by Maria Reidelbach
When the days are as dark and the landscape as bare as it is in January, it’s fun to experiment with growing food indoors—especially if your future delicious meal doesn’t need sunlight to thrive. Of course vegetables and fruit need sun for photosynthesis, but mushrooms are fungi and they don’t, so they’re perfect for winter gardeners.
Fungi are a fascinating, under-appreciated life form. Although as I kid I began hunting wild mushrooms and eating mushroom soup, I never really thought much about them until I became involved with other foragers and real mycophiles (mushroom lovers). From them I learned that fungus was one of the original three kingdoms of life, along with plants and animals. Shockingly, even animals evolved from fungi, and the two are more closely related than either is to plants. Both lack chlorophyll; from their fungi ancestors animals learned to absorb food by surrounding and digesting it. Another similarity is that the cell walls of fungi, insect exoskeletons and crustacean parts are all made of a substance called chitin.
Despite this importance in the tree of life, fungi get little respect! Gary Lincoff, mycologist and author of the Audobon Guide to North American Mushrooms, once pointed out to me that biology textbooks typically have fewer than a quarter of their pages devoted to the Kingdom of Fungi. There are six times more species of fungi than plants!
Perhaps it’s partly because fungi are mostly hidden from view—they are not as gregarious as plants and animals that grow and scamper over the surface of the earth. Most fungi live in the top few inches of soil and in wood as thread-y chains of cells called mycelium. There is a lot of mycelium in the world—every cubic inch of soil has about eight miles of mycelium, underlying all life on earth! Individual fungus can be huge and ancient—in Oregon there is an Armillaria ostoyae that permeates 2,400 acres and is estimated to be 2,200 years old!
What the heck are all those fungi doing down there? In the past it was thought that most fungi were parasitic—sucking the life from other living forms like trees. Now we know that many fungi are symbiotic or mutualistic. The mycelia of these endophytes are connected to tree roots, extending them, stabilizing them, and delivering water and minerals to the trees. In return, trees share with fungi sugars and other nutrients. Other fungi live in dead wood and regenerate the forest by breaking down the organic material and converting it to fertile soil. Mycelium is incredibly sensitive to environmental conditions and constantly adapts, sending chemical messages all along the vast chain of cells.
All of this astounding activity is pretty invisible to us—in fact few of us even notice the showiest moment of a fungus’s life. That is when a very small number of species–about 10%—reproduce by creating mushrooms that emerge from the substrate with the purpose of generating spore, millions of spore, each with the possibility of growing another fungus. Some of these mushrooms are delicious to us animals—and when we eat them we are drawn into the fungal life plan by spreading their spore in nutritious pats of manure.
One of the easiest and most interesting mushrooms to try growing at home is the oyster mushroom, Pleurotus ostreatus. The common name is a reference to the mushroom’s crescent-shaped cap, though oyster mushrooms are very smooth and usually white (they also can be brown, pink or blue). In the wild, you’ll usually find oyster mushrooms growing from dead wood because they are a decomposing fungus. They’ll also happily grow on straw and many other media. I once even observed oyster mushrooms growing from a crack in the plywood floor of my Airstream camper!
Oyster mushrooms grow so easily that they are cultivated for more than just culinary uses. There have been experiments using them to clean up toxic spills by spreading mats of mycelium-inoculated straw over the oil-saturated ground. In 4 weeks, 95% of the oil had been digested and broken down into carbon dioxide and water! A few years ago Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre, students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY, developed a lightweight brick-like material from baked oyster mushroom mycelium. Their company, Ecovative Design, now produces the material to use for insulation and compostable packing material.
If you want to try your hand at growing mushrooms, an easy way to start is to get a kit. I got mine from Fungi Perfecti, an Oregon company founded by the legendary mycologist Paul Stamets. What you get is a big lumpy marshmallow-looking thing about 10 inches cubed. You create a tent with a perforated plastic bag and start misting the sucker several times a day. After a week or two beautiful oyster mushrooms emerge. They don’t take long to get nice and big, and they are indeed delicious. I’ve gotten two fruitings from my lump so far—about half a pound of mushrooms. This is not particularly cost-effective, since the kit is about $20, but it’s really fun to see the magic. Plus the company says you can use the remainder of the marshmallow to inoculate dead wood in your yard and you may get more mushrooms.
Oyster mushrooms’ subtle flavor is concentrated by roasting. Here is a recipe you can try with your own oysters or the store-bought kind.
Oven-Crisped Oyster Mushrooms a la Elizabeth Schneider
• 1 dozen or more large oyster mushrooms (about 3/4 lb.)
• 1 pressed or minced garlic clove
•1 tsp. minced fresh thyme, marjoram or savory or 1/2 tsp. dried
• 1 tbsp. lemon juice
• Pinch salt
• Dash of hot pepper sauce
• 2 tbsp. nut oil (walnut, hazelnut etc.)
• 2 tbsp. parsley
Preheat oven to 450º F.
Cut any stems off the mushrooms and save for soup stock.
Combine remaining ingredients except parsley, shake or whisk well, and paint on all surfaces of the mushrooms.
On a baking sheet, roast the mushrooms gill side down in a single layer. When top is crisp (5-10 minutes) gently turn over and roast until the gills are brown and crisp. Sprinkle with parsley and serve.
Mycelium Running, Paul Stamets—this is a fantastic book about the science of fungus.
FungiPerfecti.com—a company founded by Stamets that carries all kinds of mushroom cultivating material and equipment.
Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini, Elizabeth Schneider—despite the title, this encyclopedic compendium has within it the best mushroom cookbook I have seen.
Also check out Fungi magazine—the current issue has an awesome 3-D photo section! It’s good geeky fun!
Maria Reidelbach is a past president of the New York Mycological Society. She lives, works and eats in Accord, NY.