Bento Box Soup

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The Japanese are renowned for their longevity. As of 2011, their average life expectancy was 82.3 years. (The United States came in fiftieth, at 78.4 years.) Researchers often credit their diet, and this soup is my way of cramming as much of their healthy cuisine into a bowl as possible. It’s called Bento Box Soup because of the traditional Japanese take-out bento box lunch, which is full of compartments, each containing a tasty treat: fish or meat, rice, pickled or cooked veggies, and other goodies. The base is a miso broth; if you’re not in the know about miso, it’s a salty fermented soy product that aids digestion and improves immune function. In case white miso isn’t available, use any mellow (light) miso. I kicked those healing properties up a notch by infusing green tea into the broth for an extra immune boost, then added shiitakes, spinach, kombu, scallions, and tamari.

Makes 6 servings

4 ounces soba noodles
4 cups organic vegetable or chicken broth, homemade or store-bought
1/2 teaspoon toasted sesame oil or hot pepper sesame oil
1 (6-inch) strip of kombu
3 green tea bags
1 carrot, peeled and grated
1/2 cup stemmed and sliced shiitake mushrooms
4 ounces firm tofu, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 tablespoons tamari
1/4 cup white miso
2 scallions, white and green parts, sliced diagonally
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 1/2 cups loosely packed baby spinach

Cook’s Note: If you’re sensitive to gluten, be sure to purchase 100 percent buckwheat soba noodles. Also, be aware that prolonged cooking or high heat will kill the beneficial nutrients in miso, so add it at the end of recipes and heat it gently.

Fill a soup pot halfway with water and bring to a boil over high heat. Add a pinch of salt and the soba noodles and decrease the heat to medium. Cook, stirring gently on occasion, until just tender, about 5 minutes. Drain and rinse well under cold water to remove the starch. Immediately transfer to a bowl, drizzle with 1/4 teaspoon of the sesame oil and toss gently to coat.

Put the broth in the same pot and bring to a boil over high heat. Decrease the heat to low, add the kombu and tea bags, and simmer for 4 minutes. Remove the kombu and tea bags with a slotted spoon. Add the carrot, mushrooms, tofu, tamari, cover, and simmer for 5 minutes.

Put 1/4 cup of the hot broth in a small bowl, add the miso, and stir with a fork until the miso is dissolved. Stir the mixture back into the broth, then stir in the scallions, lemon juice, and remaining sesame oil.

Distribute the soba noodles and spinach among six bowls and ladle in the soup.

Variations: You can substitute udon noodles for the soba. Another option is to omit the soba and instead put add 1/4 cup of cooked brown rice in each bowl, and then ladle the soup over the rice.

Prep Time: 20 minutes Cook Time: 15 minutes
Storage: Store the soba and soup separately so the soba doesn’t fall apart. Store the soup in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 4 days, and the soba in an airtight container in the refrigerator for no more than 1 day.

PER SERVIN G: Calories: 140; Total Fat: 1.5 g (0 g saturated, 0.5 g monounsaturated); Carbohydrates: 27 g; Protein: 7 g; Fiber: 5.5 g; Sodium: 834 mg