Rice to Riches

Risotto is an Italian specialty that is a universally comforting dish. Creamy, tender rice simmered with vegetables and a savory stock define the dish, but there’s so much room for interpretation beyond those basics. Proving that point, traditional Japanese ingredients are the secret to making a richer, healthier, and even easier version than the original.

Sugimoto Shiitake are the secret to creating a world of umami that’s completely plant-based. You could just hydrate them and toss in a few meaty chunks to dress up the dish, but with a little finesse, you can bring out the full potential of this key ingredient.

How Can You Maximize Your Mushrooms?

  • For the sake of thrift and flavor, save all of that shiitake-infused soaking water as part of the cooking liquid, just for starters. It should be a crime to toss such savory stock.
  • Once fully hydrated, slowly roast the sliced caps over low heat to concentrate the flavors while enhancing their toothsome, chewy texture. The edges begin to caramelize and crisp while the centers remain lusciously tender.
  • A light dusting of Sugimoto shiitake powder drives the umami bus home. Who needs truffles when you can coax out many of those same woodsy, nutty, and earthy notes from a much more attainable source?
  • Stash those stems away for safe keeping. We don’t need them for this recipe, but they’re ideal for other meals, such as tacos, chopped cheese sandwiches, and more.

The very best risotto blurs cultural boundaries, blending the best of eastern and western cuisine. Risotto was born from Arab influence in the first place, since they’re to thank for introducing rice to Italy during the Middle Ages.

Why Do Japanese Ingredients Work Best in Risotto?

  • Sushi Rice: Rather than more expensive arborio or carnaroli rice, sushi rice is the most affordable short grain I can find. It’s readily available in bulk, but even more importantly from a culinary stand point, maintains a satisfying al dente bite while creating an effortlessly creamy sauce out of any excess liquid. I find it’s less temperamental to cook, demanding less active stirring to yield the same great results.
  • Mirin: Standing in for classic white wine, the base of mirin is sake, which is also fermented from rice and thus more harmonious overall. Sugar is added for a light, balanced sweetness that enhances other flavors without overwhelming the dish.
  • Miso: Subtly funky, salty, and savory, I simply can’t get enough miso. White miso contributes a more delicate flavor to this dish, creating tanmi without even trying.
  • Wasabi: Bright and peppery, bold enough to cut through the richness, wasabi is an optional addition depending on your spice tolerance. You only need a tiny bit for the right touch of contrast.

That’s just talking about the base here. Things get really exciting when you consider the endless seasonal variations that are possible. You could easily eat a different risotto every day of the year and never grow bored.

First, let’s start with spring.

Celebrate the season of renewal with fresh green vegetables, like asparagus, snap peas, green peas, or artichoke hearts. If you forage, look for fiddle head ferns or morel mushrooms. Finish it off with tender young sprouts, microgreens, or delicate herbs like chives and dill.

Summer brings a rainbow of produce…

…but it’s impossible to consider the options without mentioning tomatoes first. Cherry tomatoes, heirloom tomatoes, Roma tomatoes, or beefsteak tomatoes; there are no bad tomatoes here. Pair them with sweet corn kernels, zucchini or yellow squash, bell peppers, eggplants, okra, or wax beans. Basil is a must, if you ask me, although hot sauce or pickled jalapeños could be a nice way to spice things up.

When the weather begins to grow colder for fall…

…hardier vegetables come into play. Brussels sprouts, butternut squash, chestnuts, turnips, and beets are at the top of my list. Bear in mind that this roster needs to be cooked before joining the party, so plan on roasting them on a separate sheet pan while the shiitake mushrooms caramelize.

Winter can be tough.

In some cases, it’s a time of scarcity, muted colors, and dampened flavors. Don’t let that outdoor chill take the warmth out of your food! Consider carrots, sweet potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, and dark leafy greens like kale, collards, and Swiss chard. This is a perfect opportunity to break out the dried herbs to add some soulful rosemary, sage, and/or thyme to bolster that comforting broth. Top it off with toasted nuts like walnuts, hazelnuts, or pecans for a crunchy, satisfying finish.

Even if you just stick with the plain, simple shiitake foundation, you’re in for a heady umami experience. Vegan cheese is optional, though recommended for extra richness, guaranteed to push it over the edge into the realm of everyday decadence. Make a half batch to impress a hot date, double up to serve the whole family, or make it just as is for yourself and relish the leftovers all week.

Risotto is one of my favorite easy meals, and with this recipe, I bet it will become one of yours, too.

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Unsolved Mysteries

Making something out of nothing is my favorite kind of practical magic. Frugal to a fault, I’m not above trying unlikely combinations for the sake of avoiding another trip to the store. Sometimes this leads to lamentable meals, like the time I tried using breadcrumbs instead of oatmeal. However, more often than not, I’ll find new favorite worth replicating, even when I have a full arsenal of ingredients at my disposal.

This is very well aligned with the spirit of Depression-era cooking. No waste, no regrets. That’s why when I came across the legend of Mystery Pie, I was immediately charmed. It strikes me as a combination of chess pie or vinegar pie plus mock apple pie, being made with little more than sugar and miscellaneous filler that somehow transforms into a rave-worthy dessert. Better yet, this one doesn’t even need a separate pastry crust to hold everything together.

Whipped egg whites traditionally fill the gaps, but aquafaba does the trick for a plant-based fix. Add crushed crackers and crunchy nuts plus a splash of rich vanilla, and that’s it. It doesn’t seem like it will end well, yet it manages to exceed all expectations.

Perfect for unexpected guests when the pantry is running low, or simply trying to keep things uncomplicated when it comes to shopping or prep, this is a good mystery to solve.

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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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Endless Summer

Blinded by the midday sun, slung high above sparse, pillowy clouds, I close my eyes and throw my head back in submission. Ice clinks against the glass in my hand as it slowly melts, shape-shifting into smaller and smaller fragments before giving up on maintaining solid form altogether. Cicadas buzz and sizzle in the heat, flooding the air with their electric symphony. All extraneous details quickly fade away; this could be anywhere in space, at any point in time.

Just like that, days turn into weeks, trickling by without particular notice, blending into one another to create the fabled “endless summer.” Undoubtedly, the heat will persist well beyond the calendar’s seasonal boundaries, strengthening that illusion with every subsequent sunny forecast. Unfortunately, that magic never lasts, choosing to suddenly disappear for its final trick. With it goes the bounty of luscious summer produce. Goodbye to the watermelon and blueberries, so long tomatoes and cucumbers; we know you’ll come visit again, but a year feels like forever away.

We can’t make summer stay, but we can preserve some of that magic. Pickling is one of the easiest ways to save these seasonal gems while injecting some extra flavor. Inspired by the classic cocktail featuring gin and lime juice, gimlet pickles transform simple seedless cucumbers into savory snacks elegant enough to act as a garnish, but without being so fussy as to stand out in a sandwich or served on a charcuterie plate.

Gin contributes a uniquely woodsy flavor, imparted by juniper berries, that reminds me of pine needles with a touch of lemon. Since that can be a bit polarizing, a popular variation on the mix uses vodka instead. Taking a page from that traditional twist, feel free to play around with any distilled spirit you prefer.

Whatever you do, don’t let summer slip away. It may feel limitless right now, but in an instant, it could be swept away by cold winds and dark days. Drink in every savory moment while you still can.

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Rice, Rice, Baby

Young vegans today don’t even know how good they’ve got it. Back in my day, dairy-free milk was still a rarity, available only in niche health food stores. Even there, your choices were limited to only soy or rice. Oat? Almond? Cashew? Forget about it! Who knew there were so many potential sources of creamy liquid back then?

Shelf stockers at mainstream markets would either scratch their heads, dumbfounded by the request, or haplessly led you to the lactose-free cartons. For a compassionate eater living in the suburbs, without a driver’s license, that meant stocking up and paying obscene prices for the luxury of access, or getting a bit more creative.

Guess which path I chose?

When sold in watered down cartons, rice milk was usually my least favorite option, but at home, I found a crafty loophole to create a thicker, richer blend. Creating a dense rice milk concentrate, not entirely dissimilar to wallpaper paste, I could better control the viscosity, flavor, and sweetness, all while building up a stockpile to easily whip up another cup, quart, or gallon at a time if I so desired. It was cheap, effective, and highly satisfying to beat the system.

Over time, my own means of access improved along with a boom in widespread availability. Once an essential staple, that formula that served me so well fell to the back of the digital recipe box. Collecting virtual dust, forgotten until an unfortunate computer crash forced me back onto an old laptop, it suddenly popped up like a long lost friend.

Today in 2021, I don’t need to make my own rice milk in bulk (thank the stars) but the concept spoke to me in a whole new way this time around. With a few little tweaks, a little polish, and some modern upgrades, I had a beautiful, brilliant instant horchata concentrate on my hands.

Perfect for sweltering summer heat when all you need is a tall, icy drink to keep your cool, horchata is the ultimate agua fresca. Creamy but not thick or rich, subtle notes of cinnamon and almond play in the background with in delicate, balanced harmony.

By skipping the time-consuming step of soaking whole grains of rice, prep time is slashed by an eighth or more, and it’s ready to reconstitute whenever a profound thirst strikes. Whether you’re serving a solo drinker or making a pitcher for a party, this stuff is like liquid gold for a quick fix.

We may not need bulk rice milk anymore, but you can never have too much horchata.

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Cacio-22

How do you make cacio e pepe, without butter, cheese, or cream? Just add joy.

No wait, that’s actually Joi, your new best friend for creamy comfort food. Though these bases are essentially condensed plant milks, I’ve found them most useful for creating quick cream sauces and soups for savory dishes, or heavy cream for desserts.

Turning nut butter into milk is one of my favorite thrifty tricks. When you’re in the middle of a recipe, burners blazing with the dials cranked up to 11, it’s the worst feeling to discover that you’re missing a critical ingredient. I tend to guzzle non-dairy milk by the gallon, despite the fact that it only goes into my coffee, which can lead to a terrible disappointment if I don’t double up at the store.

Typically, it takes just 1 – 2 tablespoons of raw nut butter, be it almond, cashew, or even peanut, blended with 1 cup of water, to fill the gaps. It’s not the most elegant solution; naturally, it separates if it sits around too long, curdles in coffee, and comes with a heavier nut flavor than something specifically formulated for cooking or drinking straight.

Enter: Joi, your new shelf-stable, bulk milk best friend. I’m IN LOVE, full stop, with the cashew version for its rich yet neutral flavor to meld seamlessly with absolutely anything. Don’t believe me? Fine, don’t take my word for you; taste it for yourself! Use the code “BITTERSWEET” for 10% off of their website, or click straight through the link to have it applied automatically.

Once you’ve stocked up, hurry back here to make this easy winner. You could still use my old trick in a pinch, employing raw, pure cashew butter in times of need (and untenable cravings.) The name may translate to “cheese and pepper,” but in common parlance, it means creamy, cheesy pasta sparkling with freshly cracked black pepper. It’s the original mac and cheese from ancient Rome, polished up with modern methods. Who needs the blue box when you can start from scratch with equally gratifying instant results?

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