Hen of the Woods

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

INGREDIENTS:

  • 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

DIRECTIONS:

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!

ForageCast: Week of September 6, 2011

My first maitake since 2009!

It was 8:35pm last night when the news rolled in. It came in the form of an email from a reader named Tom, who had attached a photo of a beautiful local fruiting of maitake (hen of the woods) and told me it was time to update the ForageCast.

With the abundant rainfall and cool early September nights, I knew maitake would be here soon. But it was Tom’s sighting that sent me into a frenzy, and after a restless sleep I jumped out of bed early this morning to check on a favorite spot before work. By 8:35am today, exactly twelve hours after receiving Tom’s email, I was walking out of the woods triumphantly with a hefty hen in my backpack.

After waxing poetic about maitake’s gustatory, nutritional, and medicinal properties last August in a post entitled, “Awaiting the Maitake Dance,” I was sorely disappointed when I did not find a single hen all fall. Perhaps the hen of the woods was punishing me for my bravado; after all, in the post I boasted of maitake’s reliability and spoke of my plans for the “surplus” harvest I expected.

So, it had been two full years since maitake had met my lips when I lifted a forkful of it to my mouth today, atop ham with toasted sage leaves. Let’s just say that my tongue was handsomely rewarded for its years of waiting.

Northeastern ForageCast for the week of September 6, 2011!

Awaiting the Maitake Dance

Ari proudly holds two of last fall's maitake

The venerable maitake, or hen of the woods (Grifola frondosa), is on the horizon. While bite for bite, I must concede that the morel, porcini, and black trumpet all pack more flavor, there is nothing as satisfying and rewarding as finding a massive hen roosting on the ground at the base of a living tree or stump in the fall. Maitake, prized in Japan and China for its edible, medicinal, and nutritional properties, arrives as soon as the first of September and can be found as late as early November in the Northeast. While I most frequently see them around oak trees, they can occasionally be found near maple, elm, beech, chestnut, sycamore, and black locust. After you have discovered a patch, it will reliably come back every fall for the duration of its several year life span, assuming temperatures are not too extreme and rainfall is adequate.

Their name literally translates to “dancing mushroom” in Japanese, a fact I discovered only after my first hen spotting last autumn, when I spontaneously burst into a manic sequence of dance moves and yelps (“Yip-yip-yipeeee! Whoo-hoooh!”). If you are ever lucky enough to find a maitake, I can almost guarantee you too won’t be able to stand still! I have found single hens of the woods weighing as much as 50 pounds, and I have seen oak trees with as many as eight separate hens in a ring around the base. You’d think a fungus as big as the maitake would be easy to spot, which is only partially true. Once you have an eye for them, you can spot them even on a bicycle, which is in fact a recommended foraging method given their prevalence in the suburbs. However, to the eyes of a neophyte, maitake is heavily camouflaged, blending in with the brown leaves and bark that surround it.

Last fall, I harvested enough maitake to eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, while still having plenty to give to friends. Indeed, there is nothing more satisfying than sharing the wild harvest! Friends always seem grateful, but I had a particularly memorable experience when my professional chef friend cooked me a truly unforgettable meal with a hen I had just given him. He sautéed the maitake with fresh, homemade pasta in a light cream sauce, with divine results.

At a barbeque on Cayuga Lake earlier this summer, I told the maitake chef that he would be the first to receive any of my surplus maitake this fall. How could it be any other way?

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