Chickens Coming Home to Roost

As a summer-lover, sun-worshiper, and heat-seeker, I never thought I’d be so grateful to say goodbye. I’ve also never experienced a year with nearly 70 days at or above 100 degrees before. When you can’t go for a walk midday without burning to a crisp, or using your car for anything but baking cookies, it shifts the script significantly. There’s still a lot to love, from ripe heirloom tomatoes to warm late night swims, but for the first time ever, I’m ready to move on. I’m ready to embrace fall with open arms.

To that end, I’m diving head-first into cozy comfort foods. Bring on the pasta drowned in browned butter, the sautéed mushrooms dancing in white wine. It’s the season of wild mushrooms, flourishing in cool, damp weather. Nestled at the base of oak trees or hidden beneath fallen leaves, they cluster together like a bouquet of flowers, blooming in earthy shades of browns and greys. Springing up where you’d least expect it, luck is often a more important factor than skill when it comes to foraging.

This is my favorite type of backyard chicken. Hen of the woods mushrooms get their name from those feathery, frilled caps, said to look like a sitting hen. Given that they can grow into masses upwards of 50 pounds, I’d like that think there are no barnyard animals that can really measure up.

What makes hen of the woods mushrooms so great?

Also known as maitake mushrooms, they’ve long been touted for their medicinal properties, such as:

  • Boosting the immune system
  • Reducing cancer risks
  • Stabilizing blood sugar
  • Helping regulate blood pressure

What I’m most interested in, however, is their culinary value.

What do hen of the woods mushrooms taste like?

Both subtly nuanced and boldly earthy, delicate yet peppery and assertive, hen of the woods mushrooms are a brilliant bundle of contradictions. One moment they’re soft and tender, buttery and supple, the next they’re almost audibly crunchy, chewy and crisp. There’s no alternative that exactly replicates such a unique eating experience.

Pair that with a luscious blanket of caramelized onions, slowly browned over low heat, with a cascading sauce of nutty browned butter, spiked with a splash of dry white wine. Vegan tortellini tumble and tangle within the wilted mushroom fronds, springs of curly kale sprouting wildly like an overgrown forest floor. It’s a rustic, untamed, and understated plating for a powerhouse of flavor. Toasted pecans rain down like a gentle shower, ending with a clean, clear crunch.

While it’s a dish that could exist in any season given greater accessibility to farmed mushrooms and imported produce, the heart and soul of it can only exist in autumn. In the growing darkness and increasing cold, let it envelop you in warmth. Take comfort knowing that there’s so much good to come of this new season.

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The Rice of Royalty

There is no singular definition of biryani. To think that the dish is just seasoned rice with either meat or vegetables is a gross over-simplification, if not an outright mistake. Aside from the vast differences between southern and northern Indian cuisine, no two cooks make it the same way, and in truth, no cook makes it the same way each time, either. Born into royalty around the 16th century, it shares many qualities with humble pulao or pulav, AKA pilaf, but is distinctly, clearly an elevated form of the concept.

Biryani is an entree, the main event of a meal unveiled with great fanfare, whereas pulao is merely a side, even if it contains a complete protein. Speaking for itself with more complex and stronger spices, a proper biryani commands all the attention of the eater, acting as both dinner and entertainment in one. Rice is always at the foundation, but everything else is up for debate.

Given all the disagreements about what a biryani should be, developing a proper recipe is a near impossible task. As an American, I can never claim that my take on the time-honored tradition is even remotely accurate, authentic, or worthy of being called the “best.” I can only offer inspiration to try biryani, of any sort at all, to enjoy a taste of the single most popular food across the entire Indian subcontinent. Honor the source, but don’t forget to have fun with it and cater to your own tastes. That’s how food continues to evolve in our interconnected world, right?

Hyderabadi chicken biryani seemed to me the easiest, most recognizable overseas, and widely loved variation to start with. While it does demand low and slow cooking, it’s layered with spices in a simple, logical way that’s more manageable than most. Rose water and saffron create the signature, luxurious flavor, perfumed with floral notes that mingle and fuse with the spices for a full aromatic experience. Par-cooked rice meets marinated proteins to end with a perfectly cooked, tender bite all the way through.

In a move that should surprise precisely no one, my take is a clear break with tradition. Coconut oil provides a dairy-free equivalent to ghee, while vegan yogurt of any variety, be it oat, soy, almond, coconut, or other, is a seamless swap. For the meat of the matter, finely sliced Sugimoto koshin shiitake imitates the shredded texture of stewed chicken. Their inherently, unmistakably umami flavor only adds to the illusion. I prefer the koshin variety here for their expansive, flat caps that create a similarly meaty sensation when shredded, creating a more satisfying experience overall.

Much of this recipe is just a waiting game. Soaking the shiitake in water overnight to properly rehydrate them and bring out the full range of umami within is essential, as is the slow marinating process in the dairy-free yogurt mixture. While most people credit this step with creating more tender meat, there’s more happening here that also applies to plants. The acidic properties make it a great carrier for other seasonings, helping all those great spices to infuse deep within the mushrooms. Edible art like that can’t be rushed.

What makes a great biryani?

While taste is subjective, there are certain unifying characteristics of a good biryani that remain consistent across the globe:

  • Basmati rice is a non-negotiable. No other variety has the same delicate fragrance and texture. Each grain should remain separate and fluffy but simultaneously moist and sticky. It’s hard to describe, but you know it when you taste it.
  • Seasonings should be balanced, moderately spiced and nuanced with bites of sweetness, saltiness, herbaceousness, and tartness. No one taste should stand out above the rest; the ultimate goal is flavor harmony.
  • Kokumi, or the sensation of richness, often associated with fat, is essential. That’s why it’s traditionally lavished with ghee for that lingering feeling of extravagance. Yes, you can reduce the amount of oil and still enjoy a great biryani… But it won’t be the best biryani.

How can you serve biryani?

Think of biryani as the original bowl-in-one. No one will walk away from the table hungry if that’s the only dish on it. That said, it’s nice to have small accompaniments such as:

Homemade biryani is a physical manifestation of love. It takes time, effort, reasonable cooking skills, and a well-stocked spice rack to pull off such a feat. Sharing biryani with someone makes a clear, unmistakable statement, whether those feelings are spoken or not. Saying “I love you” is redundant when biryani is on the table.

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The Hole Story About Austin Bagels

Bagels are such a unique, distinctive class of bread that they deserve their own category. Visually, texturally, and fundamentally, they barely even resemble other yeasted staples. Every element is critical to the overall experience, from the glossy, chewy crust to the dense crumb inside. Few have successfully mastered the art of bagelry, and not just for lack of the alkaline water found in New York City.

Where can you get the best bagels?

Aside from making your own from scratch, access to quality options remains limited, especially outside of major cities. Sad to say, nothing found in the bread aisle of your local grocery store will ever measure up. Fortunately, it’s not a dying art- Quite the contrary. Out of nostalgia, cravings, and blind ambition, more and more young bakers across the country are throwing down the dough to make genuine bagels, and not some glorified ring-shaped dinner rolls.

NYC has the street cred, but not the monopoly on raw talent. Austin lays claim to five independent, local bagel makers. Plenty of restaurants and cafes are doing great things with sandwiched and schmeared creations, but I wanted to go straight to the source for this gustatory investigation. I’m talking about hunting down the very best bagel in town.

How can you judge the best bagel?

While every cafe worth their coffee beans offers a basic bagel, I went straight to the source, examining only those who bake their own bagels. For the sake of consistency, I compared only everything bagels, being the most popular variety across the board, without any toppings. Prices ranged from $1 – 4.50 apiece, making the very best of the batch an affordable luxury. Each is filling enough to make a solid breakfast, even without adornment, so I’d call that a bargain for a full meal. Here’s where your dollars are best spent.

Who bakes the best bagels from scratch in Austin?

  • Rosen’s Bagels is a relative newcomer to the world of commercial baking, beginning life a mere five years ago, but has quickly taken hold as the front runner in local cafes and grocery stores. If it wasn’t enough to get a dozen delivered straight to your door, they now have two shiny new brick-and-mortar locations that are perpetually buzzing with hungry carbivores. Founder Tom Rosen has a simple formula for success, and is simply doing it right. The dough goes through a 48 hour fermenting and rising process to develop complex flavors, enhanced by the traditional addition of subtly sweet malt powder. Best of all, the everything bagels are double-seeded, tossed in the signature seasoning mixture on both sides to ensure no bald spots. Top and bottom halves are full coated for a serious flavor punch.

  • Rockstar Bagels has been rising to the occasion since 2009 with their malt-boiled bagels that positively shine in the early morning light. They’re the first local bagel to grace my table since they’re available at Wheatsville a la carte for mere pocket change. These plump rings sport an elegantly lacquered finish with a topping that tends to skew heavier on sesame seeds, enhancing the nutty, toasted flavor. Maybe that’s why I find them more compelling once split and toasted than simply warmed. Bulk bin grocery store bagels have questionable quality, even if they’re locally made, so always go to their walk-up window for the best, freshest batches.

  • Wholy Bagel stands apart from the pack by proudly touting their New Jersey-style bagel, boasting a notably fluffier crumb with a cracklingly crisp exterior. The combination of textures is unique, coming together as an a fully satisfying experience in a slightly unconventional format. Don’t forget that everything is bigger in Texas; when you order a dozen, it’s not a Baker’s Dozen but a Wholy Texas Dozen; 14 bagels for the price of 12.

  • Nervous Charlie’s can certainly be anxiety-provoking if you’re not prepared to wait on line. Perpetually swamped with hungry carbivores, it’s nigh impossible to beat the crowds. Most people are drawn to the loaded bagel sandwiches for a hearty breakfast, brunch, or lunch, but the ungarnished bread base itself is quite a prize. Plump, thick, and dense, each substantial ring demonstrates mastery of the dough.

  • Casper Fermentables adds more nuance to the local bagel conversation with their sourdough Montreal-style offerings. A passion for probiotics defines their offerings that run the gamut from kombucha to kimchi. Once a humble farmers market stand, Casper is the latest homegrown success to set up a permanent outpost in the Sunset Valley neighborhood. Now you can enjoy an expanded menu of ready to eat sandwiches and pastries, but the bagels remain the top seller. Even my New York-born father was impressed by the golden brown and mildly tangy, thoroughly chewy rings.

Honorable Mentions

Anyone baking their own bagels deserves props for doing it the right way, rather than the easy way. Not all of them rank at the top of my list, but they’re still far and away better than anything else you’d find on store shelves.

  • Big City Bagels and Subs tends to fly below the radar, putting more emphasis on the sandwiches than the bread, but the main issue is just getting there in time. Bagels are liable to sell out early, the shop sometimes closes early, and I can never seem to hit the road early enough.
  • Swedish Hill offers deluxe (albeit not vegan) fixings for dine-in guests, but the solo bagels are fairly forgettable. Not enough toppings to be considered everything; more like a few things. It doesn’t feel worth the price of entry to me.

New York may have perfected the art of the bagel, but it no longer has the monopoly. There are plenty of great bagels down south in the Greater Austin Area and beyond.

Raising a Stink

Durian, the so-called “king of fruits,” is quite possibly the single most polarizing food known to man. The aroma is so distinctive that you’d identify it in a second, even on your first encounter. I’ll never forget my first time in Hawaii when I spotted one of those prickly, thorn-covered shells. Sussing out the smallest one in the pile, I bagged my prize and escorted it back to my room. Surely, the rumors were overblown; this didn’t seem too bad! There was a light funk but nothing unmanageable. I stashed it in the mini fridge and went about my day.

Later that evening, something was amiss. Had an animal gotten in and died in the walls? Had someone forgotten to take out the trash, full of dirty diapers, for a week? To my horror, as I approached my door, the smell got stronger, and stronger…

Yes, it was the durian.

What does durian taste like?

Some people love that ripe pungency but to me, it’s an obstacle to get through. My best explanation is to compare it to a mixture of rotting onions, moldy cheese, sweaty gym socks, and a porta potty at the end of a music festival. Pungent and assertive, it’s the reason why durian is banned from many public spaces in Southeast Asia.

The flavor of durian is considerably more mild, with subtly sweet notes that add a final note of confusion on the back end. Some call the texture custard-y because it’s creamy and rich, but the high fat content would put the average pudding to shame. The unctuousness makes it impossible for me to eat more than a few bites straight.

How can you cook with durian?

Durian will never be my favorite food. However, once I stopped trying to eat it like a dessert or a sweet snack as it is typically recommended, I started I see the appeal. Leveraging the allium flavor to lend greater depth to recipes where raw onion would be far too harsh, my first big breakthrough happened when I blended it into a bright, punchy pesto sauce.

Pureed to a silky smooth consistency, this also helps alleviate any textural challenges. Durian pesto pasta might sound a bit crazy, and maybe it is, but it’s also delicious.

My greatest success came in the form of crispy durian rangoons. Chopped enoki mushrooms lend the filling a chewy seafood-like texture to take the place of crab meat, while durian brings in that creamy, gooey decadence typically conveyed by cream cheese. This killer app could help ease durian-haters back into the fold. No one can resist a deep-fried wonton, especially with a beer or two.

Fresh durian is not cheap, and a little bit goes a long way, so I’d suggest blending the whole thing and freezing it in ice cube trays for future use. That way you can pop out a cube or two whenever you’d like, which will prevent spoilage and cut down on that oppressive aroma. It only gets more intense as the fruit sits out at room temperature. Consider yourself warned!

Try incorporating durian puree into a wide variety of dishes, such as:

Don’t be afraid to play around with it! Love it or hate it, you’ll never forget your first durian.

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