Here’s an equation. What do you get when you combine two biologists and one large Lethbridge yard, multiplied by a passion for sustainable living? Deliciousness.
Agriculture Sciences instructor Adriana Navarro Borrell and husband Chase Morrell grow mushrooms in their South Lethbridge backyard – oyster, shitake and, new this year, wine cap.
It’s not as simple as planting a seed, watering, weeding and reaping a harvest. But with their expertise in microscopic organisms, sterile environments and scientific observation, mushroom growing is a perfect hobby.
Adriana says producing mushrooms takes patience and a lot of care to keep your growing environment free of mould and other contaminants. But the work – sterilizing mason jars in their pressure cooker, creating a mix of agar and starch-rich potato water to feed spores, and building a small, shaded greenhouse – pays off with a harvest that’s as tasty and nutritious as it is beautiful.
“Mushrooms are always an amazing surprise,” Adriana says. “You don’t notice them. You don’t think they are there, and suddenly they pop, and they are right in front of your eyes. They are beautiful but they last a very short time. It teaches you to appreciate their ephemeral beauty and to know that life can be created from rotten and decaying material. We are growing food out of waste, literally.”
In addition to gardening, Adriana and Chase brew their own beer and create soil through regular composting and vermiculture, using worms.
“We want to reduce waste as much as possible,” Adriana says. “Every time Chase would homebrew, we would have so much spent malt barley. We usually use some in breadmaking, and the rest goes to the compost. Then we thought, in what else could we use this barley that is still full of nutrients? He said, ‘what about growing mushrooms?’”
On a vacation to Montreal, they visited a store called MycoBoutique, specializing in all things mushroom, including selling spawn-filled syringes, and starter kits to which you just add water.
Over the past four years, Adriana and Chase have taken their mushroom growing to the next level. Their shitake mushrooms were started using tissue from the stem of a mushroom they purchased at the grocery store.
“If you want to grow a small amount of mushrooms just for the fun of seeing them grow out of a box or a bag, you can buy a kit,” she says. “If you would like to have a more permanent system like what we have in the backyard, then you have to know more about aseptic technique, which is a microbiology tool that allows you to isolate microorganisms, purify the cultures if they get contaminated, grow them in a plate first, then develop a pure culture to inoculate the logs outside.”
With technique and expertise, the couple have created different growing spaces — shitake start well in sawdust or grain; oysters in grain, coffee grounds or a mix of straw; and once started, they can be moved to logs in their greenhouse. Wine cap mushrooms are growing directly on the ground, outside the greenhouse, in layers of straw and wood chips.
When the mushrooms start to colonize their growing media, they appear as a white fuzz. Under the right conditions, they fruit, growing into the mushroom shapes we all recognize.
In the midst of this summer heat, nothing is in fruit, but soon, the chill of fall will kickstart production.
“It’s a signal of survival,” Adriana says. “Winter is coming so the fungi produce the mushrooms that carry the spores for survival. Fungi are particular about where they grow, but they’re also resilient. They can survive dry spells.”
One thing Adriana cautions against is venturing into the wild to collect mushrooms for eating if you are not an expert in the field. Even after consulting a taxonomy book, studying a mushroom’s spore print (the ring left behind when they drop their spores on paper), comparing gills, colour and other tiny details given in the species taxonomic description, she would still ingest only a tiny amount to be sure a mushroom is safe to eat.
Even if you don’t grow your own, consider trying fresh mushroom varieties to add texture and substance to a meat-free meal or as a nutritious side dish.
Here’s one of Adriana and Chase’s favourite preparations of a side dish: Fried mushrooms with garlic and green onions.
And here’s an entrée, Adriana’s Creamy Mushroom Pasta recipe.
- 5 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
- 1.5 lbs. oyster mushrooms chopped into bite-size pieces (Adriana prefers oyster mushrooms for this recipe, but cremini or shiitake may also be used)
- 1 medium red bell pepper, diced
- 1 clove of garlic, minced
- ⅓ c. finely chopped fresh parsley
- 2 tsp. fresh sweet basil
- 1 lb. spaghetti
- ⅓ c. milk (or cream)
- 2 tbsp. butter
- 1 tbsp. all-purpose flour
- ½ c. Parmesan or Asiago, finely grated, plus more for serving
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Heat 3 tbsp. olive oil in a large pot or pan over high heat. Add the oyster mushrooms and toss occasionally adding more olive oil as needed. Cook until edges are starting to brown, about 4-5 minutes. Sprinkle the mushrooms with salt and pepper as they cook.
- Reduce heat to medium-high. Add red bell pepper to the mushrooms and toss until they are brown and starting to crisp on the edges. Add the garlic, parsley and basil, stirring often, about 2 more minutes. Set pot aside.
- Meanwhile, cook pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water, stirring occasionally, until al-dente, about 2 minutes less than package directions. Drain the pasta and set aside with the lid on.
- In a small saucepan, melt the butter and add the flour as soon as the butter starts sizzling. Stir quickly, just for a few seconds, do not overcook. Slowly add the milk, reduce heat to medium-low and constantly stir to incorporate the milk into the butter mixture. As soon as the sauce starts to thicken, remove it from the heat and add it to the mushroom pot.
- Using tongs, transfer pasta to the pot with mushrooms and sauce. Place back on the stove, at medium-high heat, tossing constantly, until pasta is a bit softer, but still al-dente, and sauce has thickened, about 3-4 minutes.
- Remove pot from heat. Add Parmesan or Asiago, fresh parsley and pepper to taste, and toss to combine. Taste and season with salt, if needed.
- Divide pasta among bowls and top with more Parmesan if desired.
- Adriana and Chase say they love to have this recipe with a garlic toast on the side, and white wine.