What To Do with the Hens of the Woods…and other lingering questions

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A word on mushrooms:

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Mushrooms are neither plants nor animals, but form their own separate kingdom called fugi. In fact, when I bought these at the market, the man who sold them told me that many people now consider them to more akin to animals than plants, as in they are more active and more complex beings. Interesting….but not a reliable fact, yet. You might go so far as to call them the undead of flora and fauna.

To quote Julia Child, “It is always advisable to buy Mushrooms in bulk rather than in a package, so you can hand-pick each one… the freshest of the fresh are closed on the underside, unblemished, fresh looking and fresh smelling”.  In other words, don’t rely on the Styrofoam containers as your go-to purchase. If you’re already set on cooking with fungi, its best spend a few extra dollars and buy the real thing. When picking fresh mushrooms at the market, Julia Child reminds us that they are the best when the gills are not visible, meaning that they are still tightly wrapped within themselves. If possible, pick ones that are mostly un-bruised and tender on the outside skins, gills invisible.

Side Tangent: Do you know when you’re in the woods and you come across a fallen log on the ground? It’s beginning to cave in and spores of different colored fungi are slowly spreading across it? Well, there is a good chance that that which you are picturing is called a Hen of the Woods, or a Maitake mushroom. Hen of the Woods are characterized by their large size, floral grey flumes at the top and white base. Here, look familiar?

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 I’m sure that you’re dying to try them. I mean, they look pretty appealing too, right? Wrong. But they’re actually delicious and have the ability to soak up flavors and crisp beautifully on each side.

To be honest, I had never even tasted, let alone cooked these before but they were both simple to make and classy to serve!

This is a perfect Thanksgiving stuffing. The Hens are from my nearby coop, leeks and sprouts from garden, and the sage is from a local farm-stand.

To Wash: To get the grit out of the inside folds, soak for 30 seconds in cold water and pat dry with a paper towel. Try to absorb as much of the water as possible because as they cook, they will begin to secrete all liquid later on.

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Begin by preparing brussels sprouts.

If uncleaned, cut off the base and peel off the first couple layers in order to expose the clean part underneath. Then rinse with water. Next, clean and chop the leek in even, round slices. I find that best way to clean leeks is buy removing the first layer, rather than scrubbing of the out dirt. Cut until the leek starts to split. Most people believe that leeks are only usable until the white part ends, but the greener end is perfectly good as well.

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Next, place a pan over medium-high heat and add several tablespoons of olive oil. Allow the oil to heat for bit before adding the sprouts, about a minute. Add the sprouts and wait until they begin to brown (about 1 1/2 minutes), stirring occasionally, before turning down the heat to medium-low and adding the leeks.

Brussels sprouts take far longer than the leeks to cook so you want to add them before.

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Once you’ve added the leeks, prepare a new pan for the mushrooms. This pan needs to be bigger than you think you’ll need, mushrooms won’t brown unless they are given enough space. Start the same way, oil the pan. You might have to add more oil because they soak up so much moisture, but the wine should be enough to prevent them drying out. Let the mushrooms brown in the oil for a few minutes before adding the wine.Once they’ve reached a golden brown, add the wine, keeping the heat on medium and let bubble for at least 5 minutes, or until most of the liquid has been absorbed.

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Keep checking the sprouts and leeks! On low heat, continue cooking but prevent burning. If they are tender and spear-able by fork, turn off and leave in pan.

While the Hen of the Woods are cooking, roughly chop the sage. When the Hens are tender, golden-brown and wine-saturated, add the sage and quickly stir to incorporate. What you don’t want: for the mushrooms to begin secrete all the liquids you injected them with, thereby making the sage soggy and flavorless. The sage should be more or less raw.

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Hens with Sage

Combine mushrooms with sprouts and stir! For a final touch, add Parmesan on top and serve hot.

Parmesan Garnish

Consider as a stuffing or side dish.

Note: Although this recipe has not been tested with other types of fungi, I would hazard a guess that making such a substitution would not change much. Just be aware that cooking times may vary!

Wine-Soaked Hen of the Woods Stuffing with Brussel Sprouts and Leeks

For Sprouts & Leeks:

3 tbsp. olive oil

1 c. Brussel Sprouts

1 Leek, sliced 1/2 inch thick

salt&pepper to taste

For Mushrooms:

4/5 tbsp. olive oil

2 Heads of Hen of the Woods, each one roughly the size of a fist, cut into inch cubes

1/4 c. dry white wine (I used Pinot Grigio but it was just leftover in my fridge…)

10 leaves of FRESH sage, finely chopped

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4 thoughts on “What To Do with the Hens of the Woods…and other lingering questions

  1. Beautiful, Martina! You write well, and I loved this recipe (probably because brussel sprouts and mushrooms are some of my favorite things. Congrats on this, and thanks for reminding me of the beauty of food and cooking!

  2. Hi Martina, Just went through your hen-of-the-woods recipe. Sadly Esther thinks brussels sprouts are poison so I’m already changing it in my mind — maybe fennel and/or celery? Mushrooms are wonderful and they can be interchanged to some degree; over the years I’ve eaten many kinds. It’s good to remember that they seem to benefit from mixing several varieties together in cooking. The commonest commercial capped mushroom (Agaricus bisporus) is actually quite tasty though like most industrial foods it was chosen for keeping properties and the consistency of the product on the shelf more than for flavor. If you toss in a few morels or porcinis it seems like the flavor is more than the sum of its parts. I also caution people about hunting their own ‘shrooms — it’s really tempting but unless you’re expert it can be dangerous and deadly. Some poisonous varieties are morphologically very similar to edible varieties and fatal mistakes are made every year in the US. I only pick morels now and even then you have to know what you’re doing — the false morels contain some nasty chemicals. Fungi are our friends though, mostly, so keep on cooking (slowly).

    • Hey Uncle Jim,
      I love mushrooms, and actually the more meaty they are, the better. I remember we had a really delicious meal one time that consisted of Hen of the Woods with safron risotto and the mushrooms were grilled so perfectly it was like having chicken! Many people think that mushrooms are only good when they are fresh and not in the plastic seal you see them in at supermarkets. While I do agree that everything is better when fresh, I also agree with you that the commercial kind is, to me, just as good. I haven’t developed my taste-buds enough in order to pick out fresh-off-the vine produce with refrigerated, imported produce. But I am getting better at picking out which ones are the best!
      And I leave the ‘shroom picking to you, I would rather not risk it!

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