Fungus: It’s what’s for dinner
A wild mushroom feast, complete with recipes, at Leon Bistro
Black trumpets. Truffles. Lion’s mane. Morels. Name a variety of mushroom and it was probably on the menu last Tuesday (Feb. 7) at Leon Bistro. The occasion? Mushrooms Galore, a cooking class led by chef Ann Leon that included tutorials and recipes along with discussion of growing and foraging the edible fungi (and how to avoid inedible varieties).
Did you know that you can find edible shrooms right here in Butte County, as close to home as Bidwell Park? Tim Romero, who, along with partners Kevin Hanley and Trevor Boeger, launched Mushroom Authority last year, told the roomful of eager eaters that he’s spotted the distinct white, cascading lion’s mane growing on trees while walking through the park. That particular mushroom is one of the varieties the trio grow in their north Chico warehouse.
The lion’s mane also happens to be delicious, compared by many to seafood like shrimp or lobster. Leon incorporated it into several of the evening’s dishes, including the first: pizza. On top was a smorgasbord of mushrooms, chopped up and sauteed with onion, garlic and shallots. (Quick tip from Leon: If not using the stems in your dish, set them aside to create stock.)
Second came my favorite dish of the night, one I will most definitely be attempting to replicate at home: mushroom soup. Again, this recipe incorporated many different varieties. Ultimately blended to a thick, creamy texture, the flavor in that soup was out-of-this-world. Several more courses followed—a mushroom and ricotta gnocchi, a crêpe filled with wild mushrooms and lentils; lamb-stuffed morels, portobello fritters and a wild mushroom pâté. To wrap up the evening was a candy cap mushroom sauce over vanilla ice cream. There’s a mushroom that’s sweet and smells like maple syrup? Who knew?
One of the highlights of the evening, which drew audible “oohs” and “aahs” from class attendees, was the breaded, fried, lamb-stuffed morels. What makes the morel so unique—and therefore expensive—is that it’s found only in nature. There is no cultivating these little wonders. Foragers spend lifetimes in search of the meaty, slightly nutty-flavored mushroom, which grows best after a wildfire. Leon gets hers from local foragers, including outdoors enthusiast and tour guide Henry Lomeli, who also was on hand during Tuesday’s dinner.
“I grew up with this paranoid fear of wild mushrooms,” Lomeli recalled. “I was a fungiphobe.”
Having a guide like Lomeli—or at the very least a really good guidebook—is a good way to break into the hobby. Poisonous mushrooms abound, and many are lookalikes to other, edible varieties. So, caution is key.
When it comes to cultivated mushrooms, Leon gets some of her shrooms, including lion’s mane, from Mushroom Authority. That particular variety has incredible healing qualities, according to Romero.
“Our goal is to get people to understand the health benefits of including mushrooms in their diet on a regular basis,” he said during a phone interview a few days later. “The lion’s mane markets for about $15 to $20 per pound—but it’s like a superfood.”
Companies selling the variety in supplement form (Mushroom Authority makes tinctures) tout its benefits to the brain and nervous system, along with anti-inflammatory properties. Exotic mushrooms generally are more nutritious than the buttons that overflow most supermarket displays, with different varieties holding their own healing powers: shiitakes, for instance, are antiviral, antitumor and lower cholesterol; and oysters may provide protection from cancer, according to WebMD. Portobellos, while not particularly exotic, are higher in potassium than bananas.
Mushroom Authority launched last June and grows three varieties: lion’s mane, oyster and shiitake, which Romero said they’re still working to perfect. All their shrooms grow on hard woods—so to find them in nature, one would look to tree bark and logs rather than on the ground. And to keep their operation sustainable, Mushroom Authority sources its wood material—in the form of sawdust and chips—in Durham.
“The idea that we’re taking someone’s waste and turning it into food motivates us,” Romero said.
He and his partners got into mushrooms independently, but the same way: as foragers who decided to cultivate their own. After attending a workshop on cultivating in Oroville, Romero said, he was inspired to take up the hobby. Then he met Hanley and Boeger and the three went into business together. They occupy a warehouse by the Chico Municipal Airport and are still working out the kinks and getting everything in order. For instance, their website is in the works. For now, find Mushroom Authority on Facebook.
But it appears they’ve found a niche. “A lot of local chefs like having access to these types of mushrooms,” Romero said. “They’re not common; you can’t buy them from produce distributors.” In addition to Leon Bistro, Mushroom Authority sources shrooms to downtown’s Momona as well as Two-Twenty Restaurant, which Romero says added a menu item highlighting their creations. For those who want to cook with exotic shrooms at home, they also are available at New Earth Market and Chico Natural Foods Co-op.