Friday, October 7, 2011

Maitake: Mighty Mushroom of the Fall 
Written by Rachel

Along with the change in colors and crisp, cool wind, fall in Wisconsin also brings a plethora of fresh vegetables and a new flush of wild and cultivated maitake (Hen of the Woods). This particular mushroom has a leafy, almost coral like or extraterrestrial appearance and a fresh peppery scent (no, its not straight from a Lewis Carroll tale). The outlandish appearance, however, gives no indication to this fungus’s delicious flavor. When we sell these at the farmers’ market, the reaction is always the same: “What in the world is that?” or, my personal favorite, “Can you eat it?” The maitake is not only delicious and extremely edible, it also possesses many medicinal qualities that truly make it a “super food.” In fact, its extract is said to boost immunity and slow or reverse tumor growth and aid in the control of diabetes.

Maitake growing on a sawdust block in our fruiting room.
Here at FFP, we typically grow maitake from ready-to-fruit blocks made of hardwood sawdust. Each block yields one large cluster, which weighs about a pound. This may not seem like many mushrooms, but after the cluster is removed and pulled apart, the individual “leaves” create a fulfilling bounty. Once the block is done fruiting, it can be buried in wood chips outdoors for a subsequent fruiting the following year.

Maitake growing in the wild near the farm.

Besides growing maitakes on blocks, we also fruit them outdoors in crates. This method is fairly simple, but requires a fair bit of patience compared to the ready-to-fruit block. First, a log is cut into an 8x8 inch chunk, placed in a polypropylene bag and sterilized. This unit is then inoculated with spawn and left to incubate for three months. At this point, the log is removed and buried in a newspaper-lined crate, covered with soil and topped with leaves. If the moisture level is kept at a consistent level (just moist to the touch, not sopping wet) the mushrooms should appear within 6 months to a year.

This year, our maitake production has increased exponentially because of the ideal fall growing conditions. Usually, we anxiously await perfect fruiting weather, but we’ve had a fantastic season and can finally enjoy these delicious mushrooms.

My personal favorite ways to cook maitake are to roast or sauté them. Earthy fall flavors, such as squash, peppers, cabbage and pumpkin, complement the mushroom’s wonderfully nutty taste. Mix it with wild rice, cranberries, and asparagus for a new twist on stuffed squash, or sauté it with garlic and onions to enjoy it on a light pasta dish. It also makes a tasty and healthy topping for pizza. This week, however, I went against the grain and included maitake in a spicy dish with surprisingly pleasing results. This new concoction can be found in the “recipes” section. Although extremely versatile, maitakes have a short shelf life, staying fresh in the refrigerator for only about a week, so be sure you’re ready for them when they finally appear! However, they can be sautéed and frozen in airtight bags for future use.

Roasted maitake and peppers on polenta. Yum Yum!
I hope that the autumn months bring as much enjoyment to our readers as they do to us here at FFP. After all, what could be better than sweatshirt weather, outstanding fall colors, and some homegrown ‘shrooms?

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