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.

Continue reading “The Good Forager”

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.

Continue reading “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs”

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.

Continue reading “Steak Your Claim”

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.

Continue reading “Let’s Taco ‘Bout It”

Wham, Bam, Dan Dan

It’s a good thing I love grocery shopping so much, because I tend to do it more than your average bear. Especially in my days before moving to Austin, when I lacked proper transportation for bulky or heavy items, I would find myself making multiple trips to carry everything on foot- Sometimes in the same day and at the same store, no less. Somehow my hapless friends often find themselves roped into these missions, since the market is “just along the way” to our original destination, or I’ll suddenly remember I’m in dire need of x, y, and z, which of course I’d love to share when the recipe was done. There’s always some good excuse, or at least one reasonably convincing.

Not all accomplices in this recurring crime are matched in their skills for smooth acquisitions and quick getaways, however. Some in particular have proven to be more of a liability rather than an asset. These people know just how to stir the pot before we ever get into the kitchen.

Scanning the aisles with a short, clear list in hand, I’ll have my mission set, but no matter how efficiently we cruise past tempting oddities and intriguing new ingredients, it’s impossible to maintain the same steady pace. Our combined culinary curiosity can’t stand up to the power of a new food mystery, no matter how relatively mundane. On a quest for plain, ordinary, unexceptional bananas, the basket somehow becomes heavy with unlisted extras.

This recipe, and so many others, come to think of it, are entirely their fault. An unusual style of noodles caught my eye and BOOM, they snap it up without a second to breathe, let alone consider the purchase, practically frothing about a story they read about this rarefied staple.

What was such an esoteric import doing at the pitifully ordinary mega mart? How could we possibly pass it by? Suddenly we were on a search and rescue mission, precious cargo in hand, hustling to the checkout line before I could protest.

In the Sichuan province of China, dan dan noodles are typically served as a snack, rather than an entree, swimming in a thick, fiery red broth spiked with chili oil. Pork was used sparingly as a seasoning, but if you ask me, even greater flavor can be drawn from wild mushrooms, rich with umami and unbelievably meaty texture.

Dan dan noodles found in the US are quite different from the original, of course, bearing a gentler sauce that’s more sweet and sour than spicy. Sometimes you might even find sesame paste blended in to add creaminess and mellow out the spices. My approach is a blend of these two styles, creating something entirely inauthentic and recognizable to absolutely no one of either culture. That is, in a word: Perfect.

Cashew butter creates a smoother, more neutral canvas to paint with dazzling Sichuan peppercorns, allowing their unique mala essence to shine through. The “holy trinity” of aromatics in Chinese food are in full force, harnessing the foundational flavors of garlic, ginger, and scallions to carry such bold, nuanced flavors with grace. Funky fermented black beans play off the earthy notes of the mushrooms, echoing back savory tones to the soy sauce and nutty toasted sesame oil all at once. It’s hard to say whether the noodles, mushrooms, or sauce itself is the star of the show, but the overall effect is worthy of a standing ovation.

Authenticity be damned. Let’s just explore, create, and make something that tastes good together.

Continue reading “Wham, Bam, Dan Dan”