Oyster Mushroom “Meatballs”

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Oyster Mushroom “Meatballs” with Acorn & Potato “Burgers” – two winter favorites

I love the humble Oyster Mushroom (Pleuratus ostreatus and others) : it appears in our area, in one incarnation or another, in almost every season. It’s dependability reduces it to a minor note in the logs of mushroom collectors – it can often assuage the hurt of not finding more esteemed mushrooms, such as morels in spring or maitake in fall, but few people seem to get excited about it. Some mushroom hunters seem to dismiss or even despise it, but I adore it. While it may not have the deep, rich flavor of a porcini it is a reliable workhorse mushroom and can stand in for more exotic or laudable fungi in spare seasons. More importantly for my needs, it serves admirably as the basis for rich stocks and essences, dries well, and appears in such quantity that it can be used to make mushroom ketchup or soy sauce or put up as mushroom pickles.

Beyond all these virtues, it has a quality that isn’t often celebrated even by its’ enthusiasts, at least not in Western food culture : oysters have a firm, dense texture. While they can be reduced down, or even rendered crisp or dry with enough cooking, the better option is to use them in recipes that celebrate this texture. This is just one such recipe, operating on the principle that finely chopped oysters resemble meat when cooked quickly, allowing their natural texture and moisture-retention to become a quality that assists in a dish with an excellent flavor and a remarkable similarity to meat-based polpette.

Conventionally-grown or home-grown oyster mushrooms can of course be substituted in this dish, you may also find it works with the conventional button mushroom of the supermarket. I recommend using the brown variety, often labelled “Cremini” as they have a bit more structure. If collecting wild oyster mushrooms or harvesting home-grown ones, you will want to collect them when they are firm and have attained at least most of their full growth, but before they become very dry, yellow, and fragile. You will also want to avoid collecting water-logged specimens, or if you do being sure to dry them and squeeze them of excess moisture first.

Combine in a mixing bowl :

5 oz oyster mushrooms, very finely chopped or pulsed in a food processor

3-4 oz onion, grated and squeezed free of liquid or pulsed in a food processor

1/2 cup breadcrumbs, preferably homemade

2 tbs mushroom powder or “bouillon of the woods” (see note)

1-2 eggs or equivalent egg substitute

salt to taste

dashes of mushroom soy, soy, maggi seasoning, or worchestershire sauce

herbs or dried herbs, if desired

freshly ground black pepper or american juniper, if desired

Mix the ingredients with your hands and shape into golf ball-sized “meatballs.” There should be about 12. This recipe can be doubled, tripled, etc. I have deliberately kept the size of the batch in this recipe small, so that you can experiment with the preparation of it and determine how best to process and cook the meatballs. I personally favor chopping the oyster mushrooms by hand, finding that the food processor renders far too uniform a product. If resemblance to meat is your goal with this recipe, however, that may be the route you want to go. I also recommend using both mushroom soy and a dash or two of maggi or worchestershire.

“Bouillon of the woods” is a simple preparation that I make as often as I find chicken of the woods fungi (Laetiporus spp.) that are just a bit too far gone to serve as is. A simple dried mushroom powder can be substituted – for which all you need to do is to grind dried mushrooms in a spice grinder. You may use wild mushrooms you have collected and dehydrated yourself, or dried mushrooms from the fancy or conventional supermarket (it’s actually a fantastic use for the dust or shake found in the bottom of bags of purchased dried mushrooms). For the preparation of my “bouillon of the woods,” I add a pinch or two of salt and a little crumbled wild bergamot, with perhaps another spice or two if desired, to a base of dried and ground chicken of the woods. It is meant to resemble the bouillon cubes found in supermarkets, but in a powder form and with much less salt. Another possible substitute if you don’t have any dried or powdered mushrooms is to use a purchased mushroom bouillon cube, such as the Telma brand from Israel. If a commercial product is used, you will likely want to reduce the amount of salt added.

Once assembled, these can be baked in hot oven, grilled or fried in vegetable oil or other fat. I prefer the latter two options, which tend to keep the insides moist while browning the outside nicely. You can also cook them in a sauce, but I would recommend rolling the shaped meatballs in either a little flour or extra breadcrumbs and then frying first before doing so. If you encounter difficulty in keeping the meatballs together, you may have had too much moisture in your mushrooms. I find that even conventionally-grown mushrooms require a little bit of drying before incorporating into polpette.

While these are quite tasty on their own, especially with a nice sauce for dipping as an appetizer (I love them with blackhaw ketchup), they can also be substituted for pork, beef, or veal meatballs in classic Italian, European, or Asian cuisine dishes. One of my personal favorite ways to serve them is in a dish inspired by Marcella Hazan’s recipe for winter pork meatballs smothered in savoy cabbage.

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the below recipe made with kale and cabbage greens and romaine lettuce

After cooking the meatballs, I cover them to keep them warm and then in a sautée pan heat a little oil or butter. To this I add whatever greens I have available, whether wild or conventionally cultivated, adding the firmer or denser greens first and the more fragile ones later. Cauliflower greens, cabbage, kale, collards and the like are cooked a bit longer, and then blanched wild mustards, wintercress, dandelion greens or even raw watercress or lettuce are added with minced garlic once the firmer greens have softened. A minute or two later, the “meatballs” are then returned to the pan with a little white wine, and perhaps a splash of balsamic or blackhaw vinegar, and the whole is covered until heated all the way through.

This is of course, just one way to do it…

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Mushrooms & Leeks

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Heat in a wok or large skillet over high heat :

2 tbs light oil such as sunflower, vegetable or shallot oil

When the oil is quite hot, add :

6 oz leeks, cut into 1/2″ slices

Stir-fry for about a minute, until leeks begin to soften. Add :

.5 oz garlic, minced

Stir-fry for thirty seconds, then add :

1 oz scallions, chopped

Stir-fry for thirty seconds, then add :

1-2 chiles, finely chopped

Stir-fry for thirty seconds, then add :

A splash of shao xing cooking wine or sherry

Stir the aromatics and cook for thirty seconds, then add :

1 lb. button mushrooms, cut lengthwise into 2, 3 or 4 pieces (as illustrated below)

Toss mushrooms and aromatics as best as possible for one minute, then add :

2 tbs shao xing wine or sherry

2 tbs stock of any kind

A few dashes of Maggi or Golden Mountain seasoning (or Worcestershire for non-vegetarians)

Continue to cook over high heat, covering for about two minutes, then uncovering again.

This will generate a lot of liquid and start to soften the mushrooms. Now you want to braise them, stirring frequently and keeping the cover off. By the time the liquids have been cooked away, the mushrooms should be close to tender. Take care not to overcook them, you want some texture in this dish. If too much liquid has escaped, add more stock or a mix of stock and shao xing or sherry. Keep stirring.

When all the liquid is absorbed and the mushrooms are tender but not soft, turn into a serving dish.

Garnish with :

Ground sumac and/or clove, freshly ground if possible.

Serve either hot or at room temperature. This is an excellent addition to a tapas or meze platter, or served as a side dish to accompany a more traditional main course. The end result can also be chopped once cooked into more of a tapenade, perhaps with a dash of added olive oil, accompanied with bread or fresh raw vegetables.

Naturally, wild mushrooms can be substituted for the cultivated ones. I would think a similar textured-mushroom like a blewit or field mushroom would be most adequate.

Mushroom cutting technique below. I know, right, so advanced. But if you make nice thick slices like this, they will retain a good texture even after being subjected to a braising like the above.

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Edible Vs. Palatable

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When it comes to enjoyment or dislike of various flavors, no two people will ever completely resonate. For each of us, the answer to whether a particular food (wild or domesticated) is edible, palatable or actively distasteful is always going to be different.

Wild plants place us in a particularly easy to resolve area of this conversation. If something is technically edible but we don’t enjoy it, we leave it uncollected for those who do. For example, I actively dislike the berries of the wildly invasive Japanese barberry. I sincerely doubt that a time will come in my life when I will need this overwintering berry to survive. But if I ever did, you can bet that I would regard them as palatable. And then their sheer abundance would then be a blessing rather than a curse.

So by “palatable” in a wild plants context we are usually indicating a plant we aren’t interested in collecting. The distinction is an important one to bear in mind when studying and learning new plants and mushrooms because it often keeps us from over-harvesting or attempting crazy, time-intensive kitchen preparations trying to properly cook something we’ve learned is “edible.” It’s another reason why multiple sourcing any wild plant or mushroom is so very critical. In general, one will begin to get a sense of the limitations of using or preparing one’s catch by the widespread consensus on whether something is edible or merely palatable.

Into the latter category one will often find mushrooms and plants whose use is classified as “technically edible” or “medicinal.” The birch polypore mushroom (Piptoporus betulinus, pictured above) could be considered both. It’s an abundant late fall to winter mushroom in our area and can be used to make a tea for drinking or a broth for cooking. Technically, I could probably figure out a way to reduce its spongy, dense body into something that could pass through my body. But it would require such an expenditure of energy that it’s unlikely I’ll ever conduct the experiment. I’m content with steeping and infusing it, where it’s neither palatable nor distasteful but nicely bitter and useful for cooking and health.

When does an otherwise excellent edible become merely palatable? Beyond matters of taste, all foods require proper preparation to be delicious rather than simply digestible. I’m pretty sure we’ve all had (and made) a tasteless potato at some point in our lives, but then we discover how to cook them. The same is true of wild plants–each new ingredient must be learned on its’ own. It is at this point that comparisons to domesticated plants and cooking directions such as “prepare like asparagus” become ineffectual. One must learn to prepare nettles like nettles, not like spinach. Needless to say, the proper preparation is especially important to bear in mind when elements of toxicity are involved, as with milkweed or pokeweed. More often than not though, it is the difference between something one enjoys eating and something one merely gets through.