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The personal blog of Al Stevens. Focus is overrated.

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Growing Shitakes — Success

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I’m embarrassed to write that I completely dropped the ball on my shitake story. Questions sent by a couple of readers reminded me that I’d left the poor mushrooms warm and moist in their humidity tent.

Shitakes growing from the side of the log

Shitakes grwing from the side of the log

Happily the story turned out well, in fact very well.

Within a week, small brown nodules started to poke out of the mycelium covered block. From that point on, it was a bit like watching a time-laps movie. The buds grew rapidly and quickly took on the characteristic mushroom shape as the cap opened up,  looking first like a conical hat and then spreading out like an umbrella.

Most grew out of the sides of the block, pressing against the humidity tent (aka plastic bag). The instructions warned that this could distort their shapes, so I adjusted the bag — I mean tent — daily to provide room.

When the first couple reached what looked to me like the prime eating stage, I pulled out the kitchen shears, clipped them off where they emerged from the log, walked the five-feet to the cutting board, removed the stem, sliced them up an dropped them into a saucepan of EVOO and garlic. Five minutes later, I was enjoying the freshest and tastiest shitakes I’d ever had.

Sliced and cooked with EVOO and garlic

Sliced and cooked with EVOO and garlic

My earlier forays with home agricultural have always resulted in a sudden oversupply of whatever I was growing, often at the same time that the neighbors were trying to give us their excess. While it’s hard to have too many tomatoes, it’s easy to have too many zucchinis. Thankfully, my shitakes cooperated remarkably well. I was able to harvest a couple of plump  mushrooms every 2-3 days for about two weeks.

On the plate with a few olives and yellow tomato

On the plate with a few olives and yellow tomato

Once the crop was done, I set the log in a dry spot and let it go dormant. Two months later, now an old hand at the process, I soaked the log and set up the humidity tent. Two weeks later, I had another crop, pretty much like the first one. We had a family gathering planned, so this time I let them grow and was able to harves about a dozen large mushrooms all at once. It was a little tricky, because the ones that had emerged the earliest were showing signs of shriveling. They were still delicious.

The log is now drying out. I’m anxious to try another crop in warmer weather, which is only a few weeks away. The first two crops may have suffered because our kitchen drops into the mid 50’s (F) at night. If what I read is correct, a warmer environment should result in faster growth and larger mushrooms.

Prior posts on this blog about growing shitakes are at: Growing Shitakes — RTFM, Growing Shitakes — The Humidity Tent and Growing Shitakes.

Written by Al Stevens

May 9th, 2009 at 3:27 pm

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Growing Shitakes — RTFM

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The saving date on my shitake patch

The critical date on my shitake patch

It’s day four since I soaked my fungi patch in hopes of rewarding myself with a crop of fresh shitakes. I’ve now got a soggy mass of sawdust and myceleum sitting on my kitchen counter under a plastic “humidity tent” supported by chopsticks. I’ve kept the kitchen heat at 60 degrees, even at night, making me feel guilty about the effects my soon-to-be ‘shrooms are having on my carbon footprint. But I have reached a point where I can relax a bit and review progress. I’m into the phase where I need only mist the block three times daily — a task that takes about 30 seconds.

Having followed the flow chart and done all of the difficult steps, it now seemed like a good time to review the manual  — with most tech gadgets this is usually a last resort, but I had mistakenly picked up the fungi instructions with my morning to-review-on-the-train stack of paper.

Panic occurred after the first paragraph. “Your shitake patch is enclosed within a plastic incubation bag featuring a square white filter patch. A date is written on this patch. If 40 days have not yet passed, leave your shitake patch in its box.”  But I’d already taken it out. What if I’d started the process way too early? Calling home to have the date checked was not an option. No one was there and I would have looked stupid anyway.

There must be a recovery procedure. Paging forward to the troubleshooting guide only increased my anxiety. It included the entry “mushrooms do not appear” and listed as a cause “Mushroom patch immature.” The solution was “Wait until 40 days have passed from the date written on the filter patch.” But…, I had already started the process. There was nothing in the procedure about how to backtrack.

I did manage to maintain enough perspective to remain at work — I only briefly considered leaving early to check the package date. On the train home I recalled getting reprimanded when I’d messed up a computer system by making changes before understanding what I was going to do. The admonition in an email was “before you touch anything else, RTFM.” As then, before touching anything I should have read the f**king manual.

I walked calmly into the kitchen, not wanting my anxiety to show to Doreen – she’s taken a more relaxed view of the mushroom patch than I have. “10-16” was what the label said.

Relief. I had not killed the patch. I sat down to make amends and RTFM.

Written by Al Stevens

January 11th, 2009 at 3:11 pm

Growing Shitakes — The Humidity Tent

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The Fungi Patch Resting in its Humidity Tent

The Fungi Patch Resting in its Humidity Tent

Day two of my adventure with the fungi patch is dawning. Yesterday, I successfully managed to de-chlorinate enough water to soak my fused block of mycelium and sawdust. Alone in our comfortably warm kitchen  soaking up chlorine-free water so that it would emerge from stasis, it survived the night plus my next-day’s absence.

The flow-chart and text in the instruction manual indicated the next steps were the most complex. I needed to drain the soaking water and then construct a suitably humid home where the fungi block could spend the next two weeks. Fortunately, the block came with a plastic “humidity tent” — actually a clear plastic bag punched with a handful of holes. There were however no “poles” for the tent. The manual suggested using knitting needles or, as an alternative  chopsticks. We don’t have lots of knitting needles in our house, but I’d bought sushi at Trader Joes for lunch the day before and they’d put disposable chopsticks in my bag. With a quick dive into our trash I retrieved them.

Construction materials at the ready, I inverted the bag containing the hopefully now active spores and water, which had turned a shade of amber. It now both its smelled and looked like stale beer.

The result of inverting the bag was similar to birth events that I’ve attended. A gush of water rushed out, followed by a slowing stream. The shitake patch, swollen and sodden with water slowly descended down the canal shaped opening. As it got stuck and I shook the bag to assist its exit it made sucking sounds which sounded faintly grunt-like. It exited in a shower of the remaining broth and dropped into the sink with a very wet plop. The mass quivered slightly as it came to rest.

Sure that this newly gestated life form could survive only briefly outside of a humid environment, I picked up the tent stakes and consulted the instructions. “They can be poked directly into the Shitake Patch,” were the exact words. I was supposed to stab my baby with chopsticks? OK, get a grip, it’s just a block of spores and sawdust.

I composed myself, moved the gray wet mass into a pan and thrust the chopsticks into it. Except for a few squirts of the soaking liquid there were no complaints.

After adding water to keep the humidity up, I dropped the tent over the poles, checked the kitchen heat and left the patch to itself.

Now its just a matter of waiting. Except for misting it three times a day, which could be a problem. I briefly considered asking my neighbor to drop in mid day and spray the patch, but I’ve decided to go with a 7am-6pm-11pm schedule which I can handle myself.

And if I do have trouble, I can always call the distributor’s “Mushroom Hotline”‘ which they do have, to get help. Even if they’ve outsourced that to India, I’m sure they’ll be able to provide recovery instructions for any problem I have.

Written by Al Stevens

January 6th, 2009 at 6:05 pm

Growing Shitakes

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Shitaki "Patch" soaking in a bag of water in my kitchen

Shitake "Patch" soaking in a bag of water in my kitchen

One of my Christmas presents this year was a “Shitake Mushroom Patch” — a five-pound chunk of sawdust held together by shitake mycelium. (Mycelium is, as the accompanying instructions define it is “the fungal network of thread-like cells that give rise to mushrooms.”) Encased in a plastic bag, it looked a lot like a large cube-shaped popcorn ball. It smelled faintly like stale beer.

Last year, the same family members gave me a GPS — maybe I should have added a sentence to that year’s thank you mentioning how much I love electronic gadgets. …or sent a thank you in the first place.

So this year they decided that they would get me something organic.

Unlike other food gifts that appeared under our tree, a mushroom patch is not immediately edible. It comes with a twelve page instruction manual which starts with a full page flow chart. “What does the patch look like?” This seemed straightforward enough, but the prominent box in the middle of the flowchart labeled “Consult troubleshooting guide” suggested that coaxing mushrooms out of this mass of fungi cells and sawdust was going to be a challenge.

The first step confirmed my suspicion: “Soak in cold water for 24 hours” followed by, in big capitals “DO NOT USE CHLORINATED OR DISTILLED WATER”. Where do you get five gallons of chlorine free water. I could melt snow. There was a 3 inch layer in my back yard. Fortunately I’d posted my predicament on facebook and got a quick tip: let a bucket of tap water sit overnight and the chlorine will evaporate. It works for pet fish so it should work for fungi. I briefly considered a second suggestion: go to Costco and buy a bag of dried ones. I’d never be able to face my family again.

My “patch” is now quietly soaking in our warm kitchen. I opted to use the bag it came in rather than a bucket. The bucket method requires bricks to hold the block under water and I wasn’t ready to dig them out of our snow-covered patio. I’ve left the thermostat up — the instruction book says to keep it warm. The warmth has definitely amplified the stale beer smell which I hope is a sign of mushroom health. Tomorrow I’m to begin misting it — three times a day. And in two weeks, or so, I’m going to have edible mushrooms. Or… I’ll be doing what I often do with my electronic gadgets: consulting the troubleshooting guide.

If I’ve inspired you to try growing your own shitakes, mine came from Fungi Perfecti.

Written by Al Stevens

January 5th, 2009 at 8:56 pm

Eating Out Alone

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For me, eating out alone is unpleasant. Everyone else is either paired up or in a group. All look like they are having fun. When someone else is alone, they look like they are having as dreadful a time as I am.

I used to eat out alone frequently — always on business trips, but there were many of those. Sometimes I managed to stay at the same hotel enough that I got to know the local wait staff. Other times, I used the tried and true technique of eating at the bar — bar tenders know how to make singles feel welcome. When neither a known restaurant or bar were possible, I’d suck it up, pick a restaurant that wasn’t too crowded and ask for a table for one. I never was able to do the room service thing. That felt like a complete cop out.

Tonight, for the first time in over a year, I had to face eating out alone again. I’m in London. Our conference is over. My colleagues have left and I never got my act together to connect with friends.

Hare and Tortoise to the rescue. I was looking for Wagamama, thinking that sitting at a shared table would be friendlier than eating pub food sitting at a bar, when I walked by a Hare and Tortise. There’s four in London, in Bloomsbury, Kensington, Ealing and Putney. The menu includes sushi, sashimi, maki, ramen, lo mein, chow mein and salads. They’re inexpensive by London standards — I had a full dinner, with hot saki, for 15 pounds. They are popular, so be ready for a wait to get in.

And… If you must eat alone, the tables are close together, there are a smattering of students and singles reading at there tables or just enjoying their food, the staff treats you like an old friend and the service is fast so you don’t need to linger if you don’t want to. I’ll definitely go back, even if I’m not eating alone, but especially if I am.

The have a website at www.hareandtortoise.co.uk

Written by Al Stevens

December 6th, 2008 at 5:15 pm

Spend more on food, live better and longer

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I just finished “In Defense of Food”, by Michael Pollan. Everyone who eats should read this book. It’s a refreshing, guilt-free look at how we relate to food. Most books I read, make me think a bit or add a bit of knowledge to how I think about other things. Books on nutrition turn me off. This book provided a completely new perspective on my daily meals. It’s short, easy to read, and often summarized with its openning line: “Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” There are many more memorable rules, phrases and ideas than the opening one, but I found the section “Pay More, Eat Less” the most provocative.  Acknowledging that better food costs more, Pollan suggests that we’ve traded food costs against our health. Since 1960, Americans have gone from spending 17.5% of national income on food and 5.2% on health care to 9.9% on food and 16% on health. I’d rather spend my money on better food.

Written by Al Stevens

February 24th, 2008 at 1:23 pm

Starbucks Fresh Pressed

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I’m blessed. My local Starbucks (on Charles Street in Boston) is one of six that’s testing Clovers, single-brew machines that let the brewer control all the parameters that matter. I’ve now tried the Aged Sumatra and the Arabian Mocha Sanani. Both were more than worth the extra fifty cents Starbucks is charging — better coffee and, well… very fresh. According to the barista on duty today, there’s two other locations in Boston (Federal Street and Harvard Square) and three in Seattle that are testing the “fresh pressed” coffees.

There’s a discussion with lots more details on Starbucks Gossip at starbucksgossip.typepad.com/_/2008/02/starbucks-tests.html.

The Clover machine is described on the Coffee Equipment Company website at cloverequipment.com/whyclover/why_clover.aspx. They offer a service that gives you web access to your Clovers including what’s brewing on each. One can only imagine the Starbucks control center filled with real-time screens showing thousands of cups of coffee brewing all over the world.

Written by Al Stevens

February 15th, 2008 at 10:57 am