by Judy Cowling
The pale pink-orange cluster of concentric, undulating ruffles looks more like undersea coral than something growing in a Virginia Beach industrial park. Magnificent gold and blue oyster mushrooms bloom here like abstract sculptures alongside mounds of white lion’s mane and knobby clumps of maitake.
Left alone, the mushrooms are proof of nature’s odd beauty. In the hands on an expert, however, they become the magic ingredient in savory quesadillas, delicious pastas and all sorts of protein-rich dishes for those seeking healthy alternatives to meat.
Capstone Mushroom, launched last January by Ryan Staab, is one of the few companies in the state that focuses solely on providing a vast array of fantastic fungi. And the Virginia Beach business is quickly becoming a favorite among discerning chefs.
Staab, a Kempsville High School graduate, took a break from Old Dominion University in 2013 to hike the Appalachian Trail with friends. That’s how he discovered the magic of mushrooms.
“I was introduced to foraging and found three specimens of lion’s mane mushrooms in one week,” Staab says. “After preparing, eating and sharing them with other hikers, I had one of my best weeks ever. I did some research and found studies suggesting they cause neurogenesis, help repair the central nervous system and could prevent memory loss, dementia and Alzheimer’s.”
This newfound passion sent him packing for Portland to intern with Peter McCoy at the Radical Mycology Collective mushroom farm. McCoy authored Radical Mycology which explored the many facets of fungi from biological to ecological, philosophical to medicinal.
“Mushrooms are so savory, meaty and healthy, they check off all the boxes for the perfect vegetarian meat,” Staab says. “I got to thinking about farming them, but my friends were skeptical.”
But after doing a lot of research, he decided that mushrooming was the missing piece in between agriculture and modern cuisine. “I want to exalt the humble mushroom way beyond the portobello and the button,” he says. “I want to share the diversity of the mushroom kingdom.”
And with this diversity comes a smorgasbord of flavors and textures that area chefs put to good use in their kitchens.
Stephanie Dietz uses Staab’s vibrant pink oyster mushrooms at The Pink Dinghy, the new Vibe District restaurant. After a quick chop and a swirl in the sauté pan with some roasted garlic, she creates a silky filling for savory quesadillas that freezes well and can be pulled out as needed. “Even though they don’t stay pink during cooking, they are the best mushrooms I have ever eaten,” she says.
Over at Terrapin Restaurant, Chef Rodney Einhorn runs through about 30 pounds of mushrooms week. When he wants a softer, milder chew, he’ll incorporate various oyster varieties into his Maine lobster tagliatelle. If he needs nutty and dense, he’ll use the king trumpet, also known as French horns. Maitakes can stand up to grilling but he’s careful with the softer lion’s mane as they are spongy and tend to soak up whatever they’re next to.
“I use every bit, even the tough stems, which I’ll salt and lacto-ferment to bring out the acid and brighten a sauce,” he says. “At first, I had to turn people on to mushrooms. But now, once people started eating real mushrooms, they ask for them.”
Yianni Choutris used to order the store-bought variety for his eponymous restaurant and wine store at the beach until staff asked him to cutback because they weren’t selling. An introduction at the farmers market led to a purchase of golden oysters from Capstone which Choutris promptly gave to his chef, Katie Mueller.
“She created an appetizer by grilling them then finishing them off on a cedar plank in the oven,” Choutris says. “I didn’t think they’d sell that way, but we sold out. Every week. Now customers want it as their entree.”
The process of farming these mushrooms is laborious and meticulous. Staab farms his mushrooms in bags of sawdust and minerals stacked vertically in climate-controlled tents. He keeps these environments as sterile as possible, at times donning a mask and gloves to prevent bacterial growth and germs from spreading. Prices range from $8 to $10 a pound.
“There is a vegetative state, then a breeding stage, then they colonize, then fruiting happens,” says Staab. “Did you know that mushrooms breathe like humans? They breathe in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. Too much carbon dioxide will deform the mushroom, so we have one fan to blow oxygen in and another to blow the carbon dioxide out.”
A cloud of fog fills the tents creating the moist and humid environment required for the mushrooms to flourish. Staab harvests the fungi when they are between the size of a bowling ball and large watermelon. He picks 20 to 30 pounds of mushrooms, often called “fruit,” a day.
“I want to offer educational opportunities and workshops to keep advancing the field of mushrooms. I want to help put mushrooms on a pedestal in
Hampton Roads for years to come.”
A Primer for the Mushroom Novice
Oyster: Dressed to party in pink, blue and golden yellow, they are quite possibly the most widely consumed mushrooms worldwide. Mild-to-sweet woodsy flavor. You can’t go wrong with these especially in egg-centric dishes, cream sauces or sautéed until crispy as a topping for anything that deserves a crunch.
Lion’s mane: In the forest, a rare and scary find. I don’t know who the first person was to think they should eat an alien looking white thing growing on a tree, but Staab’s are super safe. Known for a delicate, seafood flavor and consistency, these are great sautéed and served as a topper to just about anything or sliced, sautéed and served like a steak on a salad.
Maitake: Also known as “Hen of the Woods,” these are hearty, nutty, dense superstars that will grill with ease or can be sautéed with pork or chicken.
Shiitake: Fragrant, meaty and toadstool shaped, these have a mild and smoky flavor and are popular in soups and noodle dishes. Stems are usually too tough to eat.
Chestnut: Earthy, nutty, bubbled clusters that
resembled mini toasted marshmallows, these are tender and tasty even raw. But sauté them in butter, and they become crispy, chewy additions to anything that would benefit from those attributes.