Chickens Coming Home to Roost

As a summer-lover, sun-worshiper, and heat-seeker, I never thought I’d be so grateful to say goodbye. I’ve also never experienced a year with nearly 70 days at or above 100 degrees before. When you can’t go for a walk midday without burning to a crisp, or using your car for anything but baking cookies, it shifts the script significantly. There’s still a lot to love, from ripe heirloom tomatoes to warm late night swims, but for the first time ever, I’m ready to move on. I’m ready to embrace fall with open arms.

To that end, I’m diving head-first into cozy comfort foods. Bring on the pasta drowned in browned butter, the sautéed mushrooms dancing in white wine. It’s the season of wild mushrooms, flourishing in cool, damp weather. Nestled at the base of oak trees or hidden beneath fallen leaves, they cluster together like a bouquet of flowers, blooming in earthy shades of browns and greys. Springing up where you’d least expect it, luck is often a more important factor than skill when it comes to foraging.

This is my favorite type of backyard chicken. Hen of the woods mushrooms get their name from those feathery, frilled caps, said to look like a sitting hen. Given that they can grow into masses upwards of 50 pounds, I’d like that think there are no barnyard animals that can really measure up.

What makes hen of the woods mushrooms so great?

Also known as maitake mushrooms, they’ve long been touted for their medicinal properties, such as:

  • Boosting the immune system
  • Reducing cancer risks
  • Stabilizing blood sugar
  • Helping regulate blood pressure

What I’m most interested in, however, is their culinary value.

What do hen of the woods mushrooms taste like?

Both subtly nuanced and boldly earthy, delicate yet peppery and assertive, hen of the woods mushrooms are a brilliant bundle of contradictions. One moment they’re soft and tender, buttery and supple, the next they’re almost audibly crunchy, chewy and crisp. There’s no alternative that exactly replicates such a unique eating experience.

Pair that with a luscious blanket of caramelized onions, slowly browned over low heat, with a cascading sauce of nutty browned butter, spiked with a splash of dry white wine. Vegan tortellini tumble and tangle within the wilted mushroom fronds, springs of curly kale sprouting wildly like an overgrown forest floor. It’s a rustic, untamed, and understated plating for a powerhouse of flavor. Toasted pecans rain down like a gentle shower, ending with a clean, clear crunch.

While it’s a dish that could exist in any season given greater accessibility to farmed mushrooms and imported produce, the heart and soul of it can only exist in autumn. In the growing darkness and increasing cold, let it envelop you in warmth. Take comfort knowing that there’s so much good to come of this new season.

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Devil in Disguise

Of all the pasta shapes in the world, which do you think is the worst, and why is it always angel hair? Meant to approximate the gossamer-thin strands of hair that only an angel could boast, such a divine name is entirely antithetical to its behavior on the plate. Let cooked noodles sit for just a second too long and all hell will break loose. Suddenly, those golden threads transform into bloated, tangled knots of dough. Gummy, gluey, supersaturated with sauce, it’s like they never even knew the term “al dente.”

Angel hair, AKA capellini, has never been my first choice. Nor would it be my second, third, fourth… I think you get the picture. It barely even registers on my hierarchy of pasta, and yet, I recently ended up with a box in my pantry. My trusty pasta maker went down at exactly the same time there was an apparent pasta shortage in local stores, so my choice was angel hair or nothing. Out of desperation, I said my prayers and tried to trust in fate.

One benefit to angel hair is that it does cook quickly; even more quickly than most manufacturers suggest. Start testing it after one minute at a full boil, leaving it on the heat for no longer than two. Then, overall success depends entirely on not just draining out the hot liquid, but then rinsing it in cold water. While this would be a sin for most noodles, stripping away the excess starch necessary for making rich sauces that cling as a velvety coating, it’s a sacrifice we must make for preserving any toothsome texture.

General advice is to pair angel hair with only the lightest, most delicate of sauces, such as pesto or plain olive oil. I’m sorry, but is an eternity in heaven supposed to be this boring? If we have to eat angel hair, I think it’s time we embrace a more devilish approach.

Seitan is the obvious protein of choice; what else is as wickedly savory, heart, and downright decadent in the right sauce? Speaking of which, this one is scant, just barely coating each strand while cranking up the flavor to full blast. There’s no need to drown the noodles in a watered-down dressing when this concentrated, fiery seasoning mix does the trick. Spiked with gochujang and smoked paprika, it glows a demonic shade of red, balancing out heat with nuanced flavor.

To embrace angel hair is to accept a more fiendish path to salvation. Don’t be afraid; a little seitan worship never hurt anyone.

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Make Pasta Salad Grate Again

Macaroni and cheese is the foundation of every childhood diet, often the first thing kids learn to make for themselves. Meanwhile, macaroni salad is the catalyst for every summer picnic or backyard barbecue worth attending. How is it possible that these two keystone American staples have never met before? The share the same beloved noodle and the same creamy consistency; what’s kept them apart for all these years?

Mind you, I’m not talking about leftover mac and cheese eaten cold, straight out of the fridge, due to sheer apathy or lack of energy. We’ve all been there and I think we can agree, that is not the pinnacle of culinary achievement the concept truly deserves.

This summer, let’s make it happen. Macaroni and Cheese Salad is the stuff of dreams, made in brilliant full color.

Like the original inspiration, it doesn’t take crazy ingredients, tons of time, or extenuating effort to make possible. Just some noodles, some cheese, and a craving to kick-start the process.

Enough noodling around. What is a macaroni and cheese salad?

It’s quite simple, really. Take al dente elbow noodles and toss them in a creamy, mayonnaise dressing along with your favorite cheese shreds, tender green peas, and a touch of fresh scallions, and that’s it! Like magic, the combination becomes increasingly irresistible overtime as the flavors meld and grow more harmonious. Like any any good picnic offering, it’s ideal for making ahead of time, sitting out like a champ all day, and tasting just as fresh as the minute you made it, regardless of the conditions. That means it’s also an excellent addition to any packed lunchbox for school, work, or travel.

What can you add to level-up your macaroni and cheese salad?

That’s an easy one, my friend. Think of all the things you love in either of the original dishes, and you’ll be golden. That means…

  • Rich caramelized onions
  • Crisp meatless bacon bits
  • Umami sauteed mushrooms
  • Spicy vegan pepperoni
  • Chopped tofu “eggs”
  • Wilted spinach or arugula
  • Fresh basil
  • And beyond!

At long last, this is the mashup the world has been hungry for, even if that need was never verbalized. Just show up at your next big summer shindig with a big bowl of this luscious pasta powerhouse, and you’ll be the guest of honor going forward.

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Pasta Gone Bananas

Following the success of my sweet banana flour experiments, I knew there was still more ground to cover. Since green bananas have more starch than sugar, being harvested and processed before they have time to ripen, the flavor inherently lends itself to more savory preparations.

Little did I know that banana pasta was a legitimate thing when I embarked on this mini project. Alas, I couldn’t find any hints about their formula, but it wasn’t too difficult to dissect. This was all before I got my trusty pasta maker, which makes it an excellent low-tech way to ease into gluten-free pasta making if you’re not ready for the full investment. I believe it could be adapted to the machine with a little tweaking of ratios; if you give that a shot, let me know!

Is Banana Flour Pasta Healthy?

Compared to whole wheat pasta, banana pasta is higher in protein, lower in fat and calories, and even cheaper to produce. As an added bonus, it’s keto– and paleo-friendly, too. This is a pasta everyone can enjoy, regardless of allergies, intolerances, and dietary restrictions.

What’s The Best Way to Serve Banana Flour Pasta?

  • As seen here, it doesn’t take much to dress up homemade pasta of any sort. I went with a generous handful of garlic sauteed in olive oil, with crisp green asparagus and snap peas thrown in at the very last minute. It’s simple, fresh, and full of flavor.
  • You can’t go wrong with a classic red sauce, vodka sauce, cheese sauce, alfredo, or pesto. Rich and creamy or light and bright; all flavors are complimentary to this fairly neutral base.
  • For those hot summer days, don’t forget pasta salad! Immediately shock the cooked pasta in ice water to stop the cooking, then toss with vegetables and your favorite vinaigrette for a picnic-ready side dish or entree.

Can Banana Flour Pasta Be Made In Advance?

  • You bet! You can store the prepared dough in the fridge, wrapped tightly in plastic, for up to 24 hours before rolling out.
  • Once shaped, you can freeze the pasta on a sheet pan, arranged in a single layer. Once solidly frozen, transfer the pieces to a zip top bag and store in the freezer for up to 1 year. Cook normally without thawing.

Honestly, the hardest part of this whole recipe is having the patience to cut and shape the pasta. You could always skip the bow ties and just cut straight spaghetti, fettuccine, or linguine to speed ahead to the good part: Dinner time!

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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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