Thursday, April 19, 2012

Cold Weather Shiitake and 
the Magic Tablecloth
Written by Mary Ellen

I love the tale of the Magic Tablecloth. It’s Russian. A culture renowned for its love of mushrooms and picnics in the woods. This tablecloth can produce a feast at the utter of a command.

Well, you too may have the concept of such a cloth if you have cold weather strain shiitake mushrooms in your woods. These mushrooms keep on the logs for a long period of time; over a month, magically ready at the warming of the pan. Your woodland garden becomes a grocery store in the spring, each mushroom ebbing and swelling in size with passing spring thunder storms, intermittent dry winds and snow showers.

This cold weather strain “Chocolov” could easily be mistaken for a chocolate truffle!

Cold weather shiitake are dense and meaty; well known, for such qualities by vegetarians.

Spring shiitake, as a commercial crop, are hard to manage here in the upper Midwest. This is not so in the South where they can fruit on and off through the winter months. Parts of the country that maintain long stretches of temperatures where daytime highs range from the 30’s to the 50’s can achieve abundant harvests by misting pinning logs. But we are windy and cold… wait, hot….wait! Cold weather shiitake, trying to break loose from chilly, stalwart bark, starts and stops and starts to grow. It’s amazing to me that we saw our first full-sized spring shiitake on March 7th. I just picked those very same mushrooms last night for dinner, April 18th. 

On the log since early March, we’ll be enjoying this cold weather “Bellwether” this May Day if the weather stays cool!

It’s also difficult to keep the mushrooms from drying out in the spring. You can wet a fruiting blanket and cover the pinning logs, but keeping the blanket wet is difficult with stiff spring winds. You can tarp the wet blanket with plastic... perhaps too much work to manage unless you have all your cold weather strains consolidated. Otherwise, mushrooms can dry right on the log and can be weird, contorted and vericolored. It can be difficult to tell the stage of these mushrooms by simply looking at their caps... check the gills to see if they are white, not yellowing or brown, which indicates they’re not past their prime.   
Mushrooms with gold colored gills and leathery caps may not recover from wind and heat, and may be best off on the dryer tray. (The bite marks on the smaller mushroom above are probably from a white-footed mouse, who doesn't mind a mushroom a little past its prime!)
Much like the magic tablecloth, the shiitake possess their own secret charms. Give them a rainstorm and a little heat, and the hard dry lumps transform into gorgeous, thick caps with a mosaic of brown colors and geometric shapes. Given a hot/cold spring like we’ve had, we’ll be harvesting cold weather shiitake well into May. Just in time for picnics in the woods as we look for Morels!

These lumpy mushrooms, given enough moisture, will develop into gorgeous specimens.
Quick stir fry with frozen filet beans from last year's garden, and a finish of oyster sauce sprinkled with sesame seeds, makes an utterly satisfying dish.

“And somehow or other it had covered itself with dishes and plates and wooden spoons with pictures on them, and bowls of soup and mushrooms and kasha, and meat and cakes and fish and ducks, and everything else you could think of, ready for the best dinner in the world.”  - Ransome, Arthur. Old Peter's Russian Tales. London and Edinburgh: T. C. & E. C. Jack, Ltd., 1916.

Image above - Mikhail Sukharev. Magic Tablecloth.