Let's get one thing straight from the start: before you crack wise, you should know that these mushrooms are pronounced "shih-TAH-kee" and not any other way you might be thinking about. Got that?
In the past ten years, shiitakes have become popular with professional and home chefs -- they're almost ubiquitous in many restaurants. While most are still grown in Japan, more and more are locally grown. These mushrooms grow naturally in China on logs similar to oaks so they adapt easily to our oaks. While you can buy shiitakes year-round, fall and winter are prime shiitake season.
That's how I was recently reintroduced to them -- slicing them off a friend's neighbor's log in the hills of North Central Arkansas. He had three-foot tall logs lined up like soldiers -- fungus sprouting soldiers -- and pound and pounds of frozen shiitakes. Ahhh, the unimaginable luxury of it--shiitakes can fetch over ten dollars a pound.
I carried those mushrooms home clutched like a treasure. They found their way into sauces and soups and were sautéed with a little spinach over pasta.
Then I remembered one of my favorite ways to use shiitakes: on pizza, with some goat cheese. I usually make this with pizza dough I've frozen ahead of time, but you can use one of the readily available pre-made crusts for a fast, delicious, dinner.
Shiitake Goat Cheese Pizza
1 pizza crust
1 1/2 cups sliced shiitakes
1/2 medium onion, sliced
1 tablespoon butter
1 pizza crust
4 ounces soft goat cheese
Pinch dried oregano
Pinch dried thyme
Pinch garlic powder
Briefly sauté the mushrooms and onion in the butter just until they become limp, then arrange them on top of the pizza crust. Crumble the goat cheese on top of the mushrooms and onions, then sprinkle on the oregano, thyme and garlic powder -- they add that extra little zing. Bake at 425 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the tips of the crumbled cheese start to brown. Serve it and stand back -- even the most skeptical will eat this as fast as you slice it. It's even terrific later, cold.
Shiitakes have a more intense flavor than the standard button mushrooms, which makes them go a little farther. Use them in just about any recipe that calls for mushrooms. They are also nutritional powerhouse, which makes them a great meat substitute. You can even brush the larger caps with a little oil, grill them and serve them on bread instead of hamburger. No, really -- it's GOOD -- not to mention a healthy alternative to meat for people trying to cut back on fat and meat.
That's because shiitakes are rich in protein -- they have all the essential amino acids just like meat, milk and eggs do with far fewer calories. They're also a good source of vitamins B1, B2, C, D, and A, as well as niacin. They've been appreciated (and thus grown and eaten) for these properties and other rumored health benefits in Asia for 2000 years. We eat them because they just plain taste good.
Shiitakes are terrific in stir-fries, of course, but they're also great in a sauce over chicken or fish or chopped up into omelets. You can thread the caps onto skewers for your next kabobs or sauté them in a little butter and toss with cooked rice, peas and onions. They're even mouthwatering with other vegetables as varied as carrots, potatoes and asparagus.
You can buy fresh shiitakes in most grocery stores these days. To store them, put them in a paper bag -- mushrooms need to breathe. If you put them in plastic, they'll turn slimy.
You can also find dried shiitakes in Asian markets, and you can use those in most recipes calling for fresh shiitakes: a pound of fresh shiitakes is equivalent to about two ounces of dried ones. To reconstitute them, just rinse in water to remove any loose dirt then combine with hot water for about 20 minutes. You can then add them to whatever you're cooking.
Don't throw away the soaking liquid, though; it's a powerful and flavorful addition to soups and sauces. Just be sure to strain it first through a coffee filter to remove any remaining dirt or sediment. If you don't need it right away, you can freeze it in an ice cube tray for use later.
You can even grow your own indoors -- they're a terrific fall and winter indoor gardening project. Spore-impregnated kits are available from several sources for around $30. They need temperatures from 50 to 80 degrees, which makes them easy to grow inside. You can harvest the mushrooms from these kits for up to four months, and most provide detailed instructions on how to grow them and then use the exhausted kit to inoculate your own logs. Gardens Alive (812)-537-5650, www.gardens-alive.com, offers an excellent kit if you are interested in growing them yourself.
Those kits are sawdust based, which makes them easy to transport, grow indoors and easy for a beginner to try. Log-grown shiitakes are superior in flavor to those grown on sawdust, though, and have a longer shelf life, as well. Most chefs prefer them. If you have an interest, space and a supply of oak logs, you can grow these shiitakes. For more information about log-shiitake growing, contact Tom Kimmons at the Shirley Community Development Corporation (CDC), Route 1 Box 0, Shirley, AR 72153, (501)-723-4443. Their email address is shirlcdc(at)artelco.com, and website is www.shiitakecenter.com.
The Shirley CDC is a non-profit training center dedicated to the education and promotion of Shiitake mushrooms as an agricultural crop for small farmers. They offer inexpensive spring and fall seminars to provide information on growing shiitakes. Contact Tom for registration information.
They also sell organically certified shiitake mushroom spawn. It's $20 for a 5.5 pound bag--enough to inoculate 30 logs--which comes with detailed instructions on how to grow your mushrooms as well as support from Tom and the CDC if you have any questions. That kind of dedicated help is always useful when growing a crop for the first time.
Log-grown shiitakes do take more of an investment in your time than the sawdust kits, but they are a fun and unusual crop. After all, almost anybody can grow tomatoes, but how many gardeners get to boast about their very own shiitake orchard?
For more about mushrooms, follow this link to Fabulous Foods