Do you know the mushroom man?
The day I spy that first winter squash at my local farmer’s market is always a bit sad for me. Butternuts and acorns are like the opening notes of “Last Dance” at a great wedding reception. There’s something about that moment, however, that portends one more great thing before the end of the market: the reappearance of the mushroom man.
They say that couples who’ve been married for a long time begin to look like each other. I’ve also seen plenty of people who resemble their French Bulldogs or Mastiffs. With the mushroom man, I’ve noticed that the hunter has begun to look like his quarry- the hen-of-the-woods mushroom: handsome, inviting and, well, ruffled.
The mushroom man is only at my market for about 3 weeks or so before it closes. Fall is the season for hen-of-the-woods foraging. The mushroom man has his “spots” and he lies in wait for them to produce. The “Hen,” also known as the maitake in Japanese cuisine, grows primarily at the base of oak trees and is prized for its veal-like flavor profile. I’m not sure if I’m tasting veal, but I can vouch for a rich, complex, mushroomy quality that is very delicious. Its texture is also delightful because it is tender without being watery or slimy. He’s also introduced me to “puffballs” and a yellow mushroom that is also quite delicious but whose name escapes me.
The first hen-of-the-woods I ever bought were for a dinner party for 20 I gave about 2 years ago. For obvious reasons, I needed to keep it simple. However, I trolled the market looking for a “wow” ingredient to make the salad course special. Mushroom man suggested tempura-frying pieces of “hen” and garnishing each salad with them. Confession: I’d never tempura-fried anything before. Nonetheless, it was idiot-proof and turned out great.
Hen-of-the-woods can be dehydrated and preserved. Interestingly, I’m told, they can also be frozen with no discernable compromise of flavor or texture. Dang. Wish I could have frozen some this year. Alas, I’m in the process of cleaning out my freezer for the move.
This year, I used the hen-of-the-woods in a delicious chicken and mushroom gravy that I served over savory crepes. I also used them in place of shiitakes in stuffed acorn squash. I used the bases, which are a bit more fibrous but still very edible, to create a mushroom stock reduction around which I composed an Asian stir-fry sauce.
There are just a few weeks left in the hen-of-the-woods season. Our market is now closed, but you may luck out and find some in your own market. They are something truly special. I’ll be living in Larchmont, NY by this time next year, so I likely won’t see our mushroom man again. If you live in Hinsdale and see him, get to know him yourself. Tell him I’ve said “hi.”
If you live nowhere near Hinsdale and have no idea where to get a hen-of-the-woods mushroom, the moral of this tale is to be open to special ingredients. It might intimidate you to pay $1/oz for a mushroom, but cook with courage and just try it. There is something that is so life-giving to discover new ingredients, anticipating their reappearance each year. I’m still always a bit intimidated to cook my first “hen” each year. I guess I’m kind of afraid that the mushroom’s inherent greatness might be wasted on a mediocre preparation. I quickly remember how the opposite is actually true: the greatness of this wonderful ingredient elevates even the most simple of preparations.