Friday, September 29, 2017

Cooking with Hen of the Woods

Hens roasted with a white miso glaze, served over forbidden and white rice cooked in hen broth

Autumn came a bit early this August and September with very cool nights and comfortable days, stimulating the fruiting of a favorite fall fungi, the hen of the woods, maitake, or Grifola frondosa. Some weekends we are so busy with lectures and walks that we don't have much time to forage for our own pantry, but hen season can get us out in the woods all week long. For about two weeks, we brought home dozens of beautiful hens; then the weather got hot again, making it uncomfortable being out in the woods hauling many pounds of mushrooms. Autumn conditions have returned, so we hope for another hen flush out in the woods of southern New England.

The pores of a hen on the underside of a frond

white spore print
Hens are one of the polypores, meaning if you look on the underside of one of the many fronds, you will see many holes from which this fungus drops its white spores. They don't have a true cap-and-stem appearance, rather they have many branched stems from a main core that are topped with fan-shaped fronds. Hens are saprobic and a mild parasite on hardwood trees as well, causing a white butt rot. They are sometimes referred to as perennial, as they will continue to fruit at the same location until they have exhausted their food supply. A hen of the woods can be collected by cutting them off at their base, and are good edibles as long as they are firm with white pores. They should be left behind if they are getting a yellow-orange mold on their base, have obvious signs of consumption by wild animals, are growing with poison ivy, or have obvious signs of a fungus fly maggot infestation or a serious case of springtails. Respect your wild food and only collect prime specimens!

Hen burgers made from the ground bits

Combined with their abundance, their texture and flavor make hen of the woods one of our  favorite wild mushrooms to find. They are full of umami, a savory taste that can be described as brothy or meaty. It can be substituted for chicken in any familiar dishes, as its flavor is excellent and the texture of hens is substantial. We like to use hens in many regional cuisines, roasted with an Asian white miso sauce, made into an Italian panelle patty, ground and cooked into American burgers (recipe here) or "meat"loaf, a Mexican tomatillo, hominy, and hen stew, or a French-style tapenade (recipe here).

Lots and lots of dehydrated hen jerky, vacuum packed for the year

Hens can vary in size, growth configuration, and color, most likely based on age and growing conditions. Hens can be large and frondy, or smaller and more compact with smaller fronds. Their growth determines their best use in culinary applications: the larger fronds make the best jerky (recipe here), while the more compact specimens slice up nicely into "steaks" for roasting. When cleaning hens for jerky, we try to keep the core as solid as possible, and then slice it up for larger pieces.

Vegan hen sausages with a potato pancake and pickled ramps

The bits leftover after culling the biggest fronds for jerky get ground up for burgers or a loaf. We also dehydrate a lot of the smaller pieces to use all year in gravy and soups, or saute and then freeze the small bits for use all year. The smaller bits also work very well in our vegan sausage recipe (recipe here). Overall, hens are an easy and delicious fall fungi forage!

Hen tapenade
Tomatillo, hominy, and hen stew
Duchesse mashed potatoes filled with cooked hen bits, baked until firm

Wild rice and hen soup
Baked ravioli filled with hen and goat cheese