For most in the Midwest, autumn means big bucks, the early days of deer season, and all things whitetail. Forest foragers know that late autumn also means the mushrooming season for the most part is coming to a close; however, there remains one last great treat for those perusing the autumn woods… One last great big giant treat because, those glorious autumn days are when you can find a fruiting of Hen of the Woods (Grifola frondosa) as big as forty or fifty pounds.
Yes, I said forty or fifty pounds, in one mushroom. The largest I harvested weighed 49.3 pounds. Yes, you read that correctly, a single mushroom weighing in at almost 50 pounds! Now that’s more enough mushroom for eating fresh and for putting up for the rest of the year.
Grifola frondosa can fruit anytime from mid September to late October and seems to be triggered by the first cold nights of the end of summer. As I am out scouting deer, acorn crops, waterfowl etc. In late September you can also bet I’m checking those oaks for Hen of the Woods. It is found mostly with dead or dying oak trees, though I have also found them under maples along creek and river banks.
Just what is it about the Hen of the Woods (AKA Maitake in Japan, grocers and markets) that make it so highly sought after?
Ease of identification. Hen of the Woods, truly have no poisonous look alike, but there are similar species, black staining polypore and a few other polypores. As always, be certain of your identification before consuming any wild edible. The mushroom grows throughout most of the US at the bases of deciduous trees, living or dead; often for many autumns in row at roughly the same time every year.
Find a giant hen this year? Remember that spot come next fall and start checking the tree regularly when temps start to drop at night. Here’s what you are looking for: Colors can range from almost pure white to tan to brown to gray. The ones later in the season after much of the leaf cover as dropped appear to get darker depending on exposure direct sunlight. Large overlapping leaf-like petals/fronds grow in bushy clusters that get larger with time. I always liken a Hen of the Woods’ fronds to petals that can be easily pulled away after removing the core. Each petal is from a half to four inches across and is usually darker to the outward edges of the “caps.” It is not unusual to find an entire fruiting body as big as several feet across. The underside of individual caps consists of a pure white pore surface. Grifola frondosa is a polypore, a mushroom which disperses its spores from pores as opposed to gills. The pores are close together and tiny, almost difficult to see. The caps are firm and juicy. The stem is thick firm, white and branched. The spore print is white.
Size – one or two good sized Hen of the Woods can be preserved through drying, freezing or pickling and will yield enough to last a family of four through until the next season. One of the easiest to preserve Just chop this one up into whatever size pieces you like to cook with and store them in freezer bags in the freezer without any par-boiling, etc.
Delicious flavor and texture the deep rich earthy mushroomy flavor of a Hen of the Woods can stand alone, yet remains present when combined with stronger flavors. Truly a flavor that it seems Mother Nature designed specifically for pairing with the fresh game of October. The texture lends itself to virtually any cooking method you care to employ without becoming watery or slimy. It pairs exceptionally well with venison and goose.
Few Creepy Crawlers -In general Hen of the Woods are the least buggy of the shrooms. When harvesting, to make it easier to clean once you get home and to keep the mycelium intact for future fruitings, do not pull it from the ground. Use a sharp knife and cut it off level with the ground. While still there go ahead and brush of any extra dirt twigs etc. that may be in the multitudes of folds. I often “field clean” mine at the time of picking, trimming away undesirable parts and making as clean a bundle as I can for the basket.
It’s good for you! More and more studies are proving that Hen of the Woods mushrooms display decidedly healthful properties and are even being studied in the prevention and treatment of certain cancers. The American Cancer Society page about miatake mushrooms tells us that research has shown that maitake D-fraction indeed has effects on the immune system in animal and laboratory studies. This is no secret to those who have used the Hen of the Woods or Maitake in folk and Asian medicine. I have read many anecdotal references that Hen of the Woods tea consumed on a daily basis helped to shrink malignant tumors when chemotherapy was no longer effective.
With all the great things associated with Hen of Woods I encourage you to keep your eyes peeled on your autumn journeys afield for one of these big beauties and then try one of these tasty recipes. You won’t be disappointed, and be sure to save some of the Hen of the Woods to add to that backstrap that’s just around the corner!
For this delicious mushroom, sometimes the simplest way is the best to truly enjoy the deep earthy flavor and firm texture.
- 1 tablespoon sesame seeds
- 2 pounds hen-of-the-woods mushrooms (maitake), separated into serving size wedges; 8-10 total
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- sea salt and freshly ground pepper
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh herb of choice (parsley, thyme, and summer savory are all good choices)
- In a small skillet, toast the sesame seeds over moderate heat, stirring a few times, until golden, 3 minutes. Transfer to a plate.
- Heat a grill pan and preheat oven to 425°. Gently and generously brush the mushroom wedges with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill the mushrooms in batches over moderately high heat, turning occasionally, until browned and crisp, about 8 minutes per batch. Transfer the wedges to a large rimmed baking sheet and bake for about 5 minutes. Arrange the mushrooms on a platter. Sprinkle with the chopped herbs and sesame seeds. For additional flavor boost, drizzle with a commercial sesame dressing, such as Kraft’s Light Asian Toasted Sesame.
Here’s a crock pot favorite at the Silver Creek Kennels and Hunt Club. This is such a favorite among my waterfowl hunting pals , that I’ve straggled in later the others only to find the crock pot empty! According my pals at Silver Creek, there’s nothing better when heading in after a chilly morning afield than to find this bubbling away.
Hen of the Woods Stroganoff
Makes about 8 servings
- 4 T olive oil
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 4 c. Hen of the Woods, packed
- 1 c. vegetable or chicken broth
- 1 c. half and half
- 1 tsp. pepper
- 2 tsp. salt
- 1/2 c. sour cream
- 2 T flour
- 2 T chopped chives or parsley
- cooked potatoes, pasta or egg noodles
- Heat the olive oil in a pan and sauté the garlic over medium heat for 1 minute. Add the packed mushrooms and cook, stirring often until the mushroom starts to brown.
- Add the cream and broth, and allow it to reduce by half, stirring often. Add the salt and pepper.
- In a bowl, mix the flour and the sour cream together. Stir the sour cream into the mushrooms and cook 5 minutes, until the sauce is thickened.
- Place sauce, the potatoes, potatoes or noodles, in a crock pot, mix well and set crock pot to low. Garnish with chive or parsley, serve with crusty toasted French bread and a green salad for a delicious autumn lunch!
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