Editor’s Note: Is there anything better to forage than wild mushrooms? There’s something quintessentially autumnal about pulling out that first sweater of the season to hunt around in the woods for a few precious ‘shrooms, returning to a warm kitchen to gently sauté them with butter and garlic, savoring it all with that first post-summer glass of red…
What? You’ve never actually done that? Well good news foraging virgins – mushroom season has begun, and ‘hen of the woods’ (aka maitakes) are plentiful in the BK. You might even find some on your block. Leda has the scoop.
By Leda Meredith
Today I found more Hens. No, not the kind that live in chicken coops and lay eggs. I’m talking about hen of the woods mushroom, a.k.a. maitake or Grifola frondosa.
I capitalized ‘Hen’ because I can’t think how else to convey the way us mushroom hunters talk about this and a few other choice, edible mushrooms. We don’t say, “I found oyster mushrooms today.” We say, “I found Oyster today.” So a hen is a female chicken, but Hen is maitake mushroom. Got it?
The only other mushroom in BK you might confuse with Hen is turkey tail. Turkey tail (Trametes versicolor) is ubiquitous in Brooklyn’s parks. I’m not capitalizing and dubbing it “Turkey” because honestly, there’s not much you can do with it. It won’t kill you, but unless you’re into eating shoe leather, skip it. Turkey tail spreads out across the length of fallen logs and stumps, never gets more than a few inches high, and has a papery or leathery texture.
Hen, on the other hand, grows in large clumps at the base of trees (in BK, especially oak trees) and on tree stumps and has a firm, fleshy but tender texture. It sometimes appears to be growing on lawn or bare ground, but if you look up and around you’ll realize it is probably growing on buried wood or tree roots.
When I say large clumps, I mean large, sometimes measuring 2 feet across. The clumps look like big corsages of ruffles colored grey, brown and off white. They have pores on their under surface rather than gills. Here’s some more detail on maitake a.k.a. Hen identification.
Hen is in season in BK from September through October. It should be used cooked rather than raw, as is true of most wild mushrooms.
Hen dries and freezes beautifully. No special preparation is necessary for either method beyond cutting the clumps into their layers and scrubbing away the dirt that clings to their bases (go ahead and do this under running water or in a large bowl of water – it will save you much trouble).
To dry Hen, place slices of it in a dehydrator at 125F, or in your oven on the lowest setting with the door propped open with a dishtowel or wooden spoon. The mushrooms should be crispy-dry within 4 hours.
To use dried Hen, first reconstitute it by pouring boiling water over the dried mushrooms and letting them sit in the hot water for 15 minutes. Remove the mushrooms. Carefully pour off and save the soaking liquid, leaving behind the last bit of liquid with any gritty sediment. Use the mushrooms in any mushroom recipe. Use the soaking liquid in soups, sauces, or (heaven!) risotto.
To freeze Hen, clean, chop, and spread the chopped mushrooms in a single layer on a baking sheet. Freeze, uncovered, for 1-2 hours. Transfer to freezer bags or containers. This method keeps the pieces of Hen loose so that later on you can take out just what you need for a recipe. If you just put raw chopped Hen into a container or bag and freeze it what you end up with is a big brick of chopped mushroom, probably way more than you need for any one recipe.
Hen has a flavor that is more assertive than supermarket button mushrooms, but less of a take-over flavor than shiitakes.
Hen is sold as maitake for a steep price at gourmet foodie stores and Greenmarkets. I promise you there are hundreds of pounds of it free for the foraging in Brooklyn right now.
Serve this over pasta, polenta, rice, poultry, meat, or roasted root vegetables
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 cups cleaned and slivered Hen
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup dry white wine
additional salt plus pepper to taste
Heat the butter and oil in a skillet over low heat.
Add the mushrooms and 1/4 teaspoon salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms are tender, about 10 minutes.
Raise the heat to medium high. Add the wine and cook, stirring, until most of the wine has evaporated or been absorbed by the mushrooms. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Note: this basic mushroom preparation can be prepared up to a day ahead of serving, or frozen for longer storage.
Hen Sauce served over pasta or polenta with a little grated or shaved Parmesan pairs beautifully with one of Matabella or Wolffer’s white wine blends.
P.S. – my next BK foraging tour is on October 22nd. I promise to share any Hens we find!
Leda Meredith is the author of The Locavore’s Handbook: The Busy Person’s Guide to Eating Local on a Budget. She is the Gardening Program Coordinator for Adult Education at the New York Botanical Garden and an instructor specializing in edible and medicinal plants at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Info on her many upcoming classes and events can be found on her blog at www.ledameredith.com