Willy Crosby has Found His Niche with Shiitake, Oyster, and Lion’s Mane Mushrooms at Fungi Ally in Hadley

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, August 12, 2016, by Claire Hopley

In summer, River Road in North Hadley looks idyllic. There are farm stands piled with vivid vegetables, verdant fields of cabbages and corn, and pretty yards filled with flowers.

Among this lush beauty, Fungi Ally might well go unnoticed. The farm grows mushrooms, and unlike the eye-catching vegetables, flowers and vines that love the sun, mushrooms grow indoors in twilight gloom.

Fungi Ally is the brainchild of Willie Crosby, who says that growing mushrooms “is a totally different form of agriculture.”

Crosby, who grew up in Boxboro, received a degree in turf grass management in 2010 from the Stockbridge School at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and in plant and soil science in 2012, also at UMass.

At the university, he worked on the student vegetable farm and later at Simple Gifts CSA Farm in North Amherst.

But then he switched to mushrooms.

“No one is doing them on a large scale in this area, so I realized I could be part of the local food scene by offering something different — specialty mushrooms,” he said.

These are unlike cultivated mushrooms you get in the supermarket — button mushrooms, portobellos, crimini — all from the same Agaricus genus, Crosby said.

He grows three kinds: shiitake, oyster and lion’s mane.

Unlike vegetables, they don’t grow in soil but in bags of specially prepared sawdust.

To grow shiitake and lion’s mane, for example, the sawdust is mixed with wheat bran; for oyster mushrooms it is mixed with cottonseed or soybean hulls. The mixture is steamed for 16 hours to destroy fungus and bacteria, and then a white cottony substance called the mycelium is added.

It is visible in newly planted bags as a few white threads. Later, it looks like a white network confined to just one or two areas of the bag. Finally, when it’s fully grown, the mycelium has colonized all its sawdusty home so the whole bag looks white. At this point the mushrooms appear.

“We allow the bags to produce fruit twice over two weeks,” Crosby said. During that time, each bag will yield about 1½ pounds of mushrooms.

Fungi Ally’s three kinds of mushrooms look and taste very different from each other. Shiitake, probably the best known of them, is a strongly and deliciously flavored Japanese mushroom of the Lentinus genus. Its Japanese name comes from the words shii, which refers to an evergreen oak tree, and take, which means mushroom, so the word literally means” the oak tree mushroom.”

Shiitake look like stereotypical brown mushrooms with a flattish cap on a paler stem. Like many other mushrooms that make their home on trees, the shiitake is not fragile. Indeed, its stems are too tough to eat, though they contribute dramatic flavor if they are used to make stock.

Large caps can be cooked on an outdoor grill, or cut into strips and paired with smaller caps for cooking in stir-fries and casseroles. The flavor survives for a long time, so both in the west and in its Asian homeland, the shiitake is often sold dried and cooked after being soaked in water. This makes a stash of dried shiitake a useful ingredient to keep on hand.

The oyster mushroom is from the Pleurotus genus, and can come in blue, pink and yellow forms, but is usually shades of gray or beige. It grows on dying trees in the wild, creating a series of caps stacked on top of each in shelf-like piles.

The oyster mushroom’s regular form, grayish color and soft texture, partly account for its being named after marine oysters, and it also has seafood flavor notes.

Like shiitake, the oyster ’shroom can be found in some supermarkets.

Describing its uses in “A Passion for Mushrooms” (Trafalgar Square), Italian mushroom expert and chef Antonio Carluccio notes that it does not have a strong or dynamic flavor.

“They are versatile when cooked fresh and useful for adding that … extra mushroomy something to a dish,” he writes. “Sauté them with garlic and butter, deep-fry them dipped in egg and breadcrumbs, or use them in soups.”

The third Fungi Ally mushroom is less familiar. Called lion’s mane, or sometimes bear’s head, it is from the Heriacum genus, and forms white masses that look like a mane or beard. Once it’s cut in half you can see that it’s composed of spine-like forms. These are not sharp, though the mushroom is surprisingly firm given its rather soft appearance.

“It’s almost like a sponge, so it’s good to cook it with juicy vegetables like tomatoes or with a marinade so it absorbs the flavors,” Crosby said. “To me, it tastes like crabmeat. I like it with lemon.”

Fungi Ally is now producing 150 pounds of mushrooms a week, and plans to reach 250 pounds a week by the end of the year. Many of these are sold to distributors, who supply restaurants in Boston, New York City and Providence, Rhode Island. Locally they are available every Saturday at the Fungi Ally stall in the Amherst Farmer’s Market and at Green Fields Market in Greenfield.

Some Fungi Ally recipes appear below along with other recipes calling for the specialty mushrooms now adding to our region’s plenty.

Shiitake Mushroom Chips with Herbed Goat Cheese

You get a lot of shiitake mushrooms in a pound so this recipe from Fungi Ally will make tasty hors d’oeuvres or lunch for several people.

For the chips

1 pound shiitake mushrooms, stems removed

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 teaspoons sea salt

For the goat cheese

5 ounces goat cheese at room temperature

Zest of 1 lemon

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

2 tablespoons chopped tarragon

Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Toss the shiitake with the olive oil and salt. Put them on a tray or shallow baking dish, and cook 20-25 in the oven until they are crisp, turning them every 5 minutes.

While the mushrooms are cooking, combine the goat cheese with the lemon zest, parsley and tarragon. Season to taste with salt and pepper and refrigerate until ready to serve.

While the mushrooms are still slightly warm, top with a dollop of herbed goat cheese and serve.

Mixed Mushroom Ragu

Here’s a Fungi Ally recipe for pasta lovers.

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

½ pound oyster mushrooms

½ pound shiitake mushrooms

1 medium onion chopped

3 cloves garlic, chopped

1 25-ounce jar tomato sauce

2 sprigs fresh oregano

2 sprigs fresh thyme

1 bunch basil, chopped

¼ cup heavy cream (optional)

Salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper flakes to taste

Heat the oil in a heavy saucepan on medium-high heat and sear the mushrooms in it until lightly browned. Add the onions and garlic and sweat over low heat until translucent. Add the tomato sauce, oregano and thyme. Simmer for 10-15 minutes. Add the cream if you are using it. Remove from the heat and add the basil leaves, torn into pieces. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes.

Grilled Honey Ouster Mushrooms

Try this Fungi Ally recipe at a cookout, serving the mushrooms while everyone waits for the meat or fish to cook, or serve them alongside steak or chicken or pork.

¼ cup soy sauce

3 tablespoons honey

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1 teaspoon grated ginger

Pepper to taste

1 pound oyster mushrooms left in clusters

Turn on the grill or heat grill pan. Mix the soy sauce, honey, garlic, ginger and pepper. Marinate the mushrooms for 15 minutes. Broil or on both sides until slightly charred; serve immediately.

Lion’s Mane with Lemon and Herbs

Lion’s mane mushrooms look light and airy, and they absorb liquids at considerable speed. Though they shrink in cooking they retain their form. This recipe is based on Crosby’s liking for them with lemon. It does not contain many strongly flavored ingredients so you can taste the mushroom itself.

½ pound lion’s mane mushrooms

5 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons lemon juice plus more as needed

½ teaspoon grated lemon zest

1 tablespoon snipped fresh parsley, plus a little extra for garnish

1 teaspoon dried thyme

¼ cup white wine

Salt to taste

Slice the lion’s mane mushrooms into thickish slices — at least ¼-inch — discarding any firm or brownish stump in the center of the mushroom. In a shallow dish mix 4 tablespoons of olive oil with the lemon juice and zest, the parsley and dried thyme. Add the mushrooms and toss them in the oil mixture. They will pretty much absorb it. Let them stand for 15-20 minutes.

Heat the remaining tablespoon of olive oil in a frying pan over moderate heat. Cook the mushrooms in it for about a minute over moderate heat; turn them cook for another half minutes then add the white wine, let it bubble, then cover the pan, reduce the heat and cook for another 3-4 minutes. Season lightly with salt; garnish with bits of parsley and serve.

Stir-Fried Oyster and Shiitake Mushrooms with Summer Squashes and Oyster Sauce

Vivid yellow summer squash and green zucchini brightens this Chinese-style dish, while the mushrooms anchor it with their earthy colors and flavors.

6 ounces oyster mushrooms

4 ounces shiitake mushrooms

2 yellow summer squash, each about 5-6 inches long

1 zucchini, about 6 inches long

half a medium onion

4 tablespoons vegetable oil such as canola or peanut

2 tablespoons rice cooking wine

2 garlic cloves

1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger or more to taste\

For the oyster sauce

4 tablespoons bottled oyster sauce

2 tablespoons rice cooking wine or dry sherry

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon sesame oil

2 teaspoons cornstarch stirred to a thin paste with 2 tablespoons water

½ cup chicken or vegetable stock

Prepare the vegetables and other ingredients ahead of time and have them ready because the dish is cooked over high heat and gets done quickly.

Wipe both kinds of mushrooms and cut off and discard tough stems of the shiitake and the tough central core of the oyster mushrooms. Leave small and medium caps whole but halve larger pieces. (Both mushrooms lose volume when they are cooked, so don’t cut them up very small).

Wash the summer squash and zucchini, trim off the ends, slice lengthwise into ½-inch strips then cut these into sticks about 1½ inches long. You should have about 4 cups loosely packed of the strips.

Slice the onion from the stem down to the root, then slice into segments and separate the layer so you have thin strips of onion.

Finely chop the garlic. Peel the ginger by dragging a teaspoon across it, then grate it on a fine grater.

Mix all the oyster sauce ingredients in a bowl, stirring the cornstarch mixture in last.

When everything is ready, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a wok or sauté pan over high heat. Add the onions and summer squash and zucchini strips, and stir fry for 1 minute. Splash in the rice wine and cook for another minute or until the squashes have softened. Remove from the heat and take everything out of the pan and set aside.

Heat another 2 tablespoons of oil and when it is hot add the ginger and garlic. Stir fry briefly then pile in both sorts of mushrooms. Stir them over high heat for about a minute then stir in the oyster sauce mixture. When it has heated through and thickened slightly return the squash mixture to the pan and stir briskly until the mixture reaches simmering point. Serve immediately with rice.

Mushroom Barley Soup

Mushrooms and barley share an earthy taste, and they are old-time companions in soup. This recipe rings the changes a little by calling for richly flavored shiitake teamed with other mushrooms. Oyster or lion’s mane mushrooms are good choices, but failing these you can use crimini mushrooms from the supermarket.

2 ounces (1/ 3 cup) pearled barley

4 ounces shiitake mushrooms

6 ounces other mushrooms such as lion’s mane, or oyster mushrooms or crimini mushrooms or a mixture of two or more of these varieties

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 onion, chopped

2 carrots, cut in disks

1 celery stalk, cut in pieces plus the leafy tuft

1 garlic clove, minced

1 teaspoon dried thyme

2-3 cups stock, either vegetable, mushroom or chicken

1 bay leaf

8 peppercorns

Salt to taste

1 teaspoon cornstarch mixed with 1 tablespoon cold water

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

Put the barley in a bowl and cover plentifully with water. Let soak for a couple of hours.

To prepare the mushrooms, wipe any soil off the mushrooms with a damp paper towel. Cut off the stems of the shiitake. Coarsely chop the caps. Put the stems in a small saucepan with 2 cups of water, and simmer gently for 15-20 minutes. Cut the other mushrooms into pieces. Don’t make them too small because mushrooms shrink when they cook and you want to be able to see them.

In a large soup pan, heat the oil and soften the onion, carrots and celery in it for 4-5 minutes. Add the garlic and thyme, then add the liquid from cooking the shiitake stems plus 2 cups of mushroom or vegetable or chicken stock (or water).

Strain the barley, discarding the water but adding the barley grains to the pan along with the peppercorns, the bay leaf and ½ teaspoon of salt or to taste. Simmer for 20 minutes, then add the cut up mushrooms and continue cooking until the barley is tender.

Stir a little of the liquid from the pan into the cornstarch and water paste, then return this to the pan, and cook until the soup has slightly thickened. (If you want it thicker, add another teaspoon of cornstarch mixed with cold water.) Chop the leaves from the end of the celery stalk and add them along with the chopped parsley. Taste for seasoning and add more salt if necessary. Serve immediately or cool in the fridge and reheat as needed.