Mushroom season came late this year. We finally got some rain toward the end of August, and now the mushrooms seem to making up for lost time.
One of our young visitors last Sunday had never seen a wild mushroom before, and was agog when I pointed out one of the common brown ones that dot the forest floor. “I love mushrooms! Can you eat these?” He was full of excited questions.
I told him that some were edible, but not these ones. I pointed out a few species I recognized, including the death cup. I described how it could dissolve the liver within 48 hours, leading to an agonizing death. “But there are a few species we eat,” I said. “Mostly giant puffballs and chicken mushrooms, and sometimes the odd chanterelle, oyster mushroom or morel.”
“Oh, you grow your own mushrooms?” The concept of wild food was taking a little time to sink in.
“No, they grow themselves,” I said. “We just pick them.”
My mother took both youngsters up to the spruce grove at the top of the hollow for a picnic lunch. Virtually the whole time, she said, they were clamoring over the wild mushrooms that lined the trails, picking them and breaking them apart to see what they looked like inside. Then on the way back down to the house, one of them spotted a log covered with orange.
“Look! What’s that?”
“Oh, wonderful! Chicken mushrooms!”
The kids were ecstatic. Their newly acquired mushroom-breaking skills suddenly had a purpose! They filled their arms with the fleshy shelf fungi and staggered back to the house.
I heard the news a short while later. We had a large gang to feed, and I had already defrosted chicken to make chicken tarragon, but I had wanted a vegetable side dish, too. It looked as if we’d be having chicken and chicken mushroom in the same meal.
I concocted a stir-fry with about a half a pound of chicken mushroom strips, a couple of sweet red peppers, and one yellow squash cut into half-moons. The sauce consisted of garlic, ginger, tamari, rice wine, oyster sauce, and five-spice powder. It was, if I may say so, delicious. My cousin Jeff — usually a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy — surprised me by taking seconds. “It tastes like chicken, but you can definitely tell the difference,” he said.
Chicken mushroom, also known as sulfur shelf (Laetiporus sulfureus) grows on rotten logs or at the base of dead trees. The other week, my mother found some growing directly out the ground, presumably on a dead root. On wetter years, we can find it as early as June. We’ve never found it twice at the same spot, so we have to keep our eyes open. Taste varies, depending on the freshness of the mushroom and probably also on genotype. But as Wildman Steve Brill puts it,
If there’s one mushroom to start with, this is it. The chicken mushroom is easy to recognize, with no poisonous look-alikes. It’s common and widespread, it has a long season, and it can be huge.
Brill also tenders some culinary advice:
To adapt it to traditional chicken recipes, include a source of protein (i.e., grains or beans) to make the dish filling, plus some olive oil or vegetable oil, because unlike chicken, this mushroom contains no fat.
Unless the mushroom is so young and tender it almost drips with juice, it’s better to cook it in moist heat (i.e. in soups, stews, or in grains) than to cook it in oil.
The only thing you have to remember is to remove the stem — that is, roughly two inches at the base of the fan. Also remove any rove beetles you might find hiding between the fans (though they are probably edible, too).
Here are a couple recipes I’ve had success with. The first is adapted from the original Moosewood Cookbook‘s recipe for spaghetti squash; the second uses actual spaghetti. Both fall under the general heading of “comfort food,” which is pretty much my specialty in the kitchen. “Comfort food” means that things get mixed together in big bowls, plopped into big casserole dishes, and baked until bubbly (ideally in a small toaster oven, to save electricity). Butter and cheese are your friends.
Chicken Mushroom and Spaghetti Squash Casserole
Bake or boil one medium spaghetti squash. While that’s going on, sauté in olive oil or butter one large onion, sliced; two to three cloves of minced garlic; one sweet pepper, cut in thin strips; and about a pound of chicken mushrooms, also cut into strips. Add a half teaspoon dried oregano and a full teaspoon basil — or more, if you have access to the fresh herbs. Add salt and pepper to taste, as they say.
When the squash is cool enough to handle, scoop out the stringy flesh and put it in a big bowl along with the sauté. Mix in a cup or more of ricotta and an equal amount of grated mozzarella. Stir it all together and plop it into a greased, three-quart casserole. Top with a shit-load of bread crumbs, and bake at 350F about 40 minutes — the last ten without the lid.
Chicken Mushroom Tetrazzini
First, unless you already have some leftover chicken gravy in the fridge: Melt at least four tablespoons of butter on medium heat. Add a third of a cup of flour, half a teaspoon salt, and a dash of black pepper, and let it bubble for half a minute. Then add a 15-oz can of low-sodium chicken broth and stir until thick. Add a cup of milk or light cream and continue stirring until it thickens again. Remove from heat.
Sauté about three cups of chicken mushroom pieces in olive oil until soft. (Or follow Brill’s advice and steam it, if you must.) Meanwhile, blanch, peel and sliver a handful of almonds.
Remove leftover whole wheat spaghetti from refrigerator (or cook fresh: roughly 6-8 ounces of dry noodles). Cut into shortish pieces.
Get out two big bowls. In one, mix the noodles with half of the sauce. In the other, mix mushrooms, slivered almonds, and a cup of fresh or frozen green peas with the other half of the sauce. Starting with the noodles, alternate layers of these two mixtures in a greased, three-quart casserole, two layers of each. Top with Parmesan (yes, you can use the cheap powdered kind — I always do) and bake as above (350, 40 minutes, whatever).
All this talk about wild chicken mushrooms reminds me of Wallace Steven’s fun, albeit baffling, poem, “Bantam in Pine Woods.” According to the Wikipedia, it’s now in the public domain, so here it is. Get someone to read it out loud at the supper table while you’re tying into your chicken mushroom casserole. Hilarity may or may not ensue.
Bantam in Pine-Woods
Chieftain Iffucan of Azcan in caftan
Of tan with henna hackles, halt!
Damned universal cock, as if the sun
Was blackamoor to bear your blazing tail.
Fat! Fat! Fat! Fat! I am the personal.
Your world is you. I am my world.
You ten-foot poet among inchlings. Fat!
Begone! An inchling bristles in these pines,
Bristles, and points their Appalachian tangs,
And fears not portly Azcan nor his hoos.