The Ancient (And Exquisitely Delicious) Shiitake – Lentinus edodes
Sixty five million years ago, during the cretaceous period, the shiitake mushroom was delighting the tastebuds of dinosaurs. Shiitake spores, carried by tumultuous typhoons, have been discovered all over Asia dating from that period, lucky Barackosaurus and company. Except that Barackosaurus and friends lost their tastedbuds, so who was enjoying these wild mushrooms? We will never know, but at some point someone in China did, for the Chinese began their cultivation more than six hundred years ago, then the Japanese began and together, mushroom lovers in these two countries refined cultivation techniques so we can enjoy them at our tables today.
Or so it is said. In any case, the shiitake mushroom that delights us today with its woodsy, slightly mineral flavor and its undeniably meat-like texture, has very ancient roots. It grows wild throughout parts of Asia, but cultivation methods have made it available to all. Until twenty years ago the shiitake was available primarily in dried form, but today the fresh version is available almost everywhere.
You can even cultivate your own shiitake with a home kit; otherwise, leave it to the professionals who grow them in a base of wood – either shavings, sawdust, or on logs. They take longer than many mushrooms to establish, but then they give, give, and give some more. So, shiitake cultivation takes patience but, as in so many things, it pays off in spades.
The shiitake lends such flavor and texture to every dish it touches, but my favorite, and most indulgent way to enjoy it is simply sauteed in olive oil, goose or duck fat, or even a mix of oil and butter, then served as an appetizer, seasoned simply with salt (ok, perhaps a bit of Tellicherry pepper too!). For this preparation, it’s best to use bite-sized mushrooms so guests can pierce their own with a toothpick and enjoy it whole. The juice of the mushroom mingles with the seasoning, the texture – which resists just the tiniest bit – is heavenly, and between sips of champagne, a wonderful Chardonnay, or even a richly flavored Sauvignon Blanc, it makes a perfect appetizer.
You can use the shiitake in place of almost any mushroom – it contains much less water than a button or oyster mushroom so it will never soften as much, and will take a bit longer to cook, but that is the only difference aside from its flavor and texture, which make everything it touches better!
And there is more, for the shiitake is thought to have medicinal properties that can improve health, fight cancer, heighten virility, battle viruses, reduce cholesterol, prolong life, and most importantly, bring a smile of satisfaction to the face of all who taste it!
GRILLED SHIITAKES - SHIITAKES GRILLES
- 1 pound;500g shiitakes, stems removed, wiped clean
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin toasted sesame or olive oil
- Fleur de sel
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Place the shiitakes in a large bowl, drizzle with the oil, season with salt and pepper and toss so the mushrooms are oiled and seasoned.
- Heat a heavy skillet or grill pan over medium heat. When the pan is hot, add the shiitakes and cook, stirring and shaking the pan, until the shiitakes soften and turn golden on all sides. This will take from 5 to 8 minutes. If the shiitakes aren’t turning golden, increase the heat to medium-high and sauté and shake them in the pan until they are golden.
- Turn them into a serving dish, and serve immediately, with an extra shower of salt and pepper.