This will probably be my last mushroom post until next spring, so you can all breathe a deep sigh of relief. But first I have to tell you what happened after last week's hen of the woods post. To refresh your memory, that was the post in which I was being a big baby because I was unable to successfully lay claim to my very own hen of the woods mushroom, despite having found four. (Sheesh, Tammy, ever heard of a store? Shut up, whose side are you on?)
Within the course of 24 hours, that post was forwarded by a kind reader to someone who had several suspected hens of the woods growing right in her yard. I was invited to make a house call to a neighboring town to scope out the fungal situation. This is not the first time I've gone on a mushroom-related house call. Earlier this year, I was led to a house that had literally dozens of black morels popping out of the mulch. Can you imagine that? A flower bed full of morels right out your own front door??? I was dumbstruck! I had to be slapped across the face several times before I snapped out of it.
This time, I was much more composed. Once I located the house in question, I spotted the hens roosting at the base of an oak tree—all four of them. I drove by verrrrry sloooowly with the windows down, ogling them like Lenny and Squiggy, until I crashed into some trash cans! Okay, so there weren't any trash cans, but it's my story. I'll tell it how I want. I ran out of the car, ignoring the trash cans everywhere, and ran through my hen of the woods identification check list:
Location at base of oak tree: check.
Brown, ruffly structure: check.
Pores not gills: check.
Smells right: check.
Nooooo maggots: well, just a few. It's a ground-dwelling fungus, after all. One can't expect too much.
Not only was the identity of the mushroom confirmed , but I also had permission to take some mushrooms home (hooray!!!). That was the crucial missing link. So I did—specifically, two hens growing next to each other that had become conjoined into one 4-pound mass. I didn't just rip them out of the ground; I cut them at their bases to leave the underground mycelium intact. This helps encourage future mushrooms to grow in the same area in subsequent seasons. Remember, there are no poisonous look-alikes for this mushroom (also known as maitake and grifola frondosa). That combined with its tastiness makes it a mushroom everyone should know. Many thanks to M and H for getting it into my greedy little hands!
But, wow, I forgot what a pain in the ass they are to clean. I brushed off as much debris as possible initially, but there are so many crevices, you could easily spend an hour or more properly preparing this mushroom for eating. Plus you have to escort out all the creepy-crawlies that were using it as a luxury condo. Worms. Spiders. CENTIPEDES!!! Boy, for someone who likes to hang around rotting stumps, I sure am afraid of centipedes. (It's their speed that gets me. Their deadly speed!)
So in case you ever find yourself in possession of a hen of the woods, here are some tips for prepping this delicacy:
- Set mushroom in a large bowl and pick off all the acorns, leaves, and twigs.
- Brush off dirt with an unused paintbrush or other kitchen-grade brush using lots of quick, brisk strokes, working from top to bottom.
- Using a sharp paring knife, cut off the dirtiest parts of the base, and move mushroom to a clean cutting board.
- Wipe off the knife and cut through the remaining base into workable sections as if you're cutting up a cauliflower through its core.
- Cut off rotten, bruised, or moldy sections, and add to the bowl. Escort worms and bugs out of the crevices with tip of knife.
- Cut into smaller pieces, 1-3 inches wide depending on your purpose. Make a point to cut into any areas with lots of crevices to evict any lurking insects. (I find the central part of the mushroom to be plenty tender in young specimens, though it may be too tough in older ones.)
- Wipe off any remaining dirt on each piece with damp paper towels. You will go through quite a few of them. (I don't soak mushrooms in water. I find that makes them slimy, waterlogged, and hardly any cleaner.)
- What you end up with is something like little mushroom florets—two big plates of them from a four-pound mushroom. Cover with damp paper towels and plastic wrap with some holes poked in it.
- It's best to cook them right away, but they will last in the fridge for several days this way (the paper towels will need remoistening).
- Always cook the mushrooms well. One way is to sauté them in butter for 15-20 minutes until tender. If the pieces start to brown before they're tender, add some water and keep cooking.
- Inevitably, a little bit of grit ends up in your dish despite your best efforts. Just add extra black pepper. Any little worms you missed will be easily identified by their coiled-up forms at the bottom of the pan. Discard them immediately and think nothing more about what you just saw. Instead, think of all the invisible cancer-fighting compounds this mushroom contains. Yum!
Since it's such a big deal to me to find these, I like to make something really special. I layer the cooked mushrooms with lasagna noodles, browned sweet Italian sausage, lots and lots of braised celery root and leeks, mozzarella and parmesan cheese, and a creamy sauce. I bake two trays and freeze one away. It's totally worth the work.