This is some fine fungus.
Also, it looks like barbecue.
I'm having a sandwich made from the shredded stem of a king oyster mushroom coated with a vinegary, store-bought barbecue sauce. At a casual glance it could pass for a pulled pork sandwich; only after a bite or two does it become obvious that the filler in this brioche bun isn't the other white meat.
Still, it's a hearty, tasty testament to the versatility of the humble mushroom. Fried, stuffed, grilled, sauteed, baked, made into tea, sauce or soup — there's a variety of mushroom for just about everyone, unless you suffer from mycophobia, the fear of mushrooms, in which case you should probably just flip over to the 7-day menu planner or Idea Alley.
This king oyster mushroom came with several others in a brown paper bag from Wye Mountain Mushroom Farm, a one-man operation run by Little Rock native Jess Wilkins.
The bespectacled, rail-thin, 33-year-old mushroom fanatic sells his harvests at the Hillcrest Farmers Market and to restaurants including The Pantry and Brave New Restaurant.
He says the idea of mushroom farming came to him about 10 years ago on a cool, cloudy day at his shop.
"I was curious about how mushrooms work. It was something I didn't know anything about and I was literally just like, 'Man, I want to learn about this.'"
He ordered liquid culture syringes and grew lion's mane and pearl oyster mushrooms in a Tupperware container.
"I tried them and thought they were really good. They were different from anything I'd ever had," he says.
That first batch yielded more than five pounds of mushrooms, which was more than he could eat. Luckily, his then-girlfriend was a server at 1620 Savoy, the Little Rock restaurant that closed in 2016.
"She mentioned to her chef that I had these mushrooms, and he bought them and liked them. That gave me the idea that maybe there was a market here."
Wilkins was obsessively researching mushrooms and following mushroom forums online and was beginning to think that growing mushrooms would be more fun than working as a handyman, his most recent career. (He'd also been a cook and a professional bass fisherman).
"Some of the handyman work is hard," he says. "You're crawling under people's houses, doing things you just don't want to do."
He started his farm about two years ago while living on Wye Mountain. According to mushroomcompany.com, it's one of several mushroom operations in Arkansas. Others include Earth Art and Foods in Mount Pleasant, Fat Top Farm in Farmington and Sweden Creek Farm in Kingston.
Wilkins' operation, now near Pinnacle Mountain, is in a small shop behind his house. He opens the door and we step into a humid, stuffy room. On shelves are clear, plastic bags of supplemented sawdust called substrate, from which varieties of mushrooms are incubating.
He points to white tendrils spreading through the substrate.
"The white stuff is mycelium," he says. "It's the body of the mushroom. The mushroom is like the apple and the mycelium is the tree."
Inside another room in Wilkins' shop is the fruiting chamber, where the temperature is around 58 degrees — about 20 degrees cooler than the outer room — and more shelves of mushrooms.
He pulls out a few samples, including lion's mane, which looks a lot like cauliflower, and cute little chestnut mushrooms that have long, thin stems and look like their tops have been browned in an oven and sprinkled with powdered sugar.
"These are a mushroom's mushroom," Wilkins says. "With their texture and their size you're not making a meat substitute out of them. They have a very pleasing texture and are mild-flavored."
The chestnut mushrooms I sauteed in olive oil and served over risotto added a perfectly earthy tone to the creamy grain.
Along with chestnuts, Wilkins' staple mushrooms include blue oyster, king oyster and lion's mane, he says, adding that he has cultures for about a dozen more strains.
His favorite is the sturdy king oyster, which is often used as a meat substitute.
"They have a lot of body and a meat flavor," he says. "You can grill them and they're not going to fall through your grill. You can smoke them, saute them, bake them or put them in your gumbo."
He has even made a king oyster ceviche.
Using Wilkins' recipe, I cooked a batch of "scallops" from the thick stems of several king oysters. After soaking them in hot water for about an hour, I simmered them in wine and vegetable broth until the liquid was absorbed and then browned them in a skillet with garlic and shallots.
The result were ridiculously tender, succulent faux scallops that paired beautifully with the risotto and sauteed mushrooms.
THE STAR ATTRACTION
Tomas Bohm, owner of The Pantry and The Pantry Crest restaurants in Little Rock, is a regular Wye Mountain Mushroom Farm customer.
"Jess just dropped off some king oyster mushrooms," Bohm says one morning earlier this month. "They have an amazing texture. It's almost like eating lobster meat. We'll figure out a special for them tonight. The dish is always built around the mushrooms."
When cooking with mushrooms, Bohm says, "don't overdo it. They don't take long to cook. Saute them in a little olive oil with some fresh herbs, a little lemon zest and let it be. Maybe eat it on toast or with some polenta or grits. You want the mushroom to be the star. If you just want to use the tops you can save the stems for a soup or a broth."
Chef Titus Holley of The Pantry says he uses king oysters the most in his cooking at the restaurant.
"You can do great vegetarian and vegan options with those. They're very hearty. With the chestnuts, you can make sauces that are very rich and dark. They also make a great presentation because they are little mushrooms with skinny stems."
Wilkins enjoys interacting with home cooks at the farmers market, where he can spread his mushroom knowledge face to face.
"The No. 1 question is always, 'How do I prepare these,'" he says. "I have a spiel on each strain that I have."
Customers will often propose an idea for a dish — pasta and salmon, for instance — and want to know which mushroom will go best with it. (Go with the blue oysters, Wilkins suggests.)
Before Bohm started buying mushrooms from Wilkins, he was his boss at The Pantry, where Wilkins was a cook.
"He's one of those adventurous guys," Bohm says. "He's a hard worker, he's a dreamer and he follows his dreams. I love that about him."
Wilkins is in the process of expanding his backyard shop to keep up with demand.
"In the beginning, there was a lot of trial and error," he says of his fungus farming exploits. "I was failing all over the place, and it brought me to tears more than once. But that's just what it takes. I've come a long way."
King Oyster Mushroom Scallops
½ pound king oyster mushrooms
1 cup vegetable broth
¼ cup white wine
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 shallot, minced
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
Cut mushroom stems into scallop-sized slices. Soak in hot water for 1 hour. Drain.
Place mushrooms in medium-high skillet. Add broth and wine. Simmer, allowing mushrooms to absorb liquid, 10 to 15 minutes.
Drain remaining liquid, if any. Add butter, garlic, shallot. Brown stems on both sides, making sure not to burn garlic or shallot.
Recipe from from Jess Wilkins
Risotto With Chestnut Mushrooms
6 cups chicken broth, divided use
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided use
1 pound chestnut mushrooms, whole
1 shallot, diced
1 cup arborio rice
¼ cup dry white wine
3 tablespoons finely chopped chives or basil
4 tablespoons butter
Sea salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
In a medium saucepan, warm broth over low heat.
In a large saucepan or deep skillet, warm 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat. Stir in the mushrooms, and cook until soft, about 3 minutes. Remove mushrooms and their liquid, and set aside.
Add the remaining tablespoon olive oil to the now-empty saucepan and stir in the shallot. Cook 1 minute. Add rice, stirring to coat with oil, and cook 2 minutes. When the rice has taken on a pale, golden color, pour in wine, stirring constantly until the wine is fully absorbed. Add 1/2 cup broth to the rice, and stir until the broth is absorbed. Continue adding broth 1/2 cup at a time, stirring often, until the liquid is absorbed and the rice is al dente, about 30 minutes.
Remove from heat, and stir in mushrooms with their liquid, butter, chives or basil. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Recipe adapted from allrecipes.com
King Oyster Mushroom Pulled "Pork"
1 pound king oyster mushroom stems
Salt and ground black pepper or other desired seasoning, optional
1 cup barbecue sauce
Heat oven to 400 degrees.
Using a fork, shred mushroom stems to resemble the consistency of pulled pork. Transfer shredded mushrooms to a rimmed baking sheet and season as desired. Bake 20 minutes to 30 minutes or until the edges are brown and crispy.
Toss with barbecue sauce.
Recipe adapted from Jess Wilkins
Food on 03/20/2019
Print Headline: Fungus among us