Fermented bean paste? Doesn't exactly scream party in your mouth.

And yet we happily slurp it in that salty, savoury soup doled out every time we sit down for sushi. And that's because miso really is a flavour bomb worth knowing.

So let's start there. Miso is a broad term for pastes made from fermented cooked soybeans that are aged, sometimes for years.

Miso has origins in China, but is best known for its role in Japanese cooking, where it is used in soups, sauces, marinades, glazes and dressings.

There are many varieties of miso, which can vary widely in colour and flavour intensity based on how long it is aged and which ingredients are added.

Sweet white miso, for example, is made from fermented soybeans and rice, then aged for just a few months. The result is a smooth paste with a sweet, salty, savoury flavour and a light golden colour. Move up to red miso — usually made with barley instead of rice and aged for up to three years — and both colour and flavour get more intense.

Your best bet is to stick with sweet white miso. Its mellow savoury-sweet flavour is versatile and pleasant; the stronger miso can be an acquired taste.

Misos are widely available at most grocers, usually refrigerated in the produce section alongside other Asian ingredients. While there are less expensive options, try to get an organic brand. Many cheaper varieties are poorly made and use flavour and colour additives to compensate.

Now that you have it, what do you do with it?

Soup is an obvious choice. Bring some water to a simmer and add thinly sliced veggies — carrots, shiitake mushrooms, cauliflower — and some cubed tofu. Simmer briefly, then mix 30 to 45 ml (2 to 3 tbsp) of miso with 50 ml (1/4 cup) of water in a small cup. Add the diluted miso to the soup (this helps it dissolve better than adding miso directly to the soup). Simmer briefly, then slurp.

Miso also makes a great glaze for salmon. Mix 75 ml (1/3 cup) miso with 30 ml (2 tbsp) lime juice, 15 ml (1 tbsp) water, 1 clove minced garlic, 5 ml (1 tsp) wasabi powder and 5 ml (1 tsp) soy sauce. Spread over salmon, then broil for 3 minutes uncovered, then another 5 minutes covered with foil.

For more ideas for using miso, check out the Off the Beaten Aisle column over on Food Network: http://bit.ly/xnSeR0. Or give in to total comfort and try it in this 20-minute-easy mac and cheese.

Miso Mac and Cheese

Start to finish: 20 minutes

500 g (1 lb) elbow pasta

15 ml (1 tbsp) olive oil

500 ml (2 cups) thinly sliced shiitake mushrooms

250 g (8 oz) creme fraiche

45 ml (3 tbsp) sweet white miso

375 ml (1 1/2 cups) grated Parmesan cheese

375 ml (1 1/2 cups) shredded cheddar cheese

5 ml (1 tsp) garlic powder

1 ml (1/4 tsp) hot sauce

Salt and ground black pepper, to taste

Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook according to package directions. Reserve 50 ml (1/4 cup) of the cooking water, then drain and set aside.

Meanwhile, in a large, deep skillet over medium, heat oil. Add mushrooms and saute until well browned, 6 to 7 minutes.

Move skillet off the heat. In a small bowl, mix together creme fraiche and miso, then stir that and Parmesan, cheddar, garlic powder and hot sauce into mushrooms.

Once cheese has melted, add drained pasta. Mix, drizzling in some of the reserved pasta cooking water to get desired consistency, until pasta is coated. Season with salt and pepper.

Makes 6 servings.

Nutrition information per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 519 calories; 123 calories from fat (24 per cent of total calories); 14 g fat (6 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 26 mg cholesterol; 70 g carbohydrate; 30 g protein; 4 g fibre; 1,058 mg sodium.

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J.M. Hirsch is the national food editor for The Associated Press. He is author of the recent cookbook, "High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking." His Off the Beaten Aisle column also appears at FoodNetwork.com. Follow him on Twitter http://twitter.com/JM_Hirsch.

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