Hello Sunshine

Craning their necks high into the sky with bold yellow blossoms, sunflowers seem as bright as the sun itself. Native to North America, one could argue that they’re one of the first authentic foods of the US, cultivated and farmed before corn or squash. Whimsical as they may look, sunflowers are much more than mere decorative elements for your bouquet.

Adding that same cheer and utility to the dinner table, their seeds transcend the bounds of conventional sweet and savory definitions, seamlessly enhancing flavors across the board. Since they’re so versatile and affordable, there’s always at least a handful hanging out in the pantry here. Beyond just snacking on them out of hand, they’re one of my favorite additions to bread. Adding a toothsome crunch and subtly nutty taste into every bite, sunflower seeds make every slice a textural delight.

So, when it comes time to clean out that pantry, there are all sorts of odd measures of various flours to use up, united by these tiny kernels in one incredible loaf. Dark molasses sweetens the deal without pushing it into sugary realms, making it ideal for sandwiches or toast. Soft and supple, cassava flour gives it a satisfying heft, alongside hearty whole wheat.

Such a remarkably simple yet comforting bread seemed like the perfect recipe to share for the 16th annual World Bread Day. There’s so much to celebrate when it comes to this staple food. I feel like I should create something extravagant that will turn heads or become a viral hit, but the fact of the matter is that all bread is good bread, and I think we’ve already had enough sensational headlines to last a lifetime. I just want an easy-going dough that’s as comforting to knead and create as it is to eat and enjoy.

Banner World Bread Day, October 16, 2021

Even on a rainy day, this loaf will still rise and shine. That’s the power of sunflowers, blooming brilliantly for thousands of years.

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It’s My Party and I’ll Dry If I Want To

When it comes to food preservation, no technique has withstood the test of time quite like drying and dehydration. Used as early as 12,000 BCE, prehistoric people discovered that they could sun-dry seeds to extend their lifespan exponentially. To this day, the very same approach is a perfectly reasonable way to put away fruits and vegetables for later days. The process can even intensify flavors, transforming simple ingredients into entirely new building blocks capable of creating richer eating experiences altogether.

Such is the case for Sugimoto shiitake mushrooms, which gain all of their incredible umami and tanmi qualities through careful dehydration. In the olden days, freshly harvested shiitake were dried over wood or charcoal fires, incorporating a more smoky, woodsy flavor, and also a lot more uncontrollable variation. If the fires burned too hot, the mushrooms would shrivel up, dried to a crisp. Too cold, and the tortuously slow drying process would destroy much of the delicate taste and aroma.

Now employing the best technology in the business, far-infrared drying reduces the moisture content quickly and efficiently while removing any possible insect or microbe content. This is why Sugimoto is the only shiitake mushroom company in the world that has received kosher certification.

Pantry staples that won’t let you down, waiting patiently for their time to shine, are crucial for quick meals, times of scarcity, and outright emergencies. When the winter storm knocked out power for days and water for weeks, you’d better believe I was thanking my lucky stars I had all sorts of dried soups saved away. Beyond just making for an easy, comforting starter, powdered soup mixes can be the catalyst to countless meals. Add a packet to sour cream and you’ve got a bowlful of dip, ready to party. Toss it with cubes of tofu for a flavorful, crispy finish. And of course, rehydrate it with less liquid to make a concentrate, mimicking America’s favorite casserole starter for all sorts of hotdishes.

You can effortlessly make your own instant cream of mushroom soup mix yourself to bypass any dairy or questionable ingredients. Sugimoto dried shiitake powder is the essential base that lays a foundation of incredible savory flavor, blending seamlessly into a creamy almond flour foundation. Ample pieces of chopped shiitake mushrooms add a more satisfying texture, making it a delight to enjoy all by itself. Springing back to life with just a little water and warmth, it’s a deeply soothing, soulful blend that could be the catalyst to many more meals to come.

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Of Siblings and Spaghetti

Repeatedly recalled for decades, certain family stories become the stuff of lore. So vividly told that they seem like my own memories, I can practically see, taste, and feel these moments that happened long before I was born. The funny thing is, most of these moments are completely inconsequential, with many of the main players unconsciously or selectively choosing to forget the specifics. Regardless of the plausible bias coming from just one source, there’s a particular bit of family lore shared by my dad that I just can’t shake.

The second eldest of four children, he grew up in a boisterous household with plenty of sibling rivalry. Everyone had their quirks and irritations, which each knew exactly how to provoke. Meal time could be particularly fraught, as hunger drained what little patience might remain for the usual shenanigans.

As the story goes, my uncle Jim was throwing a fit about his spaghetti. It was always exactly the same but completely at random, he would inexplicably decide that it didn’t taste as good. Well, as the story goes, my dad finally got fed up with this routine. When Jim abandoned the table for just a moment, my dad swooped in and made his move. Deftly pouring his glass of chocolate milk into the forsaken noodles, my aunts could barely manage to stifle their giggles. Much to everyone’s surprise, upon his return, Jim proclaimed the pasta… Suddenly, miraculously improved!

The secret remained a mystery for all of about two seconds before the jig was up, launching an equal and opposite reaction of chocolate milk being poured into my dad’s white rice. Such an ultimately trivial moment that could have easily become forgotten somehow became wrapped up in our larger family lore, a fundamental piece of my personal history, despite taking place many decades before I was born.

History is destined to repeat itself, manifesting in unexpected ways, and so here I am today, recreating my Uncle Jim’s chocolate milk spaghetti.

Yes, you read that right; looking beyond the dessert course, blending cocoa into cream sauce isn’t the craziest idea. My dad was onto something in this moment of reckless provocation, little did he know at the time. Deep, dark Dutch process cocoa has both sweet and savory notes, waiting for the right sidekick to coax either side out into the light. Though we typically focus on more sugary pairings, the subtly bitter edge inherent in raw cacao comes to the fore alongside garlic, nutritional yeast, and black truffles. Twirling stands of al dente noodles within that mysterious, tawny sauce, crunchy bites of toasted cacao nibs deliver a shock of texture, hammering in the duality and versatility of this single ingredient, found in many forms.

Who knew that such an innocuous event would stay with us for generations, and perhaps, many more to come? Truffles certainly weren’t on the menu on that fateful night, but there’s no reason why we can’t learn from our “mistakes” and improve upon them- If only we can be so fearless by taking that first step to pour chocolate milk into pasta.

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Creature Comforts

There’s no accounting for what provides comfort. Some things are nearly universal, such as spending time with the people you love, or burrowing deep under a heavy blanket when it’s cold out. Food has always factored in for me, of course, but some surprising things came to the fore at the height of the pandemic. Shut off from the world, distraction was the best way to cope, and that meant losing myself in the world of anime and donghua. There’s no such thing as a mild obsession, which describes my sudden and complete immersion in these words just as well.

In one of my favorites, Mo Dao Zu Shi (魔道祖师), there’s a passing mention of lotus root soup. Only once does it actually grace the screen, but that was enough to capture my imagination. To better inhabit this world, to more fully experience the drama, I needed to make this soup.

As a time-honored Chinese preparation, lotus root soup itself has been a source of comfort for centuries. Simple and spare, with a clean, clear broth that sings with ginger, dried jujubes infuse a touch of sweetness to balance out the flavors with grace. The lotus root becomes tender yet remains crisp even after cooking for an hour. The flavor of this tuber is quite mild, which makes the alluring texture its greatest asset to the stew. Traditionally pork is use to add richness and protein, but in my version, wheat gluten is a natural substitute.

On that note, being the complete geek that I am, I’d like to think that my recipe is something that Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji would be able to share. Though Wei Wuxian always preferred meat and spicy foods, lotus root soup was a favorite of his, and Lan Wangji always forbade the killing of animals within his sect’s territory. Secretly, I wonder if he was a vegetarian at heart.

Even if you’re not familiar with the story, this is definitely an effortless source of edible comfort that everyone can enjoy.

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