It was about this time of year, several years ago, that my husband and I decided we were ready to take on a new botanical project. The garden was winding down and the season of dreaming of spring was nearly upon us. Maybe a catalogue came in the mail? I’m not sure what our inspiration was. But after a few days of recreational research, maybe a checked out library book or two, we had a plan: we were going to grow our own shiitake mushrooms.
Which sounds exotic, but really isn’t very hard. You gather some logs, order some mushroom spores (think seeds). You drill holes in your logs and soak them for a few days just before you poke the spores in your holes (after the danger of frost has passed). Then you wait. Like 8 to 16 months of waiting. Mushrooms are more magical than your typical garden crop, as they will fruit seemingly on a whim — after the perfect amount of sun and rain, warmth and humidity. You’ll walk by your logs one day and Bam! Mushrooms! Where did those come from?
Then you’ll happily pinch them off the log and bring them inside for a surprise supper. They’re particularly wonderful mixed with pasta and alfredo sauce, atop a homemade pizza, stirred into a quiche or tart or omelette. Add them to your stir fry or Thai Butternut Squash Soup. Or simply dry roast them in a hot skillet with a pinch of salt.
I was reminded of our shiitake days recently when a friend shared her tales of harvesting Hen of the Woods or maitake mushrooms. These are wild rather than cultivated mushrooms and can be found mainly at the base of living white oak trees in the late summer or early fall. Her husband had a knack for spotting the Hens and had brought home arm full after arm full. She shared some with me, first, a small baggie-full. Then, a big brain-like cluster that we stored in our fridge for a few weeks. When dry roasted in a hot pan, they become almost nutty-tasting; so much more flavorful than your everyday white button mushroom.
At the end of the winter last year, our shiitake mushroom spores finally did their job and deteriorated the logs they’d been living in. So this spring and fall were our first seasons in a while with no homegrown mushrooms. That made the gift of the maitake all the sweeter.
The good news is that our garden is once again winding down, the season of dreaming of spring is nearly upon us. And we are more ready than ever to take on this project of mushroom farming. So it’s log hunting we’ll soon go. Then spore buying. And soaking and stuffing. Then one day, when we least expect it, we’ll discover shiitakes, stubby and wrinkled, first emerging from their logs, like sunflowers stretching for the light.