Get to Know a Mushroom – The Mighty Maitake

bone brothAuthor: Lily Mazzarella

neither plant nor animal nor mineral…….Get to know a mushroom!

MAITAKE (grifola frondosa) a.k.a. “Hen of the Woods“

If you have never eaten a maitake mushroom, I am a little jealous:  you get to experience this exquisite creature for the first time. Maitake, known to many only in extract or supplement form, is by far my favorite eating mushroom. It’s been a few years since I’ve mushroom-hunted (and the California drought isn’t helping), but when I do, this is one of the handful of fungi I feel comfortable gathering in the wild.* This polypore grows in temperate, hardwood forests, in characteristic clusters at the base of trees—often oaks–that resemble the puffed-up tail feathers of chicken. It is prized and eaten world-round, from Japan to Italy to New York. They can be a little pricey—but are well worth it. These beauties can do a lot for you.

*That said, don’t collect mushrooms in the wild unless you are absolutely sure of what you are doing. Many mushrooms have “look-alikes” and every year people die from eating poisonous varieties.
Here’s a quick rundown of just a few of Maitake’s charms and benefits:

benefits of maitake mushrooms1. Extreme umami Maitake is a rich source of l-glutamate, the amino acid responsible for the umami flavor we associate with savory foods. Once maitake is cooked and has lost its water weight, it is both nutrient-dense AND one of the most richly flavored foods around.  As such, it requires little in the way of preparation, and satisfies vegans and omnivores alike.  You’ll see what I mean when we get to the simple, delectable recipe below.

2. Immune modulator par excellence:  Like other medicinal mushrooms, maitake is a full of immune-active compounds, including polysaccharides and sterols.  Studies—including in vitro (“test tube”), in vivo (live cells or tissue), and in real live humans—show promise in multiple realms.

3. Breast cancer:  Small human clinical trials at Sloan-Kettering found maitake extract to stimulate the immune cells of women with breast cancer.

4. Renal cell carcinoma:  In vitro studies show promise for this difficult-to-treat and deadly cancer. Interestingly, 2 studies combined maitake extract with vitamins C and K to increase apoptosis (programmed cell death) of cancer cells.

5. Diabetes:  Maitake has exhibited blood sugar lowering and insulin-lowering effects in multiple studies; it may also protect pancreatic islet cells, which produce insulin.

6. Intestinal Inflammation:  In promising in vitro studies, maitake extract “turns down” TNF-alpha, an upstream inflammation-promoter.  The mushroom contains potent anti-oxidants which may be responsible for this effect.

7. Immune stimulation/Anti-cancer: Multiple in vitro, in vivo, and human studies show that maitake can stimulate NK cell production and activity.  NK cells offer first-line defense against virus and cancer-affected cells.  Also shown:  stimulation of bone marrow, anti-tumor, anti-angiogenesis, and increased induction of apoptosis of various cancer cell lines.

8. Reduction of chemotherapy toxicity?:  A study in mice showed reduction in cisplatin-induced nephrotoxicity—kidney damage—and well as improvements in treatment outcomes when they were co-administered.

For a delicious one-pan maitake recipe check out our Pan-roasted Maitake with Crisped Sage recipe.


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