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Feature Fri Jun 11 2010

Going Beyond Shiitake: a Guide to Japanese Mushrooms

I've noticed in the past few years that Japanese mushrooms are getting much more readily available in Chicago. I used to pick up shimeji and maitake mushrooms at Mitsuwa, realize that they are either moldy or soggy upon closer inspection, and put them back on the shelf in disappointment. Now, I see them in so many places, and often in much better conditions. (To their credit, Mitsuwa's mushroom offering has improved as well.) Quite a few varieties of Japanese mushrooms are available in Korean, Vietnamese and Chinese groceries, as well as gourmet-grocers like Whole Foods and Fox & Obel.

These mushrooming mushrooms (sorry!) are apparently a result of a few specialty mushroom growers that opened up recently. According to a story on LA Times, a mushroom grower from Japan opened their first California plant in 2006, producing a respectable range of tasty far-eastern fungi in collaboration with an American mushroom grower. Given this wider availability of Japanese mushrooms, I think a little "culinary field guide" might be due. Below is an attempt at just that -- a brief guide to Japanese mushrooms.

Shiitake

Finding and Choosing
Shiitake mushrooms have penetrated the American culinary scene so deeply that even mainstream grocery chains carry them. When buying fresh shiitake, look for ones that have thick caps that curve slightly inward around the edge. Caps flaring outward or upward are a sign of either poor timing of harvest (too mature) or too much time spent in the store shelf. Fresh shiitake should feel moist to the touch, but not wet. The gills under the cap should be white or very pale beige in color and uniform in pattern.

For dried shiitake, most East Asian markets, as well as Vietnamese markets, are a good bet. Japanese markets of course carry them, but they tend to be pricier. Look for thick-fleshed pieces, as they tend to pack more flavors than their waifish cousins. They tend to get progressively more expensive with the expanding diameter; I've found that, in terms of flavor, thickness is a better investment than diameter. So choose wisely. If stored properly in a cool, dry place, dried shiitake lasts a long time.

Rehydrating Dried Shiitake
The quickest way to rehydrate dried shiitake is the brutal boiling-water bath, which can get the poor fungi ready for cooking under an hour, depending on the size. However, this is certainly not the best approach when it comes to getting the most of the shiitake's umami (savoriness). For that, cold and slow is the way to go. According to research, the amino acids that constitute umami are released the most when shiitake is rehydrated at lower temperatures. Place the dried shiitake in a bowl with cold water (with a small dish on top, if necessary, to keep them submerged), and let them rehydrate overnight in the refrigerator. You can use the resulting liquid for stock, too, though some might find the uber-shiitake flavor a bit overpowering.

Using
Fresh shiitake is good for stir-fries, sautéing and in soups, while the dried ones are much better for simmered dishes. It may be an interesting change to swap normal mushrooms with rehydrated shiitake in meat-centric braises. Fresh shiitake can be simply grilled as well--serve them with a splash of soy sauce and grated ginger for a summer treat. Grilled shiitake can also be marinated in rice vinegar, sesame oil, salt and assorted spices in the fridge overnight to make for a tasty salad addition.

Maitake

Since Hokto Kinoko Company began production of Japanese mushrooms in Southern California in 2006, availability of these exotic fungi has improved vastly. I'm especially appreciative of maitake, a close relative of hen of the woods. In Japan, maitake is prized for its unique, earthy aroma and pleasing, moist but crunchy texture. Compared to hen of the woods, maitake is much tenderer and packs more flagrance and flavor.

On a side note, some researchers (including the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in NY) claim that some chemical compounds found in maitake have anti-cancer capabilities. I was entirely unaware of this until I started researching for this post, but apparently there are quite a few dietary supplements of maitake, capitalizing on these claims, too. I'd say, eat the real thing, whether for cancer prevention or not. The actual mushroom is certainly tastier than those mysterious pills.

Finding and Choosing
Look for maitake in Japanese markets, as well as in farmers' markets. Some upscale chain grocers, such as Whole Foods, also carry maitake. When choosing maitake, pay attention to the moisture level. If the mushroom looks soggy, it's not all that fresh -- look for one that appears dry (but not dried out, you see), especially on the top brown part. Even when refrigerated, maitake doesn't last very long. Try to eat it within a few days.

Cleaning and Cutting
Because most maitake mushrooms are grown in factories, they are usually very clean, sans dirt. If you spot any dirt, just brush it off -- no washing. The very bottom part of maitake, which is sometimes speckled with growing medium, should be cut off, but otherwise, the whole thing is edible. Tear the mushroom along the fiber, into bite-sized sections, by hand.

Using
Maitake is fantastic with oil. Sauteed in butter and sprinkled with some parsley, maitake is a great side dish to a steak. Tempura maitake is divine; deep-frying seems to bring out the wonderful aroma of this mushroom, and preserves the pleasingly crunchy texture. Cooked with rice with a splash of soy sauce and sake, the aroma is quite enjoyable (you can add minced fried tofu for additional fun).

Shimeji

Shimeji (buna shimeji) is your quintessential mushroom: a grayish white stem that sport nice curves, topped with brown caps that are perfectly supple and round. Shimeji has a slightly astringent and earthy flavor that's complimented by a generous dose of seasoning, especially soy sauce.

Finding and Choosing
As with maitake, East Asian grocers often carry shimeji. Compared to its more fragile brethren, maitake, shimeji mushrooms have a much longer shelf life of about two weeks, if refrigerated properly. Shimeji don't get very soggy with age, so the only way you can tell that a specimen is long expired is through the growth of other fungi, i.e., mold. I've unfortunately seen a few packages of moldy shimeji in my lifetime, and I can tell you that it's easy to spot those. So, as long as it's not clad with in-your-face mold, rest assured; it's probably pretty fresh.

Cleaning and Cutting
Shimeji is grown in factories, just like maitake, so all you need to do is brush off any dust. Cut off the bottom part and shred into sections by hand.

Using
Shimeji seems to do well when seasoned generously. Simmer shimeji with taro and fried or firm tofu in a mixture of soy sauce, mirin (or sugar) and fish stock. Alternatively, fry them in butter with a splash of soy sauce and a pinch of ground pepper at the very end. With just this last thing, I "can eat a whole bowl of rice," which is a compliment to the cook in Japan.

Enoki

enoki mushroomsI must confess that enoki defies me a bit -- I don't really get its appeal, but this is just me. Plenty of Japanese people swear by enoki. Enoki mushrooms have very long, thin, white stems in a tight bundle, with tiny white caps. Enoki's main charm is its crunchy texture, as it doesn't have much of a flavor. Because this crunchy texture is preserved even after cooking, enoki is perfect for miso soup and hot pots.

Finding and Choosing
Many East Asian grocers carry enoki; Chinese or Vietnamese ones may be your best bet for price though freshness may be questionable sometimes. Enoki with its one leg in a coffin becomes yellowish in color, and the moisture level rises, giving it a wet appearance. Look for one that's white, firm and dry (no water droplets in the bag, please!). If the bundle of stems looks like a single object, rather than a bundle of distinct stems, the mushroom is most certainly beyond dead.

Cleaning and Cutting
The same cleaning and cutting techniques apply to enoki: no washing, cut off the bottom, shred by hand.

Using
Floating them in miso soup or enjoying in hot pot are the usual suspects for enoki-eating. However, blanching enoki and using them in a salad is a refreshing change. Blanch enoki and mitsuba (a Japanese herb a bit similar to cilantro) very briefly in boiling water, drain well, chill, and marinate with a touch of soy sauce, dashi and a squeeze of yuzu or lime juice. Some weight-conscious Japanese women swap some of their noodles with zero-calorie enoki to save on calories, though how many of these Japanese women actually need those caloric savings is rather dubious.

Eringi (King Trumpet)

Eringi is the largest of the mushrooms discussed here. A single specimen is the size of... well, um, the core of a toilet paper roll? (I was about to go for a phallic comparison there. I've always had this idea about eringi, but again, that's just me; according to the Japanese, it's the matsutake, the premier-priced pine mushroom which I'm not including in this post for their exorbitant cost, that's phallic. But I digress.) Like enoki, eringi doesn't have much of a flavor of its own. The principal attraction is the wonderfully chewy, meaty texture and this mushroom's amazing ability to absorb other flavors. If you're tired of ubiquitous portabella on a vegetarian's plate, definitely give this one a try.

Finding and Choosing
Korean markets are probably the best place to go for price and freshness, but other East Asian markets carry eringi as well. Freshness is pretty easy to discern, as an older specimen gets speckled with brown spots, gets quite soggy-looking, and starts to boast fluffy mold hyphae. Eringi's cap sometimes doesn't really look like a cap (it looks like a squished top of a stake that's been hammered flat), but if the edge is flared upward, that suggests the mushroom is getting a bit long in the teeth.

Cleaning and Cutting
The only difference about eringi when it comes to cleaning and cutting is that you are more likely to use a knife to cut eringi into pieces. With most other mushrooms, I always use my bare hands to tear them into bite-sized chunks along the fiber, but for eringi, I do use a knife to slice them. Except for the bottom part that tapers to a point, the whole mushroom is edible. For a chewier texture, slice along the fiber; for a more tender, easy-on-the-teeth texture, cut the mushroom into discs, across the fiber.

Using
Eringi can be sautéed in butter and used in a sandwich, as a meat substitute. Blanching them briefly and marinating them in salt, grated garlic, ground pepper, sesame seeds and sesame oil would give you a nice little Korean side dish. It's also good in simmered Japanese dishes or hot pots.

Nameko

For the truly adventurous, I'd recommend nameko. I've only seen them in Whole Foods and Japanese markets, but if you want to experience a fascinating sensation, it's worth a try. I have to warn you, though -- what I'm going to write may not sound tasty, bordering on disgusting (Japanese food items often don't rend themselves to tasty-sounding, for some reason). Nameko, when cooked in liquid (as in miso soup), develops a mucous slime on the surface. In fact, the Japanese name means "a little slimy bit," because, obviously, this is actually a positive quality in Japanese cuisine. (Think okra innards, if you are having a hard time.) Nameko is prized in summer atop chilled soba with grated daikon and other aromatics, because this gelatinous coating helps everything go down easier when the relentless summer heat has killed your appetite.

Tom / June 12, 2010 1:10 PM

Interesting article! :)

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