cup of each. Other additions I’ve tried successfully include almond flour and cornmeal.


Now add an egg, three tablespoons of canola oil or melted butter, and one and a quarter cups milk.

wet ingredients

Mix it all up!


Now melt a generous pat of butter in a frying pan over medium-high heat:


And dollop out some pancakes – I just use a serving spoon, but about a quarter cup per pancake is about right if you care to be more precise. I can fit three in my large frying pan.


While they’re frying on that side, add whatever you’d like: slices of apples or bananas or strawberries or peaches, blueberries (frozen are fine!), or what I’ve used – chocolate chips.


Nudge the edges of the pancakes as they cook with a spatula. When they seem to be holding together pretty well, flip them over – starting with the one you dollopped on first.


You can always flip them back over again later if the first side isn’t as done as you’d like. Determine whether they’re cooked through by pressing down on the top of a pancake with your spatula – they’ll smoosh and let a little uncooked batter out through small holes in the cake if they have more cooking to do. When they’re done on each side and in the middle, scoop them up and serve them with syrup, compote, or extra butter!


Roman Bean Soup


This is another bean soup – I can’t help it, I love beans and I love soup. I had never tried roman beans before, so I bought a can, purĂ©ed them, and used them in soup – it’s just like the bean corn lime soup except there are no whole beans and no corn, making it quite smooth except for the bits of onion, celery, and garlic. (If you cook those long enough, they contribute only a slight variance to the texture. If you want a chunkier soup that requires the use of your teeth, then don’t overdo them.) Next week I’ll try to have something new up.


This is going to be something of a novelty on Improv Soup: I’m going to supply quantities. However, there is still plenty of room to mess with this recipe. First, I’ll explain how to make the “plain” version, and then I’ll show how I turned it into a raspberry almond cake instead and supply tips for creating other flavors.

Preheat the oven to 325Âș. Put 1 sleeve of broken-up graham crackers, 1/4 cup sugar, and 6 tablespoons of melted butter through a food processor until it forms wet clumps. Press the mixture into the bottom of a springform pan. Wrap the outside of the pan with a couple of sheets of aluminum foil to prevent leaks.

Beat together the following ingredients, in order and making sure to scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl between additions: 24 ounces cream cheese, 1 cup sugar, 2 eggs, 16 ounces sour cream, 2 tablespoons flour, 2 teaspoons vanilla, 1 teaspoon lemon juice, 1 cup heavy cream. Once the mixture is smooth and uniform throughout, pour it into the springform pan. Bake at 325Âș for 20 minutes; then, without opening the oven door, turn down the heat to 300Âș and bake for an additional 40 minutes. Turn off the heat, but leave the oven closed with the cake in it for one more hour. Then, pull it out and allow it to cool to room temperature; then cover the pan with saran wrap or aluminum foil and put it in the fridge to chill. When the cake is completely chilled and set, remove the ring of the springform pan and serve.

But that’s not very improvisational. Plain cheesecake is my old friend, but it has room for experimentation. In general, the three ingredients that make up the bulk of the filling – cream cheese, sour cream, and heavy cream – can be considerably reduced, making room in the batter for other things like chocolate, fruit purĂ©e, or peanut butter. My usual strategy is to cut down on the ingredient that matches what I want to add most closely in texture. For instance, to add a liquidy raspberry purĂ©e, I short the batter a similar amount of the heavy cream or sour cream. You can also make plenty of direct substitutions: in this version, I exchanged the vanilla extract for almond extracts. The crust is ripe for alteration – in a chocolate based cake, for instance, I’d have replaced the graham crackers with a similar volume of generic oreos (for which you can reduce the butter and the added sugar without sacrificing sweetness or texture). But in this case, I used the normal crust recipe – plus a quarter cup of almond flour (also known as almond meal.)


Here’s my almond-adulterated crust. Next, I made the raspberry component by cooking down some frozen raspberries and straining them with a wire mesh to remove the seeds (I wound up with maybe a third of a cup):



All the rest of my ingredients hanging out together photogenically. I added the raspberry just after the sour cream:


When I’d beaten it in completely, it left the batter just a very light pink.

But this darkened with some time in the oven:




Other variants: you can include solid things in your cake, like cookies, pieces of fruit, or chunks of chocolate. But if you don’t want your cheesecake to crack, make sure you submerge all of these things under the batter before you put it in the oven. (You can never perfectly guarantee that it won’t crack, but the best safeguard against it is a smooth surface and slow cooling.) You can make a batch of plain (white) batter, separate out some of it, and add fruit (and/or food coloring), then pour each color of batter into the pan for multicolored cheesecake. (Try a strawbery-blueberry-plain one for the Fourth of July, for instance.)

Improv Soup Is Back

Sorry about the hiatus! I had a run of food experiments that didn’t go well enough to share, and the ones that turned out nicely, I tended to forget to document photographically. I’m going to start trying to update once a week on Mondays, even if it’s just with a variant on something I’ve already posted. In that spirit, here’s a variant on bean corn lime soup. In the original, you purĂ©ed one of two cans of black beans. In this batch, I used pinto beans and purĂ©ed both cans. The result is this attractive pinkish soup:

pinto soup

Next week: cheesecake. You should be excited. My cheesecake is the very best.

Pretentious Tuna

Tuna salad with delusions of grandeur! To make this, you should make some hardboiled eggs first. Put the number of eggs you want to hardboil in one layer on the bottom of a pot, and cover them with water (about one inch above the eggs). Bring to a full boil, then remove from the heat, cover the pot, time fifteen minutes, and then drain the water. To cool the eggs and stop the cooking process, fill the pot with cold water and a few ice cubes. You don’t have to do this the day before, but if you do, you avoid the awkwardness of possibly trying to cut up a still-warm hardboiled egg.

Begin with as much canned tuna of any type as you like (I used chunk light). Flake it and add hummus until it’s nice and smooth (I used garlic hummus; dill also works well, but any flavor that strikes your fancy can work.)


Then, cut up your hardboiled eggs – how many depends on the egg-to-fish ratio you want. Mix them in gently.


Next, boil some spinach! You don’t need much. Cook it until it’s soft, drain it and rinse it off under cold water, and then incorporate it.



Lastly, mince some parsley and some fraction of a red onion and stir them in. If you have a grocery store that does not sell monstrous mutant elephant-sized red onions, or if you’re making enough pretentious tuna for four dozen people, you may be able to use a whole one. Add, also, generous amounts of ground mustard seed and ground celery seed. You could use sliced celery instead of some or all of the celery seed; I don’t like the texture so I go with the spice version. Other spices you could put in (optionally) are white pepper, basil, parsley, dill, and some onion powder if you think you undershot on the red onion.


Works as a sandwich filling (put it on a toasted English muffin or rye bread!) or as a dish plain on a plate.

Lentil Soup

Who needs a delicious, fat-free, easy soup full of protein that can double as a dip with only a minor adjustment? You? Well, isn’t it lucky that you are reading this instead of some poor silly person who needs no such thing? Because this, you see, is a post about such a soup-slash-dip.

Celery. Onions. Garlic. I know I put ’em in everything, but they’re just so tasty. Hack some up and put them in a pot. You can also add parsley at this step.


Sort the lentils – they are not always perfectly sorted when you buy them, and there will sometimes be rocks, other legumes, or grains in with them. Throw out anything you don’t want to eat. Then, thoroughly rinse off your lentils in a sieve or small-holed colander. The more you rinse, the less lentil scum you’ll have to skim off the top of your soup as it cooks. Add the quantity of lentils to the pot. In this example, I’m using red lentils, but other varieties work too. Add also some Better than Bouillon, some salt, and enough water to more than cover the whole thing. Stir it up and turn the heat on high.


Lentils absorb a lot of water. Stir every few minutes, and keep an eye on the pot to make sure they don’t dry out and start to burn – you will probably need to splash in a little more water now and then.


During the cooking process, some moderately gross stuff will float to the top. This is lentil scum. It’s not dangerous, and it won’t even taste bad if you leave it there, but if it makes you nervous you can skim it off with a spoon and rinse it down the sink. Expect a few onion/garlic/celery/lentil casualties with the scum if you do.

When the lentils start to look nice and mushy, spoon out a few and eat them. If they are soft and squishy all through, then you can turn off the heat; if not, keep adding water as necessary, cooking, and tasting until they are. Once you have the desired texture, you can keep them at a boil long enough to cook off any excess water (you don’t need to worry about overcooking lentils); just make sure they stay wet and stirred-up enough not to burn. When this is done, turn the heat way down.

Next, it’s time to season them. I have two basic seasoning styles I use with lentils: curry and citrus-green spices. (Citrus meaning lemon or lime – I haven’t tried other fruits – and “green spices” meaning things like thyme, dill, chives, rosemary, sage, etc., not so much basil or oregano.) In this example, I’m using lemon and thyme as the main flavors (I’ll cover curry later): to do the same, squirt in some lemon juice to taste and do the same with thyme (except thyme you need to pinch or sprinkle, rather than squirt). Small quantities of the other green spices I mentioned aren’t amiss with this combination either – sometimes I add all of them. Finish off with salt and pepper, also to taste. If they’re starting to look less brightly colored than you’d prefer, you can add turmeric to give them a nice yellow-orange hue.

om nom nom

If you wind up with a thin soup and you were hoping to be able to use it as a dip, you can use cornstarch to good effect: mix up a spoonful or two of cornstarch in a separate cup or bowl with water (or your lemon juice, if you feel like being super-efficient) until it’s smooth, then pour it in and stir to incorporate. The lentils will stick more effectively to chips after that. If a small amount of cornstarch doesn’t thicken the soup enough to suit you, add more, or try turning up the heat for a bit to cook the starches.

Begin with a generous amount of olive oil:


Heat it over medium-low heat. Add enough flour to turn it into goop, and fry it up into a nice roux:


Add a generous amount of minced garlic, a little Better than Bouillon, three or four good squirts of lemon juice, lots of basil (dried is fine), any combination of crushed red or ground white pepper, and a small palmful of salt.


If it thickens up very fast on contact with the moist ingredients and threatens to burn before you’ve finished adding them, you can add a little cold water and mix it in. When you’ve gotten them all into the sauce, it’s time to thin it out with cream (light and heavy both work) Don’t use milk – it will curdle! Stir thoroughly as you add cream, to make sure the roux mixture is all broken up and incorporated. Add cream a little at a time until the sauce is the right texture for your taste and purpose. Taste it; if it needs something, give it to it. If you are likely to have leftovers, add more lemon than you think you need; the strength of the lemon flavor diminishes overnight in the fridge.


Use it on pasta, veggies, as a hot dip, as a pizza sauce in place of marinara, whatever you need a yummy sauce for.


Dumplings are a versatile food. You can put all kinds of things in them, not just specifically crafted dumpling filling – some of the things I have successfully made dumplings with are leftover lentil or bean soups, chili, applesauce, mashed potatoes, and stirfries of various types. I have attempted but do not recommend tuna salad dumplings and chocolate dumplings. Dumplings have two major cooking methods: boiling and frying. If you fry your dumplings (as I will do in the example below) then the filling must contain plenty of moisture so you don’t wind up with an extra-crunchy dinner. If you have a filling that’s a little on the dry side, you can add a few drops of water before you seal up the wrapper.

I use Shanghai-style dumpling wrappers, which I procure from the Asian grocery down the street. Lay out any number of them on a plate:


Then put one heaping spoonful of filling in the middle of each. Don’t overload the wrappers; I know it doesn’t look like much filling, but once they’re sealed up they’ll be quite plump.

w/ filling

Seal the dumplings by dipping your finger in a cup of water, trailing it around the edge of the dumpling wrapper in a ring (replenishing the water on your finger as necessary), and then folding the whole thing in half and pinching tightly along the semicircular edge.


Coat a frying pan with olive or canola oil and put it on medium-low heat (you can go up to medium if you’ve done this before and you’re confident in your ability not to burn the dumplings). I do not recommend including anything but the oil outside of the dumplings at the stage; if you want to put something like soy sauce, salt or spices, or powdered sugar on them after the fact, do it when they’ve come off the heat. Arrange your pinched starchy containers of filling, laying them on one side:

in pan

Move them around with a spatula or similar utensil periodically, to make sure they don’t stick – just nudge them enough to make sure they have a layer of oil between them and the pan itself. Turn them over periodically. You don’t have to make sure they’re done on a given side before turning that side up; nothing is stopping you from turning them back over. The more you turn them, the less likely they are to burn when you aren’t looking. When they have cooked to your desired level of crispy brownness:


Then turn them out of the pan and eat them.

To boil: Bring a pot mostly full of salted water to a rolling boil. Drop in tightly sealed dumplings (if they have gaps, water will get in and filling will get out) and give them a stir. Continue cooking them until the dumpling wrappers are tender and transparent, then either drain them in a colander or fish them out individually with a slotted spoon. Consume.