Don Simoni, owner of Mushroom Adventures in Marysville, marvels at how he can take items traditionally destined for the dump or the compost pile, and use them to create a delicacy that is delicious and beautiful: mushrooms.
His tools of the trade are items that most would discard: straw left from the wheat harvest, chicken manure and waste from cottonseed pressings. He mixes his ingredients together, adds water and spores of just the right sort, and gets mushrooms: curvy clusters of pearl gray oyster mushrooms, flat brown portabellas, creamy brown criminis, exotic-looking shiitakes and white buttons. When the process is finished, the leftovers become compost in someone’s garden or in Simoni’s persimmon orchard.
“It’s a little more complicated than that,” he says, “but you get the idea. Start to finish, it’s a very green process.”
Simoni has been growing mushrooms to sell at farmers’ markets for almost a decade. His adventure, and he looks at his life as a mushroom farmer as a big adventure, started in a basement in San Francisco where he made mushroom kits he sold so people could grow their own mushrooms. He still sells mushroom kits from early fall through late spring. Then he started growing fresh mushrooms in his off-season, and things, well, grew. Soon he found himself looking for acreage to house his burgeoning mushroom business.
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The process of growing mushrooms on a commercial scale is long and a little tedious, and takes a great deal of monitoring. Moisture levels, room temperature, soil temperature and more must be exactly right to get a good harvest. Simoni said it’s always exciting when the mushrooms finally sprout. It’s like magic, and always makes him smile.
It all starts with large bales of wheat straw. He lets the bales soak in water for three days and then breaks them up and mixes in chicken manure, which arrives at his farm in 1-ton bags. This is the beginning of composting process. The straw/manure mixture sits for a few days, and then Simoni turns it every other day for at least 10 days and as long as two weeks.
Next stop is what Simoni calls the “cooker.” Here, the mix is distributed into big white growing bins where it is pasteurized. He accomplishes this by letting the soil temperature rise to about 140 degrees, and leaves it there for two to three hours. This kills mites, nematodes and any stray mushroom spores in the mixture.
“One of the byproducts of this process is ammonia, and ammonia is deadly to mushrooms, so we have to let it dissipate,” Simoni said. “We call this ‘conditioning.’”
Conditioning takes about 10 days. Simoni uses a test strip to check for any traces of ammonia. Once the mix is clear he can add the spores of whatever type of mushrooms he wants to grow. He also adds a layer of peat moss mixed with a bit of lime on the top of the soil mix. This helps conserve moisture and gives the mushrooms a sort of micro-climate for growing.
The bins are moved to a room where the air temperature is kept at about 64 degrees, although the soil in the bins stays at about 80 degrees. After years of trial and error, Simoni knows just how moist the soil mix should look and feel. He can tell you at any step of the process without checking the computer data whether a particular bin is going to produce a successful harvest. Nevertheless, he keeps detailed records of every bin along every step of the way. When there are problems, he can go back to the numbers to see what went wrong and where.
“We had a time where production was dropping, and we didn’t know why at first,” he said. “We discovered the soil mix wasn’t getting compacted enough in the bins. Compacting the soil is backbreaking work, very hard.”
Simoni devised a reverse press. He built what looks like a table, albeit very heavy. He and his crew slip the tines of the fork lift under the growing bin, and drive it over to the table where they slip the bin underneath and then lift it. The weight of the table compresses the growing medium just right. Problem solved, and no one has an aching back.
“If I was a big, big mushroom farmer, there is machinery to take care of all these steps,” he said. “But we find ways to make it work without spending tens of thousands of dollars.”
Another case in point: Simoni had been using a board with razor blades attached to make the slits in the plastic wrapping for the oyster mushroom kits (the mushrooms grow out of the slits). Problem was, the razor blades didn’t last very long. So he bought archery arrows, removed the tips and mounted them on the board he uses to make the slits for the mushroom kits. “It’s working perfectly,” he reported.
Simoni grows about 600 to 700 pounds of mushrooms each week. The brown criminis are his No. 1 seller. The brown mushrooms, he explained, have more solid content than their white counterparts, which means less water in them, so when you cook them, you get less water in the skillet. Most people think the brown criminis are tastier.
“I don’t want to burst anyone’s bubble,” he said, “but the white mushroom is actually a crimini with no color. For many years people preferred white mushrooms, so that’s what the big commercial growers grew. You couldn’t get anything else. Then folks became interested in wild mushrooms, and the big companies suddenly found themselves looking for ways to compete.
“Someone finally remembered the white mushrooms came from the brown criminis. They harvest them now as baby bellas or baby browns. Some of them grow really large, and those are the portabellas.” he said.
Part mystery, part science, almost always fun, Simoni loves his work.
“It was serendipity getting here and it’s still an adventure,” he said.
11107 California Hwy. 70, Marysville, CA 95901. (530) 741-2437 www.mushroomadventures.com.
Mushroom Adventures is about 10 miles north of Marysville. Mushroom kits for many types of mushrooms available fall through late spring. Call for availability and pricing. Mushrooms available at the Saturday Auburn farmers market, the Saturday Chico farmers market and the Saturday Yuba City farmers market. Mushroom Adventures also sells at the Stonestown and the Clement Street farmers markets in San Francisco. Mushrooms also available at the farm. Visitors are welcome, but call ahead.
Stuffed mushrooms with garlic
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 1 hour
I found a recipe for stuffed mushroom in a magazine years ago and tweaked it to my taste. Of course, you can do the same. While it may sound like three bulbs of garlic are too much for just a dozens mushrooms the trick in making this recipe work is slow-cooking the garlic in heavy cream to temper its flavors.
3 heads garlic, cloves separated and peeled, stems removed
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup matzo meal (can substitute panko or bread crumbs)
12 to 15 large (about 2 inches) white or brown mushrooms
2 teaspoons olive oil
Black pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
In a saucepan, slowly – over low heat – cook the garlic and cream until the garlic is soft enough to mash (about 45 minutes). Do not rush this step.
Remove from heat, mash garlic into cream. Stir in matzo meal and salt. Mix well.
Stuff the mushroom caps and lay – topside down – on an oiled baking sheet. Brush edges with oil. Bake 15 minutes.
Remove from oven and let sit 5 to 10 minutes. Sprinkle with pepper and serve hot.
Grilled portobello mushrooms
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 6 minutes
Don Simoni, owner of Mushroom Adventures, says this is the to-die-for recipe for mushrooms. Select mushrooms that are almost flat. He also grills oyster mushrooms. Just break apart the sections so the mushroom can lay flat, sort of, on the grill.
3 ounces olive oil
2 ounces red wine vinegar
4 large (about four to five inches across) Portobello mushrooms, washed, stems cut
Salt and pepper to taste
Mix oil and vinegar together. Stir well. Pour over mushrooms and let sit a few minutes.
Remove mushrooms from marinade and grill two minutes each side, then an additional one minute each side.
Pour oil/vinegar mix over mushrooms and serve.
Prep time: 21⁄2 hours
Cooking time: 1 hour
Thanks to chef Laura Kenny for this recipe. As with most soup recipes, you can add ingredients you love, change the proportions, and still have a delicious soup at the end.
1 ounce dried mushrooms
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 cup yellow onions, diced
2 garlic cloves, peeled and diced
1 pound fresh oyster or crimini mushrooms, diced
11⁄2 cups celery leaves, finely sliced
1 cup potatoes, peeled and diced into 1⁄2-inch squared
1 quart chicken or vegetable broth
1⁄2teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon fresh sage, finely sliced
1 teaspoon salt
Fresh chives, finely sliced
In a saucepan, bring one quart water to a boil. Add dried mushrooms to the water and soak overnight, or at least two hours. Remove mushrooms from water. Set water aside. Purée mushrooms with 1⁄2 cup of soaking water. Set aside.
In a large pot, heat olive oil and butter. Add onions and garlic. Sauté until limp. Add fresh mushrooms, celery leaves, potatoes, puréed mushrooms, remaining soaking water and broth. Add herbs and salt. Bring to a boil. Immediately reduce heat and simmer 35 to 45 minutes, or until vegetables and mushrooms are easily pierced with a fork. Purée soup with a hand-held blender.
To serve, sprinkle chives on top.