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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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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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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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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Steak Your Claim

Did your parents ever admonish you for watching too much TV as a kid? Did Saturday morning cartoons become a thing of the past once you grew up, relegated to memories of simpler days?

Not me. I would consume animated series like water, greedily drinking them in one after another without pausing for a breath of air. Slumber parties consisted of staying up into the wee AM hours to binge watch entire seasons back to back, staying glued to the screen until the lines looked blurry and the words seemed to echo.

After a long period of my life where I took myself too seriously and gave up such pleasures, I’m hooked again, back with a vengeance. My thirst remains unquenchable, but this time around, I fixate on very different details than in my youth. Unsurprisingly, it almost always relates to food.

食戟のソーマ (Food Wars) seems like it should have been an instant hit, being all about one young upstart trying to stake his claim as the best cook in an elite culinary school, but it’s definitely not for everyone. If you can get past the gratuitous nudity and unnecessary sexual innuendo, however, there’s ample inspiration to be found. One of the first dishes that really caught my eye was the Chaliapin Steak.

Despite its western name, this is an original Japanese preparation. Conceived in 1936 for the Russian opera singer Feodor Chaliapin when he visited Japan, it was created to accommodate a terrible toothache. At the time, he was suffering considerably and wanted only the most tender meat so it was easier to chew. By cooking a prime cut smothered with caramelized onions, the result was just what the dentist would have ordered, if one might have been consulted.

Translated into vegan terms, I thought a hamburger steak made from meatless ground might be even more appropriate. A loosely bound patty turned out to be even juicier, practically melting in your mouth. Plus, this is yet another Japanese innovation, distinctly different from conventional hamburgers and Salisbury steak.

Transforming humble, unremarkable ingredients into a 5-star dish worthy of high honors, the key is patience. It takes time to properly caramelize the onions, not just brown or sauté, to fully extract their natural sweetness.

I chose to serve mine over rice, donburi-style, in keeping with the inspiration, but traditionally this would be presented without much fanfare, perhaps a green vegetable or salad on the side. You can’t go wrong with a basic buttery mashed potato or thick-cut fries, too.

Even if anime isn’t your thing, you’ll still find your stomach growling after this episode.

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Let’s Taco ‘Bout It

Imagine taking a bite into a crisp, juicy apple at the peak of the season, as sweet and fragrant as it can possibly get. Downright decadent, the experience goes well beyond simple sustenance. However, after that single bite, you toss the rest of the apple straight into the trash. Who could be so wasteful, so thoughtless, so downright heartless? Though the typical experience is less dramatic, perfectly good food is squandered like this every single day.

Despite best intentions, we often ignore leftovers and forget about perishables until they’ve withered in the vegetable bin, barely even fit to compost. Adding insult to injury, perfectly good ingredients are too frequently tossed for a lack of understanding. Dried shiitake mushrooms are a common victim of this crime, accused of having inedible stalks that must simply be removed and discarded. It’s high time we debunked this myth and restored the stem to a place of honor on our plates.

Make no mistake, shiitake mushroom stems are much more fibrous and tough compared to their tender, meaty caps, but they are entirely edible and packed with all the same rich umami flavor. As always, quality counts, so you can expect the best results from Sugimoto shiitakes, selectively grown for their incomparable culinary potential. In fact, the chewy quality that many write off as their downfall can actually be an asset in the right recipe.

When crafting a dish with only the caps, don’t think for a minute that the detached stems are dumped in the garbage. Since they’re small, I tend to keep a baggie of them in the freezer, filling it slowly until I’ve collected enough to cook with. That way, they won’t spoil before I have a good quantity to work with. Even if the dish isn’t focused on shiitake mushrooms, they add incredible depth to all sorts of soups, stews, curries, vegetable patés, stuffings, and beyond. Anywhere that a melange of vegetables can be added, finely minced shiitake stems are your new secret ingredient for even more savory, satisfying results.

Finely chopped, the hearty, toothsome texture enhances plant-based proteins with an extra meaty mouthfeel and incredibly rich, beefy taste. Easily surpassing more processed alternatives in both flavor and nutrition, it’s a wonder that such misinformation about this vital ingredient persists. Clearly, the people perpetuating the defamatory rumors about shiitake stems have never tried cooking them into hot, spicy taco filling. One bite of this quick fix meal would win over any cynics.

Bolstered by minced tempeh, this instant entree simmers with nuanced seasonings, easily adjusted to personal preferences. With a smoky, subtly charred edge from the kiss of a cast iron skillet, no one would ever miss the meat here. Especially when piled high on soft corn tortillas with a barrage of fresh salsa, herbs, and buttery avocado, it’s unthinkable that the key ingredient might have otherwise been destined for the landfill.

Don’t wait until taco Tuesday to whip up a batch. Beyond classic taco fodder, this meatless marvel makes an excellent pizza topper, superlative spaghetti sauce addition, and brilliant breakfast side. Waste not, want not, especially when it comes to prime Sugimoto shiitake mushrooms.

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