The Mushrooms of Autumn (hen of the woods)
OK, mushroom fans, another guest post from Bill Bakaitis, on another of the all time great delicious wild mushrooms, the hen of the woods ( Grifola frondosus), now appearing on an oak tree – or on a shelf at a high end market- somewhere near you.
by Bill Bakaitis
September. The days grow shorter. For mycologists, gone are the languid days of summer when we would slowly, patiently, and gently try to identify those interesting mushrooms that grow singly here and there. The photographs, spore prints, the keys, the chemical and microscopic analysis, the process that might take hours or days for us to determine even the genus are luxuries we can no longer afford. The sap that now flows through our veins and that of the world around us cries out for haste. There is so much to do in so little time: the garden, the house and yard, the movement of game in the forests, fall migrations of fishes in the ocean. Each claims its hegemony over our lives and the dwindling hours available. As for mushrooms, we have not time for the tiny, the new, the tantalizing odd; we long instead for the truly substantial. Enter frondosus!
Frondosus – call it Polyporus frondosus, or Grifola frondosus, Maitake, Sheep’s Head, or Hen of the Woods. Here is the mushroom that answers the question, “Where’s the meat?” It is large in size and fruits reliably in the same locations year after year, allowing us to take a twenty minute detour from our hectic lives to collect a year’s supply. And it is one of the best tasting of all wild mushrooms, appearing on every mycologist’s top ten list. Unlike July’s jumble of difficult-to-identify Boletes, frondosus stands nearly alone in form and structure, although it is at times hard to see. As its name “Hen of the Woods” suggests, it reminds some of a mother hen, feathers all ruffle. To those us not so attuned to barnyard activity however, it looks simply like a pile of leaves.
I am often surprised when one suddenly jumps into focus, and then I see another and another and another. Their camouflaged appearance aside, you will recognize them instantly. (more on identifying this mushroom here) There are two mushrooms with which one might confuse frondosus: Polyporus (Grifola) umbellatus and Polyporus (Meripilus) giganteus. Both are edible; umbellatus is choice, but the blackening fronds of Meripilus become tough and somewhat bitter in age. In my experience, neither is as common as frondosus. I do not have good images of either but they may be seen here and here.
Where to find Hen of the Woods: In the Northeast frondosus has a rather lengthy season, from late August in coastal Maine through mid-November in the Hudson Valley of New York, but throughout its range I have found the third week of September to be the best time to look. For the past two decades the classes I conduct with The Culinary Institute of America include a foray on the weekend closest to the equinox. Rare is the foray when we do not find frondosus. Frondosus grows almost exclusively at the base of mature Oak Trees. They may nestle against the trunk or wander out for a few feet along the roots they infect. You will want therefore to seek out areas where these trees have been protected, conserved, or simply ignored. Think ‘forever wild’, ‘landed gentry’, ‘old estates’ or ‘family farms’. One of my best strategies is to walk old property lines or fence rows looking for line trees. Two-hundred year old White Oaks should never, ever go unexamined.
Once you have found a productive tree or two you will want to return in the following season connecting them with a planned excursion, investigating other less obvious trees in the area. You will be surprised at how many you will find on smaller oaks – trees of a foot or so in diameter. If, like me, you live in a suburban to ex-urban area sooner or later you will find a tree that is close to a road near one of your usual travel routes. One such tree near my home has produced twenty to fifty pounds of frondosus annually for twenty years, failing only in one very dry year.
In areas where the oaks have been cut for lumber or firewood or have been toppled by storms the stumps and roots can continue to produce for several more years. In my experience, fruitings on these stumps usually occur later in the season, often after the leaves have fallen from the standing trees.
For obvious reasons it is advisable to carry a large market basket or an Adirondack-style pack basket for your hunt. A cloth shopping bag tucked into your pack is handy for the overflow. Not infrequently I have been faced with the delightful dilemma of finding a mushroom so large that help is needed to carry it out of the forest.
By now you might be asking yourself, “What in the heck does he do with all of those mushrooms?” For two reasons, the medicinal and culinary, I have no trouble giving most of it away.
Medicinal Merit: Maitake, as it is known in the Orient, is reputed to boost the immune system. See Tom Volk’s positive summary of this evidence here. A critical reading of the literature from a scientific review conducted in New Zealand however reaches more modest conclusions. This is a major (50 page) review of the available literature that found: 1. Contrary to popular assertions, there is no evidence for long standing use of Maitake as a traditional medical agent in the orient. Confusion with Grifola umbellatus was cited as the probable source of this confusion. 2. Although a minor fraction of the B-glucan complex was found to produce anti-tumor activity in laboratory rats under certain conditions, in humans most of these compounds were either digested by salivary enzymes prior to entry into the gut or remained undigested and excreted in the fecal matter. 3. Much of the anti-diabetic activity seen in mice could be attributed to the high fiber content of the mushroom rather than special pharmacological properties. 4. Inadequate scientific controls and methodological errors were found in the laboratory (rat) studies. Differences between the various treatment groups and controls were found to be “unremarkable”, “unreliable” and/or “contradictory”. 5. Similar errors appeared in the clinical (human) studies reviewed. They were found to be “non-randomized”, “uncontrolled”, “unblinded”, “not subject to peer review”, and contained obvious self-serving interpretations and conclusions. 6. The mushroom however is both non-toxic and safe to use as food; its specific dietary properties change with both the substrate and age of the fruit body.
Most of the approximately 75 studies reviewed by the New Zealand panel appear to have been conducted in Japan or China, presumably with oriental strains of Grifola. I was interested therefore in a separate study in which researchers looked at the DNA of North American and Oriental specimens. This team found that despite the similarity in appearances, there are important genetic differences between the Oriental and North American strains of Grifola frondosus. By this way of reckoning, the two are not the same.
Notwithstanding, there is a tremendous interest in Grifola as a nutritional supplement. Any Google search will produce pages and pages of sites and testimonials attesting to the restorative powers of this mushroom. What gives? Well, the most parsimonious explanation is probably Norman Vincent Peal’s “Power of Positive Thinking”. Of this there is no doubt: the mere act of expecting positive outcomes – the “Placebo Effect” – produces demonstrable biochemical changes in the body. However one reads the literature, there remains a considerable interest in and appetite for the Grifola that I collect, and it gives me great pleasure to see all of those Hens fly the coop of my possession. Friends close to the HIV-infected community eagerly take all I can provide and are convinced of its restorative powers.
Culinary Interest: For my money, this is where the action is. Everybody loves this mushroom for its taste and texture. Leslie and I recently brought a dewy fresh specimen to an afternoon cocktail party where five artists gathered to escape the remnants of Hurricane Ike. Outside the wind roared. Rain pelted the windows. The trees and cabin shook. Whitecaps covered the water and leaves filled the air. We placed the mushroom on a side table and commenced the greeting rituals, but a gasp filled the air as the loose waxed paper wrap was removed from the mushroom by the host. It sat there in framed sculptural beauty. Ten painterly eyes were glued to the mushroom. Five jaws slackened, and from four mouths came the same utterance: “Ohhhh!” And then, “I can’t wait to paint (or draw) it.” The hostess remained silent for a moment, torn between twin desires. I suggested that she might want to re-wrap the mushroom to preserve the freshness. She lowered her head ever so slightly and peered at me over the tops of her glasses. “Are you kidding”, she said. “As soon as these people leave it’s going into the frying pan.”
My thoughts precisely! You will want to experiment with this mushroom, as chefs throughout the world have, and I know Leslie will want to provide a recipe of her own, but my own preference is a light treatment in the frying pan exploiting the native qualities of the mushroom itself.
The Basic Grifola Mushroom Sandwich. This will take no more than five minutes. Use top notch ingredients; Butter, garlic, and artisanal bread.
Over low heat melt a pat of butter in a cast iron skillet. As the butter melts, remove a handful of fronds from your Grifola; clean off any adhering duff or slug stuff, by hand, brush, or a stream of water. Using your fingers shred the fronds into quarter or half inch slivers.
Smash and dice a clove of fresh garlic. Put the garlic and mushroom slivers into the pan and cover. Simmer for a few minutes, stirring occasionally, during which time the mushroom slivers will give off a bit of liquid and a great deal of aroma. Remove the mushroom from the pan leaving some of the juices behind. Put two slices of bread into the skillet, increase the heat a touch and gently pan toast the bread for another minute. Assemble the sandwich, enjoy, and kick yourself for not preparing enough for two sandwiches. It is that good.
For a Man’s Sandwich, add a handful of ham slivers to the pan a moment after the mushrooms.
For a Fancy Pants Special, add a few drops of sherry before removing the mushrooms from the pan. Stay tuned for other Autumn Mushrooms in future posts.