Chef Rich Landau is eyeing my mushrooms. “Ah, you got shiitake instead of maitake,” he says with a smile. I rush to explain: Yes, his recipe calls for maitake, a.k.a. hen of the woods, a.k.a. my favorite fungus. Yes, his recipe specifies the variety in its title, no less.
But what’s a supermarket shopper to do? I’m not a restaurant owner, like he is; I can’t just ring up my purveyor and summon the moon. And because of traveling, I hadn’t made it to the Sunday farmers market, where a mushroom vendor hawks a half-dozen primo varieties, including foraged ones such as chanterelles and even morels in season, for a pretty penny. At the Whole Foods Market, my choices consisted of white button, portobello, cremini (“baby bella”), shiitake and a so-called wild blend of pre-sliced pieces that included all of the basics plus a few little slivers of oyster mushrooms, soggy and limp in their shrink-wrapped prison.
The sprightliest ones? Shiitakes, so that’s what I got. Back in my kitchen, Landau approves, thankfully. “People are often so bound by the recipe that they sometimes get inferior product,” he says. “But if the bok choy is looking like this (he slumps over), don’t buy the bok choy! Buy something different. People won’t buy old fish or old meat, so it astounds me that they’ll buy old vegetables. So yeah, you’ve gotta substitute.”
Landau and his wife, pastry chef Kate Jacoby, are the friendly couple behind Vedge, my favorite restaurant in Philadelphia, and authors of the cookbook of the same name, just out this past summer. At their restaurant, the duo serve dishes that make me swoon, and even though I’m not vegan and they and Vedge are, we share the strong belief that
this food should be defined by the presence — the glorification, even — of vegetables, not the absence of meat or any other animal products. I knew when I got an early look at “Vedge” that we were kindred spirits, so much so that when they asked whether I’d write the book’s foreword, I happily agreed. (There’s no conflict of interest here; I did the deed for free.)
Once the book was out, I invited Landau and Jacoby to my own little kitchen to see how their facility with vegetables would translate to a home cook’s environment. Pretty effortlessly, as it turns out.
I help Landau root around in my spice drawer to assemble an island-tinged blend of allspice, ginger, cumin, brown sugar and more that he sprinkles on carrots before they head to the oven for roasting. He checks on them frequently. “Most vegetables have an optimal tenderness, just like meat,” he says. “You don’t want them crunchy, and you don’t want them mushy. I spend a lot of time with new cooks at the restaurant, training them to get a feel for that sweet spot where a knife cuts through just so: not too much resistance, and not too little.”
Those carrots, cooked perfectly (of course), end up on a bed of black lentils surrounded by a bright green take on harissa, the Tunisian chili sauce. It tastes like a particularly spicy salsa verde, and it makes the earthy vegetables sing. When he makes that harissa, by the way, Landau demonstrates a couple of keeper techniques.
Instead of cutting open a jalapeño and scraping out the seeds, he does the reverse, standing the pepper up, holding it by the stem, and slicing off one side at a time, rotating as he goes. He’s left with a skeleton of seeds, which he never touches (protecting his fingers). When he wants to pull mostly leaves off a bunch of cilantro, he holds it in the air by the stem ends, too, letting the leaves hang down, and he quickly slashes downward, shaving off a pile.
Jacoby multitasks, reading her husband instructions for his recipes while prepping her dessert: chocolate pots de creme enriched and deepened by an unconventional ingredient, beet juice. No juicer required; Jacoby grates half a beet, squeezes it for its ruby liquid, then stirs that into a mixture of coconut milk and cornstarch and pours it all over bittersweet chocolate chips. It becomes an eggless pudding that sets up beautifully at room temperature; the fridge will turn it into a ganache firm enough to scoop into truffles. (At Vedge, Jacoby has dusted such truffles with beet powder. “I made it for Valentine’s Day one year and never looked back,” she says.)
Back to those mushrooms. Landau brushes them off rather than rinsing, because with exceptions for some particularly difficult-to-clean varieties, he doesn’t want them to soak up any water. “If you wash them, you can never get a good sear on them, and that’s a shame,” he says. “You might as well boil them.” He roasts the shiitake caps with turnips and carrots in three stages: with olive oil, with wine and with vegetable broth, all as a way of building and layering flavor.
When they come out, he has a presentation idea he can’t resist, so he uses a cookie cutter to stamp out similar shapes and sizes of shiitake and turnip, spreads them in alternating layers on a serving plate, and spoons the sauce around. It’s a bistro dish, pure comfort food without the heaviness that sometimes comes along with it.
The best part? Those shiitakes, whose slightly chewy texture combines with the red wine to create something meaty. It’s not that they remind me of meat, though. They taste like exactly what they are, which is the whole point.