There are lots of things that thrive in the Yakima Valley: apples, wine grapes, hops, pears, cherries.
The region’s signature crops drink in the plentiful sunshine and generally mild weather of the mainly desert climate.
It may seem unlikely, but Michael Bennett is finding a home for the humidity- and moisture-craving, dark-loving fungi.
The owner of J&M Gourmet Mushrooms in Selah, Bennett, 62, and his wife, Judy, 66, are in their second year of growing mushrooms commercially.
They raise more than a dozen varieties of edible mushrooms in material recycled from other businesses around the Yakima Valley. Some varieties are grown in a mixture of coffee grounds (from Lincoln Avenue Espresso), spent grains (from Yakima Craft Brewery) and food-grade cardboard (picked up from local grocers). Others find homes in trees cut down by area tree-trimming services, either cut into logs or chipped.
Michael Bennett, who spent seven years as a drug and alcohol counselor, began experimenting with growing mushrooms three years ago. When his first year didn’t go well, he took a weekend seminar from Fungi Perfecti, an Olympia-based business run by mycologist and author Paul Stamets.
“It’s been a huge learning curve,” Bennett says of the operation.
The three keys to growing mushrooms are humidity, heat and light — elements that aren’t always forgiving in the Yakima Valley.
Bennett has built a number of structures to grow his mushrooms, including outdoor beds that are covered with canopies and tents to filter the light to indoor structures that can hold logs and tubes for growing mushrooms to try to achieve year-round growth.
Mushrooms, it turns out, are quite picky about their habitat. And each of Bennett’s 18 varieties require slightly different conditions to thrive.
“It’s not forgiving, and yet it is,” he says — he feared he’d killed one bed when temperatures reached 105 degrees. But once the temperatures decreased, the mushrooms came back up.
One variety, called Lions Mane, require 80 to 85 percent humidity and fresh air, something that’s nearly impossible to achieve in the Valley, so Bennett hasn’t had any success growing them. He’s working on building an indoor chamber to grow the mushroom.
The different types of recycled material Bennett uses to grow his mushrooms are sterilized in a custom-made ozone machine and mixed together to create the beds. The cardboard has to be carefully shredded and mixed with the organic material — such as straw, coffee grounds and grain — otherwise it will act as a barrier to the plant. But mixed well, the fungus will eat the material and thrive. That was a lesson Bennett learned when he tried to work too quickly and failed to mix the material.
The materials interact with the fungus as it grows and eats its way through the compost, contributing to the rich, complex flavor of Bennett’s mushrooms. And mushrooms grown in different things will take on slightly different flavor attributes.
“They are what they eat,” Bennett says. “The ones that are grown out of oak taste better than the ones that are grown out of cottonwood. It changes the flavor just a little bit.”
He added maple shavings to a bed of oyster mushrooms once, and they ended up with a slightly nutty flavor.
“The food we produce, it’s clean, it’s natural,” he says. “The flavor is wonderful.”
The naturally raised mushrooms are different than what most people are used to, he says. At his booth at the Yakima Farmers’ Market this year, Bennett offered samples of his mushrooms, sauteed in olive oil, and people who said they don’t like mushrooms were often converted, he says.
The mushrooms sell for $12 a pound and will last for a week to 10 days after they are picked, as long as they are stored in paper with a moist towel. Or they can be dried. Powdered mushrooms work well as a thickener for soups and sauces, Bennett says.
He tries to get creative with his recipes. This summer, he had a big hit barbecueing large oyster mushrooms with grated mozzarella cheese on top. His wife likes to chop up the stems for omelettes or uses powdered and fresh mushrooms to make a gravy.
“We play with it,” he says. “These mushrooms work well with wild mushroom recipes.”
Bennett hopes to have mushrooms available into the winter. They can be ordered by calling 509-480-4397 or going to jmgourmet.vze.com. Local delivery is available.
So far, Bennett says he has invested about $40,000 into his operation, and hopes that the coming year will be his most successful for production. When he gets a growing house into production, it could produce 200 to 300 pounds of mushrooms a week. Logs will grow mushrooms just once a year, but some varieties grown in beds or bricks of material will produce more often.
“We’re not shooting to produce huge volumes, we’re shooting to produce a flavorful, good product,” he says. “We’re growing, and it feels good. I hope people come out and see what we’re doing.”
Recipes from Fungi Perfecti.
4 oz fresh Shiitake mushrooms sliced
1/2 small onion chopped
1 lb cooked fettucini
1 cup Alfredo sauce (homemade or from jar)
2 cloves minced garlic
1/4 tsp ground white pepper
1 tbsp butter or olive oil (or half and half)
1 tbsp freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Saute garlic and onion and white pepper in olive oil or butter till onion is softened, then add Shiitake mushrooms and saute two minutes more over moderate heat; do not overcook. Drain pasta and toss with Alfredo sauce and onion mushroom mix while hot. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and serve immediately.
Paul and Dusty’s Killer Shiitake Recipe
1/8 cup olive oil
1/8 cup sesame oil
4-5 tablespoons tamari
2 glugs and 1 splash of white wine
Stir vigorously as the ingredients tend to separate. Set aside.
Take a pound of fresh, whole Shiitake mushrooms. Cut the stems from the caps. Place gills facing up. Do not slice mushrooms. (The stems can be dried and used for a soup base or discarded.)
Pour the sauce onto the mushrooms and stir, making sure the gills become saturated with the sauce.
In a 350 degree oven, bake uncovered for 30-40 minutes. Or you can barbecue on an open grill. The smoky flavor makes it even better. Serve hot with seafood, rice, pasta or whatever.
• Savannah Tranchell can be reached at 509-577-7752 or email@example.com.