For the past year, the Emporia Farmers Market has had a new item — locally grown mushrooms.
In addition to the rare, seasonal morels that will show up, there has been the chance almost weekly to get something other than button, crimini or portabello.
Shoppers have been able to buy shiitake and Pleurotus ostreatus, the oyster mushroom. “Pleurotus” refers to the mushroom’s habit of growing sideways, or with a flat cap. “Ostreatus” is Latin for “Oysters,” because the caps look a lot like the seafood.
In the forest, oyster mushrooms work at decomposing dead wood, a vital part of soil regeneration, and eating nematodes (they are carnivorous!). The oyster mushroom has a couple of toxic look-alikes in the wild, so be certain you know before you eat.
Alternatively, buy from a reputable grower, like Dennis and Jeanne Heins.
Their mushrooms are absolutely beautiful, pristine and in shades of soft white, creamy yellow or dove gray. Dennis is usually at the market on Saturday mornings, sometimes accompanied by Jeanne. Mushrooms are lightweight, so the price per pound is a little deceptive. I’ll gladly pay $4 a pound for local, freshly harvested beauties instead of $3 a pound for portabellinis from California.
The Heinses are part of a Community-Sourced Agriculture group devoted to growing organic foods, especially for people who are allergic to chemicals. CSA subscribers were asking for someone to try mushrooms.
“We live out west of Olpe and we have hardly any shade, and we thought, ‘No, we can’t do that,’” Jeanne Heins said. “But then we got to thinking and we have an old milk house that used to be a dairy farm, and it’s cinderblock. So, we got it all cleaned up, and lined the inside with plastic so we can bleach it. It has a drainage hole in it, so it worked out.”
The Heinses were off and running. They started with logs, which did not produce very well.
“So the next thing we tried was coconut hulls,” Jeanne said. “We got on the internet and did a lot of research. They did OK, but they are so messy. And smelly.”
The couple moved on to straw, which did well, but only produced enough for the CSA and none for the market.
“So last winter we did some more research,” Jeanne said. “And we found these two mushroom growers, one in Wichita and another in Missouri, that were talking about sawdust pellets and soybean hulls mixed together — it adds protein — and (the mushrooms) took off like crazy.”
The Heinses are now growing 30 - 40 pounds of mushrooms each week.
The couple has had some interesting experiences.
“Strange things happen,” Jeanne said. “Do you know, if we have a really bad storm, with lots of thunder and lightning, they will stop growing for a week? We’ve had it happen three times this year. And then they’ll pick up and just go crazy.
“Another thing is, you have to shock them to get them to fruit,” she continued. “They need to think it’s getting to be wintertime, so you put them in a cold area and then you slap them, just like a baby on the bottom.”
The Heinses grow shiitake mushrooms and five kinds of oysters.
“It is a long process,” Jeanne said. “Dennis uses a cement mixer to mix the things together. Then we put them in fruiting bags. We have a 50-gallon drum that we use as a sterilizer, and we have to cook them 18 hours at 200 degrees, and that has to cool.”
When the growing mix is ready, the Heinses put on masks and gloves to prevent any spore contamination and then add the mycelium.
So, what to do with these magnificent mushrooms? Eat them!
Jeanne likes dry mushrooms “… dredged in flour, then fried in a stick of butter melted in a cast iron skillet, then seasoned to taste with salt and pepper. And don’t turn them a bunch of times”, she said. “Just turn them once.
“We’ve had them in omelets, in frittatas, you can put them in spaghetti, you can put them in anything,” Jeanne said. “They’re lighter on flavor, and a lot of people like that.”
Heins Farms mushrooms have fortitude, too.
“They don’t get mushy as much as other mushrooms,” Dennis said. “Just keep them in a paper bag in the refrigerator and they will last a lot longer; they don’t like plastic.”
Eat them sliced raw on a salad. Sauté them in butter as a topping for steak. Stir-fry them with chicken for a rice dish. Sauté them with scallops for a magnificent fettucine. Or, do like Andy and I did and cover a grilled pizza with delicious, meaty mushrooms. Let’s get cooking!
Andrew Houchins brushes the pizza dough, over a medium heat with just a few coals, with olive oil and minced garlic. He brushes one side and then flips it to brush the other. This will be the pizza’s top.
Our ingredients wait: sautéed oyster mushrooms, mini-meatballs made out of our own ground, seasoned pork sausage (lots of garlic and fennel), green olives, shredded Valentino basil, sliced roma tomatoes and slabs of mozzarella fresca.
When it comes to grilled pizza, you need things that anchor the ingredients, and you can’t load it up or you’ll never get it off the grill. That’s why we put the cheese down first and also how we learned that the meatballs needed to be cut in half.
In the past, I had a metal spatula with three “blades” on it — a Christmas gift from my Aunt Thelma Dean, who was an aunt in the Southern meaning rather than by blood, and a real firecracker, I tell you,” Jeanne said, “This device slid under a pancake like a normal spatula. Then, you pulled back on a lever and two of the blades popped out to each side, creating nearly one-third of an entire 14-inch circle. It easily lifted the entire pancake for flipping — no creases, no folded edges. It was perfect for grilled pizza and I used it until it broke. Now we make due with a silicone pancake turner.
Getting the pizza off the grill can be a challenge, especially if your meatballs have not anchored into the cheese. Get a sheet pan ready, lift up a side of the crust with the spatula and simultaneously pull the crust to the pan as you slide the pan under. Work fast. It will be an adventure. I may have mentioned to Andrew that it would be easier if he made two smaller pizzas, but you know how men are.