Monday, March 11, 2019

Kaya's Seaweed and Mushroom Salad

An unusual salad that really brings the earthy flavors!

In 2019, I am trying my best to eat a little healthier. Trying is really the operative word there, because I still catch myself snacking on a lot of stuff I probably shouldn't, but I've been brainstorming ideas for blog posts that are a little more waistline friendly to share with everyone, and this one wound up being a very interesting experience indeed. 

This salad comes from the pages of the Cafe Mitsitam cookbook, one of the best resources for recipes inspired by the Native Peoples of North and South America. I've visited the cafe many, many times and have made a few recipes from the cookbook on the blog in the past - like these delicious pumpkin cookies - but I returned my borrowed copy of the cookbook to my aunt and uncle before I moved down to DC. I finally got my hands on another copy, and almost immediately decided to give this unusual salad a shot. Read on to learn about its connection to Kaya!

The Cafe Mitsitam cookbook explains that this salad takes inspiration from coastal tribes in the Pacific Northwest, who would have collected seaweed as a good source of protein and fiber to use in various dishes. Seaweed wouldn't have been a major part of Kaya's diet, but it's theoretically possible she could have tried it through trade networks with other tribes. The Nez Perce were not a coastal people, but they did have alliances with other tribes like the Yakima, who lived closer to the coast and may have traded with other groups closer to the shoreline. These trade networks were an important way of sharing and obtaining resources, and archaeologically it's not uncommon to find objects or food items from far away places at various Native archaeological sites. 

But mushrooms definitely would have been a welcome part of Kaya's diet throughout the year. She would have learned from her elders which mushrooms were safe to eat and could be harvested for a good nutritional boost. Mushrooms could be dried and stored for the lean winter months, when they would be soaked in water and then fried or boiled. These would be a very welcome addition to a meal in the middle of winter when fresh vegetables were long gone. 

This salad is a lot like most of the recipes in the Cafe Mitsitam cookbook - a dish drawing inspiration from foodways of various Native Peoples rather than a recipe specific to one tribe. Kaya definitely wouldn't have eaten something exactly identical to this, but this salad has several elements that would have been familiar to her. 

Refreshingly, this salad is incredibly easy to make. Don't get me wrong, I like cooking, especially when it's for a blog post, but I've had a really busy few weeks and my energy levels have not been great. Besides that, prepping vegetables can take a decent amount of time if you're nervous about your knife cuts like I am, so it's always a bit of a relief when a salad is pretty straight forward. 

To begin, take one cup of dried wakame seaweed and pour lukewarm water over it to rehydrate it. Wakame seaweed is an ingredient I've eaten countless times before, but had never worked with. It's the seaweed that's used in most miso soup recipes, seaweed salad, and other staples of Japanese and Chinese restaurants in America. Jess and I were both surprised by how small the dried seaweed bits looked in the package, but they almost immediately bloomed to full size when the water was added. After just a few minutes, I had two cups of damp seaweed ready to be turned into salad.

Drain this and set it aside while you prep your mushrooms.

Again, the mushroom prep is very simple. You need shiittake mushrooms, button mushrooms and cremini mushrooms, and I decided I was just going to get one packet of each for the salad, knowing that would probably be more than enough to get the job done, and it was! The shiitakes should be stemmed and sliced, and the others just get halved. Add salt and pepper to taste along with 1/4 of a cup of vegetable oil and toss the mushrooms to coat. These then should get put on a baking sheet and roasted for 5-10 minutes at 450 degrees or until soft. 

The mushrooms came out looking - and smelling! - pretty great.

On to the dressing. 

Now, readers might remember that I've had some issues with the Cafe Mitsitam cookbook in the past, largely coming down to just how much of particular ingredients the recipe calls for. The cranberry crumble was way too heavy on the sugar and honey, making for an overly sweet sticky mess, and the celery root salad's dressing was plentiful enough to pretty much cancel out the health benefits of eating a salad. This salad had a similar concern for me: the vinaigrette called for a whole cup of canola oil. 

Now, no shade meant towards people that do like oily salad dressing, but this seemed like way too much oil for a salad of this size, especially when the mushrooms had already been tossed in oil to roast. I decided to take matters into my own hands and reduce the amount of oil significantly, just eyeballing the vinaigrette to get it in a consistency I liked. I used 1/2 of a cup of rice vinegar, two tablespoons of honey, three cloves of garlic, minced, a tablespoon of red chili flakes plus an extra teaspoon of red pepper flakes as I didn't have the chili paste the recipe calls for and that was the suggested substitution. I whisked in about 1/4 of a cup of canola oil and got ready to toss it on the salad.

It made a pretty good portion size, all said and done. This definitely could serve a fairly large group of people with no issue.

So, how did it taste?

Honestly? Pretty good. Both Jess and I were a little suspicious of this, mostly because the ingredients are pretty simple and there isn't a lot of room to hide individual pieces you're not a fan of. In a lot of ways, there's really not much going on here. Right off the bat, I'll say that if you're not a fan of seaweed or mushrooms, you're definitely not going to like this salad. The dressing is also pretty darn spicy, so that might not be up your proverbial alley either. However, the spiciness did a lot to tone down the fishiness of the seaweed, which left it more of a fun, chewy textural element than giving the salad an overpowering ocean-y vibe. I like seaweed, but Jess isn't really into anything that can be qualified as seafood, and she agreed that the seaweed's flavor was way better with the dressing and less overwhelming than it was without it.

The mushrooms were also really nice. I don't eat mushrooms often unless they're in another dish (like my interpretation of my grandma's Lazy Jane casserole), but I do like them, and this definitely made me think I should make an effort to eat more of them. 

But overall, this salad just felt kind of one note, even with the extreme flavors and textures. I tried eating a fairly modest portion of it for dinner - literally what you're seeing in photographs - and it honestly got kind of boring. I strongly believe that the mark of a good salad is something you can eat either as a side dish or a main course without getting bored with the flavor or textures you're consuming, and this just didn't live up to that. The red pepper flakes also got a little overwhelming, and I say that as someone who likes spicy food. Without anything to break up the texture or spice, it was good, but I couldn't finish the portion. 

Then Jess had an idea. We both agreed that this salad actually had a distinctly Asian flavor profile to it, so she whipped up some stir fried chicken, carrots and peppers along with some sushi rice. Combined together with the salad, this made a really good rice bowl and solved the problem of one note flavors and textures immediately. It instantly elevated the salad from a "not sure I'd make it again" to "would definitely make this again to compliment that specific dish or something similar". 

In conclusion, if you're looking for a good dinner salad, this is definitely not it. But if you want an unusual compliment to a meal, whether in bento box or dinner plate mode, this would definitely be something worth checking out.

So overall, definitely a successful experiment in my book!

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