Buffalo Chicken of the Woods
Exploring the natural world for meat alternatives.
Industrialized foods, even those that might sound promising, have been given far too much credit as a solution for other industrialized foods. Aside of rarely tasting good, sales of companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat that were given so much attention a few years ago have been sinking like stones. While still better for the environment than industrial meats, their moment as being heralded as global saviors is likely over.
It remains true, however, that we do need to eat less animal products. Less beef, less chicken, less pork, less lamb, less everything. Imagine if, instead of tech meats created with ultra-processed ingredients that have unpronounceable names and shady origins, we could look toward the natural world to find more sustainable alternatives for comfort foods. The more I seek out biodiversity in foods, the more I see there is a natural alternative for almost everything if we just put in as much effort in using it as we would what it is replacing.
Veggie burgers, the most obvious example, aren’t new. They have been around for decades, but the problem is that they just haven’t been very good. Most were some combination of beans and quinoa or brown rice that had little concern for flavor or texture. There are much better examples now. I’m not opposed to the occasional burger, but I would much rather go to Superiority Burger, the vegan burger shop in New York than Shake Shack any day. That’s transformative.
There are also less obvious examples. The New York chef Will Horowitz created a smoked ham made from watermelon, which could be served hot or cold. There is the shawarma that Noma made from celery root, inspired by tacos al pastor, and served for a season. Jackfruit tacos, using the jackfruit like pulled pork, has gotten some buzz, though I think one day we’ll see someone improve this idea and create a chain of jackfruit taquerias. Even the bags of frozen carrot hot dogs at Ikea seem more promising than the more industrial sausage alternatives I’ve seen in supermarkets.
The buffalo chicken sandwich has been my ultimate comfort food since I was a teenager in Ohio. Whenever I was dragged to some American chain restaurant it was my go-to order. Chicken sandwiches, in my experience, are more difficult to recreate using a natural meat alternative by combining other ingredients. They rarely use ground chicken, so texture becomes an obstacle.
Chicken of the woods mushrooms (Laetiporus sulphureus) are named so for this reason. Especially when fried or pulled, the meat has a similar mouth feel to chicken. I’ve even used them to make Peruvian Ají de Gallina. When in season, they are often abundant and there’s little threat to over-harvesting. I have spots in my immediate area where I’ve found them (and I’ve marked them on a map to not forget), and they come back year after year. While it hasn’t been done on a large scale, chicken of the woods mushrooms can be cultivated. They freeze well and can be battered and fried and stored for later use. If you don’t like buffalo chicken sandwiches like I do, it could be chicken milanesa (or better yet, a milanesa de pollo cemita) or chicken parmigiana. To me, this is a real alternative.
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