Mushrooms masquerade for plant-based proteins

The Whole Dish podcast: Mix up your mushrooms with widely available exotics

With 3- and 5-year-old boys who clamor for dinner by 4:30 p.m., I rarely these days get caught on my heels.

Serving up the family meal between 5 and 5:30 p.m. leaves little wiggle room. Thus, I conceive the menu at least 24 hours in advance, allowing time for meat to thaw, beans to soak and even some vegetables, such as salad greens, to be prepped.

Occasionally, however, I’m caught without a clear plan. Such was the case this past week after a day of running errands and T-ball signups on the schedule between dinnertime and bedtime. No meat handy in the fridge, although we did have a bag of lovely bok choy that suggested stir-frying and serving with rice.

I never expect resounding approval, though, from vegetarian stir-fry. It’s too sparse, too fibrous, without anything rich or silky to soften the effect for my boys. So I abruptly switched gears and starting concocting a Thai-style green curry with coconut milk. Not for the first, second or fiftieth time in my life, I was grateful for having laid in a supply of fresh mushrooms.

While shiitake mushrooms are meaty and savory, they still scream fungus. But the king oyster mushrooms that Food 4 Less in Medford recently started stocking are so toothsome that, when cubed, they could be mistaken for tofu, or even diced, cooked chicken.

Touted for years as healthy, meatless dishes more recently are being advocated for the health of the planet. If you’re still wary of how to make the transition, at least one night per week, look to ethnic flavors for interest. They’ll take the focus off the bare spot on the plate where meat would be.

Plant-based protein substitutes can be delicious, but they’re often not even necessary if a dish is warm and filling with some texture and substance. Consider swapping cooked, diced sweet potato or winter squash for the tofu indicated in this Tom Yum, Thailand’s cold-and-flu cure.

And using good-quality bone broth in curries, soups and stews imparts protein, healthy fats and minerals. Instead of common button mushrooms, mix it up with shiitakes, oyster mushrooms and other exotics that increasingly are more available. Serve this recipe, courtesy of Tribune News Service, with steamed brown rice and additional veggies on the side for a more filling meal.

Tribune News Service photo

Tom Yum

5 cups vegetable, chicken or seafood broth, preferably low-sodium

2 stalks lemongrass, tough woody exterior peeled away, thinly sliced

1 inch fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced

2 scallions, sliced thin

2 garlic cloves , peeled and minced

Pinch dried turmeric

1 teaspoon Sriracha or 1/2 teaspoon sambal oelek or Thai chili sauce (see note)

8 ounces fresh mushrooms, thinly sliced

1/4 cup light soy sauce

1/4 cup fresh lime juice

7 ounces firm tofu (1/2 of a 14-ounce package), drained, pressed and cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1 handful watercress or spinach leaves, sliced into ribbons

1 handful of cilantro, chopped

Pour the vegetable broth into a medium saucepan and heat over high heat. Add the lemongrass, ginger, scallions, garlic, turmeric, Sriracha or chili sauce, mushrooms, soy sauce and lime juice. Do not taste at this point — flavors are sharp.

Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 8 to 10 minutes, or until mushrooms are tender. In this time, spices will mellow and come together. Add the tofu and float in the watercress or spinach leaves. Stir for a moment or two, until greens are lightly wilted. Ladle into bowls and garnish with the chopped cilantro.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

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