Of Edible Mushrooms
The most eagerly asked question at any mushroom foray is “Is it edible?” This is usually followed with, “How do you cook it?” Many members of mycological clubs will tell you that their primary reason for joining the club was to learn about edible mushrooms, where and when to collect them, and how to prepare and preserve them.
Avid mushroom hunters possess bookshelves overflowing with mushroom field guides and cookbooks, and their very own ‘Mushroom Museums’. Mushroom Museums are collections of preserved, edible mushrooms from past hunts. Some Mushroom Museums are so extensive that they are written in people’s wills. I even know of one such cache that a famous gourmet food store offered to buy.
One might think that having different varieties of mushrooms ready to use would encourage collectors to add them to everyday meals. After all, mushrooms taste good on their own and lend their unique flavors to a wide variety of other foods. They are low in calories, high in fiber, and provide important nutrients. Many edible mushrooms are known to have medicinal value, and adding them to our daily diets may enhance our health. Something along the lines of “A mushroom a day keeps the doctor away!” Yet most owners of ‘Mushroom Museums’ and many collectors I know use their wild mushrooms primarily on special occasions and seldom include them in their everyday cooking. I know one ‘museum’ owner in New York who has a large jar of Boletus edulis dating back to 1967…
There seem to be two main approaches to mushroom cooking – the ‘Purist Approach’ and ‘Mix-and-Match’. Shortly after I joined the New York Mycological Society, I had an opportunity to experience the difference. During a prolific fall mushroom season, a number of club members gathered in our home to do justice to a load of porcini (Boletus edulis), Gypsy mushrooms (Rozites caperata) and Brick Caps (Naematoloma sublateritium). I was cleaning the young Gypsy mushrooms when a club elder, who took me under his wing, walked into the kitchen. Looking at the impressive pile of Gypsy mushrooms and young porcini, he asked me how I was going to prepare them. “I’ll quickly sear the young Gypsy and let them cool. I’ll then combine them with a fresh three color tomato salad, which I’ll dress with vinaigrette of lemon juice, olive oil and mint” I answered. I picked up one of the baby boletes, took a bite and chewed it slowly. It was nutty, almost sweet, and smelled like good ‘porcini’ ought to. “These will be great lightly sautéed in some butter till golden, served on steaming soft polenta, and dressed with a touch of White Truffle oil…” He looked at me disapprovingly. “What about the natural taste of these mushrooms?” he asked. “Wouldn’t it be masked by those powerful scents and flavors? Add butter to your boletes and you might just turn them from ‘porcini’ to… ‘Land-O-Lakes!’
It was a point well taken. I love steamed rice with Matsutake, straightforward and delicious. When Hen of the Woods (Grifola frondosa) just emerges and is tender and fragrant, I gently sear the young ‘pads’ and serve them as an appetizer just sprinkled with salt and pepper. In my family we like to ‘mix and match’, and what counts is the overall result of the finished dish. I love it when a dish comes together with a good balance of flavors and textures, and wild mushrooms add so much to that. So while we occasionally celebrate the flavor of one particular mushroom, I generally like the Asian approach to mushrooms. In China, Thailand, Korea and Japan, mushrooms are commonly used as ingredients in cooking as well as edible medicine. In some of these countries, mushrooms are romanticized, given names like “Dancing Cloud” and “Dancing Butterfly” (for Grifola frondosa). There are even special celebrations for certain mushrooms, like Matsutake. But mostly, consuming mushrooms is a daily affair because they taste good with other foods and are believed to promote good health. A handful of mushrooms, one kind or more, is added to everyday foods. Special attention is given to ensure a good match between ingredients in order to maximize the flavors and textures of the final dish. (For further reading, I recommend Christopher Hobbs’ book Medicinal Mushrooms; An Exploration of Tradition, Healing, & Culture, Botanica Press, CA, 1995)
In addition to the fresh seasonal mushroom bounty, we regularly use a number of the more recognized medicinal mushrooms. Our favorites are Hen of the Woods, Shiitake, Oyster Mushrooms, Enoki, and Wood Ear. I keep them in glass jars on a shelf in the kitchen, where they are beautiful to look at and easy to reach. Whether we use one kind or combine a few species of mushrooms, we try to make them a regular ingredient in our diet.
The jar I reach for the most is the one containing dry pieces of Hen of the Woods. While we love this mushroom fresh, I am especially fond of it dried, and use it year round. I chose Hen of the Woods for this corner’s recipes because it can be found in large quantities in the wild, it is cultivated and can be bought fresh year round, it is easy to preserve, it is a versatile edible mushroom with a very good flavor, and it is known for its health benefits.
Common names: Hen of the Woods, Sheep’s Head, Maitake (dancing mushroom), Kumotake (Cloud Mushroom), and Mushikusa. (For more information on Grifola frondosa, click here for Tom Volk's site).
Hen of the Woods is high in protein, carbohydrates, vitamin D2 and potassium. It has 0g cholesterol. It has been studied extensively for its medicinal properties. This fungus has been shown to have strong anti-cancer and anti-viral properties. It is also known to stimulate cellular immune responses. (For more information about the nutritional and medicinal value of Grifola frondosa, I recommend Paul Stamets book, Mycelium Running, 10 Speed press, 2005, pp 235-239)
The fall mushroom season of 2006 should be known as “The Season of the Hen”. Large quantities of Hen of the Woods were collected all over the Northeast in September and October. As this mushroom will often grow in the same place year after year, many people now have ‘new spots’ to find this beautiful polypore. It grows in the fall, mostly at the base of oaks. From a distance it looks like a puffed-up hen finding shelter at the base of a tree, hence the common name ‘Hen of the Woods’. It is a large, round mass, with gray to brown branched and overlapping pad-like parts. It usually weighs a couple of pounds but can grow to quite a large size. This fall Noah Siegel and I (mostly Noah) dragged a single, 29 lb, beautiful ‘Hen’ out of the northern Massachusetts woods.
Hen of the Woods has a distinct yet delicate flavor and firm texture, which holds well in slow cooking. It can be lightly sautéed and frozen, or easily dehydrated and kept in a sealed jar for years. I add dry pieces of Hen of the Woods directly from the jar to soups and stews. It re-hydrates well in boiling water or broth, retaining both texture and flavor. It lends itself to many preparations and can be added to a variety of dishes.
Recipes with Hen of the Woods (Grifola frondosa)
The time consuming task of cleaning and preparing wild mushrooms can be minimized if special attention is given to collecting and carrying them home in a clean manner. Hen of the Woods can be very clean or full of mud, gravel and leaf litter. It grows out of a root-like formation and should be cut with a knife above that ‘root’. Any mud, loose gravel, leaf and branch matter should be removed before turning it over. Once debris enters the many hollows of the mushroom, cleaning it becomes time consuming. For the same reason, the mushroom should be carried home with the cut side down.
Once home, separate the mushroom into easy to handle parts. Do not cut it through with a knife – I learned this the hard way. One evening in a particularly cold season, I cut a ‘Hen’ in two. To my horror, my knife went right through a small garter snake, which must have taken cover in the large mushroom. Throughout the years I have removed a variety of wood dwellers from ‘Hen of the Woods’, especially pretty pink newts and small lizards.
Once the mushroom is taken apart, remove any bug infested areas. Separate the larger parts into small (about bite size) pieces by pulling them apart, and clean the pieces well. If mud is present, wash the pieces in a bowl of water, brushing and scraping the mud away. Let the pieces dry for a few hours on paper towels, after which they are ready to be cooked or dried.
The washed and towel dried pieces can be kept in the refrigerator for over a week. Wrap them in dry paper towels and store in an open plastic bag. Punch some holes in the bag for better ventilation.
Place the clean ‘Hen’ pieces in a single layer on the trays of a dehydrator. I use a vegetable dehydrator made by American Harvest that has a heating element and a fan to effectively circulate the air. Set the temperature to 110F-120 F (or low to moderate heat). Dry the pieces until they readily snap when bent. It takes about 12 hours on my dehydrator, but I leave the mushroom pieces on the dehydrator for an additional 12 hours on low heat. It prolongs the shelf life of the mushrooms without causing any harm. Store them in a tightly sealed glass jar right after removing them from the dehydrator. If properly dried and placed in a cool and dark place, the dried mushrooms can keep for years.
Heat a tablespoon of light olive oil in a heavy skillet. Add the mushroom pieces. Mix well. Partially cover the skillet and sauté on moderate heat until the pieces have wilted, about 5-10 minutes. Remove from heat and uncover to prevent overcooking. Let cool. Place a single serving portion in a heavy duty freezer bag, and push the air out before sealing. Mark the bag with the appropriate details (such as name and date). Frozen sautéed mushrooms can be used within a year.
NOTE: Do not use the microwave to “wilt” any fresh mushrooms prior to freezing. The microwave does not heat the mushrooms evenly or thoroughly enough. Serious stomach problems have been reported by a number of people.
Hen of the Woods Vegetarian ‘Stew’
This recipe is my favorite way to enjoy this mushroom. The basic preparation lends itself to many uses. It can be used as a filling (for puff pastry). It can be enjoyed as chunky mushroom sauce - follow the preparation until note below, and serve over pasta, gnocchi, rice, spaghetti squash, or steak.
For a hearty main course fit for a cold winter dinner, add beef cubes or thick slices of country sausage, browned on all sides (when adding potatoes).
· 4-5 oz. dry Hen of the Woods pieces, about 2 generous handfuls
· 4 cups chicken or mushroom broth, cooked down to 2 1/2 - 3 cups (explained in the preparation section)
· 5 medium garlic cloves, halved lengthwise
· 1 medium yellow onion, cut into large cubes
· 1/2 cup good dry white wine (or beer)
· 2 tbsp orange juice (optional)
· 1/4 cup good extra virgin olive oil
· 8 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, pealed, quartered and microwaved (covered) on high for 4 minutes just before adding to the dish.
· 1 small carrot, sliced thickly
· 1 small celery rib, sliced thickly
· 1 tbsp Italian Seasoning (not Herb-de-Provence which has lavender)
· 1/4 tsp dried crushed hot pepper flakes (optional)
· 1/4 tsp roughly ground black pepper
· 1/4 tsp cumin (optional)
· 2 bay leaves
· 2 tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley
· 2 tbsp chopped scallions, green chives (or additional parsley), for decoration
· Salt to taste (taste liquids of the cooking dish before adding any salt, the broths may be salty enough)
Any vegetable, chicken, mushroom, or beef home made broth can be used. This choice will determine the flavor of the finished dish. Store-bought broths like Pacific’s mushroom or vegetable broth are very good too. As the broths are concentrated, be careful not to over-salt the dish.
Gently boil the broth down to make 2 1/2 cups. Remove from the heat and add the dried mushrooms to the hot broth. Re-hydrate away from the heat for 1 hour, checking that the pieces are covered by the liquid.
Shake the mushrooms in the liquid, and squeeze them over the soaking pot to remove excess fluids. Place the mushroom on a plate. Reserve the soaking broth.
Heat the skillet and add olive oil, bay leaves, black pepper (and red pepper flakes), Italian Seasoning, (and cumin). Stir well. Add roughly chopped onions and sliced garlic. Stir. Add celery and carrots. Add mushrooms. Mix well. Stirring often, sauté until onions turn slightly golden, about 3-5 minutes (avoid burning the garlic and spices, they will turn bitter). Once slightly golden, slowly add the white wine, orange juice, and soaking liquids (avoiding any grit at the bottom).
Lower the heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until the juices have reduced slightly, about 5 minutes. Taste and add salt if necessary.
Note – at this point the mushroom mixture can be served over freshly cooked pasta or rice, or concentrated a little longer and poured over steak.
For the Stew – Preheat the oven to 375 - 400 F. Choose a deep, ovenproof dish big enough to hold the potatoes and mushrooms. The stew will be served in the dish it was baked in. Wipe the dish with olive oil and place the microwaved potato pieces in it. Sprinkle with the chopped parsley. Pour the mushrooms and their juices over the potatoes evenly. Mix minimally, just to incorporate the ingredients. Cover the dish with aluminum foil, and bake for 40 minutes. Remove from the oven and let stand, covered, for 5 -10 minutes. Remove the foil, sprinkle with chopped scallions or parsley, and serve hot.
· 4-5 oz. dried Hen of the Woods pieces (3 large handfuls), or 3 cups fresh
· 1 1/2 cups boiling vegetable broth or water, to re-hydrate the dry mushrooms
· 1 heaping tablespoon Italian Seasoning
· 1/4 tsp hot pepper flakes or a few drops of Tabasco sauce
· 1 medium yellow onion, sliced
· 1 small carrot sliced into disks
· 1 celery rib cut horizontally into U shape slices
· 2 bay leaves
· 1/4 -1/3 cup white vinegar (see note)
· 1/4 -1/3 cup good extra virgin olive oil
· 3 - 4 tablespoons orange juice
· Salt to taste (about 1 tsp)
· 6 drops extra dark sesame seed oil
· 1 tablespoon mustard seeds, freshly roasted (or toasted)
Soak the dried mushrooms in the boiling broth (or water) for 1 hour.
Shake the mushrooms in the liquid. Squeeze the excess liquid out of the mushroom into the bowl. Place the mushrooms on a plate, and reserve the soaking liquid.
Warm a large non-reactive (stainless steel) pan. Stirring constantly, heat together olive oil, dried herbs, mustard seeds, bay leaves and hot pepper flakes, to release their aroma. Add carrots, celery and onion slices. Stir. Add garlic and mushroom pieces. Stir to coat. Sauté for 2 minutes on medium heat, stirring constantly. Add the soaking liquid (watch out for grit). If using fresh mushrooms, they will excrete their own liquid. If not enough, add some broth.
Stirring occasionally, sauté the mushrooms on medium heat for about 5 minutes or until liquids reduce by 1/2. Add 1/4 cup distilled vinegar, 3 tbsp of the orange juice, sesame-seed oil, Tabasco (if not using hot pepper flakes), and salt. Mix well. Cook for 1 minute and remove from heat. Taste the juices in the pan (not the mushroom pieces). The liquid should have a good taste, salty and sour to your liking. The mushroom pieces will need to soak in it for 24 hours before developing their correct flavor. If the liquid is not sour enough, add some more vinegar (dry mushrooms may need less than fresh ones). If the liquid is too sour, add the fourth tablespoon of orange juice and a little salt. The liquid should be just slightly less sour than you like. You can add more vinegar once the mushrooms have cooled and the flavors have stabilized. Keep covered until the next day. Mix well. Taste the mushroom pieces and correct the flavors. Transfer to a glass jar, cover well, and store in the refrigerator for up to a month.
Serve with cheese and fish, or on toasted baguettes.
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Copyright © 2006 by Elinoar Shavit