by Maria Reidelbach
Now that the weather is turning cooler the autumn mushrooms will be coming into season. I was about to write “the autumn mushrooms will begin to appear,” but one thing I’ve learned over the last couple of decades is that mushrooms are not predictable—that’s why it’s called “mushroom hunting” rather than “mushroom picking.” Although we’ve had plenty of rain since the spring dry spell, we will just need to wait and see and hunt to see what turns up.
One of my favorite varieties of edible mushroom grows in the autumn. It’s easy and safe to identify, even for beginners, and you can find them all over the Hudson Valley—it’s a gourmet treat called hen-of-the-woods, also known as maitake and Grifola frondosa.* These delicious mushrooms are polypores, meaning that they have a shelf-like structure with a firm, sponge-like spore-bearing surface on the underside. They’re known as hen-of-the-woods because they resemble a fluffy, feathery, brown chicken, although they can be much, much bigger, easily five pounds and up to 20 pounds or more! We’re about to get a local maitake farm in Wawarsing, and while cultivated hens are good, they’re quite expensive (about $16 a pound). It’s a wonderful thing that we can gather the even more delicious wild version at the same time as we’re getting exercise and enjoying a walk in the woods.
Here’s what to look for: hen-of-the-woods alwaysgrows on the base of big, old oak trees and they will grow year after year on the same tree. I look for large oaks with vertical splits in the bark; they seem more likely to host a hen. You’ll have to sharpen your eyes to see these camouflaged fungus—they look at first glance like piles of leaves. The young ones are just bumpy pale brown biscuits, but soon they send out frond-like forms that are shades of brown on the top and off-white underneath.
You’ll want to collect hens in this leafed-out stage, but not so big that they’ve become dried out or very crumbly—the best are firm-to-tender, just a little moist, and have good and mushroomy fragrance. Avoid hens that smell of ammonia, a sign of decay. Also make sure that the mushroom hasn’t been splashed or dusted with anything gritty, which will sink right into the fronds as they grow and become impossible to remove. If you have a doubt, you can check for this by chewing a little piece right on the spot.
There are only two lookalikes for the hen-of-the-woods. One is the umbrella polypore (Polyporus umbellatus), which is pale brown, pretty rare, grows on the ground, usually in summer, and is equally delicious. The other is the black-staining polypore (Meripilus sumstinei), which grows on buried wood and stains black. It’s not toxic, but is usually too tough to be edible. One more caveat: people taking MAO-inhibitors should avoid all polypores because they contain tyramine.
Hen-of-the-woods can be cooked in many ways, but they do love to be gently cooked in liquid, which brings out their nutty woodiness. To clean them, pick out bits of leaves and twigs (I once had a lizard run out of a particularly large specimen I was cutting up on a countertop!), and then clean with a dry brush or rinse with water if necessary. You can then slice or tear the poufs into separate leaves.
One easy seasonal preparation for hens is to roast them: set your oven to about 400 degrees. Pour a little olive oil in a large baking dish and add a couple of crushed garlic cloves. Put in the pre-heated oven until the garlic sizzles. Remove garlic from the pan, add dry mushrooms and stir, sprinkling generously with salt and pepper. Roast for 10 minutes, turn and roast another 5 to 10 minutes until they are browned and crispy. Serve with additional salt and pepper.
As with all mushrooms, the first time you find hen-of-the-woods, you’ll want to confirm your identification by comparing it to several photographs or drawings and descriptions. The first time you eat any new food, have only a small serving to make sure you aren’t allergic or sensitive.
*Just to confuse things, there’s also an edible fungus called chicken mushroom (Laetiorus sulphureus and L. cincinnatis). It is also a delicious, edible polypore, grows on wood, but it’s bright orange, yellow and white. The names for hen-of-the-woods and chicken mushrooms are reversed in some parts of the country—that’s why we have botanical names to keep it all straight.
Join the Mid-Hudson Mycological Association—they’re a great group of mushroom enthusiasts of all skill levels, membership is inexpensive, and you have access to expert hunters who are happy to help you learn. Plus they’ve got an active Facebook page where people post photos of all their finds. www.mushroomthejournal.com/mhma
The Mushroom Expert: Michael Kuo’s website. www.mushroomexpert.com
Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini, by Elizabeth Schneider, contains one of the best mushroom cookbooks within its covers; she’s got great recipes for hen-of-the-woods.
The Complete Mushroom Hunter by Gary Lincoff, author of the Audubon Field Guide to North American Mushrooms, is a wonderful introduction to mushroom hunting, starting with mushrooms you find in your own backyard. The Audubon Guide is the best field guide to have.
Maria Reidelbach is a past president of the New York Mycological Society and a current member of the Mid-Hudson Mycological Association. She has never gotten sick from eating a toxic mushroom.