My enchantment with mushrooms started a few years ago when I found a large patch of chanterelles growing in the woods near the village. Since then I’ve been foraging in unsettled places looking for wild food. Then a couple years I tried the roasted shiitake mushrooms at Sue Quillio’s Sunday brunch at Rice Mansion in Cambridge. Each week I’d order her fried egg served over polenta with sautéed greens, roasted shiitake mushrooms and a shaving of a dry sharp cheese. I couldn’t get past it. After that mushrooms became a staple on my weekly shopping list.
Since shiitakes are a little expensive and hard to come by (harder still since Hannaford stopped offering them in bulk, and the closing of the Green Pea Market) I decided to try to grow my own. How hard could it be, since fungi crop up unbidden in the cemetery and in the perennial mulch?
I sought advice from our neighbor, Lyle Hayes, who has been collecting wild mushrooms and cultivating for years. Early last spring he brought me two hardwoods logs, aged right. I had already ordered the shiitake plugs (plug spawn), keeping chilled in the fridge.
Plug spawn inoculation sites are prepared by drilling 5/16in x 1 1/2in holes in a spiral pattern starting at one end of the log working towards the other. Each hole is spaced approximately 4-6 inches away from the last. Most logs will hold 20-30 holes.
I sorted through my jumbled of drill bits for the right size. Most of them were clearly too small. I tried an auger bit. I tried the masonry bit, the right size, though I found tapping the plugs into place was still difficult. Before I could finish drilling all the holes, the bit stuck in the log, never to be freed again.
I used a small mallet to sink the plugs by tapping gently. They are supposed to be counter sunk, ¼” or so below the surface is recommended. I wasn’t able to set them below the surface. Logs inoculated in spring may produce mushrooms by fall, and this is what I hoped for. But typically they will take up to one year to mature.
The final step of preparation is to drip melted beeswax onto each hole to seal the inoculation sites. Yellow bees wax is easy to work with and can be melted in a double boiler. I use a small crock-pot I bought from a thrift store. Wax can be dabbed on with a disposable foam brush.
Logs are placed in a shaded area and kept moist and out of the wind. I place my log in protected shade behind the barn, leaning on the garden shed. The logs may be partially buried, standing on end to conserve water during fruiting.
I waited. And waited. I checked every week when pulling out the lawn mower. Months went by and nothing appeared. I began to think I used too much wax – the instructions indicated, “seal the log wax” and I sealed the whole log. By late fall I despaired of ever having mushrooms for my efforts.
I’ve been reading up to understand where I went wrong and because I plan to start again as soon as possible. Only now have I discovered that the most common cause of failure is dehydrated logs. With proper moisture shiitake should begin to fruit in as little as 6 months, with the most substantial fruiting appearing 1–2 years from inoculation.
Normal rainfall should keep them moist, but logs may require watering during dry spells. If the logs receive no rain for two weeks soaking them overnight in a tub or bucket filled with water is recommend. Once mature, an overnight soaking will shock logs into producing mushrooms. This is best done in fall and spring as shiitake is a cool weather mushroom and will produce when temps are 50F-70F.
My ongoing research raises my hopes again. I’ll try soaking the log as soon as the snow melts.
Roasting mushrooms intensifies their earthy, umami quality. I like using shiitakes for the following recipe but other mushrooms like trumpet and crimini can work. Some recipes I’ve read call for white buttons mushrooms and I may try them at some point. If I’m lucky enough to find wild chanterelles when they are up this summer, I’ll try roasting them.
I’ve seen two basic approaches to roasting mushrooms: one yields a buttery, garlicky, slightly chewy button, the other this drier roasting method. The length of time the mushrooms are cooked will determine their texture. Brief cooking yields a more delicately textured mushroom; longer cooking makes them denser and chewier, and when thinly sliced before roasting, they can even be crispy.
I plan for 2 oz of sliced shiitakes (stems removed) per person as an accompaniment to the main dish, however, most people will want more. We can easily eat 8 oz between the two of us.
Some uses: sprinkled on top of arugula salad with chevre and balsamic vinaigrette, folded into an omelet, piled on top of warm baked Brie or other triple crème cheese, as a topping for sliced pork tenderloin, duck breast, or stirred into risotto.
Crisp roasted shiitake mushrooms with sea salt
Serves 6 – 8 as a side or accompaniment
1 # Shiitake mushrooms, stems removed (about 1 1/4 pounds with stems; save stems for stock)
1 T good olive oil
1 T melted butter
1/2 t fine sea salt
Herb sprigs (tarragon, thyme or rosemary)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place shiitake mushroom slices or small halves in a bowl, drizzle with the melted butter and oil, sprinkle with sea salt, stir well to coat.
Scatter mushrooms on a cookie sheet, one layer deep, not crowding slices. You can place a whole sprig of herbs on top of the mushrooms to infuse the batch with a delicate herbal quality.
Place the pan uncovered, in the hot oven, and bake 10 to 12 minutes. Shake the pan or stir to turn mushrooms. Some of the slices should be starting to turn golden. You could use them now, but return them to the oven for another 3 to 5 minutes until at least a third of the mushrooms are golden and getting a little crunchy. Leave them in longer for more crunch – but watch carefully as they can start to burn.
Remove herbs, taste, serve warm or at room temperature.