By Heidi Lewis
Shiitake, Maitake, and Reishi are the venerable mushroom triumvirate in alternative medicine. They are the most famous shaman healers of the mushroom kingdom. For classification purposes, living organisms are divided into five Kingdoms: Animal, Plant, Protista, Monera—and Fungi. These three mushrooms have undergone much scientific scrutiny and due diligence about their health benefits. They are full of vitamins, minerals, and protein, but their greatest contribution is betaglucans, which stimulate the immune system.
What makes shiitakes so popular is that they’re “food mushrooms.” They’re actually tasty, so there’s no need for Mary Poppins-style tactics. In this country, shiitakes are known more for their culinary role. Hearty and flavorful, they impart their robust taste to anything you prepare them with. Fresh shiitakes are considered a rare treat (they more commonly come dried), and some cooks may not be accustomed to cooking with them. While best if cooked, fresh shiitakes are safe to eat raw.
Shiitake mushrooms are native to East Asia, where they grow on fallen evergreen trees known as shii. In the wild, shiitake spores drift thru the autumn forest until they find their host tree and settle on it in a silver dust.
They grow into the cambian layer of the dead limb, colonizing and building a network. When spring storms shake the limb to the ground, the mushrooms “awaken” and bloom in the warm rains. The Japanese and Chinese have captured this process—their cultivation of shiitakes goes back more than a thousand years. Here in the U.S., they do not grow wild but are cultivated in controlled atmospheres, as they are at Mother Earth Organic Mushrooms in West Grove, PA. A division of family-owned and operated C.P. Yeatman & Sons, this farm has been growing mushrooms for more than 90 years. A small testament to mushrooms’ effect on longevity, perhaps.
Preparation: Shiitakes are clean and ready to cook. Any debris may be brushed off with a damp paper towel. Mushrooms should not be soaked, as they absorb water. Cook minimally—1 to 3 minutes—with anything you’d use regular white mushrooms for.
Storage: Keep loose in a paper bag in the fridge. They’ll last up to 5 days, but use sooner for best flavor.