Photo: Kelly Rossiter
Each week when I go to the farmers' market the first table is visit is Forbes Wild Foods. They aren't farmers, they are foragers, and often they have really delightful things for sale. Seth, who mans the table, cheerfully tells you everything you need to know about what he has. He'll tell you where those chanterelles came from, how fiddleheads are harvested, and which grade of maple syrup your kids would like on their pancakes. Sometimes, as with paw paws, he'll sell you the fruit and ask you to bring back the seeds for replanting. But his offering this week was the weirdest looking thing I've come across: Hen of the Woods mushrooms.These grow at the base of trees and have an odd wavy looking texture to them. They are also known as Sheep's Head or Ram's Head or Maitake in Japan, but Seth prefers Hen of the Woods, finding it a more appetizing moniker. They can grow to weigh 50 pounds, and Seth's specimen weighed in at 20 pounds. He just sliced through it to give me a section. He suggested that I chose a braising kind of cooking because they are inclined to be a bit tough, but after reading lots of recipes on different websites, I decided just to saute it and see what happened.
Photo: Kelly Rossiter
It reminded me a bit of when I cooked cauliflower like a "steak". The stem cooks one way, and the section of the florets cooks another, and so it was with these mushrooms. The stem part was really firm and chewy and the frilly part became almost crispy. The flavour of it was quite nutty, and even stronger when I ate the leftovers the next day. Those of you who live in the north eastern part of the U.S. or Ontario and Quebec should be able to get these mushrooms right now. The mushroom I ate came from fields just an hour north of Toronto.
I used a mixture of both butter and olive oil for the saute, but for a vegan version, just use the oil. You can see from the photo above of the uncooked mushrooms,there is some white filmy matter which you can pull out as best you can. Rub off all the dirt and sand that you can before cooking.
Hen of the Woods Mushrooms
Hen of the Woods mushrooms, sliced
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp olive oil
2 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves removed from stems
salt and pepper to taste
1. In a large skillet, heat the butter and olive oil until the butter foams. Add mushrooms to skillet in a single layer. Sprinkle with the thyme leaves. Cook until mushrooms are nicely browned on both sides and cooked through, about 10 - 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.