The same delicious dried black mushroom that shows up rehydrated in so many familiar Chinese dishes tastes even more heavenly when fresh. It goes by its Japanese name, shiitake (pronounced she-TAH-kay), or by more fanciful monikers such as golden oak, doubloon and black forest.
Shiitakes are one of the most widely available cultivated "wild" mushrooms, according to Jack Czarnecki, author of "Joe's Book of Mushroom Cookery" (Atheneum, 1986) and the second-generation owner of Joe's restaurant in Reading, Pa., which specializes in mushroom cookery. He grew up on true wild mushrooms and is an expert on their habits. And as a trained chef, he also knows how to cook them to perfection.
Mr. Czarnecki says that though shiitakes are available year-round, spring and fall are their natural seasons. The spawn, or roots, for these mushrooms were brought to the United States in 1982 for commercial cultivation. Dead oak logs are inoculated with the spawn, and the first, or "mother," crop appears in about four months. Subsequent crops ripen in approximately 10 days without further inoculation and will continue to grow until the log decays, about eight years.
For economy, buy shiitakes with small caps because they have less inedible stem to be discarded. But for serving whole, especially if the mushrooms are simply grilled, it's more dramatic to use the large ones. Choose shiitakes with plump, fleshy, moist caps, small stems and an earthy aroma.
A bonus is that shiitakes are easy to clean and cook. Remove the stems, which can be used for stocks. With a damp paper towel, carefully wipe each mushroom cap. Then use the caps whole or sliced in a variety of dishes.
They are versatile enough to be used in Western and Oriental dishes. But however they are cooked, shiitakes should play the star role in the dish.
Simply grilled on the barbecue or in the oven they are divine and can be served hot or cold. All they need is a light brushing with butter flavored with a little soy sauce and thyme. Sliced and sauteed in olive oil and then tossed with fresh pasta, shiitakes make a dressing that surpasses even the most complicated sauce. Mr. Czarnecki considers them one of the few mushrooms able to stand up to strong flavorings such as chili, coriander, garlic and pepper. He also recommends them for duxelles, sauces and soups.
A pound of shiitakes grilled will serve six people as an appetizer; sliced in recipes they can be stretched further, more than compensating for their steep (up to $20 per pound) cost. So don't let the expensive price tag keep you from trying these very special fungi.
JOE'S SHIITAKE VEAL WITH SAUSAGE
1 pound veal leg or loin, trimmed and cubed into 1/2 -inch pieces
1/2 pound Polish sausage, cubed into 1/2 -inch pieces
1 ounce dried shiitake mushroom caps
2 cups fresh shiitake mushroom caps, quartered
2 teaspoons chopped onion
4 medium whole onions
4 carrots, sliced
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch mixed with 3 tablespoons water
In a large saucepan combine veal, sausage, mushrooms, chopped onion, whole onions, carrots, salt, sugar and soy sauce. Add enough water to cover. Simmer until veal is tender, about 1 hour. There should be about 2 cups liquid. Thicken with cornstarch mixture. Serves four.