Look for this lovely spring abundance now in Western Washington. You’ll most likely find these precious saprotrophic friends on hard woods like big leaf maple or red alder, usually standing or fallen dead or partially dead logs. I grabbed some right off a trail in Lord Hill Regional Park near Snohomish on a downed Maple. Shelf mushrooms are a great beginner type of mushroom to learn, and this species is abundant and wide spread throughout the woods in springtime. Pleurotus are the most common cultivated mushrooms for eating on earth. Though they are gilled, and often white (our most toxic species have these traits), oysters grow out of the sides of recently dead trees, NOT on the ground in the duff of the forest floor where the toxic verities reside. Again, I can’t stress enough the need to go into the field with an experienced mushroomer before you start picking mushrooms for consumption on your own. Beginners don’t have the sight wisdom to distinguish many of the classic mushroom characteristics I’m referring to now, but identification and confidence will come with dirt time and mentoring, like most skills. If you’ve not had some time out with an experienced picker, please stick to general identification- DO NOT EAT.
P. ostreatus is not known for its amazing rich taste, but the texture of this fungus remains firm during the cooking process, and takes on the wonderful flavors of anything you wish to add. I usually start by cooking the water out of this species, then add it into a stir fry with rice and other veggies. It’s important to always cook wild mushrooms thoroughly before consuming. Most people who experience digestive issues with safe to eat mushrooms can be traced back to under-cooking. Take time to reduce oysters of their water and you’ll have that much more space for the flavor of your other ingredients to take hold. A well cooked mushroom remains firm, but lose that initial limp soggy texture caused by sweating when a mushroom is first exposed to heat . The picture below shows oysters sweating in the cast-iron pan on medium heat. I’ve added a little salt and pepper, but no oil yet.
If you grease the mushrooms before they have a chance to sweat out, you’ll lock in a lot of that moisture, keeping the mushroom flesh floppy, and giving your mouth an experience of biting down on a wet sponge. Firm up that flesh with a few extra minutes of heat and you’ll have a food fit for any table. I added these delicious treats to some veggies and nuts as an accompaniment to wild caught trout. Pairing wild foods is my equivalent to any Michelin star meal. The experience of harvesting the mushrooms on a trail was such a pleasant find. Catching the fish at my favorite cranberry bog (on public land), in a thunderstorm, with a friend was also a great foodie experience. I can’t say that this type of eating is anything less than luxury. Taking time to harvest wild food is a lifestyle, involves knowledge of what’s safe to eat, and in the case of fishing in Washington State- legal permits for wild caught animals. You location of harvesting is also imperative- mushrooms often grow in toxic places, so know the landscape history before you harvest, and know if its even legal to harvest where you are- national park are not legal harvest places, nor is private land without permission.
Food is seasonal, and even if you don’t have time to go out and catch it yourself, take the time to know where it comes from. Many cultivated mushrooms are grown in highly controlled environments, often with chemical inputs- so know the grower and get a tour of the facility if you can. Fish can live in polluted waters- and most ocean caught food is now showing high counts of pollutants- and farm raised seafood can be very costly to the environment and human health. Please watch this for more about the harm of fish farms to us and our wild waters. We often forget that fish farming is industrial farming like any other. The trout I caught come from waters that host a variety of sensitive species such as sun dews and wild cranberries. If the water was polluted, these species would not be here. The trout are small, but wild, and eat strictly wild things. Farm fish may be much bigger- but it’s mostly fat, fat which holds a high count of the pollutants from chemical inputs. With all industrial food, there is a price. Most of the cost in not in dollars and cents, but like most industries, its out of sight, hidden in the chemical makeup of the environment, and can’t be detected without analysis in laboratory studies.
This is the problem with our current food production, using outdated models left over from The Industrial Revolution over a century ago. My enjoyment of “safe” wild food will eventually be directly affected by the greater global pollution building up everywhere. In fact, it already is- and from The Baltic Sea to our own Great Lakes runoff pollution is killing us. On land the runoff is still capable of getting into our food, because we have to water crops, so the pollution in that water goes onto the food and into the soil where it grows. As I mentioned earlier in this writing, mushrooms take up whatever toxins are in the soil- like all other living things. At Lord Hill Park, where I harvested the oysters, there are signs of industrial activity all around, and as I delved into the history of the site, I learned that mining was rampant around the mountain where we hiked. Though the big leaf maple looked “ok” (it was dead), I would not come back to that park to harvest wild food again. The pond on public land where I caught the trout is surrounded by timber harvesting activity, and industrial forest practices include chemical spray treatments to prevent weeds choking out young trees, and eventual treated sewage applications to assist the nutrient intake of mono-crop trees for faster growth. These continued inputs will eventually pollute all the wild water.