Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Italian Love Affair
Written by Mary Ellen

The Italian Oyster is a delight in both the kitchen and the grow room.

What is the big whoop about Italy and food? Forget the Gelato. The whoop is really all about the Italian Oyster Mushroom. Forget also that the name probably has nothing to do with Italy (besides the name). This is a big complex of Oyster mushrooms with a very wide geographical range. What we do know is that they are a wonderful species of Pleurotus; they are beautiful, tender, creamy brown and white, succulent and the closest culinary match to the glorious King Oyster, and they are a lot easier to grow. Known to mycologists as Pleurotus pulmonarius, the Italian Oyster (Indian Oyster, Chocolate Oyster or Phoenix Oyster, etc.) may have lots of variations within its group, but all share some characteristics that are important to both cultivators and cooks.

In my case, I have been grateful for the forgiving nature of the Italian Oyster, which we grow indoors on pasteurized straw, all winter long. This species seems less sensitive to the effects of light on fruitbody formation, and at the 45th parallel, although we need supplemental light, we don’t always arrange for it. Perhaps it is just not as noticeable because of the shape: short thick stem and spatula or lung shaped caps (hence the species name pulmonarius)* and much less inclined to become overly cupped, clustered and long stemmed as the Tree Oyster group. While it is considered a warm weather Oyster (compared to the P. ostreatus group such as Grey Dove, Blue Dolphin and Polar White strains), it also handles a 58 degree (F) fruiting room just fine.


Italian Oyster fruiting from a straw bag in the grow room at F&FP.

While first crops of the Italian are robust and large capped, subsequent flushes are smaller and can be harvested very young as “Petite Italiana.” A handful of these sweet Petites are tender, juicy and pure delight to use in the kitchen. Even a small grow room can house a few bags of these Oysters, which will produce many months worth of special meals.

One of my favorite ways to use these mushrooms is to braise them; split each in half or in quarters and then caramelize one side in butter, letting them braise in the released juices with a dash of fresh lemon juice or white wine. I treated myself to such a dish the other day in celebration of more snow and the promise of a long, slow spring, nourishment for our thirsty soil following last year's drought. 

Braised Petite Italiana with Snow Peas

Braised Petite Italiana with Snow Peas sets the mood for spring.
1 pkg. snow peas, rinsed and unstrung (6 oz.)

4 oz. small Italian Oysters, including stems, split in half (start the split from cap side)
2 tsp. butter
1 T. fresh Lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 tsp. oil

In a medium saucepan, heat 2 tsp butter and add torn caps, Let the pan side caps sizzle for about 2 minutes until they become caramely brown. Sprinkle liberally with coarse salt and fresh pepper, stir and put the lid on. A minute or so later, add 1 T of lemon juice, replace lid and cook until tender. 

Remove the mushrooms and set aside. Add 1 tsp oil and add the snow peas, stir frying briefly until tender. Plate the peas and top with a liberal scoop of mushrooms. Happy Spring!

*Kuo, M. (2009, April). Pleurotus pulmonarius: The summer oyster. Retrieved from the MushroomExpert.Com website: