Rejoice, There’s Fungus Growing In My Bedroom!

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If you’d have told me a few months ago that I’d soon be growing shiitake mushrooms, I’d probably have looked at you like you’d lost your marbles. But, you know, I’m learning that if you live long enough, all kinds of strange things come to pass. And so, this is the story of how mushrooms came to growing in my second bedroom.

It  all began with Lee Brokaw, a friend who lives in Santa Cruz, that legendary surfing town south of San Francisco. Lee often drops in on Monday afternoons to visit us cooks in Palo Alto while we’re putting together our weekly vegetarian dinners. Most of the time, he brings  samples of his latest culinary experiment (right now he’s deeply into Korean cuisine), but a few weeks ago, Lee showed up with the gift of a dark, mysterious log clothed in a plastic bag, and protected by a cardboard box. He’d been to Santa Cruz’s annual Fungus Fair over the weekend, and evidently, done a little shopping. It turns out that what he brought  was a shiitake mushroom minifarm, a growing kit which is a “specially formulated mixture of red oak sawdust and rice bran which has been fully impregnated with the culture (“mycelium”) of the shiitake mushroom…” Enclosed was a four-page flyer with the simple growing instructions.

Within a week, my log was peppered with baby mushrooms (blue photo below), and in five or so days more, the mushrooms were mature (photos, above and below).  In fact, while I was out of town for a few days, the mushrooms became more open than ideal (for both culinary and medicinal purposes, partly-closed caps are thought to be of better quality). However, the shiitakes were delicious, sautéed, and in soup–you’ll find some of my recipes using fresh and dried shiitake mushrooms here, here, here and here. The people who made my shiitake log, Far West Fungi, have a retail store in San Francisco’s Ferry Building, but you can order yours on line. The World’s Healthiest Foods site has an article on the well-documented nutritional and medicinal benefits of shiitake mushrooms here.  As for me, if all goes well, I may soon have a second crop of fungus popping up in my bedroom.

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View Lee Brokaw’s photos of the Santa Cruz Fungus Fair, after the jump.

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It’s Winter: Time to Make Sauerkraut at Home (If I Can, So Can You!)

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For years I hesitated to try making sauerkraut.  I guess I thought the process was too mysterious and difficult. Last year I tried making it for the first time and it came out wonderfully.  What I discovered was, it isn’t difficult at all. Basically, you chop cabbage, add salt, and let it sit.  In a couple of weeks, you have sauerkraut.  O.K., I exaggerate a bit, but truly, it is not complicated.

All right, I hear some of you wondering, “why would I even want to make sauerkraut at all?”  And if you’ve only eaten that mushy stuff out of a jar or can, I don’t blame you.  Take my word for it, fresh, homemade kraut is something else entirely. And nutritionally, it combines the great profile of cruciferous vegetables with the probiotic goodness of all naturally fermented foods. Vern Varona, in his book, Macrobiotics for Dummies, puts it this way: “Researchers have shown that the process of fermenting cabbage produces isothiocyanates, which are known to prevent cancer growth….Sauerkraut also has strong detoxifying properties. Containing plentiful amounts of probiotic bacteria, which create lactic acid, sauerkraut aids digestion by restoring a healthy balance of beneficial bacteria throughout the intestinal tract.” Not convinced? Once made, it’s a convenience food, as it will keep in your fridge for weeks, maybe months, no cooking or further preparation needed. True, it is salty, so think of it as a pickle or a condiment.  Eat it in small quantities, a couple tablespoons at a time. If you’re still worried about salt, give it a rinse. It’s great in sandwiches or as a condiment with rice and other grains. My easy, step-by-step directions are after the jump.

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Photos: Top--Cutting the red cabbage. Above--By the fifth day it's already looking like sauerkraut, although still crunchy and only lightly fermented.

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Great Grains: Why We Love Brown Rice

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Rice. Is there anything new to say about this almost ubiquitous staple food? I’ve read that rice provides one-fifth of the calories consumed by humans, and when you consider that the world’s most populous countries, China and India, are rice-eating nations, that’s plausible. When I began researching rice, I was vaguely aware that it was domesticated long ago in China (10,000 years ago, in fact) but I had no idea that rice was a significant African crop, where it’s been cultivated for 3,500 years. In fact, the first rice grown in the U.S. came from Africa, and it was African slaves who taught Carolina plantation owners how to grow rice. Today, rice is an important crop in our backyard, California’s Sacramento Valley.

In Japan, the rice-eating country I know best, rice is considered essential, not just as food, but culturally. It’s sometimes said that rice-eating cultures are more communal because, historically, no farmer could grow rice on his or her own, building and maintaining the paddies and intricate water systems took the whole village working together. Consider how rice has been used in Japan, not just as a filling grain, but as an alcoholic beverage (sake), a condiment (rice vinegar), a sweet snack (mochi), a sweet drink (amasake), an essential element in miso, an ingredient in tea (genmai cha), in paper, in tatami floor mats, and on and on.

Finally, to “brown” rice, which I think is a bit of a misnomer. Creamy colored, or beige maybe, but brown, definitely not. To me, eating so-called brown rice ought to be a no-brainer. Right off the top, there’s the added fiber. And remember, it’s not just the outside layer that’s removed to create white rice, it’s the bran as well which is thought to lower LDL cholesterol. Compared to white rice, brown rice is higher in B vitamins, iron and has four times as much magnesium. And to me, it just tastes more interesting. If your family or friends think they don’t like brown rice, mix in vegetables, or wild rice, seeds, nuts, herbs.  Make it interesting enough and they won’t notice the difference. Or try basmati or jasmine brown rice, both flavorful on their own, or add brown rice to soup or to rice pudding. Really, jazz it up a bit and the difference disappears. Brown rice does take longer to cook, but the added time is well rewarded. After the jump, I give you my method for cooking brown rice, as well as a recipe for gomashio, the toasted sesame seed condiment which is a great companion to rice. It turns out, there is a lot to say about rice, and in future posts, I’ll talk about various kinds of rice, and the dishes you can make with them.

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To make sesame seed sprinkle (gomashio), first toast sesame seeds over medium heat in a cast iron pan (recipe after the jump). Photo top: small bowls of short grain brown rice garnished with sesame seed sprinkle and nori.

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New Cooking Class: Unlocking The Secrets of Japanese Vegetarian Cooking

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When Fumiko Arao and I got together in March to cook a Japanese vegetarian feast for this blog, the thought arose that maybe we should teach a cooking class together.  I’m happy to announce that we’ve decided to do it! Entitled “Unlocking the Secrets of Japanese Vegetarian Cooking,” the class will happen on Saturday, June 25th, at 10 a.m. in the kitchen of First Baptist Church in Palo Alto, the same venue as our Monday Night Vegetarian Dinners. If you’ve admired Japanese food, but been afraid to attempt it at home, join us to see how user friendly this style of cooking can be. Japanese vegetarian cooking is based on shojin ryori, a thousand-year-old tradition which began in Zen Buddhist temples. As you can imagine, through generations of trial and error, a rigorous cuisine arose which is at the same time practical, well-balanced, artful and delicious. We will take you step-by-step through the preparation and serving of six dishes which encompass land and sea vegetables (both dried and fresh), soy products, and rice, an element fundamental to Japanese culture and cuisine. I’ll have more to say about the class in subsequent posts, but for now, you will find a detailed menu and information on how to enroll, after the jump.

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Photos: Top, Fumiko Arao, co-teacher for the class, prepares chirashi-zushi. This great summer dish consists of sushi-style rice with seven or eight flavorful toppings. Above: the completed dish.

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Wellness: Health Depends Not Only on Eating Well, But Also Digesting Well

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Bob Ligon practices Traditional Chinese Medicine in Akron, Ohio and does counseling and life coaching by phone.

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BOB LIGON’S TIPS FOR IMPROVING OUR DIGESTION, AND THUS OUR VITALITY

Editor’s Note: On this blog we talk a lot about what foods to eat and how to prepare them, not so much about how food is transformed by our body into the blood and the energy which fuels our lives.  Some time ago Bob Ligon, a practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine talked to our Monday night dinner group about how to improve our digestion.  It was such an interesting talk that I asked him to put it in a form which I could post. And here it is. Bob practices in Akron, Ohio, but is available for counseling by phone: 330-696-3385. The outline of his talk and his full bio appear after the jump… Continue reading

Shop Your Farmer’s Market and Make This Gingery Turnip and Turnip Greens Soup

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In the Bay Area, the thermometer says spring, but the calendar still says winter, and it is winter vegetables I found this morning at the farmer’s market.  I decided to buy what veggies looked good and create something with them. You see what I bought in the photo above: baby turnips with their greens, tender carrots, shiitake mushrooms and green onions. Not surprisingly, this added up to soup, Chinese in inspiration with lots of warming ginger (carrying out the theme of yesterday’s post). This is healing food, but with rich flavor from the ginger, shiitake mushrooms and soy sauce. If you don’t find baby turnips at your market, regular turnips will do, just dice them and cook a little longer, and kale, collards or mustard greens could substitute for the turnip greens. So, here’s a light, but warming winter soup, and the full recipe is after the jump.

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Produce Superstars: For Great Taste and for Healing, Ginger Rocks!

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I suppose you could see the ginger rhizome in the photo above as a bit homely, but knowing ginger’s numerous uses, both culinary and medicinal, I see it as beautiful. Ginger, a cousin of turmeric, cardamom and galangal, grows in fertile, tropical soil, especially in India, China, Fiji and Indonesia. Not only has ginger been vital in the traditional medicines of East Asian, Indian and Arabic cultures since ancient times, its healing properties have been confirmed in double-blind, controlled studies, in the relief of pain and swelling caused by osteoarthritis, for example. Among other medicinal uses are relief of digestive system upsets, treatment of respiratory problems, and in breaking fevers. Ginger is thought to stimulate blood circulation, cleanse bowels and kidneys and to nourish the skin (read in more depth about ginger’s medicinal uses here, with information about dosages, here). Ginger as a medicinal is available in extracts, tinctures, capsules and oils, but it’s such a versatile and useful plant, why not cook with it and enjoy the lively, pungent taste of fresh ginger? After the jump, I suggest numerous ways to incorporate ginger into your daily cooking…

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Ginger Plant--Color plate from Köhler's Medicinal Plants

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