The Good Forager

Mushroom foraging is not for beginners. Pluck the wrong cap and you could be taking your life into your hands. No matter how innocuous, one incorrect identification could be downright deadly. Great risks yield little payoff, especially when you consider the fact that shiitake, arguably the greatest prize for sheer umami content, will never cross your path.


Photo courtesy of Sugimoto

Shiitake are native to Southeast Asia where they do grow wild, but these days are largely recognized as a cultivated mushroom. Although there are no definitive written records, there’s a good chance shiitake had been growing naturally in Takachiho-go, at the foot of Mt. Sobo over 10,000 years ago, when broadleaf forests spread across Japan.


Photo courtesy of Sugimoto

Today, Sugimoto shiitake mushrooms grow on sweet sap oak logs in the forest. Completely exposed to the elements, the growers use a 1,000-year-old Japanese approach to nurturing sustainable tree logs, fostering an environment as close to those original conditions know to produce the best tasting and textured Shiitake.

Larger agribusinesses cannot grow the same quality shiitake. Families living deep in the mountains grow Sugimoto shiitake in harmony with nature, without the dangers associated with traditional foraging. In each forest micro-climate, it is essential to fine-tune the variable factors of nature, exposure to the rain, wind, and the sunlight through the trees, with the work and working hours changing according to the weather. These are hard-earned skills beyond the grasp of business people, thinking only of time cards and profits. Truly a labor of love, over 600 independent growers can elevate the act of foraging to an art form.

In the spirit of shepherd’s pie, forager’s pie is what I’d like to think the skillful shiitake grower might enjoy with their harvests. Earthy, bright herbs like thyme and rosemary sing in concert to further accentuate those aromatic woodsy base notes. Instead of ground beef or lamb, chopped shiitake mushrooms add an incredibly meaty bite and umami flavor, possibly even surpassing the original in sheer depth of flavor. Gently browned tempeh boosts the protein to incredible heights, without spiking the fat content or adding any cholesterol, of course.

Crowned with rich, buttery mashed potatoes, everything comes together quickly in a single skillet, making advanced preparation, transportation, and even cleanup a breeze. This one-pan meal is casual and comforting enough for an easy weeknight dinner, yet made with such luxurious flavors that it would a suitable centerpiece for a holiday feast.

For a satisfying meatless entree that’s wildly delicious, you don’t need to go scrounging around for the key ingredient. Sugimoto shiitake mushrooms are now available on Kroger.com, Amazon.com, Walmart.com, and their own website. Now that’s my kind of fool-proof foraging.

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Serious About Food

There are certain things that only serious foodies understand. While everyone eats, and most people can appreciate the food on their plates to some degree, there’s a certain hunger that goes far beyond what’s on the plate. It’s a craving for connection that drives these people forward, for understanding history, culture, and the cooks driving it all forward using food as a vehicle. Personally, it’s the stories that keep me coming back for more.

Serious Foodie was found on exactly that premise. By exploring the world through recipes, you get more than a great meal at the end of the day. Their carefully crafted spice rubs, sauces, and spicy condiments serve as accessible entry points to culinary adventures that span the globe. Visiting both new and familiar lands forges stronger ties and awareness of the foodways that have existed long before any of us first picked up a spatula.

Straight out of the box, the Indonesian Sambal captured my imagination, promising a complex and nuanced blend of crushed red chilies, lime juice, vinegar, garlic, and salt. Much more than another hot sauce to stack up on the shelf, it brings a balanced heat with genuine flavor to the table, not just sheer firepower. It also made me realize that Indonesian food in general gets so little attention, despite the substantial influence it’s had specifically on vegetarians worldwide. Where would we be without the invention of tempeh, for starters?

Using the classic fermented bean cake and this smoldering yet sweet sauce as inspiration, I folded the two together into a fusion dish that everyone would recognize and enjoy: Tacos. Anything can be made into a taco without much effort. In this case, soft corn tortillas wrap gently around crispy cubes of tempeh that have been bathed in this sticky, savory glaze. Fresh cabbage adds a crisp crunch, paired with juicy mango salsa that sparkles with fresh flavor. Crunchy toasted peanuts seal the deal with just a hint of nutty flavor at the end of each bite.

This is the kind of dish that could convert a tempeh hater and make existing tempeh fans swoon. It’s a quick, easy, and foolproof meal with Serious Foodie. This is also my entry to the Serious Foodie Recipe Challenge; wish me luck! You can find more spicy ideas by visiting them on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Go beyond the beaten path to discover a world of new flavors. When you come back, don’t forget to bring that inspiration back to your own kitchen.

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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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