Chicks of the Woods

This year's haul of young, tender Hens of the Woods

Last fall, I gathered several Hens of the Woods (grifola frondosa, also known as “maitake,”) and embarked on the cleaning, eating and preservation thereof.

The specimens I brought home were fresh, but they were also fairly fully mature.  In lasagna and stir fries, they were very flavorful, exhibit the classic mushroomy-flavor of the species, but they were pretty chewy.  However, one specimen was a bit younger, and it was much more tender.   I learned my lesson.   It’s best to pick Hens when they’re still chicks!

One of the Hens I gathered last year. It's more mature, and the lobes have flattened out, and are no longer rounded and plump.

This year, I ended up with a nice haul of young and tender hens.  Cleaning them is no picnic – their crevices (which are numerous) can harbor bugs, dirt, leaves and grit.  I start by trimming the bottoms and then soaking them in a large bowl in weak salt water.   Then I rinse them off, and pull them apart, continuing to rinse them.  Then the detail work begins – using a vegetable brush and a paring knife, I clean the mushroom thoroughly.  No one wants grit (or a beetle!) in their lasagna.

I preserve as much of the fat, meaty core as I can, if it’s tender. If it’s not tender, I simmer it (after cleaning) to make mushroom stock.

Once the hens were cleaned, I made myself an absolutely delicious omelette with smoked turkey, Swiss cheese and a couple handfuls of mushrooms.  The rest were chopped finely and turned into duxelles, which I then froze for future use, or were simply frozen by putting large pieces in plastic bags (removing as much air as possible) and then freezing. Unlike most other mushrooms, Hens freeze well.

Important note:  When using frozen, uncooked Hens, it’s important not to thaw them.  They need to straight into the pan from the freezer.  You can chop them up when they’re frozen pretty easily.




Conflict of Interest

Masses of honey mushrooms spell doom for this oak tree

The sight of honey mushrooms clustered around the base of an oak tree is, for me, kind of overwhelming.  Two conflicting emotions collide. First comes wild joy, because honey mushrooms are delicious and usually plentiful, meaning I can drag bags of them home.  That joy is quickly tempered, however, when I look up at the bare branches of the host tree.  Honey mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of armillaria mellea, one example of which which has the distinction of being the largest living organism on the planet.  They are also pathogenic parasites that rot wood and kill trees.

The path they are carving in one forest I frequent is clear.  A long dead and now decaying oak stump stands uphill from the tree pictured above.  Downhill from this tree, another handsome oak sprouted a handful of mushrooms this year.   A pair of trees nearby are as yet unaffected – visibly, at least.  But you know their days are numbered.

Honey mushrooms are rich tasting and flavorful.  As I carry bags of them off (taking care in this case to use plastic, not mesh) I hope that the fact that I’m removing so many spores from the ecosystem will slow their march.

A fabulous find

A giant puffball, deep in the woods, ripe for picking.

When leafing through field guides to edible wild mushrooms, I have always stopped to stare a moment at the pages devoted to the giant puffball.  Easy to identify, and extravagantly sized, I’ve always wanted to find one.

I did find a small, grapefruit sized specimen last year.  And it was delicious.  In fact, I’ve concluded that the puffball is close to perfect – easy to find, identify and clean, and delicious to eat.

This last weekend, my friends Christy and Mark arrived on my doorstep, with an absolutely monstrous puffball in tow, and a smaller specimen as well.  Sadly, the larger specimen was just a couple days too old to eat- spores had started to form within.  The smaller mushroom, however, was fresh and lovely.

Puffballs, courtesy of my friends Christy and Mark. Yes, those are full-size bananas.

Excited by their finds, I marched out into the woods early the next morning.  Tramping around, I saw little evidence of fungal growth of any type.  It’s been dry, but I pressed on.

Entering my least favorite part of the woods, a hilly spot riddled with downed trees and lots of prickly undergrowth, my pace slowed as I picked my way carefully through, around, under and over the fallen trees and branches.

And then I saw it.

There, glowing eerily from the forest floor was an immense, white, alien orb.  A smaller one sat nearby.  Praying under my breath that it was still fresh and sound I made my way over to the immense puffball.  Its surface was smooth and sound, and I had to give it a sharp tug and twist to release it from the ground. It was heavy and firm.  Good signs, for sure.

Yes. The puffball was about twice the size of my noggin.

Before carrying it off, I took a very cheesy and terrifically unflattering self portrait, with puffball.  Then I slid it into a nylon bag, and cradling it gently, started to pick my way out of the wood, gingerly carrying my prize in front of me.

I finally made it out of the woods, and ventured home, drawing some strange looks from passing motorists as I made my way back up the road to my house.   Once home, I reverently laid my treasure on a cutting board, and took a few more pictures, just to document my good fortune.

My monster mushroom, with a can of tomatoes for scale.

Holding my breath, I sliced into the puffball.  Would it be snowy white inside? Unspoiled and ready to eat?  Or would it have started to age, sprouting spores, and rendering it inedible?

Using a sharp serrated knife, I gently cut the mushroom in half.  It was snowy white! Perfect!

I invited Christy and Mark to dinner to celebrate, and made puffball strudel and  puffball & sausage penne.  Both were delicious, and the recipes will be posted soon.   The remaining puffball was sliced and turned into puffball parmesan, and the last bits will be used in another batch of penne this weekend.  Finding monster puffballs does result in a total embarrassment of riches, but I’m up to the challenge.

An interesting foray

I'm still not sure of these, and I threw them out last night.

It’s been a while since I updated, chiefly because I’ve not been out too much, and my recent forays have been fruitless.  I was disappointed to have come up entirely blank in terms of chanterelles, though, admittedly, I didn’t get out in late June, and may have missed my best opportunities.  However, a bumper crop of mosquitoes was very de-motivating.

I sallied forth yesterday, with some interesting – albeit inedible – results.  Today is another beautiful day, and I plan to visit some spots in southern Wisconsin to see what I can see.

Yesterday I went through the wood near my home.  It’s a varied wood – a scrubby boarder of elm, cherry and a lot of junk (buckthorn, boo) ringing more mature growths of conifers and oaks.  In the conifer grove I spotted a bunch of russet-topped, yellowy-gold mushrooms growning from dead wood.  They had off-set stems, and grew in clusters.  But they weren’t chanterelles. Oysters, maybe?

The mystery mushrooms.

The mystery mushrooms were plentiful, and smelled really good – rich and mushroomy, not at all foul or unpleasant.  They were meaty, fresh and substantial. I stuck a few in the bag to take home to ID.

You'll forgive me for first thinking these were oysters.

The spore print was clear and vivid.

I tried to ID these, and I believe it’s a Velvet Footed Pax.  There appears to be some debate over whether the genus is Paxillus or Tapinella, but all guides I consulted agreed on the species: atrotomentosa.  The spore print was golden yellow, turning brownish when I left the cap on the paper for hours.   And the fat, brown, fuzzy stem on larger specimens was distinctive.   It was pretty clear I had a big batch of inedible mushrooms!  Into the trash they went.

While in the woods, I also decided to try to find the spot where I had found some very expired but at one point ginormous-puffballs-of-some-stripe very early this spring.  I bumbled around and eventually hit the jackpot.  These monsters were enormous – the size of good size watermelons!

Immense, and aged, puffballs. I am not sure of the species.

This was a good sized cluster, and they were aged.  However, I couldn’t resist cutting into one, using a sharp broken stick. It appears that the insides were once white.  Were these giant (delicious, edible) puffballs?  I don’t know.  But I will be checking this spot earlier next year.

Another cluster of big puffballs, species TBD.

Just wow.

A truly monster morel

This season was largely a bust for me.  The good news is that I’m feeling pretty good about next year.  I have a few good habitats staked out for morel hunting in 2012.

I found enough morels to make a couple omelettes but too few for anything more extravagant.  And I spent a lot of time looking in the wrong places.

I found some of the right places last night.  I dumped some spent dirt from one of last year’s plant pots behind the woodpile, and spotted a nice cluster of expired yellows.

It was a nice evening, so I decided to have a tramp through a nearby wood.  Upon leaving, I  roamed around the area I normally walk right by as I enter the forest.  Yup, you guessed it.  Another nice morel patch, with some large, past-due specimens.

I went home empty handed, but full plans for next May.

[2012] It’s Morel Season in the Northern Chicago Suburbs!

The first morel I spotted, near an elm stump.

I took a walk through the wood behind my house tonight, and was thrilled to spot some morels.  I left several, including the one pictured, in the woods to grow for another day or so.  But I know where they are.  I’ll be revisiting the area soon.

And I might sneak out to the woods after work tomorrow. Mostly, I’m just happy that I’ve not forgotten what these look like.

The morels I spotted tonight were on the periphery of the wood, near an elm stump on which some pheasant backs were growing.

Notes:  Temperatures have been hovering in the low 50’s for the last several days, and we’ve had quite a bit of rain.   These mushrooms were found on Wednesday, May 4.  Monday and Tuesday were quite cool, following more moderate temperatures on the weekend.  Today it hit 58 and the morels are just starting to appear.

Other species:

Jack in the Pulpits are up, but small, and only about 8″ high.  This picture was taken on May 1.

Trillium shoots have appeared as well, and are starting to leaf out.

Pheasant backs are everywhere, and I spotted budding fruits almost two weeks ago.

First Real Foray – 2011

No mushrooms today, but my luck is still better than this deer's.

Last week I gained permission to hunt in a wood near my home, and today I went on a recon mission to scout my new mushrooming domain.  And while I found numerous polyporus squamoses (also called pheasant back or dryad’s saddle) just starting to fruit, I saw nary a morel.  I knew that it’s still a bit early, it’s not been quite warm enough.

Polyporus squamosus, just starting to fruit. Common names include Pheasant Back or Dryad's Saddle

That didn’t stop me from toting a couple bags with my in my pockets.  You know.  Just in case.

Despite being shutout today, I’m very excited about my new hunting grounds. The terrain is rolling, and a nice mix of deciduous and conifers, with lots of elm and ash, and lots of trees in various stages of life, death and decay.

A promising section of The Woods.

There are a few oaks, but because the forest I hunt in Wisconsin is primarily oak, I’m happy to have a different environment available to me.

I’m in a bit of a dither, I’ll admit.  Temperatures are going to be spotty this week, between the mid- and high 50’s.  Maybe by the latter part of the week, we’ll see the morels pop.  Fingers crossed!