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Foraging for Oyster Mushrooms

oyster mushroomsOne of the best wild edible mushrooms is also one of the few that I can often find year-round, but Oyster (Pleurotus ostreatus) is especially tasty and prolific in the fall.

You’ve probably eaten oyster mushrooms at restaurants, or payed a steep price to buy some at a gourmet market. The “wild” Oysters you buy are actually cultivated, not wild (you got it that we’re talking about oyster fungi, not oyster shellfish, right?). They are usually grown on logs that are inoculated with Pleurotus ostreatus spores.

That gives you a clue about where you’ll find Oysters growing wild (if you're wondering why I'm capitalizing "Oysters," it's because I'm trying to convey the verbal accent us mushroom hunters and foragers use when talking about certain choice edible wild mushrooms: We don't say "hen of the woods mushroom," for example. We say "I found Hen today." Likewise, we don't refer to the oyster mushrooms we just found. Instead, we simply refer to them, with a gleam in our eyes and maybe hint of a brag in our intonation, as "Oyster."

Pleurotus ostreatus is a decomposer mushroom that breaks down dead hardwoods. I find it on stumps and dead trees (often just higher than I can reach unassisted…sigh). Oyster is one of the few carnivorous mushrooms: its mycelia are capable of killing and digesting nematodes.

Oyster gets its common name from the shape of its fruiting bodies (that’s the part of the fungus we call the mushroom). They look a little like stacks of oyster-shaped shells, except that they have a soft texture. Unlike many other shelf fungi, the undersides of Oysters are gilled.

The stems, when present, are off center with the gills running part way down them. The tops of the caps range from off-white to beige to brown to grey.

Oyster clusters can be hefty: 0ne recent batch of Oysters that I weighed when I got home came in at 17 pounds! That was way more than I could eat while they were still fresh. Fortunately, Oysters dry well. My dehydrator hummed for a couple of days handling that haul.

I was so excited about that find that when I got an email from my CSA letting me know that we were going to have the chance to order freshly harvested local oysters. I replied, “no thanks, I’ve already found plenty in Prospect Park!” There was some confusion until I realized that they were talking about the mollusk, not the mushroom!

My friend Chef Jeremy Umansky tells me that Thomas Jefferson used to serve oyster mushrooms braised in cream on toast points as part of his Thanksgiving feasts at Monticello. Their mild flavor is at its best in creamy sauces or simply sauteed in butter or oil. They are also wonderful in this all-puns-intended riff on the classic holiday seafood stew (no mollusks involved in this vegetarian version, although it might be interesting to include some).

Oyster” Stew

Serves 2 as a main course, 4 as a side dish

• 3 tablespoons butter
• 8 ounces fresh or rehydrated oyster mushrooms, chopped
• 2 shallots, minced
• 1/4 cup dry sherry
• 3/4 cup milk
• 1/2 cup vegetable, fish, or oyster mushroom stock*
• 1/4 cup cream
• Salt and pepper
• 1 sprig fresh parsley, minced (optional)

1. Melt the butter in a medium sized pot. Add the Oysters and the shallots and cook over low heat, stirring, until the mushrooms first release and then reabsorb their liquid.

2. Add the sherry and raise the heat to medium high. Cook, stirring, for one minute.

3. Add the milk and the stock and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat.

4. Stir in the cream and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot, with the parsley sprinkled on top of each serving.

*If you are using dried oyster mushrooms, rehydrate them by pouring boiling hot water over them in a bowl and letting them soak for 15 minutes. Save the liquid to use as mushroom stock. Do not use stock made from other types of mushrooms for this recipe because that could overpower the delicate flavor of the Oysters.

Leda Meredith is the author of Northeast Foraging: 120 Wild and Flavorful Edibles from Beach Plums to Wineberries. You can watch her foraging and food preservation videos, and follow her Leda's Urban Homestead. Her latest book is Preserving Everything: Can, Culture, Pickle, Freeze, Ferment, Dehydrate, Salt, Smoke...and More.

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