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 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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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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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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Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

Criticism can be tough to stomach, even when it’s coming from a good place. This is especially true when it comes to food. As a labor of love, a passion meant to be shared, it can be heartbreaking when a lovingly prepared dish is rejected for any reason. Navigating through personal preferences and aversions can be tricky for a cook that has no such qualms. Mushrooms, for instance, are one of my favorite ingredients in pretty much any savory recipe, so it stops me cold when I realize that not everyone shares this perspective. For some, it’s the texture. For others, it’s the strange way they grow. Then there’s the erroneous assessment that their uniquely earthy flavor is more like plain dirt.

Logic and reason needn’t apply; innate distaste can’t always be explained away. It’s a shame, though, that these mushroom-hating people are missing out on a world of such rich depth of flavor. That said, there is a way for everyone to walk away from the table happy and satisfied.

Dried Sugimoto shiitake mushroom powder takes all the best umami elements of the mushroom and concentrates them into a potent seasoning, while leaving behind its conventional fungi form. Applied with a deft hand, it won’t dredge up any questionably earthy, funky, or overtly mushroomy notes. Rather, it seamlessly enhances the meaty flavors and aromas of a dish. For someone cooking alternative proteins, it should be an indispensable staple in the spice cabinet, right alongside salt and pepper.

Transforming a simple blend of vital wheat gluten and chickpea flour into downright umami bomb meatballs, shiitake powder is your secret ingredient that picky eaters don’t need to know about. They won’t realize the flavor boost and added nutrition is coming from mushrooms, but they will know that these are the best vegan meatballs they’ve ever smothered in red sauce and twirled their spaghetti around.

Coming together in a matter of minutes, this shortcut seitan formula is easy to master with one try. The mixture is first steamed to become plump and juicy, then quickly seared for a crisp, golden brown exterior. They’re incredibly hearty, substantial, and won’t fall apart under pressure. Try stacking them up on sub sandwiches or drop them into Italian wedding soup for a savory change of pace. Prep in advance for busy days; finished, cooked meatballs can be frozen almost indefinitely, so you’ll never be caught without a plan for dinner.

Even if you’re not a fan of mushrooms, I promise you’ll love these meatballs. Add a little pinch of Sugimoto shiitake mushroom powder into your life to unlock a bolder, more flavorful approach to meatless meals.

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Soaking it All in

In a world dominated by quick-fix meals, instant entrees, and fast food, it can be hard to deliberately slow down. If there’s a way to cook faster to eat sooner, why deny yourself that immediate gratification? Patience is truly a virtue, yielding even greater rewards to those who can wait. This is true of life in general, and shiitake mushrooms in particular.

Yes, dried shiitake mushrooms need time to fully rehydrate, reviving to their original brilliance with even greater savory depth than before. Most recipes haphazardly plunge them into boiling water for 15 – 20 minutes, rushing through the process just to get them to a generally edible state. Sure, they’ll be soft enough to slice, but so much of their rich, distinctive aroma will be lost that you might as well be using a bland button mushroom instead. These hot shiitakes will be a far cry from the flavorful powerhouses they could have been.

Sugimoto shiitake are dried using a far-infrared drying approach, which minimizes moisture to less than 9% (whereas others are 12% or more) to preserve the highest quality possible. This process breaks the Shiitake’s cell membrane, allowing it to release a greater amount of Guanylate when rehydrated. Soaking for at least 12 hours and ideally 24 hours in cold water slowly, gently coaxes out the full range of savory flavors locked inside. The texture is remarkably better, too, producing plump caps with a juicy yet tender bite.

If you must take a shortcut, there is one way to speed things up; remove the stems first, and you can reduce the overall time to about 8 hours. You do still need to plan ahead of course, but if you start thinking about dinner at breakfast time like me, this trick is an invaluable ace to have up your sleeve. That said, patience is definitely not my strong suit, so I’ve learned to keep soaked shiitake in the fridge at all times, ready whenever cravings might strike.

One of my favorite pasta dishes is mushroom stroganoff, which has evolved considerably through equal parts education and experimentation. It can be thrown together in minutes or raised to new culinary heights given greater advanced planning. Any sort of pasta will do in a pinch, but homemade pasta infused with the deep savory flavor of Sugimoto dried shiitake powder puts it in a whole new category of everyday indulgence.

Garlicky cream sauce bathes the cascading noodles in a tidal wave of luscious mushroom goodness, infusing every element of the dish with incredible amounts of umami and tanmi. Though the original version utilizes rough cuts of beef, thickly sliced shiitake are meaty enough to satisfy without any sacrifice.

It really does pay to slow down, take the long route, and savor every moment. This mushroom stroganoff may take a while from start to finish, but it disappears quickly.

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