Text and photos by Monica Kass Rogers
Matt Lopez was just a little kid when his dad started growing mushrooms in and around the family home on 76th Street. “He didn’t have much luck with buttons,” Lopez recalls, “but he got really good at growing oysters.”
Fascinated, young Matt learned what he could from his father, and then went so deep with his own research, the mycology exhibit he entered in the school science fair got disqualified. “They didn’t believe that a nine-year-old could’ve done it, which really bummed me out,” says Lopez. “But I was still the coolest kid in school, knowing so much about mushrooms,” he adds, laughing.
Lopez’ fungi fascination never died. At twenty-eight he’s now the head mycologist at Windy City Mushroom, which founder Guy Furman and co-owner John James Staniszewski recently moved from Humboldt Park to a sprawling 50,000-square-foot warehouse (once a World War II motor plant) in Ford City.
Together, the team is building an exotic mushroom empire. Going far beyond the little white buttons or porcini most of us have eaten, Windy City specializes in exotics, growing Chestnut mushrooms, Elm, Italian, Blue and Black Pearl King Trumpet Oyster mushrooms, Maitake, Comb Tooth, Reishi and two kinds of Lion’s Mane.
“They are all delicious, with huge health benefits,” says Staniszewski, explaining that research has shown Lion’s Mane to help prevent memory loss, and Oyster mushrooms are low-calorie, low-fat, high-fiber morsels loaded with vitamin D and potassium, plus containing all nine essential amino acids, making them a complete protein. But good stuff notwithstanding, most home cooks need coaching on how to prepare them.
To help familiarize people with these lesser-known beauties, Windy City’s initial effort was to place product with Chicago-area chefs. “Getting in the door with chefs has been pretty easy because we’ve got product that they don’t encounter very often,” says Furman. “No other grower here is offering the assortment of mushrooms that we have.” Windy City now has more than fifty restaurants cooking with their ‘shrooms, as well as presence at five farmer’s markets. That, along with the development of a “Fungitarian” line of prepared and seasoned mushrooms sold in frozen pouches, has helped. As well, the company is getting shelf placement for the fresh mushrooms in grocery-store chains. Contract feeding (healthcare and schools) is expected to come next, as well as the future development of medicinal and health-aid mushroom products. Once demand exceeds capacity in Chicago, the team plans to add mushroom farms in Southern and Western regions of the United States.
Seeing the mushrooms growing at the Ford City “farm,” it’s hard not to geek out about the science involved. To begin, Windy City starts with a mixture of wood pulp and soybean hulls heated in an enormous autoclave. Cooled, this is then combined with a mixture of millet, wheat, oats and rye that has been inoculated with mushroom spawn from petri dishes grown in clean rooms. Pressed into blocks and encased in plastic grow bags, the blocks of not-yet-mushrooms are placed on rows upon rows of shelves in a vast mushroom “library.” There they will incubate for three to six weeks until ready to fruit in climate-controlled rooms the company has fashioned out of container vessels.
This is where things get truly spectacular: The mushrooms burst forth in coral-like profusion—Oysters from the sides of the bags; other varieties, from the tops. Once they start to fruit, it takes just a day for the mushrooms to be ready for harvest and delivery.
“The best way to keep them fresh until you are ready to cook them is in a cooler,” says Furman, “And once cooked, they freeze really well.”
While each mushroom variety has a different flavor profile, ranging from delicately sweet to robust and earthy, a simple sauté with olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper will yield tasty results.
“They take really well to a wide variety of spices and cooking techniques,” says Staniszewski. “Mediterranean, Asian, Caribbean, Indian—you can take them in any direction.”
Paired with the caramelly sweetness of roasted fennel, nutty farro, fresh lemon and parsley, the mushrooms ( Lion’s Mane, Chestnut and Blue and Elm Oysters) are very good in this dish. If you are eating gluten-free, substitute brown rice for the farro.
Fennel, Farro & Mushroom Bowl
1 cup organic farro
2 tsp. salt, divided
2 to 3 fennel bulbs, cores discarded, bulbs sliced into small pieces to make 3 cups (Save a few fronds for garnish)
Freshly ground black pepper
5 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil, divided
Zest from 1 lemon
2 tsp. fresh lemon juice (or more, to taste)
½ cup yellow onion, slivered OR shallot, slivered
3 cups fresh mushrooms (oyster, chestnut, Lion’s Mane), cleaned and sliced
2 cups fresh parsley leaves, minced
¼ cup shaved parmesan to garnish
Balsamic syrup drizzle, as desired
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Prepare farro in a rice cooker (3 cups water to 1 cup farro) OR prepare farro on stovetop as follows: In a heavy-bottomed pot over high heat, bring 2 quarts water to a boil with 1 tsp. salt. Add 1 cup farro and return hot water to boiling. Reduce heat to medium and boil farro, uncovered, about 30 minutes until soft. Drain off water. Place farro in large bowl. Finely grate the zest of one lemon into the farro. Squeeze 2 teaspoons of juice from half of the lemon into the farro. Stir in 2 Tbsp. of the olive oil.
In a large shallow bowl, toss fennel pieces with 2 Tbsp. olive oil, ½ tsp. salt and several grinds of fresh black pepper. Spread fennel in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Roast for ten minutes. Stir fennel pieces. Roast for another ten minutes or until caramelized and crispy on the edges. Remove from oven. Scoop roasted fennel into the farro.
In a sauté pan over medium-low heat, add remaining 1 Tbsp. of olive oil and slivered onion or shallot. Cook for three minutes, stirring. Add ½ cup water and continue cooking until onion is quite soft. Add sliced mushrooms and continue cooking until soft and no water remains in the mixture. Salt and pepper to taste. Stir in minced parsley. Scoop mixture into the bowl of farro. Stir to combine. Adjust seasoning with more lemon juice, salt and pepper. Place in serving bowl (or bowls); top with shaved parmesan and drizzle with balsamic syrup. Serve warm.