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I Spice: Mushroom powder

Dried shiitake mushrooms: Grind, sprinkle, cook, eat. (Monica Bhide)

No, they are not a spice, herb or condiment per se, but did you know that pulverized, dried shiitake mushrooms can add oomph to your dishes nonetheless? I didn’t either, until Eric Gower, chef and cookbook author, taught me how to use them as a seasoning instead of rehydrating them to use in place of fresh mushrooms.

In fact, says Gower, many people prefer the taste of dried over fresh, saying they come with a purer blast of instant umami flavor. When I used the powder to coat a steak, I knew just what he meant.

Before you cook with them, though, you’ve got to buy the right ones, and to Gower the choice is clear. “I buy large bags of dried, whole shiitake from my local Japanese market, but most Asian markets carry them,” he says. “I'm prejudiced toward Japanese ones -- quality seems higher. I've had gritty unpleasantness with some cheap Chinese ones, had to throw them out.”

Recipe Included

Gower has written books on Japanese cooking, so it’s no surprise that he’s such a fan of the shiitake, which is often referred to as the “monarch of mushrooms” in Japan, according to “Shiitake: The Healing Mushroom” by Kenneth Jones (Healing Arts Press, 1995). The shiitake, sweet-smelling with a meaty texture, takes its name from the Japanese words for “take” (mushroom) and “shii” (a type of chestnut tree on which these mushrooms are commonly found). Dried shiitakes have a high percentage of essential amino acids and higher vitamin D content than most foods. According to Neera Chaudhary, a Toronto-based registered dietitian, several studies have shown that shiitakes, particularly dried ones, lower blood cholesterol. In ancient Asian cultures they were revered for as aphrodisiacs.

Here’s how Gower suggests cooking with them:

First, grind them to a fine powder, and then use them in scrambled eggs (with shallots, rosemary and Greek yogurt), in pasta sauces (add toward the end of the cooking), in soup bases, with sauteed winter greens, or, for true fanatics, infused in olive oil: Add a few tablespoons to a bottle of good olive oil and let it infuse for a week or two, then strain and use as you wish.

If you’re more familiar with Italian than Japanese cooking, you might be wondering about porcini powder, and how it compares. Well, perhaps not surprisingly, Gower said that shiitake delivers more of an umami punch, although he said he has had success with porcini, too. A bigger fan, naturally, is cookbook author and restaurateur Lidia Bastianich, who looks at the comparison from the opposite perspective: “Porcini powder is much more elegant and aromatic,” she told me. “Shiitake is more intense and a bit muddy.”

“Porcini powder is something that has always been used in the Italian cuisine, but more as salvaging the crumbs and powder left over from dry porcini that has crumbled in the storage process,” she said.

How to use it? Add dried ground porcini to soups; mix it with coarse sea salt, black pepper, and sugar to make a great dry rub for meat; and sprinkle it on mashed or roasted potatoes.

Dried shiitakes, meanwhile, have uses beyond seasoning. Linda Gabris, author of “Cooking Wild: The Ultimate Cookbook for the Outdoorsman” (Keywest Marketing, 2008), has this motto: “When your body needs a little TLC go for a cup of shiitake tea.” Her recipe is simple: Add a dried shiitake mushroom cap, cut into small pieces, to a small kettle with a cup of water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer for about 30 minutes. Strain (saving the bits for another dish) into a teacup and sip hot.

-- Monica Bhide
(Follow me on Twitter.)

Dried Shiitake Mushroom-Crusted Steak
2 servings

Use the best quality shiitake mushrooms you can find for this recipe. Japanese brands tend to be free of dirt.

Adapted from a recipe by food blogger and cooking teacher Eric Gower.

4 dried shiitake mushrooms, finely ground in a designated spice grinder
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon unsalted butter
2 steak medallions (about 3 ounces each; 3/4 to 1 inch thick)
2 medium shallots, cut into thin slices

Place a dry cast-iron skillet over medium heat.

Put the ground mushrooms in a medium bowl; season lightly with salt and pepper.
Use the mixture to coat both sides of the steak medallions.

Combine the oil and butter in the skillet; once the butter has melted, add the coated steak medallions and cook for 5 to 6 minutes on each side, turning once, until deeply brown (the meat will be cooked to medium-well.) Transfer the steaks to a plate to rest for 5 minutes while you finish the sauce.

Add the shallots; cook for a few minutes, stirring, until they have softened.

Place a steak on each individual plate, then divide the shallots and any pan juices between the portions, spooning it on top. Serve hot.

Per serving: 320 calories, 18 g protein, 9 g carbohydrates, 24 g fat, 8 g saturated fat, 60 mg cholesterol, 190 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 2 g sugar

By The Food Section  |  April 16, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  I Spice , Recipes  | Tags: I Spice, Monica Bhide, mushrooms, recipes  
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