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What's in the pantry: Shiitake mushrooms

Dried shiitake mushrooms
Since I'm still battling the effects of this bout with the flu, I still crave things that support the immune system. I know that sounds weird, but don't you feel sometimes that your body tells you what it needs? (Yes, of course, the body can need chocolate . . . but that's another post . . .)

One such immunity booster is the shiitake mushroom. I was first opened to the healing possibilities of foods in Nina Simonds' book, "
A Spoonful of Ginger." It has remained a valuable and often sought resource in my library since 1999, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about the healing properties of everyday food. In her book, Ms. Simonds notes that "[r]ecent research has credited shiitake mushrooms . . . with components that bolster the immune system, prolong life in cancer patients, and are useful in the treatment of chronic fatigue syndrome and AIDS." (page 165) A quick google of "shiitake" on the internet will give you many reports of shiitake's growing use in cancer treatment, and it's reported success in lowering cholesterol and battling hepatitis B.

You'd think that growing up with a n Okinawan-Japanese mother that I would have grown up liking shiitake mushrooms. Not true. I used to hate the taste of these mushrooms — I would carefully pick them out, sliver by sliver, piece by piece, out of whatever dish my mom put them in. I really didn't develop a taste for them until I returned to Guam in my mid-20s. Now, I not only keep a supply of the dried fungi in my pantry, I usually rehydrate more than I need, and cook and season them to have on hand as a quick side dish for lunch, as a topping for ramen and other noodle soups, or to add a quick umami boost to a dish.
Dried shiitake weighted down to re-hydrate

First, you need to rehydrate the mushrooms. Place them in a container at least 3-4 times larger than the dried mushrooms. Cover with cool water, trying to keep the gills of the mushrooms face down. (Many sources say to use hot water, but I don't think this is necessary) Weigh down the mushrooms to keep them submerged (they're going to want to float at the surface). In the photo below, a small plate provides just enough weight to keep the mushrooms below the surface. Leave for 30 minutes of more. When they are fully re-hydrated, the stems will be pliable and not stiff anymore.

Soaked shiitake braising in seasoned liquid

Gently squeeze the mushrooms to release some of the absorbed water (but don't wring it dry). Trim the woody stems using kitchen scissors. You can keep this soaking water as a base for soup or sauce, but strain it through a sieve to keep out the fine grit that will be at the bottom of the container.

To make a braising sauce:
1/2 cup/ 120ml water or soaking liquid
1/2 cup/ 120ml mirin (Japanese seasoned cooking wine)
if you don't have mirin, you can use sake or dry sherry PLUS 1 tsp extra sugar)
1-1/2 tsp sugar or brown sugar
1/2 tsp soy sauce

Combine all ingredients in small pan and lay shiitake gill-side down (so the mushroom can absorb the flavor of the sauce) — the liquid should be about half way up the mushroom caps (add more water or soaking liquid if needed). Simmer for 15-20 minutes or until liquid reduces by half. Taste braising liquid — it should be sweet and the alcohol flavor gone. Add another teaspoon of soy sauce and turn mushrooms over and cook for another 5-10 minutes, or until the liquid becomes a glaze, thick and syrup-like. Turn off heat, cover, and let mushrooms cool in pan.

Braised shiitake cooling in pan

The finished mushrooms are delicious eaten as is. Try them in a sandwich, or as a side dish with any Asian rice meal. Or, as here, as a topping for ramen, saimin, udon, wonton or another noodle soup. You can also chop them finely and add to meatloaf or meatball mixture, season with teriyaki sauce and enjoy a different and healthy twist to your meatloaf. I think once you get used to having these tasty shrooms handy, you'll find many uses for them. I'd love to hear from anyone trying this recipe at home.

Seasoned shiitake in ramen noodle soup