John S. Rowe didn’t set out to save an endangered Sicilian mushroom, though Toronto chefs and food lovers are glad he did.
The former associate professor of neurosciences at McMaster University was simply tired of searching for grants to fund his research, and decided to find a job where he could use his scientific skills and biology background and make some money for his growing family.
“I jumped out of the frypan and into the fire,” says the British-born scientist, recalling his “horrendous” start as a mushroom grower in Ancaster back in 1986.
“I didn’t have a clue about business or mushrooms, and I didn’t realize you have to become a farmer first,” says Rowe, owner of Trinity Farms.
He can barely keep up with demand for his main mushroom, a tender-stemmed brown oyster. If he could find people willing to help harvest the capricious ’shrooms when they ripen at 2 a.m., he says he’d happily increase production. By 8 a.m. the fungi are old.
In search of a slower-growing shroom, Rowe attended a conference in Miami in 2004.
There he saw a poster for pleurotis Nebrodensis in all its curvaceous, snow-white beauty.
Since the poster was in Chinese, and nobody associated with it spoke English, the story might have ended there. But on the final night of the conference Rowe found himself standing beside a professor from Penn State University, who said his lab had worked on the Nebrodensis cultures and he’d happily send a few to Toronto.
Rowe’s family picked Nebrodi for its English name, while a California grower markets the mushroom as Nebrodini Bianco.
Rowe produces a mere 45 kilograms a week of the mighty ’shroom in plastic bags filled with maple sawdust, wheat bran and soy meal. The mushrooms mature over 10 weeks, and can weigh up to 340 grams each.
“Cooking brings out the Nebrodi’s earthy tone,” says Megna, “and it has so much body you can cut it thick, marinate it and grill it as a steak.”
- Look for Trinity Farms’ Nebrodis at independent stores including Fiesta Farms, Highland Farms, Pusateri’s, Harvest Wagon, Concord Food Centre in Thornhill and Phil’s Place and Family Food Market in St. Lawrence Market.
- Store several weeks in a brown paper bag in the bottom of the fridge. Do not wash before use.
- Trim off any stem ends that don’t slice easily.
- Freezing for a week or more intensifies this monster mushroom’s flavour. Rowe keeps a bag of diced Nebrodis lying flat in his freezer and thaws them in the microwave or on the counter for use in an omelette, risotto or cream sauce.
- Megna collects and freezes the stem ends for mushroom stock and soup.
- To julienne, slice 1/8-inch (. 25 cm) thick then cut slices lengthwise into thin strips. Great in a stir-fry with chard or kale.
- Nebrodis make a meaty, satisfying vegetarian dish or a scrumptious side for chicken and fish.
Burger: Cut Nebrodi into slices ½-inch (1 cm) thick and toss with a squeeze of lemon juice, chopped garlic and minced fresh rosemary, thyme or sage. Grill on medium heat until tender with grill marks, about 2 minutes per side. Serve in a bun with your favourite toppings.
Roast: Slice thickly and toss with olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast in a 400F (200C) oven until tender and golden.
Salad: Megna shaves Nebrodis paper thin to finish a salad.
4 tilapia filets (1.5 lb./680 g)
8 oz. (225 g) Nebrodi or king oyster mushrooms
¼ cup (60 mL) diced onion
4 tbsp (60 mL) extra virgin olive oil
1 greenhouse tomato, seeded and diced (1/2 cup/125 mL)
¼ cup (60 mL) anise-flavoured liqueur (Pernod or Sambucca)
¼ cup (60 mL) dry white wine
3 tbsp (45 mL) Meyer lemon juice
2 tsp (10 mL) Meyer lemon zest
1 tsp (5 mL) salt or to taste
½ tsp (2 mL) pepper
Trim any tough stem ends. Slice smaller mushrooms lengthwise and cut large ones in half. Slice ¼ inch (. 5 cm) thick.
Heat 3 tbsp (45 mL) olive oil in large skillet on medium heat. Add onions and mushrooms; sauté about 4 minutes until shrooms are almost tender, stirring frequently.
Add diced tomato and cook 2 minutes more. Add Pernod and wine and simmer until liquid is reduced by half. Add lemon juice, zest, salt and pepper and keep warm.
Lightly salt and pepper tilapia fillets and brush top with remaining 1 tbsp (15 mL) oil. Broil until the thickest part of the fish flakes with a fork, 8 to 12 minutes. Top fish with the mushroom mixture and serve immediately.
Makes 4 servings.