So, recently while at work in our kitchen one of our friends who’s been around the restaurant industry for a long time stopped by the back door with some exciting news! He was recently out in the woods on a rare day off performing one of his favorite pastimes…mushroom foraging. He had brought his good luck to the restaurant to show off. The back of his Jeep was filled with about 50 pounds of various sized Hen Of The Woods mushrooms. Being curious we bit hook, line and sinker. Joe had worked with these mushrooms briefly in the past it had been a while. When we told our friend this he happily gave us a few juicy tidbits of information (as any proud mushroom forager would) about this particular fungus.
The tidbit of info that really caught our attention might seem insignificant to some but to us, when we heard that the Hen of the Woods is also know as Maitake in Japanese, we were officially SOLD. The reason this meant so much to us, has to do with the fact that we both have been lifelong fans of the Japanese cooking show/contest/battle know in the US as Iron Chef (the original show, not the Food Network version). Any good fan of the show will tell you that Maitake mushrooms are a prized delicacy and are used often in the lavish dishes created in Kitchen Stadium.
So we then began to do a little research on this mushroom that is foraged in the forests of the Northeast US as well as most of Northeast Japan. It is a heavy yielder with specimens commonly reaching 10 or 20 pounds (the one we purchased was just around 6 pounds). They are commonly found at the base of hardwood trees, and tend to grow in the same spot perennially. They are a good eating mushroom, with characteristics similar to a white button mushroom, with a denser texture, and a pleasant woodsy flavor.
We bought our prized specimen on Sunday evening, had Monday off, and Tuesday began to test different cooking and cleaning methods, as well as to research some recipes. So far we have found that the best way to clean these large mushrooms is to cut away the hard parts of the main trunk on the underside as well as any dirty or sandy areas you might find. Next, work your way up peeling off the main leaves. These will break apart and segment easily and you will then be left with a piece of mushroom that looks like an ear or a funny looking half of a an oyster shell, with a bit of the white trunk attached underneath. This trunk is a bit tough and can easily be torn away. Go through the rest of the mushroom and clean it into pieces that are of an appropriate size to what you will be cooking. If you can’t eat them right away then break them into pieces that will fit into a freezer bag and freeze them. The density of this type of mushroom makes it especially adaptable to freezing and thawing.
We had great success preparing the Hen of the Woods (or Maitake) mushrooms in a simple risotto. Start by breaking 2 or 3 oz of mushroom into approximately 1/2″ square pieces and sauté them in a little cooking oil over medium heat. When the mushroom pieces start to “talk” to you it is time to season them with a good pinch of kosher salt and then reduce heat to medium/low. Let the mushrooms cook for a good 10 minutes as this will help tenderize these dense fellows. Once the mushrooms are getting tender add a small pat of butter, wait for it to melt and start to become absorbed by the mushrooms then add about a cup and a half worth of your 9/10ths of the way cooked risotto (The process of making a perfect risotto is another chapter entirely which we will cover at a later time). Add a few ladles of your favorite homemade stock (ours happens to be a garlic/ginger based vegetable stock) and another good pinch of kosher salt. Let this all simmer on low heat till 90% of the liquid has been absorbed, stirring occasionally. Next add a few pats more butter, wait till it is all melted in and finish by adding a good handful of grated hard cheese such as Parmesan or Asiago and stir until all the cheese is melted and mixed in. Now for the most important step – Turn off the heat and walk away for 10 minutes (or at least a solid 5). Great risotto needs to set and kind of gel together to ensure that perfect creamy, melty (our new word 🙂 ), macaroni and cheese-for-adults type texture.
This is the first recipe we have tried with our Hen of the Woods and so far we’re loving them! So a big thank you is in order to my local mushroom forager. For those folks who are interested in trying some Hen of the Woods, now is their season so hit up your independent groceries, farmers markets, and local restaurants that support these organizations and you should have no problem finding some.
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