On a ridge in Echo Park, the fungus kingdom has established a small beachhead in Mary Steffens’ side yard. She’s growing shiitake, the iconic tree mushroom native to China and beloved in Japan. For many backyard mycologists, shiitake was the gateway drug: easy to grow, abundant in harvest, enjoyable to use.
Once exotic, fresh shiitake (Lentinula edodes) can be found in the produce section of many supermarkets. However for flavor and texture, store-bought shiitake mushrooms can’t come close to homegrown and freshly picked. Industrially produced shiitake are often grown in sterilized sawdust blocks -- and taste like it.
It takes a homegrown shiitake mushroom to be a truly pleasing meat alternative for the vegetarian, Steffens said.
"You feel like you’re getting protein. You eat it large, like a steak," she said, adding that she broils it whole with olive oil and garlic, cap side up until it starts to bubble. Then she turns it over, revealing the underside. "I baste some garlic-butter-olive oil in the gills."
Steffens grows hers in the shade of the house, on the north side. The mushrooms are raised off the soil on thin bricks and kept moist.
She started the crop when a coastal live oak in the yard needed some large branches trimmed. Shiitake can grow on a number of hardwoods, and oak is one of the best -- thus one of its nicknames, oak mushroom.
Steffens got 100 plugs of shiitake spores, called “spawn,” and divided them up among four logs, each about 2.5 feet long and 8 inches in diameter. Plugs were tapped into holes drilled all over the surface of the logs, and then the holes were sealed with wax, a Japanese cultivation process known as inoculation usually done in the spring.
The logs should be relatively freshly cut, with unbroken bark. If you have a large number of logs -- some shiitake enthusiasts stack thousands -- they should be arranged log cabin-style for proper ventilation and covered in plastic tarp to hold in moisture. Grouping many logs together seems to increase yields.
Spring is inoculation time. Do not let the logs dry out. Steffens sprinkles hers every other day, at a minimum. Some growers soak their logs overnight, spring and fall, creating a forced flush. And as with all mushrooms, of course, follow vendors' guidelines for properly identifying what's a shiitake and what's not.
Steffens got her spawn from Fungi Perfecti in Olympia, Wash. Lots of online sources sell pre-cut inoculated hardwood logs, but consider the Lost Creek Mushroom Farm, an Oklahoma-based grower who supports the mostly female mushroom farmers of Ghana.
Steffens’ logs have been producing for three years, sometimes spectacularly. “The first shiitake I grew was the size of a sun hat,” she said, laughing. “I wore it on my head when I brought it into the house.”
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