The Café Juanita chef infuses Northern Italian cuisine with Japanese miso to get the most out of summer’s last harvest
Story and Photographs by Matt Mornick
Winter is a time most chefs hole up in kitchens and begin the joyful process of bread-baking and soup-making. The kitchen’s warmth and fresh aromas thaw our spirits and bring comfort as we settle in for the season. I sat down with Holly Smith, chef and owner of Cafe Juanita, to get her take on wintry comfort foods. Not only was I surprised to find a very unique take on a dish inspired by Pappa al Pomodoro, but also the unexpected marriage of Japanese miso flavors and Italian cuisine.
“I geek out over Japanese cuisine,” chuckles Holly. “Japanese food is a close second to my love for Italian. The two draw parallels in the way each culture approaches food. With Junko Mine, our new Japanese pastry chef on staff, we began exploring new ways to complement and combine flavors. We use our in-house miso in a variety of dishes, but tend to keep it in the background. The more I thought about it, the more I questioned whether the miso should be more prominent in our dishes rather than in the background. With our take on Pappa al Pomodoro, I decided to bring it to the forefront.”
Tomato Miso Bread is a recipe with ties to Pappa al Pomodoro, yet it incorporates fermented hearth bread and miso butter, resulting in a kind of gloppy goodness unmatched in flavor.
“For some time now we’ve made a dish inspired by the dish Pappa al Pomodoro – a thick Italian soup prepared with fresh tomatoes, bread, olive oil, garlic, and basil,” says Holly. “What we serve at Cafe Juanita is quite different from the traditional dish — less soupy and more like a softened bruschetta. It was not until recently that we paired the dish with our in-house fermented miso butter.
The tomatoes and bread bring acidity to the dish to complement the miso flavor. Some people find sweet, some find savory, but in general, the dish is simple and full of flavor. Holly reflects on how she arrived at the final recipe.
“At first I mixed the miso into the Pappa al Pomodoro broth. I didn’t care for the result. It didn’t work. So we messed around with the flavors and textures. I took the miso out of the broth and put it on the bread. It tasted better within the butter and seemed more simple. Texturally, the miso and tomatoes are similar, and the tang of the bread hits with the umami of the miso.
“There are key ingredients that get funky umami flavors,” she continues. “Parmigiano-Reggiano is most certainly at the top of people’s list for full umami flavor, and it is where we tend to go with Italian cuisine. Once we substituted the Parmigiano-Reggiano with the miso butter, the flavors were familiar, yet presented a whole new depth.”
This meal pairs with a local Cinghiale Sangiovese from Casa Smith, a side project of Charles Smith’s from the Wahluke Slope. For a white wine, you can’t go wrong with Ashan Cellars Celilo Chardonnay.
To make this dish, Holly insists on buying bread you love. The bread should be fresh, fermented, and with a great crust. For miso, store-bought will do just fine, but it pales in comparison to homemade miso. And if you endeavor to make the miso in December and stash it away for seven months, you can enjoy it in July, just as tomatoes come to harvest.
Cafe Juanita is located at 9702 NE 120th Pl, Kirkland, WA 98034.
West Coast photographer Matt Mornick specializes in photographing food and people. His portfolio is available at mornick.com.
Fermented Miso Recipe
Makes 8–10 cups | 4 hours active time
13 ounces dried soybeans (though, of course, fresh ones would be tastier)
1 20-ounce tub koji rice
7 ounces salt
1/4 cup dry white wine
Start with the dried soybeans, which are available in most markets with Korean and Japanese products (in Seattle, Central Market). Wash beans at least 4 times, until the water runs clear after soaking the beans in a new bath of water (much like rinsing rice).
Put soybeans in a large pot filled with water several inches above the beans. One recipe calls for adding three times as much water as the weight of the beans, but the important part is to make sure the beans don’t dry out. Soak the beans for 18 hours, checking at intervals to make sure the beans are absorbing water and expanding and that the water amply covers the beans.
Once the beans have expanded, drain and add them to a large pot. Add fresh water until beans are covered by more than an inch of water. Bring beans to boil, lower the temperature, and simmer for four hours. (You can also cook the beans in a pressure cooker, in which case the beans can be cooked in about 20 minutes.)
During the cooking process, the beans will emit a protein-rich foam, saponin, which can be skimmed off for another use. Once the beans become soft enough to squeeze between your fingers, they are ready for the next phase.
After draining the beans, you can refrigerate them and continue the process the next day. Otherwise, once the beans have cooled to room temperature, move on to the next step. (NOTE: Make sure that the beans return to room temperature; if they are too warm, they may kill the koji.)
Mash the soybeans into a paste using a food processor. The degree of mashing is left up to the discretion of the miso maker; some misos are chunkier than others, though a miso that has larger bits of soybean may take longer to ferment.
In a large bowl, mix the salt and koji rice together. Take particular care to distribute the salt well so the koji will ferment as evenly as possible.
Add the mashed soybeans to the koji-salt mixture, taking care to mix the two well, kneading and folding it several times to distribute the salt and koji throughout the soybeans. Once the ingredients are thoroughly combined, form small balls with the mixture, a bit larger than a golf ball. Take special care to squeeze as much air out of the balls as possible: the fewer pockets of air in your miso container, the less opportunity for miso to grow unhealthy mold.
Find 2-3 four-quart containers to ferment the miso in. Wide-mouth jars with an airtight lid are preferable. Avoid potentially toxic plastic or metal containers that may affect the taste of the miso. Although miso should be strictly shielded from the sun to prevent the sun’s rays from killing the lactobacillus bacteria, Cafe Juanita uses glass jars to better observe the ongoing changes in color during the fermentation process.
Before adding the miso balls, lightly spray the already sterilized jars with white wine. This step adds another layer of disinfectant that discourages the formation of harmful germs during the fermentation process. Coat the entire jar. You can also dust the bottom of the jar with salt for the same result.
Add miso balls to the jar, pushing them hard against the jar. Again, the goal is to remove as much space and air in the miso paste as possible to prevent the growth of mold. Once all the miso balls are in the jar, press the mixture down several times with your hands, packing it as tight as you can. Even out the top of the miso, making sure the surface is mostly flat. Spray a little bit of the wine along the top sides of the jar and across the surface of the miso (or a light dash of salt for similar effect). The presence of alcohol or salt discourages the growth of harmful mold on the miso.
Drape a paper towel lightly soaked in water across the top of the young miso paste. The towel functions as a disinfectant and also provides a way to sop up the thin layer of moisture that occurs during fermentation.
Before sealing the jars with a tight fitting airtight lid, place a weight on top of the miso. A heavy pie weight would work, or you can pour salt into a plastic zip-close bag and place it on top of the miso. The plastic bag fills the space in between the miso and the top of the jar, packing most of the remaining space (the goal being to provide as little area for mold to grow as possible). Once jars are as stuffed as full as possible, seal the jar and then use thick packing tape to secure it further. Once the jar is prepared, stow it away in a dark place and let the fermentation commence.
Warmer temperatures accelerate the fermentation process. Fermentation can take anywhere from six months to a year, though a longer wait may be rewarded in a more full-flavored and delicious miso.
Tomato Miso Bread Recipe
Makes 4–6 servings | 25 minutes active time
1 loaf of sourdough or fermented bread from a local bakery
4–5 ripe heirloom tomatoes (can be from the freezer from summer harvest)
1 cup miso, matured at least 6 months if homemade
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
Take one part miso and add equal parts softened butter. Mix thoroughly and then add miso until the mixture is rich and delicious but doesn’t taste prominently of butter. This mixture will taste “salty” and should be pretty strongly flavored. The final miso butter can stay refrigerated for two weeks. Bring to room temp before using and paddle until smooth.
Put 6 cups of salted water in a pot. Bring to a boil. Make an ice bath (at least 6 cups water, 4 cups ice in a deep bowl). Score the non-stem end of tomatoes with an X and plunge into boiling water for 5 seconds. Plunge immediately into ice water for 2-3 seconds. Repeat with all tomatoes. Remove from ice bath, core tomatoes, and remove the skin. If tomato skins do not slip off easily, repeat the hot/cold water plunge. Quarter tomatoes in a bowl. Reserve all tomato flesh, seeds, and liquid.
Warm tomato flesh, seeds, and liquid in a sauté pan until uniformly warm. Do not bring to a boil.
When ready to serve, toast thick slices of the bread on a grill or under a broiler until crispy on one side and warm. Put a generous smear of room-temperature miso butter on the bread, then begin layering warm tomato pieces on the bread. Finish by pouring tomato water over the bread and onto the plate. If desired, add blanched and shocked green beans to the dish to finish.
Serve immediately. Note: for softer, more Pappa al Pomodoro texture, warm bread in the oven but do not allow it to crisp on one side.