Some Great Reward (featuring Ginger Miso Udon Soup)

I remember the feeling of anticipation overriding every other thought in my head.  It’s so close.  I’m almost there, I’d think.  I can still feel it now though it’s been a decade — that bursting desperation and pinpoint focus on the moment when I could take the first sip of the day.  All accomplishments would be rewarded in that instant, sometimes doing a neat switch where the very reward’s existence meant I could pretend I had accomplished something.  Congratulations Alison, you’re a hero!  You made it to 5:00!

I distinctly remember approaching the end of catering gigs, washing dishes with lightning speed to reach that finish line faster.  Stomach churning, shoulders tense, fingers sudsy, eyes on the clock.  Just another hour… now 40, 30, 20 minutes to go… just a few more blocks till I’m home… come on elevator, hurry up.  Then the pop of the cork and the splash into glass.  A sip.  A gulp.  Victory was mine.

It didn’t last long, that feeling, though I would tell myself it lasted all night.  And the next day’s battle would be fought for that same bounty.  It was hard to quit that dance, even when I realized it was to music only I could hear.  It was hard; full stop.  Because rewards feel good.

Now I’ll dodge the opportunity to sober-platitude you into believing I’ve found the perfect substitute.  I’m not going to leap into a “clean living is reward enough” shpiel.  Don’t get me wrong; I like being sober more than I like being a mess, which I was, but there have been many days in my 10-years without a drink I would kill for the ribbon-breaking-reward-feel that booze gave me.

So, I started to search.  I’m in the business of food rewards, so it seemed like a well-suited task.  It was a write-off, too.

There was sugar, of course, which does the trick pretty handily for about thirty minutes.  I’ve baked pies and cakes, tarts and tortes.  I’ve obsessed over cookie thicknesses, vanilla purity, and chocolate percentages.  It’s fun, no doubt, but sugar is always overindulged by me (self-control’s not really my A-game) and my victory dance quickly turned into a downward spiral of self-loathing.

I moved on to the savory rewards.  I’ve grilled slabs of ribs and boiled mountains of pasta.  There have been heaping platters of fried dumplings and cheeses so rich and stinky I think I’ve died and gone to heaven.  I’ve baked bread with stone ground flours and slathered them in salty-sweet butter from country farms.  All of it so wonderful and indulgent, but still not cresting that accomplishment zenith I remember so well.

How can it be this hard to find the thrilling satisfaction that a good stiff drink once held for me?  It’s almost like it’s impossible.  Almost like I made the whole thing up.  Almost like necessity was the mother of invention for my alcoholism.  I needed to have something to work for and taught my brain and body that the drink was it.  Now don’t get me wrong, I loved the taste and sensations of drinking, but I held the moment of reward in the highest regard, no matter what its impact was on the rest of my life.  I can’t recreate that sensation because it was all a lie.  I was a writer of fiction in those days.

I hate the realization that I love eating broccoli and taking a walk with Francis and Meals more than anything in my life.  I hate it because it doesn’t sound cool.  It sounds boring.  It sounds like downshifting gears while I’m still stepping on the gas.

But there’s a moment when Meals looks so incredibly happy with her life that Francis and I can’t do anything but laugh.  And that feels better than a drink, and a cheeseburger, and a triple chocolate sundae combined.

There’s a cat involved, too, but you could say she’s less effusive.

Meals in action (photo courtesy of Sharon Alagna)
Grace the cat



This holiday season was phenomenal for my little catering company.  We had multiple repeat customers, and a lot of new clients, too.  I’ve finally found my stride here in Portland, and it feels different than the terrified fits and starts of (un)employment over the past years.  It feels better.

I worked steadily until a few days before the holiday and then invited my brother, Max, and his girlfriend, Sharon, to have Christmas dinner with us.  Weeks out, I thought, “I can’t wait to dazzle them with a new culinary masterpiece! Something vegetarian for Sharon and Francis, something epic and meaty for me and Max.  I’ll find something amazing to cook!  I’ll pull out all the stops!”  Two weeks away from a meal, I’m superfluous.  One week out, I’m super.  Two days from the meals and I’m barely sup.  Nothing was lighting me up.  I thumbed my way through magazines and cookbooks feeling disinterested and regretful I’d offered to cook.

Then I said, screw it.  A month earlier, I’d found some phenomenal fresh Udon noodles in an Asian store I frequent.  Those noodles inspired me to play around with some ramen and miso soup recipes and these bowls of soup were the greatest rewards I had found in a while.  Could I get away with serving big bowls of noodles for Christmas dinner?

I told Max I was making ramen for the meal and he said “great!”  There’s a big possibility he thought I meant Top Ramen and was still fine.  Max is pretty easy going about food.  And I think he might trust me.

He was right to trust me, too.  The meal was fantastic.  So easy, so delicious, and no one hated themselves afterward (even though we all had more than one bowl).

I don’t want to get into the technicality of Japanese soup names here.  This isn’t ramen exactly, but that’s an easy name to call it.  I prefer an udon noodle (fresh if you can find them) because I lose my mind for something thick and toothsome.  Francis prefers a traditional thinner ramen noodle.  Opposites attract, I guess.  This is a miso-based soup with tons of vegetables that is flexible enough to fit whatever mood you’re in.  It just takes a few specialty Asian ingredients, which will last for months in your fridge or pantry.  The rest is up to you!

I made the vegetable broth early that day, with carrots and leeks, onions and bay leaves, cremini mushrooms, onions, celery, and parsley.  I simmered it for hours before straining and then adding some shiitake mushrooms and some slivered seaweed.  That was my veggie base for the soup that follows.  You can use chicken stock instead, of course.  And as far as the vegetables to go in the soup?  It’s totally your call.  This is a work of art to suit your palate.

Ginger Miso Udon Soup

Ginger Miso Udon Soup

Serves 4 hungry people


  • 2 quarts stock (can be chicken, pork, or veggie)
  • ¼ cup sake
  • 3 tablespoons mirin
  • 3 garlic cloves, chopped fine
  • 1 tablespoon fresh ginger, grated
  • ½ cup red miso
  • 1 teaspoon sambal oelek or other hot sauce (optional)
  • 2 carrots, peeled and cut into ½ inch rounds
  • Head of broccoli, cut into small trees
  • Green beans, ends trimmed and cut in half
  • Sugar snap peas, stringed
  • Snow peas
  • Bok choy, cut into bite-sized pieces
  • Napa cabbage, cut into bite-size pieces
  • 6 ounces shiitake mushrooms, sliced
  • Bean sprouts
  • 3 Scallions, chopped
  • 1 pound udon noodles, preferably fresh (ramen is a brilliant substitute if that’s your thing)
  1. Pour the stock into a heavy saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat.
  2. Fill another saucepan with heavily salted water and slowly bring to a boil on the back of the stove (this will be to blanch the vegetables and cook the noodles.)
  3. In a small saucepan, add the sake, mirin, garlic, and ginger.  Bring to a boil over medium heat and then add the miso and the hot sauce and continue to boil for another minute.
  4. Add the sake mixture to your stock base and continue to simmer on medium heat.
  5. When you’re ready to eat, boil the noodles according to directions on package.  You never want to boil the noodles in the stock base because the soup will become too starchy.  I like to multi-task the noodle cooking with blanching some of the veggies, so for a fresh noodle that takes 4 minutes to cook, I put the noodles in first, a minute later; the broccoli and the green beans, a minute after that; the sugar snap peas and carrots.  Then I drain the whole thing in a colander and then directly into the stock.  Add the rest of the vegetables to the soup, stir to combine, and enjoy!  But if I’m doing this for clients who prefer to have the vegetables separated in the bowl (like in the picture), I cook the noodles and vegetables separately.


If you’d like to see how it’s done, here’s me making this on KATU’s Afternoon Live:

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