The Secret Ingredient: Lion's Mane
When you're just ambling through the forest, and you have no desire and no clear idea, and then you find something that you weren't expecting, and you pull from that the idea for a meal...
In email, Avery punctuates every sentence with an exclamation mark, and in person he does that too. I get the sense that he could work up enthusiasm about almost anything, but the thing that has captured his attention and become his life’s work is: mushrooms. He and his partner Amy are behind Collar City Mushrooms, the mushroom farm / shop / community space in Troy, NY where I served one of my all-mushroom dinners in November. It’s a warm, homey space that hosts poetry readings and art events and silent discos alongside the pink-lit glass-walled mushroom grow rooms (Avery hopes to build out the basement into a music venue where people can dance next to our alien friends).
The way he talks about foraging in this conversation reminds me that “cooking” is an amorphous concept that can start way before you get to the stove. The creative act of getting food on the table can encompass the patient art of growing food or the thrill of the hunt in the wild. For those of us far from the wild, it can include the thoughtful sourcing of ingredients.
I obviously had to make the lion’s mane “steak” after he talked about it. It looked and felt like a silky, fatty piece of pork belly, oozing juices when I cut into it with the one steak knife we have in the house. We couldn’t stop laughing while we ate it. I wrote up the recipe for paid subscribers Friday — hit that up and cook for a veggie sweetie on Valentine’s Day!
Surprise! I was going to talk about mushrooms. But I specifically wanted to talk about using Lion's Mane in a variety of different materials.
Lion's Mane as a mushroom is one of the most potent functional adaptogens and it's considered a nootropic, because those active compounds pass the blood brain barrier. And so that's one of the real magic aspects. I know people are like, Oh, do you have those magic mushrooms? I'm like, I have lots of magic mushrooms! [Laughs]
It’s been clinically proven to help combat Alzheimer's, dementia, Parkinson's disease, increase focus and they're looking at it for ADHD. The studies that have been done aren't like Phase III trials yet that actually dial in to what the required amounts are. What I tend to recommend is about a teaspoon [of powdered lion’s mane] but no more than two teaspoons, because what I've read and felt for myself is that over two teaspoons the efficacy doesn't increase. When I don't take my lion's mane in the morning, I find that I'm much more scattered and it takes me a little more time to find a groove. Whereas with the lion's mane, I do notice a distinct difference in my focus and ability to stay on task. And that's just with a teaspoon.
Kate: So do you take them in supplement form even if you’re cooking them for dinner? Is that sort of separate?
So the high heat that goes into cooking can often break down the active molecules and from what I’ve heard, you need far more from fresh mushrooms to have an effective dose. You also need to build up the compounds in your body and allow them to act on your system. So when you have lion's mane in a meal on Saturday, you're not like, I’m cured! Everything is great! You have to incorporate that functional adaptogen into your system repeatedly in order for your body to go like, Oh, this is medicine that I'm going to pull from.
But as an ingredient they’re very versatile. Because of their shape and size, they can be cut into large chunks or shredded into little bits — I made a pulled pork thing that was delicious. We had an art event here and the guy put it raw on pizzas in a woodfired pizza oven, and he served it with pesto and fresh mozzarella and tomatoes and a truffle-infused glaze. And it was incredible. I was a little skeptical about putting the mushrooms on raw, but it came out absolutely perfect. It’s a really unique mushroom because of the way it shreds and can be used as a crab replacement. Like you can make crabcakes. If you flavor anything with Old Bay it’s going to give that fishy flavor, but it's really about the mouthfeel and the texture.
This guy Eric invited us over for dinner one time. He marinated some lion’s mane in garlic powder, salt, pepper and beetroot juice. And so the lions soaked up this redness, and then he must have cut them like an inch thick because I gave him some nice giant meaty ones. And he used a cast iron pan and then another cast iron pan on top and got a great sear. And, Kate, I had to do a double take, when you cut into it and it had these wavy, fatty looking bits and I was just like, This is a mushroom? The mouthfeel was very steak-y. And the look was very steak-y. I had to convince myself that it was in fact a mushroom. He did a surf and turf dinner, so he made king trumpet scallops and he used tiny little shiitakes to make a buttery escargot on crackers. And everything was vegan. It was probably one of the top five meals I’ve had in my life. The presentation was incredible and the flavors and textures were incredible. And knowing that we grew the ingredients that then were turned into this incredible dish was just amazing.
K: Can you talk about how you got in to mushrooms?
You know, the fascination for mushrooms began very early on for me. My grandfather started a sawmill when he came back from Korea. And up until I was like 18 years old, I basically just worked on the sawmill. So I was raised in the forest, and finding mushrooms was always a fascination. I knew trees and that was what clued me in to where mushrooms would be in the forest. So you’d find polypore bracket mushrooms on different trees. My father would cut the larger trees, and bring Brackett mushrooms home and we had them all around our house.
In my teens and early 20s I enjoyed psilocybin mushrooms as a way to explore my consciousness and that was an adventure in itself, going like, Oh wow, these mushrooms are something entirely different from finding the mushrooms in the forest. And then when I started dating Amy, one of the things that brought us together was that our phones were basically pictures of mushrooms. We’d go on hikes and we're looking at the ground, we're on our hands and knees, we’re rolling in the leaf debris and we're like, Look at this. Look at this. Look at this. She had been growing mushrooms on a hobby level, just shiitake logs, and we enjoyed those super fresh mushrooms. But we didn't have the exposure to the whole variety of mushrooms that exist until we started growing them.
So we started foraging and consuming different mushrooms and going like, This one is so amazing, this one is so rich. Like maitake or hen of the woods, what a flavor bomb by itself, it’s so rich and meaty and you can sear it and roast it and blend that flavor with other foods like potatoes. I mean mushrooms and potatoes, what a delightful combination. Throw some onions in there and what more do you need?
And then we found an umbrella polypore. You know, I have a bucket list —I’d like to find a beefsteak polypore or cauliflower of the woods, but I’d never even thought about an umbrella polypore. And then — from a distance I knew it wasn’t a hen of the woods. But you know, if you’ve ever foraged and you get that like Ohmygodwhat’sthat and you start running and breaking branches and jumping over things and it’s like, Look at this thing that’s just growing right there! And this is definitely an umbrella polypore and Oh my god, let’s see what it tastes like, let’s see what the mouthfeel is. We took it back and cooked it with just a little bit of butter and salt and pepper. There were these secret hints of apricot fruitiness that hit your mouth at first, and then an anise hint, so it gave like a fruity sausage-y taste. So after that first tasting, we were like, Wow, what else can we do with this? And Amy was like, fennel, so we layered a dish with the umbrella polypore and fennel and potatoes and, Oh Kate…We have yet to find another one and it's not really a cultivatable mushroom but it was like — I mean I’m getting all verklempt here because it was so delightful and it was unlike anything I’ve ever eaten before. And it was one of those things where you’re tasting the forest, you’re tasting this richness that’s just available in the wild.
K: So the way I cook in the city, and the way I think a lot of people cook, is that you start with some ingredients on the table, and then the exploration and the satisfaction comes out of the cooking of it. But the way you're talking about foraging, it feels like that becomes part of what makes it taste so good.
Absolutely. There's an excitement and a joy that comes from it. It’s like hunting, you know, people hunt and kill things. And we're not really killing the mushrooms because the mycelium is still alive in the ground, but it is a stalking. You're putting yourself in a different mindset. When you're just ambling through the forest, and you have no desire and no clear idea, and then you find something that you weren't expecting, and you pull from that the idea for a meal…it is something completely unique to wrap your head around. It’s a joy.
And that's one of the things that in our dream of developing a mushroom farm, we want to give to other people. Our long-term plan is to have a 100-acre plot where people can camp and then we bring them out into the woods and we go right back to the lodge and cook it. When you're pulling something from the forest that you didn't expect to find, it adds a whole other layer of satisfaction and excitement to the meal that you're preparing. And, you know, wine has a certain terroir for different regions, grapes pull the nutrients and the air into themselves. Well, mushrooms are super absorptive. They’re 90% water and so they taste like the environment you find them in. So when you go to different forests and you eat the same mushroom, it does have a different taste and texture to it. Sometimes it’s a sandier soil, so these mushrooms are drier and a little bit more crumbly, but their flavor is more intense. The environment impacts food heavily and I don't know that a lot of people realize that unless they have their elbows in the dirt and are pulling stuff from the ground.
K: Is there a different sort of satisfaction in growing them?
Absolutely. You know, finding them in the forest is a surprise. And yet it's no less surprising when something grows in the farm. Providing food for people has taught me much more patience. We do have a controlled environment, quote unquote, but it's still very susceptible to changes, like Oh, we overloaded the room. And now there are too many organisms in there breathing. And so the mushrooms produce a little bit different because the CO2 content is higher and they're all reaching for air. So while there is some control, it's not completely controlled. But there is still that joy and satisfaction in going in and seeing these tiny little pins, and then the next day seeing them evolve a little bit more. The oysters in particular grow so fast you can almost just set up a lawn chair and drink a cup of tea and watch them uncurl before your very eyes. There are some that take much longer. Chestnuts in particular — we have a restaurant that is using chestnut mushroom clusters and they’re cornmeal-battering and frying them and creating little blooming onion clusters with some pickled red onion and microgreens — it’s so delightful, and we just can’t provide enough for them. The chef called me in a panic on Saturday and was like, Can you bring me any more chestnuts? and unfortunately they're a really desirable mushroom and people came in and bought them all. It was going into their Saturday crowd and this is one of their most popular appetizers and as an ingredient provider, that's traumatic. I’m just like, I can't give you what you need. I'm so sorry. I can see them on the shelf, but they're just not ready.
K: How has it been trying to fit into the supply chain?
Oh yeah, supply chains and commodity, it's not something that I ever thought about getting involved in. It’s an entirely different skill to kind of balance everything. Like, we have 30% left of the substrate that goes into growing the mushrooms. Okay, let me order some more. Oh my god, there was a storm in Iowa and there's no soy right now for four weeks. Holy crap now my growth process is going to be impacted. And I can't provide the ingredients for the dishes that people need. It's very interesting to be a small cog in this machine that is providing nutritive food and unique ingredients to people at various levels of consumption. It's definitely a challenge.
K: Does it make you want to scale up more or less?
I think scaling up more will reduce the hurt if something goes awry, because there's more buffer. But it's definitely a tightrope act. And it's like, can we use this pile of money to satisfy our immediate needs? Or can we use a portion of it to start setting up something that will satisfy more needs in the future? Right now we're only providing like 100 to 150 pounds a week. And with the space that we have with more labor we could do 300 pounds a week. And once we move upstairs and scale up into a commercial kitchen and to our additional grow rooms, we will not only be able to provide 500 pounds of fresh mushrooms to our region and beyond, but also provide more prepared foods and turn some of the stuff that isn't pretty into the soup stocks or dumplings or a variety of different things. So then we’ll have less waste and be able to use those mushroom bits to continue to flourish.
What I’m Cooking
I don’t know if these steaks are just like the ones made by Avery’s friend Eric (I’ll have to meet Eric) but they were definitely so juicy/chewy/meaty as to be a bit uncanny. This is an easy dish to make, so give it a try next time you want to mess with your vegetarian friends in the most loving way.
Recipes for paid subscribers: