The only thing that comes close to the flavor of a wild mushroom is a cultivated mushroom. Even the most common varieties, like buttons and criminis, have some wild hairs to them, if in smaller doses. Oyster mushrooms straddle the line between tame and wild, as they are amenable to cultivation and available to find in the wild, if you know where to look. They have a meaty flavor and a big presence, with juicy, chewy flesh.
Oyster mushrooms alike are rich sources of glutathione and ergothioneine. Glutathione is one of the most powerful known dietary antioxidants, while ergothioneine, also an antioxidant, is an amino acid made exclusively by fungus. Laboratory evidence suggests ergo, as it's called, can protect cells from multiple toxins, and researchers have recently discovered that mammals have a specific transporter molecule that pulls ergo into red blood cells, which transport it elsewhere in the body.
Ergo and glutathione are present in all mushrooms, although the white button variety have the lowest concentrations, while oyster mushrooms, both cultivated and wild, have among the highest, up there with shiitake and some other mushrooms found exclusively in the wild.
At the farmers market recently, I was buying tomatoes and noticed that Mike Duda, of Bitterroot Organics, had oyster mushrooms for sale. I bought a sack, and went fishing for recipes.
Mike has long white hair and a weathered face, and wore a shirt that said "Gardening is cheaper than therapy, and you get tomatoes." To my disappointment, he demurred.
"I'm pretty boring," he mused. “I'll throw some mushrooms on the grill with some meat or fish, and steam some broccoli, and that's about it."
"Why are they called oyster mushrooms?" I asked, hoping to steer the conversation somewhere. Anywhere.
"A lot of people think they know, but they don't,” Mike said. “Some say it looks like an oyster or tastes like an oyster. I'm like, 'Really? How does it look like an oyster? How does it taste like an oyster?' I think it looks and tastes like a mushroom. Which is good because I don't like oysters."
I was, at the time, in the process of planning a trip to the coast. And at all times, I am a fan of oysters.
"Have you ever tried making chowder," I asked?
"Actually, yeah," he said, his face brightening. "I have an oyster mushroom chowder that I kind of invented. I went through my cookbooks — I've got like 100 cookbooks — and read the clam chowder recipes, and kind of put this together with some of my own touches.
"It's mine," he added. "I'm kind of proud of it."
Button mushrooms may be more dilute sources of flavor and ergo and whatnot, but when wild mushrooms, or even pricey cultivated fungus, are on the menu, you can get extra mileage by combining them with cheap button mushrooms. The cheapos will absorb and carry the wild flavors from their outdoorsy cousins, and come to taste like their counterparts.
I've made Mike's chowder a few times now, and I don't blame him for being proud. It's rich and creamy and chowder-y with strong fungal presence, hitting gentle notes that are at once luxurious and untamed, with a quiet, rich soulfulness.
Being me, I had to tweak, adding thyme, sherry and whimsical garnish. In one batch I tried clam stock instead of chicken, in honor of clam chowder, but it was a resounding dud. Chicken stock is the stock to use with mushrooms. And as Mike notes, an oyster mushroom is a mushroom, not a bivalve.
Mike's oyster chowder
This dish can also be made without the cream, for lighter-yet-earthier version that performs impressively in a side-by-side taste test. If skipping cream, skip the red pepper, too.
A pot serves 4
3 pieces of bacon, chopped, or about 3 tablespoons of olive oil (If bacon isn't fatty enough, supplement with oil.)
1 onion, diced
2 stalks of celery, diced
3 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon flour
1 ½ cups diced potatoes
5 cups stock
1 bay leaf
1 sprig fresh thyme (1 teaspoon dried)
½ teaspoon white pepper, and more to taste
Salt to taste (the quantity depends on the salt quantities in the bacon and stock)
3 cups oyster mushrooms or oysters mixed with other mushrooms. Slice buttons into quarters and separate oyster mushrooms into individual florets
¼ cup sherry
¾ cup heavy cream
¼ cup diced red pepper
Optional fancy garnish: a few extra oyster mushrooms, and butter in which to fry them, plus parsley
Fry bacon until crispy on medium heat. Add onions and celery. When the onions are translucent, add butter, then flour and, stirring often, gently brown into a roux. Add the potatoes and stock, stir thoroughly and simmer for about 30 minutes, until potatoes are cooked. While it simmers, fry some oyster mushrooms in butter very slowly, so they get deliciously crispy.
Season the soup with salt and white pepper to taste. Add the raw mushrooms and simmer for 10 minutes. Add cream and red peppers, if using, and simmer an extra 5 minutes on low. Garnish with parsley and fried mushrooms.