It’s no secret I am a committed omnivore. Ingredient lists for Green Plate Special recipes published over the years comprise everything from raw root vegetables and oysters from the Casco Bay and Damariscotta River to crispy pork crackling and extraordinary edimentals from my flower garden.

But I’ve never really served up much information about soy in this column. Frankly, the only soy-based ingredient I’ve included in my regular cooking repertoire thus far is soy sauce, which, I must admit, is neither local nor sustainably sourced.

Currently in my cabinet are bottles of Kikkoman soy sauce, San-J tamari and Whole Foods 365 Organic shoyu. The label on these bottles – with the exception of the Whole Foods’ ‘organic’ designation, which tells me that no genetic modification or synthetic fertilizers were involved – detail neither where the soy was sourced nor how the beans were grown.

But in the course of a recipe testing project I was conducting for another cookbook writer earlier this summer, I fell in love with Go-en Fermented Foods miso, a mellow fermented soybean paste made in Maine by Nicholas Repenning and his Japanese-born wife, Mika. For that test, I was mixing different brands of miso into squash puree to give it some umami gravitas.

Heiwa tofu of Belfast, left, and miso from Go-en Fermented Foods of Whitefield, bottom, combine to make miso soup. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

Since then, I’ve had my eyes opened to the versatility of miso, a fact Japanese cooks have known for centuries and contemporary culinary trend setters are exploring wildly. I’ve now stirred it into tomato sauce (Repenning’s suggestion), had it in soup, smeared it on top of fermented rice balls, and used it in a marinade for meat (see Miso-Maple Pork, Zucchini and Apple Skewers recipe below).

For my taste, this locally made miso has a richer flavor and far more interesting texture than more established national brands. Plus, it comes in reusable glass jars instead of plastic (albeit recyclable) tubs, and it’s trucked from nearby Whitefield.

But since soybeans are not a crop typically grown in this region, I wondered where the beans used to make this miso were grown. Do locally made soy products fall into the category of foodstuffs like coffee and chocolate, exotic spice mixes and rubs, and in most cases, beer and wine – where the “Made in Maine” label will be as green as I can get because sourcing the raw ingredients for them is a climatic impossibility?

The prospect of sourcing local, organic soybeans is indeed very challenging, explained Jeff Wolovitz, owner of Maine’s only commercial soy beanery, Heiwa Tofu, in Rockport. Since he and his wife, Maho Hisakawa, started making tofu commercially nine years ago, they’ve brought in just two pallets of soybeans (out of more than 100 in total) that were grown outside of New England. Those beans came from the Midwest, about three years ago, he figures.

It was an absolute last resort as Wolovitz simply could not meet the demand for his tofu (he makes upwards of 2,000 pounds of it weekly) in the month or so in late summer that year while he waited for the organic bean harvest here in Maine.

Christine Burns Rudalevige glazes pork and zucchini kebabs with local miso. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

“I am always looking for more farmers willing to grow soybeans in Maine. I started this business because I wanted to make a value-added product built on local agriculture. That was the whole point,” Wolovitz said. Over 90 percent of the 50,000 pounds of non-GMO, organic soy beans used to make Heiwa Tofu annually come from Maine, typically from farms in Skowhegan, Benedicta and Patten.

Wolovitz also taps a regular source from Massachusetts and another on the New York/Vermont line near Lake Champlain.

But it’s always a scramble as none of the local farms from which he buys grows soybeans exclusively because deer, disease and weed pressure can quickly make a field of soybeans not worth a Maine farmer’s time and effort. Wolovitz added that these diversified local farmers don’t have the specialized harvesting and cleaning equipment that mono-crop producers do, which means he must spend more time prepping the local beans that then get soaked, ground and strained to make tofu.

Is the scramble worth the effort? “If I had a dime for every customer who asked where the beans came from,” Wolovitz mused.

Repenning concurs that his customers’ interest in eating miso made with organic, regional beans (he too sources as much as possible in Maine but also brings in some beans from Massachusetts) is certainly a driving factor in his own long, slow process of cultivating Maine soy bean connections.

The lesson an eater looking to eat greener in Maine can learn from the budding soy-based, value-added product scene in Maine is this: It pays to keep the pressure on. Demand locally produced foods that are locally sourced, as well. If you keep asking, they will grow it.

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, a recipe developer and tester and a cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a new cookbook from Islandport. She can be contacted at: [email protected]

Miso-glazed pork and zucchini kebabs (made with local miso from Go-En Fermented foods of Whitefield) are ready to serve. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

MISO-MAPLE PORK, ZUCCHINI AND APPLE SKEWERS

Miso-Maple Pork, Zucchini and Apple Skewers
This marinade works well with chicken, salmon and firm tofu, too. But Go-en Fermented Foods miso maker Nicholas Repenning says he’s converted many a soy-shunning meat eater to miso by marinating pork in it. You can use a tougher cut of meat without long cooking, like the pork shoulder called for here, because the enzymes in the miso work quickly to tenderize it.
Serves 4

1/3 cup mild miso
1/3 cup maple syrup
1/3 cup rice wine (mirin), sweet white wine, or water
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoons minced ginger root
1 pound pork shoulder meat, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 medium zucchini, sliced into 3/4-inch rounds
1 apple, peeled, cored and sliced into 3/4-inch wedges
8 wooden or metal skewers

Combine the miso, maple syrup, wine or water, oil and ginger in a large measuring cup.
Place the pork in 1 non-reactive container and the zucchini and apples in a second non-reactive container. Pour one-third of the marinade over the pork and one-third over the zucchini and apples. Reserved the remaining one-third of marinade.
Stir the ingredients in both bowls to combine. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, preferably overnight.
After the marinating time is up, alternating, thread pork, zucchini and apple pieces onto skewers. Lay the skewers on a grill grate over medium heat.
Baste with the remaining marinade and turn often until the meat is no longer pink in the center (cut to test), about 10 minutes. Serve hot.