Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Hoshi Shiitake: A Little Mushroom Magic

Edible mushrooms have been a vital source of nutrition for Homo sapiens for thousands of years.  Millenia before humans began farming they foraged for wild mushrooms as they wandered forests and grasslands. Under the proper conditions mushrooms grow quickly in great abundance; to this day they are sought for their exceptional flavor, nutrients and health promoting qualities.

Hoshi Shiitake (literally "dry wood mushroom")  are among my most treasured kitchen staples, especially during cool weather when my thoughts turn toward warmer fare. A few shiitakes can add almost magically delicious depth and complexity (umami) to simple vegetable dishes.

Although produce markets offer many varieties of fresh mushrooms, I much prefer the dried ones, which are far more flavorful and can be conveniently stored for months without any loss of quality or nutrients. I don't think of dried shiitakes as a lesser substitute for fresh; they are simply in a category of their own with unique culinary characteristics.

Many groceries sell packaged dried shiitakes. Look for those which have thick, plump caps and which display the characteristic markings seen in the photo above. A one pound package of shiitakes will make many meals; most recipes require only a handful at most. (Sliced dried mushrooms should be avoided, as their quality is inferior).

Dried shiitakes must be re-hydrated before cooking; this requires a bit of planning but is simple to do. Rinse the mushrooms in cool water to remove any extraneous material, then place in a glass or ceramic  bowl with enough fresh water to cover. I rarely soak them for more than one hour but some sources recommend up to eight hours for best flavor and texture. They can be stored overnight in the fridge while soaking. 

Once the mushrooms have softened, remove from water. Squeeze one at a time with your hands to remove remaining liquid. Don't discard the soaking water; it is highly flavorful and can used as stock. Place the mushrooms on a cutting board and using a sharp knife, slice to the desired thickness. If the stems are very tough, set them aside for use in long simmered dishes.

Hoshi shiitake have a multitude of uses. In Japanese cooking they appear in miso soup and rustic vegetable stews, and are added to rice dishes. I have used them in the mushroom barley soup made by my mother and grandmother - although they prepared it with the highly prized aromatic dried Russian mushrooms which were always kept on hand. Recently I have added thinly sliced shiitakes to black beluga lentils and also to home made tomato sauce, with excellent results.

Remove dried shiitakes from their original package, place in a clean glass jar and store in a cool dark place. They will keep for many months, always on hand for a little culinary mushroom magic.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Essence of Summer, Season of Joy

According to the traditional Asian calendar, Summer is the Season of Fire, the time of "Ultimate Yang". Energy is high, daylight is plentiful and growing things flourish and reach the apex of their ripeness and fullness. This is the season of the Heart, whose dominant emotion is Joy.

Midsummer farmer's markets in Northern California are brimming with exquisite produce of the utmost freshness and flavor. Almost everything I have sampled in recent weeks is of extraordinary quality.

This is the time to revel in the abundant colors, flavors and fragrances of nature. Farmer's market  purveyors offer many luscious varieties of produce such as plums, peaches and nectarines which are seldom found in commercial supermarkets.

Don't forget to select red, yellow and orange sweet peppers, crimson dry farmed tomatoes, fragrant melons and bunches of aromatic basil. (If you can't use all the basil, tie a cotton string around the stems and hang it up to dry in a warm spot in your kitchen for later use.)

Produce of this quality is dense with nutrients, requires little preparation and is great for casual snacks and meals. Ultra ripe fruit is at its best eaten out of hand. Make a simple gourmet meal with sliced dry farmed tomatoes sprinkled with olive oil, sea salt and fresh basil leaves. Eat slowly and savor the essence of Summer, the Season of Joy.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Basic Black: Beluga Lentils

These beautiful tiny black lentils, which are named for the Beluga caviar they resemble, are deeply flavorful and high in protein, vitamins, minerals and fiber. Lentils require no pre-soaking and since Belugas are so small, they cook thoroughly in thirty minutes or less. A batch prepared ahead of time can be stored for several days in the fridge,  ready to become a satisfying meal in minutes. 

Basic Black Beluga Ingredients:

3 cups black beluga lentils
6 + cups fresh water
3 cloves garlic, unpeeled
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon sea salt (or to taste)


 Place lentils and water in a heavy pot with a well fitting lid. Bring to a boil, then lower flame so that lentils are gently simmering. Add garlic, cloves and bay leaves. Cover and allow to simmer for about thirty minutes. If you have a flame tamer, place it between the burner and the pot to distribute heat evenly and prevent scorching.

Stir lentils occasionally and add a little water if needed. Lentils are done when tender.  Remove garlic cloves and place in a bowl. Mash the cloves with a fork; the garlic skins will separate easily. Stir the mashed garlic back into the pot. Add sea salt to taste. While lentils are still hot, place them in clean glass jars and cover tightly. Lentils handled this way will keep well in the fridge for up to one week.

Serving suggestions:

1. Steam or saute any dark leafy greens which you have on hand; serve with hot lentils.
2. Chiffonade a stack of leafy greens. Place the ribbons in a layer on top of lentils as they heat in a covered pot. When greens have wilted, remove and serve with lentils.
3. Puree lentils in blender, thinning with some water or plain unsweetened nut milk. Heat and serve.
4. Toss a few tablespoons of chilled lentils into your favorite raw salad.


Try any one or a combination of these garnishes: Freshly squeezed lemon or lime juice, chopped red, orange or yellow sweet pepper, dried red pepper flakes, freshly ground black peppercorns, chopped cilantro, parsley or basil leaves. When sweet corn is is season, remove kernels (cooked or raw) from cob and add to lentils.

Black Belugas, ready to heat and eat.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

"Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?"

    Painting by Paul Gauguin, 1897. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston*  

Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?  

The title of Paul Gauguin's masterpiece poses questions which have concerned Homo sapiens  for millenia, perhaps ever since our evolution 200,000 years ago in East Africa. A brilliant and engaging book which examines these questions has recently been published.

Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, Ph.D.  (Harper Collins, 2015).

From the book jacket:

"In Sapiens, Harari delves deep into our history as a species to help us understand who we are and what made us this way. An engrossing read." -- Dan Ariely, Duke University Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics.

"An encyclopedic approach from a well-versed scholar who is concise but eloquent, both skeptical and opinionated, and open enough to entertain competing points of view... The great debates of history aired out with satisfying vigor." -- Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)

"Harari's account of how we conquered the Earth astonishes with its scope and imagination... A bravura retelling of the human story... brilliantly clear, witty, and erudite... It really is thrilling and breathtaking; it actually does question our basic narrative of the world." -- Ben Shephard, The Observer (London)

* * * *                                         

Professor Harari has created a fascinating video lecture course based on his book which "... surveys the entire length of human history, from the evolution of various human species in the Stone Age up to the political and technological revolutions of the twenty-first century." The series is available on You Tube via the link below.

A Brief History of Humankind

"D'ou venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Ou allons nous?" 

* Public Domain

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Mallow: Not Just A Common Weed!

If you live in San Francisco, you've walked past wild mallow plants growing out of cracks in the sidewalk, in neglected gardens and other untended patches of urban land. A hardy plant which appears early in the spring, the common mallow is one of the many members of the botanical family Malvaceae which includes hibiscus, okra and cotton.

All parts of the mallow are edible; roots, leaves, seed pods and flowers. Mallow has been foraged for centuries for use as a highly nutritious food and and as a versatile medicinal herb. It thrives in poor soil and requires little water, and thus has been a valuable resource in times of food shortage.

Young mallow leaves are tender and mild, with no hint of bitterness. They can be used like any other leafy green - raw in salads, steamed, sauteed or even blended into smoothies.  Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cooks add them to traditional stews; the large mature leaves are used as wraps in place of grape leaves. The seed pods are high in protein and healthy vegetable oils.

Our prehistoric ancestors survived for millennia on their impressive ability to gather and hunt wild foods. Many edible plants thrive in urban settings, though they are usually dismissed as nothing more than nuisance weeds. Learning about wild plants provides us with a valuable connection to our ancient origins and an appreciation for the vast changes in our food supply and the manner in which it is procured.

Foraging should always be undertaken with caution. For those who wish to learn more, there are many informative web sites devoted to the topic. Here is the link to one such site:


Mallow Seed Pods


Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Almost Spring: Citrus - Mango Smoothie

Plum blossoms, blood oranges, Minneola tangerines, Ruby Red grapefruits and Lunar New Year signal the arrival of Spring in San Francisco. Farmer's markets are flush with colorful fresh citrus fruit, perfect for creating delicious smoothies like this citrus- mango combo, which can be made in a minute or two.

Dried mango slices are a versatile all- season pantry staple. When re-hydrated and blended into smoothies, they add velvety texture, valuable nutrients and a subtle tropical flavor. To re-hydrate, place a handful of mango slices in a glass jar and add water to cover. Mangoes will be soft enough to use in about an hour but can be stored in the fridge for up to three or four days in the jar of water.

Citrus - Mango Smoothie

2 or 3 medium blood oranges or Minneola Tangerines
3-4  mango slices, re-hydrated
1/2 cup mango soaking water

Use any combination of citrus.
Remove peel and seeds, slice into chunks.
Place citrus, mango slices and water in blender and process on high until smooth. If needed, add a little more water.  Serve immediately.  (Yields about one serving).

Monday, January 12, 2015

Wakame + Watermelon Radish = A Super Salad

This is a dish to create when time is plentiful and distractions are few. It involves some meditative chopping, slicing and a little toasting, all of which can be done ahead of time. The sweet, sour and spicy flavors of the salad are enhanced if it is allowed to rest for a few hours or even a day before serving. Yield: About four portions, but if you really love sea vegetables, you might want to double the recipe.


1 ounce dried wakame sea vegetable*
4 medium watermelon radishes
3 tablespoons unseasoned rice vinegar
fresh juice of 2 lemons
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1 teaspoon hot pepper sesame oil 
1/4 teaspoon sea salt or to taste
3- 4 tablespoons sesame seeds, freshly toasted


Rehydrate wakame by placing it in a bowl with enough cool water to cover. Let it rest for about five minutes, then drain and squeeze out excess water with your hands. Using a sharp knife and clean cutting board,  slice the wakame into thin strips. The tough center ribs of the plant can be set aside for later use in soup, or simply slice them very fine and use in the salad.

Scrub and trim radishes.

Slice radishes into rounds.

Julienne rounds into matchsticks.

Toast sesame seeds in a heavy skillet until just fragrant, then pour into a ceramic plate to cool.

Combine vinegar, lemon juice, maple syrup, sesame oil and sea salt in a bowl and whisk together briefly. Add the sliced wakame and radish and toss gently to coat the vegetables. Sprinkle with about half the toasted sesame seeds, reserving the remainder to use as a garnish at the table. Salad will keep well in a clean glass container for up to three days.

* Wakame sea vegetable is sold dried, often in one ounce packages. 

Variation: Add one good quality crisp apple, sliced into matchsticks.