Love Triangles

Samosa will always have a place close to my heart. As a baby vegan, before I knew how to cook anything more complicated than plain pasta, frozen foods were my saving grace. One of my favorites was a frozen samosa wrap, an American-Indian mashup of a beloved potato pastry. Gently spiced, golden mashed potatoes gleamed from within a whole wheat tortilla, dotted with tender green peas for an ideal toothsome bite. They could be eaten toasted, microwaved, or simply thawed, which suited my haphazard meal planning perfectly. Though not the most authentic introduction, it opened my eyes to the rich world of flavors unlocked by Indian cuisine.

From that time on, samosas were always my safe food when eating out. When friends or family wanted their tikka masala or tandori, I knew I could count on the humble spud to fill buttery fried pastries, and in turn, my stomach. Little did I know that the original samosas, introduced to the Indian subcontinent around the 13th century by traders from Central Asia, had nothing to do with the starchy staple. In fact, the original samosa was stuffed primarily with sauteed onions, ground meat, peas, spices, and herbs. Sometimes pistachios, almonds, or chickpeas might enter the picture as a nod to their middle eastern inspiration, but there was not a single potato to be found.

Wondering what I might have been missing all those years, I was curious to get a taste of this protein-packed variant. It would be easy enough to take a traditional recipe and swap in a hyper-realistic vegan beef substitute, but I prefer to start from scratch. Naturally, I’m building the flavor foundation with Sugimoto shiitake, minced finely to approximate the rich, savory flavor and chewy texture of minced meat. Crumbled tempeh carries that flavor with an equally umami, fermented base.

Building those layers of nuanced, harmonious, and craveable flavors starts with tempering spices according to Indian tradition, but certainly doesn’t end there. Japanese ingredients like soy sauce and shiitake create a truly irresistible taste sensation. Folded into flaky pastry triangles, there’s no better snack, starter, or entree around.

How can you make quick and easy samosa?

If you’re daunted by pastry dough, don’t worry. There are plenty of quick-fix solutions for that outer wrapping, such as:

  • Phyllo dough
  • Puff pastry
  • Pie dough
  • Spring roll wrappers
  • Burrito-sized flour tortillas

Alternately, you don’t need to create a crispy outer layer to contain all that meaty goodness in the first place. Other uses for the filling sans pastry are:

  • Bun samosa (sandwiched between fluffy hamburger or slider buns)
  • Pizza topping
  • Chip dip
  • Bolognese sauce

Want to make a healthier samosa?

Though they’re traditionally deep-fried, I like to pan-fry or shallow fry mine. You can easily cut down on the added oil and fat even further.

  • Air fry at 370 degrees for 15 minutes, flipping after 10 minutes, until crispy and browned on both sides.
  • Bake in a conventional oven preheated to 400 degrees for 20 – 30 minutes, flipping halfway through, until golden brown.

How can you serve samosa?

Like any properly constructed hand pie, samosa are designed to be eaten out of hand. Though brilliantly flavorful as is, it never hurts to add a simple dipping sauce, especially as a cooling temperature contrast to the hot pastry. My favorite options include:

If you’d like to create a well-rounded plated meal with samosa as the centerpiece, that’s a snap, too! Just add one or more sides:

  • Leafy green salad
  • Chopped cucumbers and tomatoes
  • Rasam (spicy tomato soup)
  • Lentil dal
  • Basmati rice

While the younger me might be horrified at the distinct lack of potato content, the older and wiser me knows better. Amplified by the natural umami of Sugimoto shiitake mushrooms, this is my new go-to comfort food. Being homemade gives it the edge over store-bought frozen options, no doubt, but the concept itself transcends such a simplistic view. Once you taste bite through that flaky, crisp pastry and tear into that decadently moist, meaty beefless filling, sparkling with a vibrant palate of bright spices, you’ll understand why it’s the staple food that changed Indian cuisine as we know it today.

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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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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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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.

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