I started hunting early, in April. The sun was not cooperating, but I tramped through the woods anyway, casing likely logs and making mental notes. I'd return from the hills drenched and report. "I found a good-looking possible oyster log," I'd tell my husband, Rich. "Mmm...," he'd say, engrossed in his coffee and sports blogs. For some reason, he didn't share my consuming fixation with oyster mushrooms.
Why do I love oyster mushrooms? Although the oyster in the name supposedly comes not from the flavor, but rather for the shell-like appearance of the fruiting body, there is something in the texture of the oyster mushroom that reminds me of good seafood: When properly prepared, the mushroom has the succulent tenderness of a fresh mollusk. That said, oyster mushrooms aren't at all slimy and their flavor is delicate, with the faintest touch of sweet anise.
Since the evening I first supplemented a meager dinner by foraging for wild ingredients, oyster mushrooms have been on my mind. The idea that this luscious treat grows wild in the woods near my house is almost improbable: a bit like being told you might find a case of fine champagne sprouting from a rotten log.
"I might be able to find one of my favorite foods in the world growing in the woods for free," I told Rich, attempting to explain why I was spending hours each week obsessively combing the rain-drenched woods. "How cool is that?"
"Mmmhmm...," he said, ogling the stats from a Twins-Orioles game.
He'd realize why I'm obsessed with foraging if he ever tried actually making dinner with the limited contents of our fridge, I thought grumpily as I hacked at a wet salmonberry bush with my machete.
Hey, at least I'm getting exercise, I thought, hanging from a sword fern while scrambling to get my footing on a steep elk trail.
I don't think these pinche mushrooms grow around here after all, I thought, sullenly kicking an alder log on my tenth visit to the same remote spot.
After two months of fruitless searching, I called upon my friend Rachel Welkin, who is something of an oyster mushroom expert. (When I was a child, Rachel set my dad up with his own mini oyster mushroom farm -- a punching bag full of mycelium-infused straw that hung from a two-by-four nailed between two trees in our front yard.)
"Pleurotus ostreatus is a saprophyte, chewing on decaying cellulose in trees, coffee grounds, cardboard, sawdust, what have you," Rachel explained. "Easy to propagate, too, but one must be somewhat lucky to get oysters instead of the ubiquitous green mold we are so fond of in the Pacific Northwest." When pressed for hints, she explained: "The mycelium expands into the host until the organism 'senses' it's time to make mushrooms, often after a recent rain/sun cycle. So downed logs and upright snags of alder are the first places I'd look this belated spring. Near the creek especially..."
Near the creek, eh? Good thing I spent so many days scrambling up vertical elk trails. But even when I abandoned our steep mountainsides for the comparative ease of rocky creek beds, the alder logs I encountered were sadly devoid of fleshy caps. Toward the end of May, I conceded defeat.
At 10:30 on a Tuesday night, the phone rings. No one ever calls me this late anymore, so I assume the worst. I lie on the couch staring at the ceiling as I wait for the answering machine to tell me that someone I love is stranded or dead, but the voice on the line is ebullient.
"We just checked our logs and the oysters are on!" Kamari says, with the excitement of a little kid who's just won the Toys R Us sweepstakes.
Kamari and GH have injected alder logs in their yard with oyster mycelium -- so while the fruiting of their mycelium-laced logs is a good sign, it doesn't necessarily mean that the logs in the woods will be fruiting. I still don't know if any of the "wild" logs I've been checking even contain oyster mycelium.
The next morning I got out for a walk, and I forget to take a bag or a knife -- I still don't have much hope of finding anything. On the one day that I'm totally unprepared, of course I find my grail. Alders have fallen like pick-up sticks over a little stream; on the blackened bark, ruffled caps glow white in a spot of sunlight. I scramble down the bank. Sure enough, clusters of lush oyster mushrooms dot the rotting trunks. As I reach down to touch the feathery spores, I pause, a captive to the beauty of the sonorous creek and the dark smell of moss and rocks.
I'm on National Forest land, which means I can harvest up to a gallon of mushrooms without a permit. I leave the smallest mushrooms (I hope to return for them later) and ignore the shabbier caps -- oyster mushrooms are prone to maggots, so I figure it's best to stick with the freshest specimens. I get about two cups, a bounty, which I cradle in the front of my shirt for the walk home.
When I first daydreamed of foraging for oysters, I imagined making a delicious tom kha gai, or Thai coconut soup. But our budget has other ideas -- our fridge is stripped almost bare, and I'm out of coconut milk. The prospect of driving the three-hour round trip to the supermarket to spend the last of my money on a can of coconut milk and some galangal is not appealing. Besides, I want to eat the oyster mushrooms now. While checking each mushroom in my pile to make sure they are all really oysters, I decide to MacGyver a meal out of the ingredients at hand.
An omelet seems like a good way to go -- after all, it's morning and we do have eggs we bought from a neighbor down the road. I can pick additional ingredients in the yard -- our greens are coming in. I survey the fridge for ideas. A block of cheddar sits alone on the middle shelf, but somehow cheddar seems too pedestrian for my precious find. With some digging, I manage to find a rind of old Parmesan that still has about a centimeter of cheese on it. (This is the remainder of the Parmesan I used in my first Scavenger article. It's a little dry, but the flavor is still there.)
When I open the carton of eggs, I discover we have only three, which means our omelet will be rather shorter and fatter than I envisioned. But with two cups of mushrooms at least we won't go hungry.
While the oyster mushrooms are cooking in butter, I gather parsley, onion chives, a few leaves of tarragon and a handful of baby chard and arugula from the container garden that Rich has established around our front stairs. (Arugula? Elitist, I know. A $2 packet of seeds goes a long way, though.) I toss chopped tarragon and chives into the mushroom mixture. As the air is infused with the sweet smell of tarragon and oyster mushrooms, I crack my eggs into a bowl, add a spoonful of water, and beat vigorously. I heat another small cast iron pan and add a dollop of butter. When the butter starts to sizzle, I turn the heat down and spill the eggs onto the slick black surface. The bright yellow liquid covers the bottom of the pan; when the edges begin to turn opaque, I sprinkle salt, parsley, and additional onion chives, add the cooked mushrooms and greens, and dust the pile with Parmesan and fresh ground pepper.
A rubber spatula is the ideal tool for loosening the rim of the omelet -- I run the spatula around the edges of the pan, flip one side up, and fold the omelet in half. A moment later we're eating.
Even with only three eggs, the omelet is fat with mushrooms and certainly filling enough for two people. It's not much to look at, but the mushroom-to-egg ratio really puts the emphasis on the mushrooms, which is ideal. The mushrooms are plump and succulent in a fluffy nest of farm-fresh eggs; Parmesan creates a salty counterbalance to the sweetness of mushrooms and tarragon, and onion chives and greens add a fresh, mustard-y element. Maybe I'm crazy, but as I sit in our sunny yard eating my half of the omelet, all those hours in the woods translate to time well spent.
Mushroom Oyster Omelet
- 2-1/2 teaspoons butter
- 2 cups oyster mushrooms (cleaned)
- 2-3 leaves fresh tarragon (minced)
- 1 tablespoon onion chives (chopped)
- 1 handful baby arugula and chard
- 3 eggs
- 1 tablespoon water
- 1 teaspoon parsley (chopped)
- Grated Parmesan cheese
- Pepper to taste
- At medium-high heat, heat 1 teaspoon of the butter in a pan.
- Add mushrooms. Cook for 4-5 minutes.
- Add salt, a sprinkling of tarragon, half the chives, and your greens. Cook for another 2-3 minutes, or until most of the liquid is absorbed.
- While mushrooms are cooking, crack eggs into a bowl and beat vigorously with a fork. Add water and beat again.
- In another pan, heat the rest of the butter over a medium flame. Make sure butter covers bottom of pan (if it doesn't, add more).
- When butter sizzles, add eggs. When edges of omelet begin to turn opaque, add the rest of the chives and the parsley.
- Add a little salt. (Keep an eye on the heat -- turn down if necessary.)
- Dump cooked mushrooms and greens onto one half of omelet. Dust with Parmesan cheese and pepper.
- Begin loosening edges of omelet with rubber spatula. Using spatula, fold egg over mushrooms. Cook until egg is not too runny and serve.