Mushrooms are vital to life on Earth, fungi are all around us: in the air, soil, and even in our bodies. They have an amazing relationship with the food we eat by drawing nutrients and water from all over in exchange for the plant's natural sugars.
There are at least 350 species that are consumed as food, but today I'm only going to talk about the third most cultivated mushroom worldwide: the Shiitake - a staple in our Farm Box thanks to Wolfe Family Farms.
The Japanese name shiitake comes from shii, which is one of the hardwood trees they grew on, they can also be found growing in clusters on dead beech, maple, oak, and poplar hardwoods.
These members of the Marasmiaceae family, which are native to East Asia are known for their strong, earthy umami flavors (umami or savoriness is one of the five basic tastes often described as savory). When selecting the perfect shiitake keep an eye out for small white cracks on the surface of the cap, because in Japanese cuisine those mushrooms are known as donko or flower mushrooms which are loaded with umami flavors thanks to the amino acid glutamate.
Mushrooms are a great source of dietary fiber, copper, selenium, manganese, protein, iron, and B vitamins. Some mushrooms can be eaten raw but certain cooking methods have been proven to enhance the nutritional value - I recommend cooking all mushrooms before eating because raw mushrooms contain compounds like agaritine, lentinan, and chitin that could upset your stomach and even causes rashes (shiitake dermatitis).
The best way to cook mushrooms is to grill, fry, steam, roast, boil, or my absolute favorite saute. Shiitakes are also very popular dried and actually have more of an umami flavor when it's fresh, so they are a great ingredient to have always on hand in the kitchen.
If you are looking for the freshest possible mushroom I would suggest going online and purchasing a shiitake mushroom grow kit. They are extremely fun to watch grow and fairly inexpensive, the price range is between $20-30, and has a very fast harvest time of 7-14 days after watering.
If you don't want to go as far as growing them you can always pick some up at our Farm Stand or go directly to Wolfe Family Farms at Route 1 Farmers Market in Vanderberg Village every Sunday from 10 AM to 2 PM.
Pro Tip: Add the mushroom stems to any soups, stews, stocks, or sauces, just remember to cook them a lot longer than you would cook the caps. Also, store them in the refrigerator in a paper bag or with a damp paper towel covering them, they will stay good for a few weeks.