Oyster Mushrooms: Putting the fun in fungi

story and photos by Grace DickinsonWe can find an estimated 10,000 kinds of mushrooms just in North America. Of these, only 250 are edible, but still—that’s a lot of options. Diversity can be an asset to the typical cook and eater, but what makes the mushroom a staple in the locavore kitchen is its adaptability to be grown outside and inside. Mushrooms are essentially available year-round, making them a popular local ingredient, even in the last few weeks of winter.

This is especially true for Philadelphia, which is located less than an hour from Kennett Square, the “mushroom capital of the world.” Kennett Square farmers grow 65 percent of the mushrooms eaten in the U.S., and the area is home to large farms like Phillips (see p. 11)—the first successful indoor shiitake grower in the country. One of Phillips’ best sellers is oyster mushrooms, which are sold by large supermarket chains like Wegman’s and Giant as well as local vendors who redistribute to Philadelphia restaurants.

Though easy to buy locally, mushrooms can be grown at home too. Local gardener Anna Herman suggests starting with the popular, but unique, oyster mushroom.

For The Gardener

Anna Herman, local food writer and gardener, has been home-growing mushrooms for six years. Her experimentation with the fungi, which ranges from shitakes to maitakes, began with an oyster mushroom kit from a local permaculture workshop. Currently, she grows mushrooms on her Mt. Airy kitchen countertop where she has been experimenting with coffee grounds and wood chips as fertilizer, both she says have worked well. To get started in your own home Herman advises either buying a mushroom-growing kit or attending a workshop. “It’s something you can grow in the winter. And one of the most satisfying things is that they are an item you can grow without almost any light at all,” says Herman. “You can literally grow them in your basement if you wanted.”

From The Farm

Unlike other fruits or vegetables, mushrooms don’t contain chlorophyll, the chemical that enables most plants to take in energy from the sun and produce glucose. Therefore, when farming mushrooms, the grower must provide the substrate, or food source, for the mushrooms. At Phillips Mushroom Farm, one of the largest producers in Kennett Square, this substrate is cottonseed hulls and wheat straw. “We mix the two together, add water, pasteurize and then put all the contents into a bag—almost like a big garbage bag that has slots cut into it,” explains Jim Angeluccis, who started his 40th year as general manager of Phillips this past December. “Just before the cottonseed hulls and straw are put into the bag, we inoculate it with culture, or what they call spawn.” Angeluccis says it takes about 14 days for the spawn to colonize the substrate. “Then, it will start to fruit where the bags are slotted because you get a gas exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen.” Phillips’ farm assembles 3,500 of these bags per week. He agrees that the best way to grow mushrooms at home is a pre-made kit. “It is a very involved process,” says Angeluccis. “If you wanted to do a project, it would be to buy one of those kits and you’d get the principal.”

For the Kitchen

For Washington Square’s vegan restaurant Vedge, mushrooms play an important role in the all-vegetable menu. “Mushrooms are our go-to, kind of a trailblazer against meat and potatoes,” says Richard Landau, co-owner and executive chef, alongside his wife Kate Jacoby. “Psychologically, people envision vegetables on the side of something. Mushrooms are a really great way to transition from that because they are meaty and they take on amazing flavor.” Landau, who buys all his mushrooms from a distributor based in Kennett Square, says he particularly likes oyster mushrooms for their delicate flavor. “Their greatest asset is when you get the feathery ones,” says Landau. “When that happens, I think it becomes one of the greatest mushroom vectors you could possibly eat ...  the way it’s so crispy and just delicately nutty and earthy at the same time.” In the following recipe, Landau chose to play off the oyster mushroom’s chewy texture in a hearty, winter stew. Expect a summery corn chowder version in the Vedge cookbook, due out in June.

Oyster Mushroom Stew with Winter Vegetables (Serves 6 to 8)

  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • ½ cup diced onion
  • 2 tsp minced garlic
  • 1 lb oyster mushrooms, bases trimmed, roughly chopped
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp pepper
  • ¾ cup dry sherry
  • 2 quarts vegetable stock
  • 1 cup diced carrots
  • 2 cups diced celery root
  • 1 cup diced butternut squash
  • 1 tsp tomato paste
  • 2 tsp porcini powder
  • 2 tsp chopped thyme
  • 2 tsp chopped rosemary

Heat olive oil in a large stock pot until it ripples. Add onions and garlic, and brown for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the mushrooms, salt and pepper, and brown for an additional 3 to 5 minutes. Add sherry and reduce by half.

Add stock, tomato paste, porcini powder, carrots and celery root, simmer 10 minutes. Add the squash and simmer until tender—about 8 to 10 more minutes. Stir in the herbs and remove from heat. Serve immediately.

Vedge, 1221 Locust St. vedgerestaurant.com

For the Pantry by Marisa McClellan

 Mushrooms will keep up to a week when left unwashed and stored in a brown paper bag on the refrigerator shelf (not in the crisper!). To preserve for longer, try refrigerator pickling!

Cover blanched oyster mushrooms with rice wine vinegar, black pepper, rounds of fresh ginger, and a dash of toasted sesame oil.

Cut clean button mushrooms into wedges and marinate in a combination of red wine vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, crushed garlic, red chili flakes, Italian herbs and coarsely ground black pepper.

Let pickles rest in the fridge for 24 hours before eating. Serve them as a pre-dinner nibble. —Marisa McClellan

Learn more about food preservation at McClellan's blog foodinjars.com 

GRACE DICKINSON is a food blogger, photo enthusiast and recipe creator. These passions are brought together on FoodFitnessFreshAir.com, where she chronicles her experiments in the kitchen.