Bento filler staple: Walnut miso paste for cooked vegetables

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Quickly blanched or boiled vegetables are great to tuck into bentos, but they can taste quite bland on their own. This walnut and miso paste, a recipe from my mother, has a sweet-savory, deeply nutty flavor that works well with all kinds of plain blanched, steamed or boiled vegetables. It also tastes very fall-like to me because of the walnuts. Just mix a little bit with the vegetables as I've done here with the blanched spinach, or put a half-teaspoon or so on top of the vegetable as shown with the green beans, and mix it together when you eat it. I think it works best made in small batches, enough for a week's worth of vegetable sides, but you can make it in bigger quantities and freeze it if you prefer.

Recipe: Walnut miso for blanched vegetables

Makes about 1/3 cup, enough for several bento-sized vegetable servings

  • 1/2 cup (about 1 oz / 33 g) shelled walnut kernels
  • 1 Tbsp. miso of your choice (I used a dark brown miso made from black soy beans here, but use whatever you have)
  • 1 Tbsp. mirin
  • 1/2 Tbsp. raw cane sugar - regular white sugar is fine, or use the sweetener of your choice (if you're on a sugar-free regimen use a sugar substitute)

Dry-roast the walnuts in a frying pan over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the kernels start to brown a bit and smell nice and toasty. Remove from the pan before they get burned. Let cool enough to handle, then wrap them up in a paper towel and rub them together until most of the outer skin is removed. Open up the paper towel and remove the skinned kernels. If there's a bit of skin left on them there's no problem, but removing most of the skin makes the nutty taste of the walnuts come through better. You can skip the skin-removing step if you like, but don't skip the toasting part.

Once the walnuts are toasted and skinned, put them in a mortar and pestle, or better yet a food processor with chopping blade, and crush them up as finely as you prefer. I like it to be quite fine with a few small chunks. Add the mirin, miso and sugar and stir well until combined. (If you can't find or can't use mirin, either use the same amount of sake with a pinch more sugar, or just leave it out.)

Store in a tightly sealed container in the refrigerator for up to a week. To use, add as much as you like to blanched, boiled or steamed vegetables.