Koftaesque

Some would describe kofta as the naturally vegetarian equivalent to meatballs, but that’s like calling a croissant a dinner roll. While there may be some common thread between the two, such a statement really misses the mark. Some kofta are actual meatballs, made of beef or lamb, appearing in the Middle East and Southeast Asia in myriad dishes. When we’re talking about malai kofta, however, these balls are more closely related to a fried potato dumpling, if you needed to make comparisons.

Though firmly categorized as restaurant food or a dish for special occasions, there’s no reason why you can’t take matters into your own hands. In fact, it’s necessary given that the name itself, malai, implies vast amounts of heavy cream, creating the rich curried sauce it’s best known for. Let’s not forget that it takes more than just pure potatoes to make a compelling kofta; namely, paneer adds subtly salty, cheesy taste, along with an extra dose of dairy.

As a fledgling food lover and young vegan, such delicacies tortured me to no end. Proudly offered as the height of meatless Indian cuisine, I could only wonder what I was missing while digging into my trustworthy order of masoor dal. The fact that it was just out of reach, vegetarian but not vegan, only added to the allure.

Making vegan malai kofta is a snap!

  • A simple swap would be to replace the heavy cream with coconut milk in most conventional recipes. Personally, I prefer to make cashew cream, blending in some of the aromatics to create a consistent, natural harmony throughout the sauce.
  • Tofu, the ultimate chameleon of the plant-based pantry, provides a seamless substitute for paneer while enhancing the nutritional profile overall. Down with cholesterol and up with protein!
  • Ghee, AKA clarified butter, is often a signifier of wealth and luxury, but coconut oil provides all the same decadence. In truth, you could use any neutral oil such as avocado oil, rice bran oil, or grapeseed oil, and no one would be the wiser.

As with all of Indian cuisine, there’s plenty of room for interpretation with malai kofta.

Best known for having a luscious, silky sauce infused with subtly sweet spices and a savory tomato base, this version is considered Punjabi, drawing influence from neighboring Pakistan in true melting pot fashion. Glowing orange from the mixture of cream and tomatoes simmered together over low and slow heat, this is the malai kofta most people would expect to see.

Lesser known is the Mughlai version, comparatively colorless with a mild and subtly, naturally sweet white gravy. Raw cashews are a considerable component in the original version, making the transition over to a fully vegan cream sauce an easy task. Brilliantly seasoned without being overtly spicy, it’s a delicate balance of flavors that could genuinely pair well with anything. This is where the Sugimoto shiitake powder really shines, tempered along with the other spices to bloom with a depth of umami flavor.

Palak kofta, an unofficial variant, is a painless solution for eating your daily recommended allowance of greens. Spinach is the headliner, but the flavor comes from equally verdant fresh cilantro and mint. I like to simmer this one lightly to retain the bright green color, rather than turning up the heat to a full boil, quickly transforming the dish into a rather swampy concoction.

If malai kofta are dumplings, personally, I expect a filling

Granted, it’s less common and certainly not mandatory for a properly seasoned kofta, crispy on the outside and buttery on the inside, like a luscious bite of fried mashed potatoes, but I love the idea of adding a tiny little hidden morsel in the middle. Finely chopped donko shiitake caps and stems lend an impossibly meaty bite, while a scant measure of raisins contribute a sweetness so faint, so delicate, that you’d never pinpoint the source if no one told you. Yes, you can omit the raisins, and the filling entirely if must, but try it as written at least once. You might be pleasantly surprised if you’re open to the experience.

Restaurant-style malai kofta is an absurdly decadent entree, reserved only for special occasions. On the other hand, this homemade vegan version, enhanced with Sugimoto shiitake, makes any day seem like a special occasion.

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Dog Days of Summer

It’s hard to imagine a world without hot dogs. Such a critical touchstone in American culture transcends the boundaries of age, income, and upbringing. Everyone knows and can appreciate hot dogs on some level, even if they aren’t overt fans. Indeed, as variants on more highly seasoned sausages, the art of tube meat has been around for centuries, making a brief cameo appearance in Homer’s Odyssey, no less. The dog that we all know and love today, however, has only been around since the 1600’s, invented by a butcher in Germany.

Yes, this all-American staple, like so many others, is not American at all! It was imported with the immigrants making it and quickly became adopted as an affordable mealtime staple. Given their popularity, versatility, and the fact that they don’t actually resemble any animal known to mankind, I find it strange that vegan options are so lacking. There aren’t a ton of choices, especially in mainstream grocery stores. Quality has improved dramatically in recent years, but they’re still highly processed, and if you’re avoiding soy or gluten, you’re simply out of luck.

Homemade vegan hot dogs are a lot easier to make than you may think! My version only takes 10 minutes of steaming before they’re ready to grill. Unlike seitan, there’s no kneading, no blending, no fancy equipment at all. Humble chickpea flour is the high-protein, high-fiber base for our upgraded franks, making them gluten-free, too. A tiny pinch of xanthan gum lends just the right firm yet springy texture, not quite chewy, yet perfectly toothsome.

What defines a hot dog is not so much the base, but the seasonings. Some are more smoky, some are more sweet, but polls show that most people generally favor a balanced, beefy taste that’s slightly salty, and gently spiced, but not so much that you’d think of it as such. As with hamburgers, much of the overall experience comes from the condiments and toppings, which means that less is more when crafting the ideal meaty vehicle.

Maybe you can guess where I’m going with this by now. Sugimoto shiitake mushroom powder is the only ingredient capable of creating the perfect meatless hot dog dupe.

How is it possible that shiitake powder, made from 100% shiitake with no additives, fillers, or preservatives, could taste like anything other than mushrooms? It’s all about umami, which is simply savory, transcending the boundaries that would otherwise separate the plant and animal kingdom. So much of what turns off mushroom-haters is the texture, which becomes a non-factor when dried, ground, and integrated seamlessly into other foods. Used as seasoning in the dry hot dog mix, you only get a juicy, substantial bite, sealed with a kiss by the smoky sear of the grill.

Serving Suggestions

I like to keep mine classic, with minimal toppings piled into a soft white bun, but the beauty of a proper hot dog is that it can pair beautifully with an infinite variety of garnishes. Here are some ideas for servings your dogs in style:

  • Sauerkraut and mustard
  • Chili and cheese
  • Caramelized onions
  • Guacamole, pickled jalapeno, and salsa
  • Sliced tomatoes, relish, and shredded lettuce
  • BBQ sauce and vegan bacon

There are no bad choices here! Dress your hot dog like you would any sandwich; exactly as you please.

Make Ahead Advice

Hot dogs are classic party food. To feed a group, you don’t want to spend all day in the kitchen, which is why these are such a great option to prep ahead of time to simply heat and eat later.

    1. You can double, triple, or quadruple the recipe for a crowd, but you may need to steam them in batches. May sure you don’t crowd them in the steamer, so there’s room for the hot air to circulate around each one.
    2. Cool after steaming and store the hot dogs in zip top bags, squeezing out as much air as possible before sealing. You can store them in the fridge for 5 – 7 days like this, or toss them into the freezer to keep for at least 6 months.
    3. When you’re ready to serve, just toss them on the grill. If you’re preparing them from frozen, let them thaw at room temperature first, or defrost in the microwave.
    4. Leftovers can be stored in exactly the same way as the plain steamed dogs. You can reheat them in the microwave for 1 – 2 minutes, or toaster oven for 2 – 4 minutes, until hot all the way through.

Have You Tried Cooking with Hot Dogs?

Don’t forget, hot dogs can be so much more than a stand-alone entree. They’re an excellent source of protein with unlimited potential for use in other recipes. Some of my favorites are:

Other dishes that hot dogs would be great in include:

Hot dogs do seem like a natural pairing for a prime summer day, to be enjoyed in the sunshine with an icy beverage, perhaps after a quick dip in the pool. The good news, though, is that hot dogs never go out of season. Long after you bundle up the grill and winterize the yard, this recipe will still serve you well for the colder months ahead.

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Good Garbage

You say “garbage” like it’s a bad thing.

In Rochester, New York, it means something else entirely. The Garbage Plate was born here, specifically at Nick Tahou Hots, a roadside fast food stand catering to truckers and college students that ate like them. No two Garbage Plates are exactly the same, but the general idea is that you take copious amounts of protein and carbs, slap it on a griddle, slather it in sauce, and serve it in one heaping pile. True to form, it looks a bit trashy, but tastes like everything you’re craving after a long night on the town, or when you’re recovering the day after.

Served alongside a stack of generously buttered white bread, it’s an iconic American institution that is sadly unknown outside of its immediate birthplace. Surely the combination isn’t entirely unique, easily fashioned from leftovers or scraps to make ends meet, but that’s also what makes it so special. The flavors are universal, accessible, and comforting on a primal level. Everyone can eat garbage, regardless of social status or income, and in fact, everyone should eat garbage every now and then.

Ready to get trashy? Let’s break down the plate and evaluate our options.

What is a Garbage Plate made with?

  • Base: Hash browns, home fries, or French fries
  • Carbs: Macaroni salad or plain pasta and/or baked beans
  • Protein: Hamburger (optionally with cheese), sausage, or hot dogs
  • Sauce: Hot meat sauce and mustard, plus optional ketchup and/or hot sauce
  • Topping: Diced onion

Personally, my preference is to start with a solid foundation of hash browns for a satisfying crunchy contrast to the more tender layers on top. Refrigerated or frozen hash browns make this a snap, or you can start from scratch with whole starchy potatoes. If you do shred your own, it’s essential to squeeze out any excess water, using a length of cheese cloth to wring them out, for the best golden brown sear. The process takes an extra minute or two, but will elevate your garbage plate from good to great.

For the primary protein, I always seem to have some sort of burger patty in the freezer, so that’s an automatic win for me. Whether it’s animal-identical or a more earthy combination of beans and grains, my secret is to season the outside with a generous pinch of Sugimoto shiitake mushroom powder.

A little bit goes a long way in added volumes of flavor that transcend the barrier between the plant and animal kingdom. “Delicious” is the only way to really describe the effect. You could chop your seasoned patties up into small pieces for better forkablility, or leave it whole for faster service. Grill, sear, bake, or air fry; use anything you’ve got to create a nice brown sear and cook it all the way through.

Hot meat sauce might need the most explanation. No, it’s not meat hot sauce, as I initially though. Syntax matters, people. It’s more like a loose bolognese without tomatoes, or if chili was made into a sauce instead of a stew. As the primary carrier of flavor in the whole meal, this is the most important part of the recipe. That’s why I leave nothing to chance by bringing umami bomb Sugimoto shiitake mushrooms into the equation.

There’s no need for ground beef when finely chopped shiitake mushroom caps are every bit as rich, meaty, toothsome, and savory. Best of all, you can use all the stems you might have saved from other recipes, since no one will know the difference once finely minced and slowly simmered.

What’s the best way to assemble a garbage plate?

Originally invented as a way to repurpose disparate leftovers, it’s a much easier and more enjoyable meal when the main components are prepped in advance. The pasta salad can keep in the fridge for up to 9 days in an airtight container; the hot meat sauce will be good for up to 2 weeks. In fact, I think the flavors get even better over time, melding and harmonizing, becoming richer and deeper with age. However, it’s best to make the hash browns fresh and cook the burger patties to order, for the best textures and taste.

The most important part of a Garbage Plate is less about the specific components or assembly, but the spirit of the concept. Go ahead, use boxed or leftover mac and cheese, frozen French fries, and whatever else you already have on hand. If you’re short on time, you can just simmer some marinara with shiitake powder and a handful of meatless grounds. No one will judge you for taking shortcuts here. It should be hearty, comforting, and deeply savory, above all else.

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On the Chopping Block

In this interconnected world separated by only wires and electrical impulses, it’s hard to imagine that any great invention could still fly under the radar, largely undetected by the masses. Yet, the chopped cheese sandwich exists exactly in this grey space. Wildly popular in its native New York bodegas, the rest of the world remains ignorant of such simple pleasures. I’m certainly not the first, nor last, to tout such an ingenious combination of bread, meat, and cheese, which is another point of controversy in itself. Also known as the shortened title of “chop cheese,” this fully loaded hoagie is just as heavy in cultural significance.

No one can pinpoint the exact origin of the chopped cheese sandwich, though it’s indisputably born and raised in the outer boroughs of NYC. Records date it back to about the 70s, but it’s quite possible such a creation existed before anyone thought to write such an experience down for historic preservation. Only after Anthony Bourdain made a fateful visit in late 2014 with his camera crew did the rest of the nation start taking notice.

Overnight, “upscale” versions appeared on New American menus, commanding steep price tags, well above actual market value. It was a slap in the face to all who cherished the concept, twisting it into a symbol of gentrification without any credit going to its true origins. To this end, I will never claim to make the best, most authentic, or most original rendering- But I can promise a darned tasty meal.

Born of scrappy persistence, the point of a chopped cheese sandwich is to take the bits and bobs, odds and ends, and maximize their flavor potential. That’s exactly why I save Sugimoto shiitake stems. A bit tougher than their supple caps, they need more finessing to enhance their textural impact, but still possess volumes of bold, rich flavor. Who could dream of throwing away such savory diamonds in the rough? They just need a bit more polishing to reach perfection.

In fact, I would never start with whole, fresh shiitake for such a dish. Did you know that these incredible mushrooms have two kinds of aroma? The first comes before eating, as the smell wafts from the cooked dish before you dig in. The second arrives with every subsequent bite, bumping up the flavor from start to finish. Only a long, slow soak can unlock the full potential for both of these stages, combining to create a fusion of umami intensity, far beyond range of your average meatless protein. Sugimoto is the only brand I’ve tried that truly captures this complete experience.

Back to the meat of the matter. Give me your rough, your affordable, your leftover proteins! Traditionally made from chopped hamburgers, this is where the sandwich gets its name. Anything goes here, whether you prefer something veggie-heavy, bean-based, or super beefy. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be fully formed patties. Finely minced homemade seitan, as seen here, was my favorite version yet, and I can’t wait to try it with everything in my arsenal, from rehydrated soy curls to tempeh. The magic is in the combination of juicy protein, melted yellow cheese, and crisp fresh vegetables piled high on a soft hoagie roll.

It would be easy enough to use prepared vegan queso or sliced cheese here, but I went the DIY route to make sure you’ll get that perfect, gloriously gooey bite every single time. Just whisk, heat, and pour. No nuts, no nonsense, and you can make it in minutes with basic pantry staples.

Speaking of awesome sauces, let’s not glance over the second layer of shiitake wallop. Hidden like a landmine right beneath the sliced tomatoes and shredded lettuce, a pinch of dried Sugimoto shiitake powder explodes with another round of bold flavor in the mixture of ketchup and mayonnaise. Such an unassuming spread is usually an afterthought, but leveraged properly, completes the flavor profile with a final round of richness.

It’s not fussy, definitely not fancy, and absolutely guaranteed to be messy, specifically designed to hit all the pleasure sensors in the brain with one giant wallop of umami. That’s the essence of what makes a chopped cheese sandwich so great.

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Best of the Worcestershire

It’s hard to pronounce, tough to describe, and even harder to find without animal products. Worcestershire sauce is a flavor enhancer that instantly boosts a wide range of dishes, but is still largely misunderstood.

Making a splash on the culinary scene in the mid-1800’s, this mysterious fermented condiment was invented in Worcestershire, England and debuted by the Lea & Perrins company. Still the leading brand on the market, few worthy competitors have stepped up to the plate. This leaves a gaping hole in the grocery aisle, especially for vegans and those with food sensitivities. That’s because the original formula uses anchovies as the not-so-secret ingredient. While plant-based alternatives do exist, they can still be elusive in mainstream markets.

It’s time we take Worcestershire back. For that distinctive, addictive umami flavor, nothing compares to the power of dried Sugimoto shiitake powder. Despite its earthy origin, this potent food booster doesn’t taste like mushrooms, so you don’t need to worry about your sauce tasting off-key. Enhancing the natural flavors already present rather than adding its own distinctive essence, it’s like magical fairy dust that you really should be using in all of your favorite recipes.

The full power of that umami dynamo is unlocked over time, which makes it especially well-suited for this sauce. Aged and lightly fermented, the savory qualities become even more robust over the course of a few weeks. Though you could very happily enjoy this sauce after just a day or two, your patience will be rewarded in a world of rich umami later on.

How can you you use your homemade awesome sauce? Some of the most classic examples include:

Commercial Worcestershire sauce tends to be much sweeter and more flat, whereas this homemade version is carefully balanced, tangy and tart, punchy and deeply nuanced. Once you give it a try, you’ll never want to go without it again. Luckily, it keeps almost indefinitely in the fridge, stored in an airtight glass bottle. Double or triple the recipe to stay stocked up at all times.

With the right pantry staples on hand, it’s easier, cheaper, and tastier to just do it yourself.

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Don’t Go Bacon My Heart

How can you make bacon that tastes even richer than pork? I’m not talking about other meats, but plants that are naturally imbued with deeply savory flavors. Concentrated umami brings out a bold world of intensely earthy, almost gamey notes that put animal products to shame. What I’m talking about, of course, are dried Sugimoto shiitake mushrooms.

All it takes is an overnight soak for these substantial caps to spring back to life. Transforming this humble fungus into America’s favorite breakfast food is as simple as switching out plain water for a boldly seasoned brine. Smoky, gently peppered, and subtly sweet, simple pantry staples transform mundane ingredients into something truly sublime.

Once plump and fully rehydrated, the larger, flatter Koshin variety have the perfect texture, primed for slow roasting in the oven. Gradually toasting in the low heat, the edges caramelize and become extra crispy, while the thicker centers retain a hearty, substantial, super chewy bite. It’s the best of all worlds, in both the plant and animal kingdoms.

Stock up on shiitake bacon, double down or even triple the batch, because there’s simply no dish that wouldn’t benefit from this umami bomb topper. Keep them in short strips, roughly chop them into bacon bits, or grind them into a fine powder to use as a savory sprinkle. Just a few of my favorite ways to use shiitake bacon include:

There’s nothing wrong with just munching on a handful of bacon as a snack, instead of potato chips or crackers. Unlike conventional options, there’s no cholesterol, very little fat, plenty of fiber, and zero cruelty.

For bacon-lovers and animal-lovers, this is the best recipe yet.

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