Archive for the ‘mushrooms’ Category

The Turn of the Wheel

 

This summer, more than usual, I ran a bit adrift when it came to blog-writing. There were many reasons, but the main reason was that it was so damned hot that I couldn’t bear to work in the garden and nothing would grow. July and August are always warm in New Mexico, but this year those months were beastly. A lot of my plants died because it was so hot that I couldn’t supply enough water to keep them alive. Or maybe I could have, but with the freezer already full to bursting it didn’t seem practical. I concentrated my efforts on watering the things that I like for fresh use.

But last week piles of pumpkins and squash started to show up outside the local grocery stores, and everything started to change. The wheel of the year has turned. Days are breezy and nights verge on chilly. The glorious scent of chiles  roasting can be picked up near every grocer and market stand. The plants that survived the heat got a new lease on life. Cottonwoods started to turn gold.

 

Some of my mushroom bags, desiccated over the summer, imbibed water and started to fruit. They took me by surprise and I didn’t notice the new mushrooms until they were cracking at the outer edges. But they’re just fine for kitchen use. Sautéed or grilled or roasted, oyster mushrooms are pretty much the perfect all-around mushroom, mild and meaty and appealing to nearly everyone.

The tough stem bases that were trimmed off for cooking can be thoroughly dehydrated and ground into oyster flour. It’s perfect for thickening mushroom soup or sauces.

This year I made a mixed mushroom flavoring paste and froze it in ice cube trays to use for sauces and soups. I can’t give you an exact recipe  but can convey the general idea, and no doubt you can improve on it. I  used an assortment of five wild mushroom species from a foraging trip as well as the oysters, but you can use cultivated mushrooms. The last time I was in Whole Foods I saw seven varieties of cultivated mushrooms, and dried mushrooms are also available commercially, so anybody can get  enough to try. My favorite source for bulk dried mushrooms is Oregon Mushrooms.

This formula can be endlessly adapted to any kind and any amount of edible mushrooms, although I don’t recommend lobster mushrooms because they don’t have much flavor to contribute.

Start with about three pounds of clean fresh mushrooms, at least a few different kinds, or about a pound of assorted dried mushrooms. I used oysters, hawkswing, agaricus, hen of the woods, lion’s mane, and cultivated shiitakes.  If dried, soak them for an hour in enough hot water to cover them. Drain, strain any dirt out of the liquid with a fine strainer, and save the water. Pick over the mushrooms for any debris, then chop. This can be done in a food processor if you’re careful not to chop them to mush. Chop one large or two small onions and five cloves of garlic. Sauté the onions and garlic slowly in butter or good olive oil. When translucent and cooked but not browned, add the chopped mushrooms and sauté over medium heat until the mushrooms are somewhat cooked and exuding liquid.

Now add the mushroom soaking liquid if you used dried mushrooms, half a bottle of good red wine, a quarter cup of soy sauce or coconut aminos, six anchovy fillets,  three or four good-sized sprigs of thyme,  and any dried mushroom powder that you wish to add. I used some oyster powder and porcini powder,  and also added about a cup of broken pieces of dried morels from a bag that I had finished up.

Cook the mixture over medium heat.  Let it boil, because you want to concentrate down the fluid. When the fluid only just covers the mushrooms,  remove the thyme stems and purée  the mixture in the blender or food processor or right in the sauce pan with a stick blender.

Now you have a thick gloppy mixture looking something like this:

Cook over low heat until it gets really thick, stirring frequently to prevent burning.  Add a quarter cup of best quality red wine vinegar and keep cooking.  When the paste is dark and thick, taste it and add salt if needed. It should taste pretty intense. After all, it is a seasoning, not a food. When it is done to your satisfaction, smooth the paste into ice cube trays, cover, and freeze.

It will then lurk in your freezer, ready to add a deep taste of the forest to nearly anything where a mushroom flavor would be appropriate. After pan-grilling beef or game, toss a cube into the pan with some wine or broth and deglaze, boiling furiously, add a pat of butter, and boil a little more until it comes together as a pan gravy. Melt a cube into mushroom soup to enhance its flavor. Add a cube and some heavy cream  to sautéed mushrooms that seem a little bland.  Melt a cube, mix into an equal amount of soft butter, and use it as a finishing butter for meat or almost any kind of vegetable, or toss with hot pasta and some good Parmesan. Spread on hot buttered toast or stir into scrambled eggs.

Every time you use it, you’ll be reminded of the fascinating fifth kingdom that helps keep our planet alive.

 

The Perennial Paddock: Mycelial Madness

Nothing made me more joyously certain that I had created a real, albeit tiny, ecosystem in my suburban yard than when the first mushrooms grew among perennial plants rather than in a grow-bag or other artificial arrangement. Last year two kinds of mushrooms spread from spawn I had introduced and appeared far from the original “planting.” I was ecstatic; the mycelial Internet was forming! And this spring I was even more gratified to find a big cluster of Stropharia rugosa-annulata pushing up through the mulch months before I had expected to see any mushrooms. By perfectionist standards they were  overly mature when I discovered them, as evidenced by size, lightened cap color, and the cracks in the cap. But I am no perfectionist and knew that they were still perfectly good to eat.

So a few notes on introducing mushrooms, in no particular order:

1. Stropharia rugosa-annulata is the easiest mushroom  to grow in your garden. Even here in the high desert, it thrives in a deep mulch of straw and oak sawdust. In my opinion the almond agaricus is the most delicious, but it is more finicky and less productive. I have grown oyster mushrooms in containers, but this year I’m experimenting with introducing them into more unlikely spots. I’ll report back.

2. Get good spawn. Mine came from Field and Forest Products, and it was ready to grow.

3. Know how to indentify the mushroom that you introduced. Know its field marks and identify it before you eat it. When you create a good outdoor environment for mushrooms, you are not in complete control of what grows, any more than you are immune to weeds in your garden beds.

4. Be aware of how many commercial mulch products are treated with fungicides to prevent fungus from moving in. If you want select funguses to move in and thrive, you need to avoid these products.

5. Cook and eat with a sense of reverence and awe for the complex and extraordinary interactions of nature. If you want to learn more about this, Mycelium Running, Mycelial Mayhem, and Radical Mycology are useful books.

I sautéed my mushrooms in olive oil with generous additions of green garlic and fresh thyme, then removed them from the skillet, set aside in a warm spot, and scrambled some eggs in additional olive oil with a little salt. When the eggs were cooked, the mushrooms were folded back in. Simple as that. Scrambling is an underestimated technique. In this case I cooked the eggs fairly firm, for texture contrast with the softer mushrooms.  I framed the fragrant heap with a couple of slices of bacon. It made a quick delicious dinner, mostly from my own property, and was a culinary salute to the mycelial web that underlies, well, damn near everything.

The Fall Summation II: Mushrooms

I always felt that if I could grow mushrooms outdoors among my garden plants,  I would have a fully functioning little ecosystem even here in the desert.  This year, I finally achieved exactly that, and it’s one of the highlights of my gardening year. I should add that anybody who gardens is growing all kinds of soil fungi, but I wanted the edible kind. Three species came through for me. The first was the almond agaricus, shown above.  They are compost lovers, and I buried chunks of the spawn in a bed of compost that I was about to plant squash into. Unfortunately, the squash overran the bed and I only got a few mushrooms from around the edges, but they were very delicious.  This species really does have an intense flavor of almonds, and if you don’t love almonds you probably won’t want this mushroom, but if you do it is a special treat sautéed in butter and served alongside a nutty beefy piece of dry aged meat.

DCF 1.0

Stropharia rugosa-annulata, the wine-cap mushroom,  grows freely in mulched garden paths.  It will grow in pure straw mulch, and that is how I grew it at first, but there is no question that it tastes better if you incorporate some hardwood chips or sawdust in with the straw.  Even when grown in straw alone it tastes as good as a store-bought cremini or better, but once I incorporated some hardwood it became a treat. The picture  above shows how it should ideally look at harvest. The button stage, shown to the right, is tastiest but I can never resist letting one or two get huge. The picture below shows how it is more likely to look in my garden, because for some reason there are tiny little slugs that only seem to chew on this one mushroom species. But no problem, I just brush them off, and once it is washed and sautéed in butter you can’t tell that they were ever there.

Then there are oyster mushrooms, my favorite cultivated mushroom to eat and one of the easiest to grow.  I grow them in the shade in almost whatever receptacle comes to hand, usually laundry baskets lined with clear plastic bags.  For the growing medium I use a mixture of straw and hardwood sawdust, sterilized sufficiently with hydrogen peroxide solution, with a little alfalfa shake included to nourish the mushrooms.  I stick the whole rig under a dense shade tree in late spring, in an area where water from the sprinkler will hit it when I water, but I don’t make any other effort to keep it wet. I like to let oyster mushrooms get big, to the point that they are really meaty.  After cleaning them and cutting away the tough stem area I slice them in quarter inch strips and sauté  them in olive oil with salt until they have some nice brown spots, adding a little chopped garlic toward the end of the cooking.  They are more tender when small, but not nearly as umami and tasty. It’s the difference between veal and beef, and I have never been a fan of veal. Of course, if you want a milder flavor and softer texture, pick them smaller.

Today I finished “planting” several baskets and bags with the blue oyster mushroom, a subspecies of the common oyster mushroom that fruits at a lower temperature.  They are going in an unheated shed, and might fruit during the winter. Remains to be seen if this will work, but anything that prolongs the mushroom season is worth a try.

Oyster mushrooms are determined to grow. Recently I broke up a spent basket and put the mycelium in lumps under straw mulch, and today I found tiny infant oyster mushrooms poking out. I threw a frost blanket over the area and weighted it down with pavers, and maybe I’ll get a late outdoor crop.

Nothing fills me with quite as much satisfaction as seeing one of my mushroom projects cooked and on the table.  I am not sure why this is, except that their biology is so unique and fascinating and they are so essential, in one form or another, to life on earth.  They have some interesting medicinal qualities, but I don’t feel any great need for medicine and prefer to eat them because they are fascinating  and delicious.

I’m enjoying a book called Radical Mycology, which is a compendium of nearly everything that you can imagine about mushrooms, including a heap of medical advice which, in my opinion, should be taken with a very large grain of salt.  But it is addictive reading and will get you through many a long winter evening and give you ideas for new projects.

My Winecap Mushroom Bed

Early this spring I was putting down straw mulch around some new plantings in the shade and decided to order and incorporate some spawn for the winecap  mushroom, Stropharia rugosa-annulata.  I have never grown or tasted this mushroom before, and so I was very excited yesterday when a young friend pointed out “a giant mushroom” under one of the new little saplings.  My first winecap was a healthy 6 1/2 inches in diameter.  I cooked it plainly in butter with a little bit of salt, and it was perfectly nice but I would say not significantly  better than store-bought cremini mushrooms.  Still, my homegrown mushrooms are deep organic and came from my own land, so of course I favor them,  and they benefit the soil and the growing plants as well as me.

The advantage of Stropharia  is that it is fairly rugged and easy to grow. I am told that it grows much better in deciduous wood chips than in straw, and at the very least I should have mixed in some deciduous wood chips or put some on top, but it is one of those things that I meant to get around to and haven’t done yet.  Maybe I will still top up with some wood chips.

They grow well in the paths between garden beds, and once you have them established I am assured that you can move shovelfuls of the substrate around and start new  mushroom beds pretty much at will. The presence of fungi can be very important to the health of plants, and for much more on this fascinating subject I recommend reading “Mycelium Running.”

Here’s an important safety bulletin: just because you “planted” mushrooms in a specific spot, it is not safe to assume that any mushroom that comes up in that spot is what you planted.  There is absolutely no substitute for knowing the identification points for the mushroom you planted as well as for any poisonous look-alikes.  The mushrooms that I grow in my garden, oyster mushrooms and Stropharia, are easy to identify so this is not a difficult task.

The hugeness of the Stropharia  mushrooms can make your whole garden seem Wonderland-like and magical. It might not be the very best eating mushroom there is, but it is quite wonderful to have a visitor gasp and say “Ooh, what is THAT?”

 

Pleasures of the Grill: Oyster (and other) Mushrooms

A family member was admiring a picture of my oyster mushrooms, up to 8″ across, and asked if they were too big to eat. Not if you like to grill. I love a plateful of giant oyster mushrooms, as long as they were still fresh and moist and not dried out when picked. The big ones have leathery bases and need to have the stem (technically a stipe) trimmed off to the extent that a little semi-circle is taken out of the base.

Now the toughest part is gone. Clean the rest and rub it on both sides with basic steak marinade. Make sure that the marinade gets up in the gills, since this helps keep them moist while cooking. Sprinkle the gill side with a good smoked salt.

Heat the grill to about 300 degrees and sear nicely on the upper side. Turn and cook on the gill side until done, turning them 90 degrees midway if you want nice crosshatched sear marks. Meanwhile, preheat the broiler. Put the caps on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, gill side down. Sprinkle lavishly with grated Parmesan, making sure to sprinkle the areas of bare parchment paper to make the lacy garnish. Broil, turning the pan as necessary, until the cheese is just beginning to brown. Eat.

The argument could be made that there’s no point in fussing with crosshatched grill marks since they’re on the bottom and don’t show. This is a fair point, but in good spring weather it’s a pleasure to fuss a bit at the grill.

This is a good meal to share with vegetarians if you don’t use any fish sauce in the marinade. In my opinion the final cheese crusting adds a lot to the flavor and so it isn’t ideal for vegans, but try it if you feel so inclined. If you don’t have oyster mushrooms try portobellos, which come alive with some seasoning. If you find really big meaty fresh shiitakes, they are ideal for grilling whole. If you’re lucky enough to find some porcinis  in the woods or market in the fall, they are superb sliced thickly and grilled.

Backyard Mushrooms

For years I moaned and carried on about my inability to grow mushrooms as an integrated part of my urban homestead, and now I can’t stop them. All winter I grew oyster mushrooms in the garage on a substrate of recycled paper, and last month I put the theoretically depleted basket of substrate outside in the shade with the thought that when I got around to it, I would break up the broken-down paper and incorporate it into my mulch. Instead, the basket was within range of a sprinkler that I was using every other day to help some new plants get started, and produced another three pounds of mushrooms. So this might not  exactly be the Pacific Northwest around here, but the adaptable oyster didn’t care.

So my point is, as the Gangsta Gardener says, just plant shit. Plant what you would like to eat and don’t give up. Plants and fungi are resilient survivors and may astonish you at some point, even after initial disheartening failures.

The role of fungi in a healthy ecosystem is far-reaching and worth reading about. They are valuable beyond measure whether you can directly eat them or not. But my greed and gluttony makes me most interested in the edibles. Pleurotis ostreatus, the common oyster mushroom,  is vigorous and highly adaptable and also delicious, which works out well for my purposes. But I am experimenting with some other types. In an area of deep straw and mulch I put spawn of the wine cap mushroom, Stropharia rugosa-annulata, and it seems to be sending mycelia out through the straw. In August I’ll find out if it will fruit for me.

The mycelium above may grow into the mushrooms below:

DCF 1.0

Every year I make a new bed by putting down layers of cardboard and nontoxic paper recyclables and piling up a year’s worth of goat bedding on top. This is a mixture of goat manure and the alfalfa that she eats, and is as hot a compost material as you will find, so I do this in late fall or early winter, wet it down thoroughly, and let it compost in place over the winter. In spring, I start planting into it.  Generally, the first year I use hearty healthy unstoppable plants, such as mustard for greens and summer squash. They always flourish, and by the second year of the compost is finely broken down and will grow pretty much anything. This year I planted spawn of the almond agaricus mushroom, a compost-loving mushroom, into a first-year bed and will see what happens. But I was interested to note that a small shelf of oyster mushrooms poked out the side a couple of weeks ago. The oyster mushroom is not “supposed” to tolerate full sun or hot compost. To which I can only say, tell that to the oyster mushroom.

If you’re interested in learning more about offbeat ways of growing mushrooms, Mycelial Mayhem is a delightful romp through the casual side of mushroom growing. Mycelium Running is a classic about the role of fungi in ecology.

Urban Homestead Trees: Black Locust

When I moved to my current property eight years ago, the house sat on half an acre of adobe clay, punctuated here and there with construction rubble and overgrown with tumbleweeds. There was one pitiful trashy elm about 20 feet high, and nothing else. After putting a fence around the perimeter, my next project was to put in some trees.

Mostly I chose fruit trees, along with one almond tree, but I left one back corner for a black locust, Robinia pseudoacacia, which may be my favorite tree. It is fiercely thorny, toxic except for the blossoms, suckers badly, and tends to shed limbs disconcertingly and hazardously as it gets older. But for a week in April it is glorious beyond belief, covered with white flowers, casting the scent of lilies for hundreds of feet around, and so filled with bees that the entire tree hums. I hope never to be without a black locust again.

It also fixes nitrogen, which may benefit my soil, but its main advantage  the rest of the growing season is that it casts perfect lacy shade for growing plants that can’t tolerate the desert sun. Now that I have some light shade to work with, I’m finally able to grow milkweed and oca and groundnuts (apios) and cow parsnip and a number of other plants that used to shrivel and die as soon as the first hot days hit. I have never had any luck growing mushrooms outdoors here, but I’m trying again in the shade of the black locust, and the results are wonderful.

The blossoms of black locust are nice on salads, and can be battered and fried, but deep frying is one kind of cooking that I don’t go in for, so I don’t know much about it. The rest of the plant is toxic. My goat got out once and ate some without apparent harm, but that may have been luck. So try to site it away from livestock and in an area where a falling limb as it ages won’t be a disaster.