Social Loafing

Mystery meat, no more. A descendant of Medieval meat patties from around 400 CE, the concept of meatloaf truly rose to mainstream popularity in the late 1800s, to remain an indispensable American entree for generations to come. As a thrifty way to stretch a humble protein and feed a family, it’s an accessible, affordable way for everyone to eat well. Of course, the original couldn’t be farther from a healthy choice. Build upon a foundation of cheap ground beef, bound together with beaten egg, and baked into a leaden brick, I stayed far away from meatloaf as a kid. In fact, I never even ate it until going vegan. Ever since then, I’ve been on a quest to make it better, rich enough to win over omnivores and picky eaters alike.

Even if you didn’t grow up loving meatloaf, my umami-bomb vegan version will become a fast favorite. To create a meatless replica, it takes a delicate balance of carefully layered flavors and textures. Made with a combination of authentically meaty alternative grounds and humble chickpeas, the formula allows the incredibly beefy flavor and texture to shine through, while making up the bulk with cheaper beans. Enhanced by deeply savory Sugimoto shiitake mushrooms, no one will miss the animal products, if anyone notices they’re absent at all.

Achieving the ideal texture is all about technique. Start by using a loaf pan to get a consistent rectangular shape and press the crumbles together gently, without smashing them down into a solid meat brick. Then, after pre-baking to set up, the whole thing is removed and transferred to a sheet pan, allowing the sides to brown and the whole thing to breathe. Otherwise, it simply steams, rather than roasts, creating an unpleasant mushy consistency all the way through. If you’ve ever suffered through a pasty lump of mystery meat, you know how badly it can all go wrong- But the solution is just that simple.

Beyond the obvious flavors that will hook you after the first bite, there are plenty of reasons to add this recipe into regular meal rotation. It’s great right away, hot out of the oven, but the leftovers are quite possibly even better. That’s because the umami quotient of Sugimoto shiitake multiplies over time. Make the most of this secret ingredient by preparing the loaf well in advance. Cover and refrigerate for a week or freeze the slices for up to 6 months. While you’re at it, you might as well double the quantities to stock up on meals for later.

When it comes to pairing side dishes to round out the dinner plate, you really can’t go wrong. Such an accommodating flavor profile plays nicely with just about any vegetable or starch, but here are some fool-proof ideas for rounding out your plate:

  • Mashed potatoes, scalloped potatoes, baked potatoes, potato wedges; pretty much any kind of potato
  • Buttered noodles, plain pasta, or couscous
  • Corn on the cob or creamed corn
  • Steamed green beans, asparagus, broccoli, or peas
  • Leafy side salad

Love every loaf by tweaking the final finish so you’ll never get bored. Straight ketchup is the standard glaze, but I like a less sweet, punchier version made from tomato sauce, mustard, and date syrup. That’s not to say there are no other options. BBQ sauce is an especially great ready-made topper, adding a spicy, smoky flavor. If you really like it hot, try Buffalo sauce instead. Finally, to accentuate the shiitake, lean into that Asian inspiration with teriyaki, hoisin, or plum sauce.

Also consider making mini meatloaves in muffin cups for consistent single servings and crispier edges all around. In case you want to make a half batch, this is the solution to a flat, skimpy loaf that barely fills a traditional rectangular pan. Plus, if you’re catering to diverse tastes, you can glaze each one differently to appease all preferences.

It turns out you don’t even need to like meat to love meatloaf. Anything beef can do, plants can do better- Especially with Sugimoto shiitake mushrooms in the mix.

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The Whole Enchilada

Enchiladas, like so many brilliant culinary innovations, date back to the ancient Mayans. Corn was plentiful, which gave rise to the fundamental, unassailable corn tortilla. Of course, they were called tlaxcalli at the time, later changed by Spanish conquistadors who couldn’t pronounce the word and forever changed the course of history. While tacos might seem like the most obvious use, a strong argument could be made that enchiladas were the first tortilla-based delicacy written into the annals of history. Originally, the dish consisted of nothing more than empty corn tortillas, rolled for a compact bite, and dipped in chili sauce. Before they were ever fried or filled, people have found these edible vessels worthy within their own rights.

Thus, I present to you an entirely controversial proposal: Try taking the tortilla out of the enchilada.

I promise, that’s not a hypothetical request or an impossible riddle. It occurred to me early on in the pandemic, when grocery deliveries were more akin to a new episode of Chopped, bringing with it a new mystery basket each week. Pasta has always been essential, but the exact form it would take was a bit of a wild card. Not a problem if you’re swapping ziti for penne, but giant manicotti tubes instead of pastina? Something was lost in translation on that exchange. Having never made manicotti before, those jumbo cylinders sat in the pantry for quite some time.

While I may be old, I certainly wasn’t around when the Mayans were creating this ground-breaking food, so my association with enchiladas is more strongly linked to the sauce and filling. One day, craving something with Mexican flair but lacking the traditional nixtamalized base, I came across that Italian staple just waiting for a purpose, and had this wild idea. Why smother them in plain red sauce when we could spice things up a bit?

Thus, Enchilada Manicotti were born. Perfect for a fiesta, family dinner, or cozy night in, the chewy pasta casing is stuffed with high-protein soyrizo and drowned in piquant enchilada sauce. Arguably easier than the contemporary take on this dish, you don’t need to worry about finicky tortillas cracking or unrolling in the oven. After a bit of assembly, you can take the rest of the night off, since it pretty much cooks itself.

Try a few different twists to make this formula your own:

  • Tender cubes of buttery gold potatoes add more heft to the filling, but this could be a great opportunity to sneak in other veggies, like riced cauliflower, diced zucchini, corn kernels, diced bell peppers, or a combination of your favorites.
  • Add shredded vegan cheese to the filling and/or topping, if you want to increase the richness and crave-worthy goo-factor.
  • Go all-out and make everything from scratch, including your own soyrizo, enchilada sauce, and sour cream for a real show-stopper of an entree that will impress all your friends and relatives.
  • Swap the red enchilada sauce for mole or chile verde sauce when you want a flavorful change of pace.

What can you serve with Enchilada Manicotti?

Both enchiladas and manicotti are ideal complete meals in and of themselves, needing no additional flourishes to completely satisfy. However, there are still plenty of complementary accompaniments you can consider to round out your plate:

  • Green salad or cabbage slaw
  • Yellow rice or cilantro rice
  • Black beans, pinto beans, or refried beans
  • Pico de gallo or your favorite salsa
  • Sliced avocado or guacamole
  • Tortilla chips

Is it Ital-ican, or maybe Mex-alian? Honestly, neither really capture the free spirit and full flavor of this dish. I’m perfectly satisfied to call it “delicious” and leave it at that. No matter what, you’ll want to leave room for a second helping.

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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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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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All’s Fair in Love and Sushi

Do you believe in love at first bite? I’m far from the hopeless romantic type, giddy over every vague glimmer of attraction, but I sure do. Far from a mere plausibility, I can assure you that it’s a proven fact; I’ve experienced it on more than one occasion. Locking lips with one powerful bite that sweeps you off your feet in a moment of passion, you lose yourself in the moment. The setting, the people, the noise all melt away, leaving only the lingering taste sensation, and lust for more.

Blue Sake Sushi Grill is the most recent backdrop of one such fiery affair. From the onset, I knew this one would be a compelling catch, boasting a lengthy menu of entirely vegan maki and nigiri that go well beyond the standard vegetable garden. We’re talking about tomato ahi tuna, eggplant barbecued eel, ikura CaviArt– And those are only mere components that make up the larger rolls.

Don’t be shy; a little flirtation is a good way to get acquainted. Ease into the conversation with any of the clearly labeled plant-based appetizers, such as the Crispy Brussels Sprouts that could convert a hater. It’s not hard to find incredible fried Brussels in this city, with immaculately crisp, almost translucent leaves and tender, buttery interiors, but these take it to the next level. Slathered in zesty, savory, and subtly sweet yuzu-miso sauce, that plate alone would score serious points for a first date.

Recommending maki rolls from this fetching lineup is a daunting task, but the good news is that there are no losers here. The Cowgirl roll, which includes pickle tempura, sriracha-fried onion rings, BBQ-flavored soy paper instead of nori, vegan mayo, and tonkatsu sauce, is the overwhelming fan favorite. My personal favorite, however, was the Eden roll, comprised of grilled asparagus, sun-dried tomatoes, sweet potato tempura, and topped with creamy edamame hummus. It truly does taste like a little bite of heaven, swaddled in white sesame soy paper.

Best of all, you can indulge on a budget during their daily happy hour, which naturally includes a wide selection of carefully crafted mixed drinks. If you need an extra push to give it a try, join the Bite Club to get a sweet discount of $10 off your first $20 purchase.

Laying claim to 15 locations nationwide as of this writing, with plans to continue that rapid expansion, it’s clear I’m not the only one swooning. If you’re still waiting for a branch to open up near you, don’t worry, there’s more than just eye candy on offer here! Blue Sake Sushi Grill was kind enough to offer the secret formula for their incomparable Brussels sprouts. If you’re the jealous type, though, be careful who you share them with; anyone could easily fall head over heels for this hot dish.

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Cooking on Acid

How on earth did I end up with so much vinegar?

Surveying the state of my pantry, you’d think I was in the pickling business. Rice vinegar, white vinegar, apple cider vinegar, balsamic vinegar, red wine vinegar, coconut vinegar, champagne vinegar, all in attendance, front and center on the shelves, to say nothing of the reductions, infusions, and blends lurking in back.

Tart, tangy liquids made through the fermentation of ethanol alcohol are the secret ingredients in the earliest recorded attempts at home cooking. The evidence is there, literally written in stone, all cross this tiny blue marble known as planet earth.

Vinegar, or more broadly acid of any variety is the real secret ingredient to any successfully balanced dish. Instantly heightening flavors much the way that salt and sugar can, without spiking blood pressure or tempting hyperglycemia, just a splash goes a long way in everything from marinara sauce to ice cream. Weaving seamlessly into the grander flavor tapestry, you’d never know this humble player was the one knitting everything together behind the scenes. That is, unless you chose to fully embrace such a sour superstar.

Adobo is the acidic perfect example. Leaning heavily into a pungent brew of vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, bay leaves, and black peppercorns, it’s punchy and bold, tart and tangy, unapologetically, fiercely flavorful. Adobo is not the kind of dish you serve with delicate white wine on your finest plates; adobo is a brash party-starter, promising a raucous good time.

Every Filipino family has their own recipe, claiming theirs to be the best of the batch, and I certainly cannot compete with such fervent claims. I can, however, approximate something wholly delicious inspired by the art form, making it quicker, easier, and of course, much more vegan than traditional renditions.

Meaty mushrooms and chunks of seitan take the place of long-simmered beef, automatically adding a rich, deeply umami taste. Speaking to the versatility of vinegar itself, even while prominently highlighted in this Filipino staple, any range of options, or even a blend will kick things up just as brilliantly. This is a good opportunity to clear out the pantry of any odd drips and drabs leftover, should you obsessively hold on to those little bottles, too.

Adobo is possibly even better the day after cooking, so I’d implore you to double the recipe for a generous second helping later down the road. It will be tough to keep around in any great quantity no matter what.

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