It’s trite, but it’s true: After the excesses of the holiday season, January is the time to venture into more moderate territory. It’s just as well, but it needn’t feel restrictive. And something festive isn’t out of the question, either.
When I’m cooking light, I tend to rely on some Asian pantry ingredients, which can enhance flavor in lean preparations. I add miso to a soup, for instance. Ginger and garlic bolster a fish dish, and toasted sesame oil finds its way into cookies.
To start, I wanted a simple vegetable soup, one that could be prepared quickly. When I make vegetable soups, I really want to taste the vegetables. Some cooks want to add canned chicken stock or shelf-stable vegetable stock. Not necessary. The fact is, when leeks and carrots are simmered in lightly salted water, the result is a lovely flavorful vegetable broth. Then, the vegetables and broth are puréed together. A little miso is stirred in just before serving to add depth, and a final squeeze of lime gives brightness.
Fish is a great choice for a meal on the light side. My fishmonger had halibut, but any firm, white-fleshed fish, such as sea bass or grouper, can be baked with great results. In this case, the fish is a tasty, neutral backdrop for a zesty, savory topping of stir-fried mushrooms. Lightness is achieved without sacrificing flavor. The method is as follows: Slice your mushrooms and sauté in butter or oil, finishing with chopped ginger, garlic and a splash of soy sauce. Spoon the mushrooms over the fish and bake it in a casserole dish.
As it cooks, the fish will exude some delicious ginger-scented juices. Be sure to baste the fish with this liquid during cooking and just before serving. Any type of mushroom will work, but shiitake are especially nice, or you could use wild chanterelles if they’re available. Serve with steamed rice, perhaps some wilted spinach.
When the winter citrus season is in full swing, it’s always a joy to celebrate the arrival of tart-sweet seedless Satsuma mandarins. For me, a bowl of these beauties, with leaves attached, is a perfect dessert. But, because the rest of the meal is commendably lean, I thought a few small, not-too-sweet triple-sesame tea cakes would be OK.