New Oyster Cult: Mushroom foraging in the IC area

Getta load of these gills! --image by Tim Taranto and Jamie Gowan
Getta load of these gills! —image by Tim Taranto and Jamie Gowan

Early each spring, on sunny days when the oak leaves are still as small as squirrel ears, the “cult of the morel” emerges: Iowans, poking around south-facing slopes for the prized mushrooms. But morel hunting can prove frustrating. A day’s hunt may yield only a handful of undersized mushrooms, and prices for morels can exceed a hundred dollars a pound. And, before you know it, April showers bring May flowers and morel season is over.

But the woods of Eastern Iowa bear plenty of other delicious mushroom species with seasons extending late into the fall. Chicken of the woods, hen of the woods, chanterelles, black trumpets, puffballs and my favorite—oysters.

How to Find Them

Oysters are one of the most widely consumed mushrooms in the world. They can be easily farmed through spore inoculations but, in my opinion, the wild varieties are the best eating. And since oysters are easy to identify and, unlike morels and chanterelles, have no poisonous lookalikes, they’re a great gateway fungus for mushroom-hunting novices.

Another great thing about oysters is their reliability. They grow on tree bark, and if you discover a cluster of them fruiting from the trunk of an old birch after a rain, chances are good that you’ll continue to find them there again and again. I’ve got a few go-to trees around Iowa City that I visit whenever the weather is humid, warm and sunny—in other words, just right for fungus.

Oysters grow in shelflike clusters on dead or living trees, appearing virtually stemless thanks to their gills, which run parallel down their discrete stem. The mushrooms themselves vary in color from cream to yellow to gray. Their scent is distinctive—similar to anise or liquorice. A single tree may yield a few oysters to a few pounds of them.

How to Eat Them: Oyster Mushroom Tacos

6 tortillas, warmed (La Regia has great fresh flour and corn tortillas)
1 lb oyster mushrooms, sliced
½ white onion, diced
1 medium poblano pepper, diced
1 tablespoon vegetable or coconut oil
½ cup queso fresca, shredded
1 small lime, sliced
Cilantro, added to taste

• Soak 1 lb of oysters in warm salt water for five minutes, then blot dry with a cloth. (Be sure to evict any insects hiding out in the gills.)
• Heat your oil over medium/high heat, and add thinly sliced mushrooms.
• Simmer until the mushrooms are soft and slightly browned and have released a good amount of water.
• Drain the mushroom water from the pan, and
• Add the diced poblano. When the poblano has browned, season with salt and pepper.
• Serve on warm tortillas and top with raw onion, cheese, lime and cilantro.

Further Reading

A useful guide, Mushrooms of the Upper Midwest by Teresa Marrone and Kathy Yerich, is available at Prairie Lights for $16.99. It’s a well-organized and helpful resource for beginners and experienced mushroom hunters alike.