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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Tex-Mex Meets Veg-Mex

For a city with no shortage of exceptional Mexican and Tex-Mex fare, it’s a struggle to name one single greatest example of the art. However, it’s not hard to make a concise recommendation that covers all cravings. Nissi VegMex is the first place newcomers should visit, regularly winning praise from eaters from near and far. Authentic, bold flavors crafted from scratch with traditional methods are applied to plant-based proteins, so nothing is lost in translation.

Parked in Kenny Dorham’s Backyard, this modest trailer offers a short menu of top hits. Every entree is a knock-out so even if you come late and discover, for instance, that the very popular birria tacos are sold out, a second, third, or even fourth choice still won’t disappoint. True, it’s hard to match the Mexican version of au jus, pairing crispy tacos with sweet, sour, slightly spicy, and deeply savory stew for dipping, but you’ll forget all about it with one bite of any dish.

The “cheek’n” flautas were my first order and remain a nostalgic favorite. Served with well-seasoned rice and beans plus a refreshing little side salad, these crispy rolled tortillas come smothered with an artful drizzle of crema and avocado sauce. It really is a perfect meal, satisfying without over-stuffing, checking all the boxes for varied textures and tastes. Even my dad, a lifelong omnivore, declared that if all vegan food was like this, he could easily ditch meat for good.

Limited hours of operation are their greatest downfall. There’s no such thing as Taco Tuesday when orders are only accepted on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Delayed gratification is tough to contend with, but worth the wait, even if there is a considerable line during prime time. Real food made from scratch isn’t ready in an instant, so grab a drink from the bar or enjoy an icy glass of hempchata (that’s hemp-based horchata) and enjoy the scene. If you’re lucky, there might be a band playing on the stage to the right, luring other bystanders out to dance.

Where should you go if you want genuine Mexican food? What if you’re on a budget? How about vegan, or gluten-free option, too? Want a taste of true Austin in just one night? Nissi, Nissi, Nissi, and Nissi. If anyone says different, they must not be from around here.

Nissi VegMex
1106 East 11th Street
Austin, TX 78702

Cornball Humor

Bestowing the title of “Crunchiest Snack Ever” on any single tidbit makes a big statement, especially when that honor comes from Whole Foods Magazine. While the exact criteria for judging such a lofty achievement remains undefined, the fact is that Love Corn is a resoundingly crisp, crackling, munchable savory treat.

For something as simple as fresh corn, salt, and oil, these little morsels make a big impact. There’s no denying that signature crunchy texture, but the underlying flavor is just as noteworthy. Naturally sweet like peak harvest summer corn, accentuated with just the right touch of salinity, even most plain variety packs a punch.

Designed to be eaten out of hand as a healthier alternative to chips or crackers, where Love Corn really shines is in the kitchen, and on the dinner table. Since I could easily pound a full package out of hand, it’s much more gratifying to spread that enjoyment throughout a number of meals. Toss those crunchy kernels into salads instead of bland croutons for an instant upgrade, or top baked potatoes for a crunchy change of pace.

In a pinch, they’ve turned into my mealtime saviors too, rehydrating beautifully in soups and stews, filling the gaps when the produce bin is empty and local corn harvests are still months away. Of course, things get really exciting when you consider the broader flavor options: BBQ, Habanero, and Salt & Vinegar varieties are like built-in flavor bombs with their own seasoning packets. Drop in a pouch and watch any entree come to life. Instant black bean and habanero corn taco filling, anyone? How about BBQ corn chili? Once you start looking at these compact kernels more as meal starters, it’s hard to go back to boring old canned corn.

That’s where the inspiration for these Elote Hush Puppies came from. Looking for a way to use up the last handful of cornmeal in the pantry, it struck me that these little flavor nuggets would be an ideal inclusion on this twisted southern side dish. Traditionally made from a simple corn-based batter, the classic approach is essentially deep-fried cornbread. Bumping up the spices and topping these crispy bites with tofu cotija, however, elevates them to a whole new level.

Taking a page from my favorite Mexican street food, elotes, they’re served alongside vegan mayo for that essential creamy, decadent experience. Technically, I suppose it might be considered esquites since the kernels are cut off the cob, but it’s all done in the same spirit. The combination of cheesy, spicy flavors with a crispy exterior and soft fluffy crumb is utterly irresistible. If you thought that Love Corn was already addictive, you’ll have to be careful with these puppies.

I’m all about spreading the love, so to help you whip up your first batch, I’m thrilled to share a free sample of Love Corn to everyone! You can snag a taste of each flavor when you cover $2.99 for shipping. Now there’s no excuse for settling for subpar snacks.

Whether you crunch right in and eat them straight or use them in grander culinary creations, you’re guaranteed to fall in love with Love Corn. At least, I know I did!

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Blue Christmas

I’ll have a blue Christmas without you
I’ll be so blue just thinking about you
Decorations of red on a green Christmas tree
Won’t be the same dear, if you’re not here with me

And when that blue corn starts popping
That’s when those blue memories start dropping
You’ll be doin’ all right, with your Christmas of white
But I’ll have a blue, blue blue blue Christmas

That is how the song goes, right? Elvis always said it best, but he didn’t quite get in all the right words. He was a notable foodie in his day, and I know he must have been thinking about his next meal, even if the lyrics didn’t quite match.

There aren’t that many naturally blue foods out there, so I feel fairly confident that the King of Rock and Roll was talking about blue corn. Tamales, the quintessential corn-based staple of Christmas, must have been on his mind. At least, that’s the first thing I was thinking of after listening to the oldies. Crooning on for all eternity every holiday season, it just hits a bit different this year. Physically distant from friends and family this is a particularly blue celebration for many.

Embrace the blues with me and go in for seconds, too. Tender masa made with brilliant blue cornmeal, further enhanced with the intense indigo pigment from butterfly pea tea. Seasoned blue potatoes are the only suitable filling for a such brilliantly saturated dish of course. I’d be tempted to pair it with blueberry salsa, if only they were winter fruits.

It’s okay to feel the blues, and in this case, eat your feelings. Making blue tamales can provide a positive emotional outlet along with a healthy, comforting meal. Now that’s something worth celebrating.

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A Dying Art

After the garish plastic skeletons of Halloween are cleared away, something far more haunting, yet entirely joyous remains in their wake. Sugar skulls, glittering sweet crystals dried into the shape of a human head, shine in the dark of night to honor the dearly departed on Día de los Muertos.

When the gates of heaven are opened at midnight on October 31st, deceased loved ones can return and spend the day with their families, drawn to the calavera made in their likeness. Decorated with colored icing, the most basic are technically ghoulish sugar cubes, super-sized for a couple gallons of coffee, but not exactly something you’d want to consume. Most artists incorporate inedible media like feathers, glitter, sequins, foil, and fabric, treating them more like sculpture than food, since there’s no such thing as too colorful nor too flamboyant to match the most vivacious personalities.

Traditionally, the “glue” that binds these sweet offerings together is either egg white or meringue powder, but for a simple veganization, this is another job for aquafaba. Just because you don’t eat it, doesn’t mean you can’t make it cruelty-free, too.

Contrary to the name itself, Día de Muertos is a truly celebration of life. Why not make it a sweet occasion with these sugary monuments, recalling the spirits of those no longer with us?

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