Hen of the Woods

Maitake on the Autumnal Equinox



My heart sank as I reached the crest of the hill to find my most faithful maitake (hen of the woods) tree standing naked, unadorned. After a summer plagued by drought, I had grown accustomed to such disappointment. But the successful hunter is an eternal optimist, always seeing potential in every fiber of the forest. We’d finally gotten a half-inch of rain, and it couldn’t hurt to get down on my hands and knees and scour for signs of hen.

If you’re not familiar with maitake, it is an exquisitely edible and medicinal mushroom with a short, but often overwhelmingly abundant season. One good hen can weigh several pounds; one good oak can host several (I’ve seen up to seven) hens. No wonder the mycophilic Japanese named it maitake, the dancing mushroom – find a good flush of Grifola frondosa and you’ll surely be dancing too!

But I’m not dancing yet – just crawling – and feeling rather pathetic when I suddenly spot a minuscule gray, fleshy nub, a pinprick of a mushroom dwarfed by the acorns strewn about the oak duff. It seems promising, cool to the touch and exuding tiny droplets of moisture, but it is too diminutive to know for sure. I make a mental note to return in a few days as I circle around to the other side of the tree, studying the soil with newfound confidence. With my eyes on, I notice what is undeniably a baby hen – about the size of a racquetball but already exhibiting the tight, brain-like appearance of a miniature maitake. Instantly I am in a better mood, and I bid farewell to the old oak, knowing I’ll be back in several days.

It’s my lunch break and I don’t have time to linger, so I take the shortest route home. I cut off-trail through mixed hardwoods and take off sprinting, struggling to refrain from inspecting each and every oak tree.

But my mushroom mind will not let the hunt rest, and I stop to circle a grandfather oak with a basal scar, looking like prime maitake territory.  I see nothing from the downhill side of the tree, but I stick my toes into the soil and crane my neck around the uphill side of the giant. Before I can even process what I have seen, I have already reflexively yelped out for joy. There is a massive, mature hen, just inches from my face. If I had been any closer, it would have been in my mouth.

Hens are here, and there is hardly a mushroom so cherished in this mycophilic household sauteed, grilled, braised, or pickled. If you do well in the next couple weeks, you may find a harvest to hold you through the New England winter.

ForageCast: Falling into Maitake


After a rainy day at the office, I head straight for the woods to catch the last rays of daylight. It is already too dark to hunt, unless you know exactly where to look.  Maitake is on my mind, and I am jumping from oak to oak in search of a hefty hen of the woods (Grifola frondosa).

I dodge a hailstorm of acorns, wishing I had worn a helmet as I zero in on a grandfather oak tree. It appears empty, but I crawl around the base, cobwebs in my curls, convinced that this tree will not let me down.

As I pull back the freshly fallen leaves, a thriving microcosm of the forest ecosystem reveals itself. A juicy earthworm and a confused newt wiggle away from me, and as I taste a speck of loamy black soil, I am reminded of the quiet wonder of little things.

The old oak was a giver, and soon it had revealed a tiny maitake, one that could not have been more than a day old. I admired the little hen’s tight, graceful form, before tucking it in beneath a blanket of leaves and walking softly out of the woods. My first maitake of the season would stay in the ground, as I know it meant more mature specimens would turn up in the light of day.

Sure enough, 2015 already has proven to be my best maitake year since my formative foraging days in Ithaca. Southern Vermont, it seems, is loaded with older oak trees, and the late September deluge coincided perfectly with the prime window for maitake fruitings. The nutritious and medicinal maitake epitomizes the umami flavor that makes mushrooms unique.

We even have a family of maitake-loving insects that have taken residence in our home, after an enormous hen gifted to me by my father turned out to be laced with a labyrinth of boring beetles. I threw the maitake in our uncovered compost bowl on a dark evening, and within minutes the beetles had been summoned out of their food source and had swarmed our ceiling lamp. That night I feel asleep to a soundtrack of humming maitake beetles, reminding me of the abundance of autumn.

Northeastern ForageCast for the next two weeks!

Heavenly Hen of the Woods with Roasted Chicken

As many readers probably imagine, mushrooms are quite the common topic of conversation in our home. Ari and I often like to list our top five favorite wild mushrooms, and maitake (Grifola frondosa), or hen of the woods, consistently makes the cut. However, I always forget how much I love maitake until I experience my first bite of the season.

Ari’s desperate search for this season’s maitake finally ended this past weekend while we were visiting friends and family in the Pioneer Valley. Life suddenly feels a little safer – no more screeching brakes while driving because we just passed a mature oak that Ari insisted might  have had a hen of the woods roosting at its base.  

Maitake is best sautéed in a heavy cast iron pan with garlic, herbs, and salt and pepper to taste.

Prized in Japan and China for its medicinal and nutritional properties, it doesn’t surprise me that maitake is the mushroom that always leaves my body craving more. Hen of the woods is also one of the most versatile mushrooms in the kitchen.  There seems to be almost nothing it does not pair well with – I adore it in omelettes, pasta, cream of maitake soup, or simply sautéed with a little salt and pepper. Still, there is nothing that beats what we ate for dinner tonight: a roasted chicken with hen of the woods.

Growing up, roasted chicken was a staple during the autumn months in my mother’s kitchen. Tonight’s chicken was roasted with herbs, white wine, homegrown Meyer lemons, apple cider, maple syrup and a dash of salt and pepper.

Hen of the woods featured in a heavenly gravy paired with a roasted chicken makes for a perfect fall feast.

The maitake Ari found in downtown Northampton this past Saturday was young and dense. I ripped it apart (cleaning it thoroughly and making sure to remove any bugs nestled up in its folds) and sautéed it for 10 minutes with garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper in my favorite cast iron pan. Once the roasted chicken was done, I poured the roasting juices atop my sautéing maitake with a tad more white wine and apple cider and let the maitake simmer into a divine gravy of Grifola frondosa. Paired with roasted parsnips and all blue potatoes with roasted Seckel pears atop a mixed salad of late fall greens, gorgonzola and maple syrup-candied pecan, tonight’s dinner was certainly one of the most memorable of the year. As we let out sighs of delight throughout the meal, our pup Judah couldn’t help but linger nearby and incessantly lick his lips.

The maitake and roasted chicken pairing is absolutely phenomenal and bound to impress. If you’re lucky enough to have a surplus of hen of the woods this fall, consider preserving it via dehydration or freezing to pair with your Thanksgiving turkey! 

ForageCast: Maitake on Main St.

Jenna holds a freshly plucked bouquet of maitake in downtown Northampton.

Were it not for the neon pink, grotesquely phallic elegant stinkhorns, I never would have noticed the hen hiding in plain sight in downtown Northampton, MA.  Just when I thought the 2012 season had come to a close, the foraging gods have rewarded me with a final, long awaited treat. 

Over the last six weeks I have fastidiously checked the base of every oak tree I could find, only to finally stumble upon a hen of the woods when I wasn’t even looking. Oddly enough, it was nestled at the base of an old silver maple. It is rare, but not unheard of, for hens to pop up on hardwoods other than oak, including locust and maple. However, though I have found many-a-hen in past seasons, I have never seen one growing on any host other than oak. 

The pedestrians stared at me oddly, but that wasn’t going to stop me as I bent down to harvest the hen on Main Street. Usually I am very cautious about harvesting mushrooms in an urban setting, both because I don’t want to draw attention and because of the risk of soil contamination. However, this hen was set back from the road, and after six weeks of tireless hunting I wasn’t going to pass up this tender young specimen.  

We have already seen snow in the Green Mountains, but here in Western Massachusetts it is a balmy day and Old Man Winter seems to be far from the mushrooms’ minds. I guess I can’t turn off my forager’s eyes yet!

Northeastern ForageCast for the next two weeks!

Wild Mushroom Tasting and Cream of Maitake Soup

The five mushrooms featured in the tasting are displayed in their uncooked state!

When the bounty is more than plentiful, it’s time to share. This past weekend we hosted a local foods potluck with a wild mushroom tasting featuring hen of the woods, black trumpets, smooth chanterelles, yellow foot chanterelles and lion’s mane. Guests arrived to find a spread on our dining room table with the five mushrooms, labeled, in their uncooked state. And then, out came the cooked mushrooms, hot off the cast iron pan.

All mushrooms were sautéed in a tad of olive oil and butter, with salt and pepper to taste. Once our 14 guests had sampled all five species, they voted for their favorite mushroom of this stellar seasonal selection. As the team of tasters sat eagerly awaiting the verdict, the votes were carefully tallied and the results announced: lion’s mane was the winner, beating out black trumpets by one vote. Every species received at least one vote; it was hard not to love any of them!

A hen of the woods found today at the base of a red oak.

A wonderful array of dishes featuring the local harvest followed the mushroom tasting, including peppers stuffed with goat cheese and freekah from Cayuga Pure Organics and an incredible selection of delicious artisanal cheese made by a guest who is the manager at Fingerlakes Farmstead Cheese Company.  With our mother load of hen of the woods, I made a cream of maitake soup. I combined two pounds of maitake with potatoes, carrots, herbs, white wine and cream, before pureeing the ingredients into a silky bowl of hen of the woods heaven.

Serves 8


  • 2 lbs hen of the woods (maitake) mushroom
  • 6 cups vegetable stock
  • 1 lb potatoes, chopped
  • 1 lb carrots, chopped
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 8-10 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 teaspoon thyme, minced
  • 1 teaspoon sage, minced
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 Tablespoons butter
  • 2 Tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1½ teaspoons salt
  • ½ teaspoon freshly cracked pepper


1.) Thoroughly clean the hen of the woods. Dry and then break apart into small pieces.

2.) Place a heavy soup pot over a medium to high heat, and then add the olive oil and butter. Once the butter has melted, add the garlic and onion. Sauté for about three to five minutes, and then add the hen of the woods to the pot, as well as the salt and pepper. Stir and cook over a medium to high heat for about 10 minutes. Add the carrots and potatoes and sauté for another five minutes or so, stirring often.

3.) Add stock, bay leaves, thyme and sage to the pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 25 to 30 minutes.

4.) Remove the bay leaves and puree the soup until smooth. Add the white wine and lemon juice and simmer for another five minutes. Stir in the cream and salt and pepper to taste. Garnish with your favorite herbs, and serve hot. Mangia!

Cream of maitake soup!

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