In this, our year of COVID discontent, the one silver lining seems to be this is either the best mushroom fall in memory, or the mushrooms are fruiting at their usual rate and there are just more of us hunting than normal. Hard call. Perhaps a bit of both?
I know that like many, I started out with the idea that I was going to make the best of the bad situation (the pandemic)- Learn! Read! Hike! Get outside! Do more writing! Knit! Crochet! Mend all the things! Like many, I found that got real old, real fast. I was doing all the things, and writing, and being creative- then the existential dread set in. Kind of right around the time daylight savings started, actually. Coincidence? I think not.
Now, at a time when I am super fortunate to be working from home, (side note- anyone else notice that offices are actually pretty obsolete?) my daily routine changed pretty dramatically. It went from 90 minutes from bed to work, then 8.5 hours of work, followed by 45 minutes to home, then another 40 minutes for dinner, to a very easy 15 minutes from bed to my electronic overlord, working 4 hours until lunch, take lunch, throw something in the crockpot, do unload of laundry, work another 4 hours, and then a very depressed 15 minute shuffle from my electronic overlord to the crockpot… One would think I have more time than EVER, and get more done than EVER. I just have more time to be depressed than ever.
A general malaise has settled. I still go do stuff, and take tons of photos with the idea that I’m going to write an article, and then I just don’t. I’ve been checking in with friends, and they are experiencing similar feelings. We also feel guilty about it because so many people are in such awful positions; either they are out of work, or cannot work from home, or were struggling before all this and now have lost everything, or have lost lived ones, or have sick family members, or are struggling with COVID. It makes me, and my friends feel shallow for having a bad case of the sads.
So what does this all have to do with oyster mushroom stock? It’s me rationalizing writing this about 6 weeks after I did it, knowing that for many, it’s too late for the year. Hopefully this is still of future use, even though winter is on our doorstep. One of the many great things about Pleurotus is that is fruits when it feels like it, and that might be a warmish day in January. You just never know. Keep a mental map of your oyster trees, and just check them occasionally. Maybe this will still be of use sooner than later. Part of me hopes that someone really getting screwed over by the entire COVID situation reads this and finds it useful for feeding their family just a little bit more by stretching their resources further. If that’s you, I wish I could do more. Stay safe.
There have been more fall mushrooms than I have ever seen in my life fruiting the last few months. I’ve seen literally hundreds of pounds of oyster mushrooms, (Pleurotus ostreatus) as well as hericiums, (Hericium erinaceus mostly, but also a fair amount of americanum, and coralloides) known by the common names of Lion’s Mane, Bear’s Head, or Comb Tooth, Laetoperpus (chicken mushrooms) and perhaps most surprisingly, a massive fruiting of Flammulina velutipes, the “Enoki” or velvet foot. Though it is important to note that the enoki mushrooms from Asian grocery stores are raised in extreme environments to make them grow the way they are sold in the store. In the wild, they are red, sticky, and as the name implies- fuzzy.
That isn’t even talking about the thousands of puffballs. It was like a puffball invasion (and as I write this December 4th, 2020 I’m seeing people posting photos of fresh ones they just found… wow!) and I have an entire article about that drafted that I might finish… whenever. Let’s just say that I don’t think they get the respect they deserve as little mushroomy flavor power houses.
The mushrooms are so enthusiastic that when we were doing yard work when my husband smelled mushrooms. Really, he smelled them! We had taken down a lot of trees and after circling the wood pile, jackpot! Then driving along a country road (I live in a semi rural area) coming back from the farm we buy from, my son-in-law and I spotted a tree just COVERED in oysters. About 14 pounds. Yes, we pulled over and harvested everything we could reach, and took them home with our farm fresh meat. After I trimmed them up and there was so much, I decided to dehydrate the majority of it.
Oyster mushrooms often form thick, clustered brackets, with very tough stem clusters. The tough parts aren’t edible, but only because they are VERY tough, not because they are toxic or anything like that. When you harvest, there is always a judgement call of “can I still chew that?”
That cold Saturday in October, I trimmed up all the tender caps and cut them into small, thin slices. Those got loaded up into my Excalibur dehydrator, reserving about 2 pounds for my SIL’S sister, and a similar amount for our own fresh eating. It completely filled all 9 trays of the Excalibur.
I got a little frustrated because there was about 3 pounds of trimmings left that were too tough to eat. I hate waste, and that’s one things that has always bothered me about oysters in particular. I already had 1.5 gallons of dried oysters, with a full dehydrator cooking away, so in theory the trimmings shouldn’t have bothered me, but it did. So I brainstormed on what I could do to use the leftover waste.
That’s when I got the idea to use the trimmings to make stock. They may be too tough to eat, but they still have flavor!! With that in mind, I did another trim, making sure to cut off any bark attached (that happens sometimes when they grow in big clusteres- they break bark off as they grow and it gets stuck in the stems) then I rough cut the remains, and tipped them into a stock pot with some garlic, onions, herbs and water. I put it on a low heat and just left it for a few hours while I was ensconced before my electronic overlord.
I gave the stock a taste and it was really very good. I ended up with half a gallon of very mushroomy stock. I strained it off, and let it cool fully. It had a rich color, a wonderful aroma and a very great flavor.
I filled quart jars, and froze them for later use. The flavor is rich enough to use it in place of a poultry based stock, and I’ve rather been kicking myself for not thinking of mushroom stock sooner.
Then I made an important discovery. The tough, inedible stems were no longer tough. At all. After boiling them for a few hours, they were actually rather tender. The waste product had yielded not one useful item, but TWO.
First, more than ever, it resembled actual oysters- slimy, and in texture and aroma. Once they cooled enough to handle, I sliced them into very small pieces, and put them in the refrigerator. The next day, I tossed a few pieces into my soup at lunch. It tasted great. I had a fairly amount left, though, and we still had a lot of fresh to work with. I started thinking about Asian instant soups, and the freeze dried vegies they often have. That got me thinking about drying already cooked mushrooms. I already do that with chanterelle mushrooms because they don’t dry well unless you dry saute them first, but I had never tried to dehydrate a fully cooked mushroom before.
So I took the refrigerated, and fully cooked oyster mushrooms and put them in my now empty dehydrator. And I didn’t think to take a photo, but it worked really well. I made a decision to throw them in the grinder when they were done to make the chunks even smaller and speed up rehydration. I’ve thrown it into soup, sauce, a roast, the crockpot, and a quiche. To be fair though, I wish I had rehydrated them first in that application because that was a little chewy in that context.
So if you find yourself one of the people swimming in oyster mushrooms, don’t throw those tough stems away! Make some stock with them, then slice them fine and use them in your favorite mushroom dish! If you don’t have a dehydrator, chop and freeze them. The next time I find yellow chicken mushrooms (Laetoperpus sulphurous) I’m going to try it with the tougher stem bits, and see if that works.
If you try it with oysters or any other kind of mushroom, please leave me a comment or email me at email@example.com and let me know how it worked for you and how it turned out.
Here’s to trying something new, getting by, and trying to keep our sanity in these really trying times. Hang in there. Please, just hang in there. Get outside when you can, stay safe, stay sane, and HANG ON.