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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Good Garbage

You say “garbage” like it’s a bad thing.

In Rochester, New York, it means something else entirely. The Garbage Plate was born here, specifically at Nick Tahou Hots, a roadside fast food stand catering to truckers and college students that ate like them. No two Garbage Plates are exactly the same, but the general idea is that you take copious amounts of protein and carbs, slap it on a griddle, slather it in sauce, and serve it in one heaping pile. True to form, it looks a bit trashy, but tastes like everything you’re craving after a long night on the town, or when you’re recovering the day after.

Served alongside a stack of generously buttered white bread, it’s an iconic American institution that is sadly unknown outside of its immediate birthplace. Surely the combination isn’t entirely unique, easily fashioned from leftovers or scraps to make ends meet, but that’s also what makes it so special. The flavors are universal, accessible, and comforting on a primal level. Everyone can eat garbage, regardless of social status or income, and in fact, everyone should eat garbage every now and then.

Ready to get trashy? Let’s break down the plate and evaluate our options.

What is a Garbage Plate made with?

  • Base: Hash browns, home fries, or French fries
  • Carbs: Macaroni salad or plain pasta and/or baked beans
  • Protein: Hamburger (optionally with cheese), sausage, or hot dogs
  • Sauce: Hot meat sauce and mustard, plus optional ketchup and/or hot sauce
  • Topping: Diced onion

Personally, my preference is to start with a solid foundation of hash browns for a satisfying crunchy contrast to the more tender layers on top. Refrigerated or frozen hash browns make this a snap, or you can start from scratch with whole starchy potatoes. If you do shred your own, it’s essential to squeeze out any excess water, using a length of cheese cloth to wring them out, for the best golden brown sear. The process takes an extra minute or two, but will elevate your garbage plate from good to great.

For the primary protein, I always seem to have some sort of burger patty in the freezer, so that’s an automatic win for me. Whether it’s animal-identical or a more earthy combination of beans and grains, my secret is to season the outside with a generous pinch of Sugimoto shiitake mushroom powder.

A little bit goes a long way in added volumes of flavor that transcend the barrier between the plant and animal kingdom. “Delicious” is the only way to really describe the effect. You could chop your seasoned patties up into small pieces for better forkablility, or leave it whole for faster service. Grill, sear, bake, or air fry; use anything you’ve got to create a nice brown sear and cook it all the way through.

Hot meat sauce might need the most explanation. No, it’s not meat hot sauce, as I initially though. Syntax matters, people. It’s more like a loose bolognese without tomatoes, or if chili was made into a sauce instead of a stew. As the primary carrier of flavor in the whole meal, this is the most important part of the recipe. That’s why I leave nothing to chance by bringing umami bomb Sugimoto shiitake mushrooms into the equation.

There’s no need for ground beef when finely chopped shiitake mushroom caps are every bit as rich, meaty, toothsome, and savory. Best of all, you can use all the stems you might have saved from other recipes, since no one will know the difference once finely minced and slowly simmered.

What’s the best way to assemble a garbage plate?

Originally invented as a way to repurpose disparate leftovers, it’s a much easier and more enjoyable meal when the main components are prepped in advance. The pasta salad can keep in the fridge for up to 9 days in an airtight container; the hot meat sauce will be good for up to 2 weeks. In fact, I think the flavors get even better over time, melding and harmonizing, becoming richer and deeper with age. However, it’s best to make the hash browns fresh and cook the burger patties to order, for the best textures and taste.

The most important part of a Garbage Plate is less about the specific components or assembly, but the spirit of the concept. Go ahead, use boxed or leftover mac and cheese, frozen French fries, and whatever else you already have on hand. If you’re short on time, you can just simmer some marinara with shiitake powder and a handful of meatless grounds. No one will judge you for taking shortcuts here. It should be hearty, comforting, and deeply savory, above all else.

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Food for Fathers

Fathers, as a group of people, are not a monolith. Making a blanket statement about such an infinitely diverse and varied population would be incredibly shortsighted, to put it lightly. Fathers should absolutely be celebrated and appreciated, but not in the way that Hallmark cards seem to think.

To treat all fathers the same way is reductive, completely opposite to what we’re trying to convey in the first place. If it comes from a genuine place, Father’s Day is about recognizing the people that raised us for all their unique quirks, habits, and mannerisms. It’s a chance to reminisce about the lessons they taught us early on, our challenges and struggles together; all the things that make them who they are, and in turn, make us who we are.

That kind of depth defies stereotypical gift guides. You can’t put that in a cooler filled with ice or wrap it up in a tool set. I may not be able to speak as a Father myself, but I promise you, they don’t all want beefy burgers or “man caves” or golf sets. Once and for all, almost none of them want neckties.

I’m not going to offer you a recipe roundup of The Best Father’s Day Recipes for the simple reason that I don’t know your father or what they like. Instead, this is a roundup of things I think my father would like. Maybe you’ll find some overlap here for inspiration. Whatever you make, just make sure they know they’re loved. That’s the real point of this holiday.

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