Carolyn Niethammer here this week to share with you the story of how a young couple is domesticating a wild forest food. Years ago I had some friends who loved to mushroom hunt. In the summer after the area was deep into the monsoons, we’d head up to Mt. Lemmon. We’d gather lots of varieties including pale oyster mushrooms growing on the sides of trees or downed logs.. My dad was living then and when he found out what I was doing, he was upset. Seems when he was a young paperboy he had delivered a morning paper to a couple heading out to hunt mushrooms. The next morning he found the coroner wheeling out their dead bodies.
It is true that if you mushroom hunt in the wild, you need to be an excellent taxonomist. Another way to indulge a love for oyster mushrooms is to eat the ones grown right here in Tucson by Andrew Carhuff and Nicole Devito at Old Pueblo Mushroom Growers. Curious as to how they produced the big trays of mushrooms they take to local farmers’ markets and restaurants. I visited their operation in the lower foothills last Sunday.
Andrew, who formerly worked as a chef, noticed that local restaurants didn’t have access to great quality mushrooms so he started growing them as a hobby – a hobby that has now grown to a production of around 50 pounds a week of the lovely pale gray fungus.
The process begins with the inoculation of soaked grain with the mushroom spores. After a couple of weeks, Andrew mixes that into his growing medium. Currently he is using straw, but he is looking into using decomposed mesquite pods or succulents in the future. Since the characteristic shape of oyster mushrooms appear when they grow on the sides of trees, Andrew stuffs the straw into plastic sleeves about a yard long to make artificial trees. He stores the “trees” stacked on shelves.
In 10 to 14 days, the mushrooms begin popping out – really popping out as they are strong enough to push right through the plastic.
Once the mushrooms begin to appear, the “trees” are transferred to the growing house where they are hung.
. Now things begin to move fast as the mushrooms will double in size every 24 hours. To keep a steady production, Andrew tries to keep about 40 trees going at various stages of production.
Mushrooms are low in calories but offer lots of vitamins and minerals including vitamin D, selenium and an impressive lot of antioxidants. They are also helpful in lowering cholesterol. You can read more about the health benefits here and here.
According to Andrew, the latest research shows that the nutrients in oyster mushrooms are more available if they are cooked. No problem, as there are endless recipes for including their delicate flavor and meaty texture. Andrew likes to marinate clusters of oyster mushrooms in a mixture of olive oil, soy sauce and herbs. When I tried it, the gills in the mushrooms soaked up the marinade so quickly, I would call the process more a basting than a marinading. The grilling took about three minutes on a side.
Another popular method for cooking oyster mushrooms is sautéing them for use as a garnish or stuffing for an omelet.
You can see some more recipes for oyster mushrooms from around the web along with some beautiful photos here.
For more great recipes for foods of the Southwest, check out my cookbooks The New Southwest Cookbook, The Prickly Pear Cookbook, and Cooking the Wild Southwest. All are available at your local independent bookstore or on line.