Miso, Savory and Sweet

The Best Miso in North America is Made in Conway

By Laura Sayre, Photos by Dan Little

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The first thing I notice as I approach the production facility at South River Miso is the wonderful smell—earthy, sweet, complex, inviting. The kind of smell that makes you breathe deep and open your eyes a little more widely. Christian Elwell smiles as he steps out the door to greet me. “The smell is often what people comment on first,” he says. 

Tucked into a green slope north of Conway, South River Miso has been the life project of Christian and Gaella Elwell. In operation since 1981, the company currently employs 14 people and produces 120,000 pounds of miso a year, selling directly to customers via their website as well as in natural foods stores nationwide. 


The labels on their jars describe what is made here as “the only unpasteurized, certified organic miso that is entirely handcrafted in the centuries-old Japanese tradition,” and as Elwell shows me around, I come to appreciate what this means. Miso-making in Japan was traditionally a rural enterprise, and the tools and techniques in use here are similar to those found in a traditional Japanese miso shop (few of which remain today even in Japan). 

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The production room is compact and neatly organized, with windows looking out over gardens and fields to the river below. In the center of the room is a wood-fired masonry oven, which warms the building while also being used to steam the rice and slow-cook the beans that go into the miso. Many of the utensils and trays used to prepare the miso are made of wood, as are the enormous vats in which the miso is aged (from three weeks to three years, depending on the recipe). All of the work is done by hand, with precise, careful gestures that have an almost agricultural feel to them. 

Miso is the result of a two-step fermentation process bringing together a grain and a bean. First comes the fermentation of the grain—traditionally rice or barley. The grain is steamed in a large stainless steel cauldron, allowed to cool slightly, and then “seeded” with Aspergillus oryzae, a strain of mold selected for miso-making over hundreds of years. The mold is allowed to develop on the rice for two days in a small, warm, wood-lined space called a koji room. The fermented rice, covered in fine white fungal filaments, is called koji. 

The koji is then mixed with salt (more salt for the longer-aged misos; less salt for the shorter-aged misos) and allowed to sit again overnight. Meanwhile, the beans (traditionally soybeans, but here sometimes aduki beans or chickpeas) are slow-cooked in the cauldron, again using wood-fired heat. The salted koji is then combined with the cooked beans in a mixing box, a large flat trough that can be set on the floor. The mixing, too, is done in the traditional fashion, carefully treaded underfoot by the miso master. (A video of this, from the Cooking Channel show “Food Crafters,” can be seen on the South River Miso website.) A small amount of “seed miso”—mature miso from a previous batch—is mixed in at the same time. 

When the mixing is complete, the miso is transferred to the vat room. It takes multiple batches to fill a vat; when the vat is full, it is covered in cloth, sealed with a wooden lid and then weighted to press out any remaining air. The aging period allows for a second, anaerobic fermentation, with different microorganisms at work, including the bacteria Lactobacillus delbrueckii and Pediococcus halophilus

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On the morning I visit, three batches of chickpea miso are under way . One batch of rice is steaming in the cauldron. Another batch is in the koji room, where a miso-maker, Yukio Doyama, is transferring it from the koji “crib” (a large wooden box) into dozens of shallow wooden trays. Two other miso-makers, Peter Alexanian and Jamie Paul, are working with the third batch, gently scraping the koji out of the small wooden trays through a sieve into 20-gallon white tubs. Later, we watch as Alexanian and Paul spread the freshly steamed rice from the cauldron on muslin-lined, table-sized wooden trays and then inoculate it with the koji starter. 

From the beginning, all of South River Miso’s ingredients have been organic: the rice, the barley, the soybeans, the adukis, the chickpeas. Most, for the moment, are not local: At one point they were getting organic soybeans from a farmer in Belchertown, but he left the area, and although Elwell feels it would be possible to source more of their “commodities” locally, “it would require overcoming a variety of logistical and human challenges.” One testament to that potential: In the garden is a small paddy of heirloom rice the Elwells have been growing for home use for the past 30 years. The wood for the oven comes from David Lashway in Williamsburg. 

And while the quality of the ingredients is clearly essential, Elwell emphasizes that “the human element, the connection” that is created through their non-mechanized production process is just as important. South River Miso’s approach to miso-making is rooted in the macrobiotic tradition, but also in biodynamics.

“Miso is in some ways a biodynamic preparation,” Elwell says. “Food is more than just substances to be digested; it is a carrier for cosmic forces.” He smiles again. “I’m 70 years old, I can say these things now.”

Tips for cooking with miso

Unpasteurized miso is a live food. Use a clean spoon each time you reach into the jar. 

When making soups or other hot dishes, add miso at the end of the cooking process, not at the beginning. Boiling may destroy some of its beneficial properties. 

An opened (or unopened) jar of miso will keep in the fridge for a year or more. 

For further reading Christian and Gaella recommend the book Preserving the Japanese Way: Traditions of Salting, Fermenting, and Pickling for the Modern Kitchen, by Nancy Singleton Hachisu (Andrews McNeel Publishing, 2015)

Tipping a Cap to Mushrooms

Foraging From Field to Kitchen

By Jacqueline Sheehan, Photos by Dan Little

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Western Massachusetts offers a fertile environment for wild mushrooms, but foraging for them requires guidance from experts. I had studied with a mycologist in Oregon decades ago, but my delight in foraging for mushrooms, as well as my desire to cultivate them, was rekindled by mushroom farmer and mycologist Paul Lagreze. 

Lagreze began formally studying mushrooms 25 years ago after taking a class at UMass. He then joined a mycology club to learn from life-long enthusiasts. His initial motivation, like mine, was culinary. “I liked the taste of wild mushrooms,” he says.

I attended Lagreze’s Shiitake Log workshop at his Colrain home last spring. We learned to inoculate freshly cut logs by drilling holes in them, filling the holes with shiitake spores, and sealing them with hot wax. Later, Lagreze took us the wooded acreage he uses to let his vast supply of inoculated logs snooze for a year before they are ready to burst forth with mushrooms. I took my log home to wait for the explosion of mushrooms next spring and immediately signed on for his class on foraging and cultivating mushrooms this fall at Greenfield Community College.

But what was equally intriguing was meeting Lennie Kaplan, a lifelong mushroom forager from Belarus who showed up at Lagreze’s spring workshop to share. Kaplan brought a sampling of culinary mushroom creations to the workshop, the likes of which I had never tasted before. My entire repertoire of mushroom recipes consisted of variations on sautéing in butter with a splash of white wine—which is nothing to sniff at—but after tasting Kaplan’s preserved mushrooms, I had to learn more. He agreed to let me observe while he processed mushrooms, lots and lots of mushrooms, at his home on the outskirts of Westfield.

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Two vats of mushrooms were already cut and boiling on the stove by the time I arrived, and more chopped mushrooms filled a colander in the sink. Kaplan was processing three different varieties of boletes. As he talked about foraging, he continued to wash the mushrooms, stirring them in the colander. Boletes are distinguished by their thick sponge-like tube layer rather than gills (the soft flute-like structures that circle the stem beneath the cap of white or portobello mushrooms you might buy at the store).

Kaplan’s mushroom foraging takes him from Massachusetts, through Vermont, into Canada and down through the state of New York. He began foraging at the age of 5 or 6. “Everyone in Russia, Belarus, and generally all of Europe hunts for mushrooms,” he says. 

According to Kaplan, when the conditions are right for mushrooms to push their way from the earth, entire busloads of people in Belarus descend on the hillsides and forests. The popular art and sport of foraging is far less common in North America, except for pockets of local experts. 

“Here, men hunt for game and fish for sport,” says Kaplan, shrugging. “In Russia and Belarus, men hunt for mushrooms.”

After processing his boletes, Kaplan served up some mushroom soup. The ingredients included mushrooms, barley, and finely chopped potatoes. He sprinkled on dried chives that he had frozen from his garden. And the final touch? A hearty dab of sour cream. “It always tastes better with sour cream,” he says. 

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Lennie Kaplan’s Recipes for Preserving Mushrooms

My favorite go-to recipe for most mushrooms still veers toward the sauté method. The butter helps so much. But when you are a true forager, you must deal with larger quantities of mushrooms and develop a variety of ways to preserve them.

Marination

This is what Kaplan was doing the day that I visited. He had a mix of three different varieties of bolete mushrooms that had been rinsed multiple times, and cooked in a large pot on the stove top. He later added vinegar, salt, and spices—a palm-sized mound of salt or a free pour of vinegar as his taste buds dictated. Kaplan always uses bay leaves, generally adds black peppercorns and allspice, “And sometimes coriander and cloves.” (Believe me, the man does not write down his recipes.)

The mushrooms are done cooking when the bay leaves have softened. Then, he processes them in quart and pint jars.

Dehydration

Kaplan uses electric dehydrators to do the job. He suggests using mature mushrooms for drying because their peak flavor survives drying the best. Once the mushrooms are dry, he stores them in plastic bags.

Fermentation

Rinse and cook as you would when marinating, but then, says Kaplan, skip the vinegar and only use only salt and spices. And, just in case you were wondering, “Never add sugar. No sugar!”

Freezing

This is generally an easier method and includes simply sautéing (that’s where I come in) or boiling, then freezing in plastic bags. But it is too labor intensive for large amounts of mushrooms. If you are an expert forager like Kaplan, this is not practical because you have sacks of mushrooms that need processing immediately. (Though he does sauté and freeze one of his favorite mushrooms, matsutake, in smaller quantities.) Once frozen mushrooms have been defrosted, the taste should be identical to fresh fungi.

Looking for Local Mushrooms?

Mycoterra Farm
MycoterraFarm.com

Fungi Ally
FungiAlly.com

New England Wild Edibles
NewEdibles.com

Corsello Butcheria

Bringing Roman Flavors to the Valley

By Liz LaBrocca, Photos by Dan Little

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On a warm fall day in October, Corsello Butcheria in Easthampton is cozy and inviting. A small chalkboard behind the glass display cases lists the farms from which the day’s selection of meats were sourced. A small collection of work from a local artist hangs on the exposed brick wall near a shelf filled with Italian grocery items. It’s a friendly place and you feel it the moment you walk in and are greeted by owners Vincent and Kasey Corsello.

When I arrive, Vincent is behind the counter talking to a customer about chicken cacciatore, the day’s sandwich special. The excitement is clear in his voice: He’s not selling a product, he’s sharing his passion.

“Cacciatore means ‘hunter’ in Italian,” he says, showing her the saucy chicken and then the crusty bread he would press the meat between. She orders one and he offers to warm the bread while Kasey chats with another customer at the register.

While the idea for the local butcher shop was dreamed up about two years ago when the couple were participating in a leadership development course, Vincent had fallen in love with butchering during the seven years they lived in Rome. While out shopping for ingredients for a small dinner party they were hosting, they walked into Roberto and Maura Sartor’s butcher shop in Testaccio Market, one of Rome’s oldest open-air markets. There, for the first time, they watched the butcher filet their chicken.

“We were in awe of her,” Kasey says. “Standing behind the glass, watching her work… She was definitely an artist.” Kasey says it was in that moment that Vincent was hooked. The Sartor Butcher Shop became part of their weekly shopping routine in Rome and they developed a close relationship with the family.

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When Vincent shared his idea of opening his own butcher shop in Easthampton, the Sartors invited him back to Rome to learn the trade. He spent the summer before opening Corsello studying butchering techniques and learning the base recipes he would use for the sausages he would eventually begin selling in Easthampton.

A Roman Italian sausage is typically made with pork, garlic, salt, pepper, and fennel. The combinations of flavors may change based on the butcher shop and the region of Italy, but the pork is an important constant. Vincent recalls asking the Sartors about what kind of fat they used in their turkey sausage and they were taken aback: “You can’t have sausage without pork!” (Typically an American chicken or turkey sausage recipe will call for using the bird’s skin instead of pork fat.)

Fennel, the other key flavor in Italian sausage, grows like a weed in Italy. It was a plant that everyone had access to and made its way into a lot of Italian food. Traditionally, a wild variety of fennel, finnochietto, would be used. Its flavor is very similar to the fennel bulbs we can buy locally at the farmers market, but it’s much milder.

The use of an ingredient like fennel, readily available and part of the local food web, is what Vincent loves most about Italian food. Chefs and home cooks alike can eat with the seasons and allow the fresh ingredients to take center stage on the plate. To Vincent, this makes Italian food more than just a type of restaurant you pick on a Friday night—it’s a way of life. His shop speaks to this sentiment. He describes his inspiration as “Italian with local flavor … Simple ingredients, high-quality ingredients, not too much of any one thing, not too many ingredients.”

When the Corsellos started developing their sausage recipe at home a few years ago, there was a lot of trial and error involved. They experimented with different flavors and combinations. They tested how the sausages tasted if ingredients were added before or after grinding. They learned that they needed to keep everything cold so the fat wouldn’t melt into the mixture and leave the sausage dry and mealy. And, just like in classic Italian sausage, the quality of their pork was key. They source their pork from Porter Family Farms in Ashfield not only because of its delicious flavor profile, but because they both believe strongly in the importance of being a strong link in the local food chain.

At the shop, sausage maker Mark Kretchmar, a butcher with 25 years of experience cutting meat in the Valley, twists links in the window. He can turn out about 60 pounds of sausage in an hour as people walking towards Easthampton’s cultural district pause to take photos and videos of him working. He loves it.

The whole team at Corsello loves what they do and their passion is clear. Vincent, Kasey, and Mark all enjoy sharing cooking tips with customers browsing their beautifully arranged meat counter. They’re excited to be part of a community that believes in a strong local food economy and the opportunities that can present for them in the future. There’s an old saying about not wanting to watch the sausage get made, but at Corsello Butcheria, it’s part of the charm.

By the Light of the Moon

Making Ghee in the Valley

Story and Photos by Nikki Gardner

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By the light of August’s Sturgeon Moon, Daniel Rainwater heaves 125 pounds of butter onto a cutting board. A candle made of ghee is lit and placed on the shiny metal counter in a commercial kitchen in Greenfield where Full Moon Ghee, a small-batch artisanal ghee company, is based. 

As the company’s alchemist, Rainwater works alone at this stage, slicing unsalted butter from High Lawn Farm (Lee, MA) into thick wedges before transferring it into pots for an overnight cook. From 8pm to 8am, the butter melts, separates from the milk solids, and turns into ghee, also known as clarified butter. A lactose-free, shelf-stable, and high-heat cooking oil, ghee dates back to ancient India where it has been celebrated for its taste, nutritional benefits, and healing properties.

In the morning, founder Hannah Jacobson-Hardy and accounts manager and recipe developer Colette Garrigues join Rainwater to assist with filling and labeling the jars. Each sets to work: Garrigues makes her specialty ghee flavors which include Coco’s Cacao, Maple, and the latest, Rosemary Garlic. Jacobson-Hardy sets up the jars for labeling. 

Once cooled, the butter naturally separates into three distinct layers: Foam rises to the surface, the clarified butter floats in the middle, and the milk solids sink to the bottom. Rainwater skims and discards the top foamy layer from the pots and then strains the remaining clarified butter through fine butter muslin to collect the milk solids before pouring golden ghee into an assortment of jars. Jacobson-Hardy seals, labels, and boxes them for distribution to stores and farmers markets.

The shimmering ghee has a high smoke point, tolerating heat up to 485°F (higher than butter and coconut oil, which both burn at 350°), and boasts a rich, sweet, slightly nutty flavor enhanced (according to Ayurvedic science) by the qualities of the full moon, considered a time of heightened essence, vitality, and expansion.

“Half of this whole business is educating people on the health benefits of ghee,” says Rainwater.

In the Ayurvedic tradition, ghee is used as a condiment, cooking oil, and superfood (believed to stimulate digestion, aid in nutrient absorption, and reduce inflammation, especially in the gut). Within this tradition, ghee is also thought to lubricate joints, optimize skin and eye health, and alkalize the entire body.

In 2014, the trio met as volunteers at Kripalu Yoga Center where ghee was a regular staple in the dining hall. After Kripalu, Jacobson-Hardy moved back to her hometown, Northampton, where she started an herbal practice, Sweet Birch Herbals, creating a line of herbal salves, creams, elixirs and infused oils. She and Garrigues rented a place together, where Rainwater came to stay. He made small batches of ghee which they used in scrambled eggs, stir-fried kale, and coffee. Friends tried the ghee, loved it, and asked for more.

“There always seemed like there was this one gap in New England with oil,” says Jacobson-Hardy. “I thought, ‘We have cows that make butter and cream. If we turn it into ghee, it burns like another oil, and we can close the gap.’”

In May 2015, Jacobson-Hardy brought a dozen 4-ounce Mason jars of ghee to Northampton’s Tuesday Market to test the market. All 12 jars sold, not just the first time, but week after week. People kept asking for more. They increased their supply, hired a designer, and moved production to Greenfield.

The following year, Garrigues went to India and Cambodia to travel while Rainwater and Jacobson-Hardy continued to make ghee. Jacobson-Hardy flew to Delhi in February and stayed with Garrigues for a month to research the history and culinary uses of ghee in both home and industrial kitchens as well as its place in ceremonies. They toured farms; enrolled in Ayurvedic cooking classes where they made kitchari, curries, dahl, and naan; and knocked on village doors to study when and how locals make ghee. 

In Dharamsala, a young man invited them into his family’s home. His grandmother makes ghee from the milk of their two cows, by first making cultured cream, churning it into butter, and then making ghee. Others villagers make their ghee during a waxing moon, when the cycle of nature offers vitality and expansion—since the grass contains more water content thereby nourishing the cows who feed on it. 

“I like that part. It’s more abstract and you don’t have to know everything,” says Jacobson-Hardy. “There’s a kind of mystery that supersedes the scientific part of my brain.”

The act of making ghee is a sattvic practice, a time for working with intention and quality, which is how the three view the ritual of preparing ghee.