Pearls Before Wine

Given the choice of any bottle on the shelf, red wine is probably the last variety I would reach for when I want a drink. Why, then, do I keep buying it regularly, and sometimes even more often than my preferred whites and roses? Few ingredients can unlock such a wide range of flavors, transforming an average dish into something spectacular. Red wine is my secret ingredient for many savory recipes.

The science behind cooking with wine really is fascinating. The alcohol content is almost completely nullified, leaving behind great taste without the buzz. Much like salt, the alcohol itself doesn’t exactly add to the final flavor but instead helps other elements taste more like themselves. It adds acidity for brightness, and umami for greater depth and savory richness.

Although you shouldn’t cook with something you wouldn’t drink, the very best bottles are not great cooking wine, especially when it comes to reds. Your best bets are a merlot, cabernet sauvignon, or red blend, and should cost somewhere between $3 to $15 a bottle. Choose a young (not aged) wine with low tannins, since these can impart a bitter aftertaste.

The best red wine to cook with, of course, is whatever you have leftover! That’s where this simple, comforting, yet dazzlingly luxurious side dish comes in. Acini di pepe take center stage, which are really just a fancy way of referring to pearl couscous in Italian. The Translation means “seeds of pepper,” which makes a final flourish of cracked black pepper only fitting.

Balancing out these intense, robust flavors, candy cap mushrooms introduce an unmistakably sweet flavor, shockingly much like maple syrup with an added earthy undertone. The combination is complex, nuanced, and truly greater than the sum of its parts. Even if you’re not much for red wines either, you’ll want to keep some on hand to whip this dish up in 15 minutes flat.

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Take a Leek

For anyone into “clean eating,” I must imagine that leeks are obvious nonstarters. There are few foods more likely to be covered in filth, no matter where or when you buy them. Fresh from the farmers market, packaged in plastic; even those that claim to be pre-washed conceal a mouthful of silt woven between those leafy layers. No one could call this clean by any stretch of the imagination.

Thankfully, unlike the toxic mindset of diet culture, this is a problem that’s easily remedied. Wash away all those nasties in one fell swoop, and your labor will be handsomely rewarded. Related to garlic, chives, shallots, and onions, you get hints of all the four in one, with a subtle sweetness that lends itself to pretty much any dish you might add an allium to. Unlike their more pungent brethren, leeks are mild enough to be enjoyed on their own, simply grilled or roasted.

Why isn’t there more love for leeks? I have a feeling it has a lot to do with the dirt. It’s because of the way they’re grown, like asparagus, with dirt pushed up around them to keep their stalks whiter and more tender, that large amounts of sand gets trapped inside. Think of them as diamonds in the rough, that just need a bit of polishing. If you can take the time to peel an onion, try to muster a bit more patience and reap the benefits of luscious leeks.

Baked until they practically melt in your mouth in a savory sauce laden with cheese, this creamy leek gratin is the unassuming side dish that complements every meal. It’s so creamy and luscious, it’s almost like if mac and cheese and creamed onions had a love child. There’s even a bread crumb topping to finish each bite with a satisfying crunch.

Don’t write off leeks for their dark, dirty roots. They’d happily clean up their acts if given the chance.

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A Smash Hit

Forget about turkey and pecan pie; it simply isn’t Thanksgiving without potatoes. The greatest disappointment of my teenage years was a fateful Thanksgiving potluck where no one stepped up to bring potatoes. I haven’t spoken to them since.

Okay, so we exchanged a few choice words about the value of using spreadsheets for menu planning in the future, but I’ll never forget that lost year.

While you can’t go wrong with good old buttery mashers, smashed potatoes introduce a whole new textural element with crispy edges, making them even more compulsively edible with a drizzle of rich gravy aioli on top. After one taste of these spuds, no one could ever forget about the celebratory potatoes again.

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Be Thankful for Small Mushrooms

Taking a moment to pause and appreciate our good fortune is something we should really do all year round, but Thanksgiving is the only national holiday that calls for such mindfulness. As a celebration of a successful harvest, seasonal produce takes center stage, but that doesn’t always mean that fresh is best for every ingredient.

Believe it or not, dried Sugimoto shiitake mushrooms are a wiser choice than fresh for numerous reasons. They have much greater longevity, better flavor, and enhanced nutritional attributes.

By removing the moisture, they’re naturally preserved to keep longer, without the need for refrigeration, making them an indispensable pantry staple. Fresh mushrooms must be kept in the fridge for about a week, two at the most, while dried Sugimoto shiitake will keep perfectly at room temperature at least a year, springing back life as good as new when needed.

Long used in eastern medicines as natural supplements, shiitake mushrooms are rich in many vitamins and nutrients, but only when dried can those elements be concentrated and better absorbed. The drying process breaks down proteins into amino acids and transforms ergosterol to vitamin D.

Of course, most importantly for their culinary value, Sugimoto shiitake mushrooms are incredibly delicious because the drying and rehydrating process produces guanylate, a natural umami enhancer. Guanylate amplifies the umami taste of all foods, making dishes richer, bolder, and simply better.

That’s a whole lot to be thankful for right there. It should go without saying that these powerful little mushrooms definitely deserve a place of honor at your Thanksgiving table. I’ve got the perfect dish to grace your menu right here.

We’ve already talked about the best stuffed mushrooms, so what about… Mushroom stuffing? This one isn’t designed to be stuffed into a bird, of course. Some would say that it’s more accurate to call it “dressing” if that’s the case, but that’s an even more confusing title, if you ask me. Dressing is a liquid condiment meant to coat and flavor various side dishes, not something to eat as the side dish itself! Semantics aside, this is a dish that’s essential for any holiday feast.

Tangy, crusty sourdough creates a hearty foundation for this autumnal treat. Perfumed with savory herbs and umami mushrooms, one whiff could tide you over, at least until the meal is served. Chewy and soft in the center, saturated with stock while crowned with crisp, crunchy, toasted edges, each bite is a study in contrasts. Don’t forget the nutty flavor of caramelized browned butter infused into every soft cube of bread, adding luxurious layers of umami into a simple casserole dish.

There are many ways to make great stuffing, or dressing, if you prefer, but shiitake mushrooms should always make the guest list. This is the secret ingredient for an unforgettable feast that everyone will talk about for years to come.

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Purple is the New Black

Potato salad is like the little black dress of dishes; it’s suitable for all gatherings and occasions, never going out of style. Potato salad is better than a little black dress, however, because it’s infinitely adaptable, rather than being restricted to the same basic routine for years on end. Not to mention, potato salad always fits.

Riffing off the classic creamy chilled spuds, this tropical twist makes a colorful splash with vibrant Okinawan sweet potatoes. More than a bland starchy base, these tender cubes are naturally sweet, like orange yams. As the name might suggest, they’re originally from the southernmost island of Japan, but were also cultivated by Polynesians in Hawaii, where it thrived in the rich volcanic soil. That’s what inspired the tropical flair for the rest of the chilled salad.

Crisp, buttery macadamia nuts are a key ingredient to making this simple recipe shine. That crunchy contrast against the tender flesh of the potatoes, paired with the creamy twang of tart coconut yogurt, sets it apart from average humble spuds.

Next time you need a quick dish for a gathering, no matter the season, think of potato salad and more specifically, purple potato salad, if you really want to wow your friends and family. Everyone will remember this dish long after memories of fashion trends are forgotten.

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Seoul Food

There’s nothing that lights my fire quite like smoky, charred fresh corn still hot off the grill. Juicy kernels bursting with sweetness, still golden and tender-crisp, it’s a bite of pure summer brilliance. You can practically taste the sunshine infused right down to the cob. Not a week passes without some form of corn gracing my dinner table during prime harvest season for all the ways it can be dressed up or down. My very favorite serving suggestion, without a doubt, is elote. Add in a creamy, cheesy coating that’s at once cool and refreshing yet lusciously rich, and I could very well make a meal of that alone.

That doesn’t mean I’ll always stick with conventional methods, of course. A bit of spice is always nice, but rather than the predictable bite of cayenne or chipotle, it’s even more compelling when we cross cultural boundaries for a Korean flavor infusion. Kimchi is the greatest form of spicy pickle I can think of, so when it’s blended right into a vegan mayonnaise dipping sauce, the results are more spectacular than fireworks on the 4th of July. Lucky Foods has done just that with their game-changing eggless offering here, introducing the added smoldering heat of gochugaru, the essential chili pepper that gives kimchi its distinctive punch.

If you happen to like it really hot, they’ve got you covered with potent gochujang paste, too. Beyond pure fire power, the paste offers a warm sensation with lingering heat while introducing a subtle sweetness and umami flavor from fermented soybeans. Use in moderation to really elevate your elote game.

I’m entering my K-Elote (that’s Korean Elote, of course) into the Lucky Foods Blogger Recipe Challenge! You can find more spicy ideas by visiting out Lucky Foods on Facebook and Instagram. Look their products at Whole Foods, Target, HEB, and many more stores. Wish me luck in the contest!

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