Much as I like wild mushrooms, I leave the foraging to Kevin Doyle, founder and owner of Forest Mushrooms in St. Joseph, Minn.
Doyle and his crew of 12 employees gather chanterelle, morels and trumpet mushrooms on the area's rolling forested hills. They also grow 3,000 pounds of shiitake and oyster mushrooms each week on their indoor farm, former home to the hogs of nearby St. John's Abbey. In addition, Doyle sources 20-some varieties of dried mushrooms from around the world to make his Forest Mushrooms Inc. the state's largest fungi operation with sales nationwide.
His career grew out of a lifelong passion for the woods.
"Growing up, we didn't have a TV, so I found entertainment exploring nature, and I became a botanist as a kid," Doyle said.
In his mid-20s, he and several college friends began growing mushrooms in a basement to sell to Twin Cities restaurants. His interest in the business mushroomed while his friends moved on.
On Forest Mushrooms' indoor farm, the "fruiting rooms" are kept at a controlled temperature and humidity. Here, shiitake and oyster fungi sprout from pasteurized rounds of straw or sawdust that have been innoculated with organic nutrients. The fresh mushrooms are available packaged and in bulk in grocery stores and co-ops throughout the region.
It's the dried mushrooms, though, that I find most interesting. As with all wild foods, the fresh mushroom season is short and unpredictable. Fresh mushrooms are extremely perishable and difficult to ship long distances, so Doyle purchases those he distributes directly from sources that dry them on-site. He carries trompette, champignon, chanterelle, lobster, maitake, morel, oyster, paddy straw, wood ear, slippery Jack, porcini and portabella dried mushrooms.
He also packages mushroom combinations, which include a Stir-fry Blend, Forest Blend and Woodland Blend. Each full 1-ounce package provides basic information about the variety (country of origin, history and cooking suggestions). Prices range from $2 for a package of oyster mushrooms to $17.50 for morels.
"Eight to 10 pounds of fresh mushrooms will yield a pound of dried," Doyle said. So while those dried morels may seem pricey, consider that a pound of fresh morels picked in high season can run close to $50 per pound.
"We screen the dried mushrooms before they're packaged so you're not paying for powder or shreds, just the whole mushroom," said Doyle.
To prepare dried mushrooms, give them a good soak in enough hot water to cover (and save that water because it's a delicious stock). Treat reconstituted mushrooms just like fresh — in soups, stews, stir-fries and pasta.
Packaged dried mushrooms maintain their quality for years on the shelf, ready for last-minute dinners and unexpected guests.
Find Forest Mushrooms at local food co-ops and grocery stores. For recipes and online availability, see ForestMushrooms.com.