Why We're Mad About Maitakes

Maitake mushrooms are showing up all over restaurant menus thanks to more than their meaty flavor!

Known more commonly as hen-of-the-woods, the fan-shaped maitake mushroom devoid of the classic cap has gotten chefs' attention for more than its standout flavor. "The maitake mushroom is the most medicinal of all the wild mushrooms," says David Bouley, renowned chef and owner of Bouley and Brushstroke. "When I have fresh ones, I serve them raw, sliced thinly on the plate with a dollop of creme fraiche and caviar,” he says. "The earthiness, creaminess and saltiness blend together beautifully."

Native to northeastern Japan, these fungi owe their healing powers to a large molecule called beta-glucan (or beta-glycan) contained inside the mushroom. A Japanese study performed in 2010 administered beta-glucan from the mushroom along with paclitaxel, a chemotherapy drug, to mice with cancerous cells. Compared with those mice that did not receive the treatment, researchers discovered that the mice given the beta-glucan had an increase in immunity and that the cancer growth was inhibited. Previous studies were not performed on people, but this year scientists are conducting a clinical trial on the effects beta-glucans (combined with other cancer-fighting drugs) have on the human immune system.

In addition to its ability to boost immunity and fight cancer, studies have revealed, the maitake promotes cardiovascular health and helps combat the common cold, respiratory infections and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Top that with its meaty texture and earthy flavor, and it’s no wonder chefs have put this ’shroom in the spotlight.

Beatrice Inn chef Angie Mar features the mighty maitake alongside her pan-roasted half chicken, while diners can warm up this winter with King Bee executive chef Jeremie Tomczak’s variation served over a porridge of nutty buckwheat risotto, crispy kale and cauliflower puree topped with a ready-to-ooze soft-boiled egg.

In Chicago, MK restaurant serves maitakes both roasted and grilled. The roasted iteration is the star of the warm mushroom salad at MK, combined with quinoa, red kale, toasted almonds, marinated red onions, caramelized fennel, fresh tarragon and roasted garlic in a sherry vinaigrette. Maitake mushrooms are some of my favorites," says Chef Erick Williams. After a heavy rain, foragers from Nichols Farm hunt down the maitakes around the base of oak trees and harvest them. "They bring in mushrooms larger than my head!" he says. "They are meaty, mild-flavored and are great for managing blood pressure, insulin and weight loss."

MK’s Roasted Maitake Mushroom Salad with Quinoa (pictured at top of post)

Serves 1
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
4 tablespoons olive oil, plus 1 ounce reserved
1 shallot, minced
1/2 ounce red onion, julienned
1 tablespoon fresh tarragon, roughly chopped
2 ounces fresh maitake mushrooms, sliced into 1-inch pieces
5 bulbs garlic, peeled
1 tablespoon red quinoa
1 tablespoon white quinoa
1/2 ounce fennel, shaved on a mandoline
3 large leaves of red kale, veins stripped and washed well
1 tablespoon skin-on almonds, sliced
Salt and pepper to taste

Combine vinegar and shallots, and whisk in 4 tablespoons of olive oil. Toss onions in half of the vinaigrette, then add the tarragon and set aside to marinate for 30 minutes.

Toss mushrooms and garlic cloves in remaining 1 ounce of olive oil until coated. Lay out on a small cookie sheet and roast for 10 minutes in a 400 degree F oven. Remove and let cool to room temperature. Separate roasted garlic cloves and slice.

Cook red and white quinoa in 3 ounces lightly salted simmering water until all of the water is absorbed, about 12 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature.

Combine fennel, kale, cooked mushrooms and quinoa in a large bowl. Season with salt and pepper, and toss with remaining vinaigrette. Remove dressed salad and place on dinner plate. Top salad with sliced almonds, sliced roasted garlic and marinated onions, and serve immediately.

Kiri Tannenbaum is a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu Paris and holds an M.A. in food studies from New York University where she is currently an adjunct professor. When her schedule allows, she leads culinary walking tours in New York City and is currently at work on her first book.

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