Friday, September 7, 2012

Chicken Of The Woods / Sulphur Shelf -- Giving it a Second Chance

So, no hen of the woods in my part of Rhode Island just yet.  My friends and I speculate that the dry summer weather has held them back.  Fortunately, recent rains have inspired many other mycelia to fruit, including some very tender chicken of the woods mushrooms (see pictures).

As with all fungus, it takes a mycologist to predict the perfect weather.  For instance, this morning I found black trumpets that had barely sprouted before developing a white mold.  Disappointing.  Too much rain, perhaps?  I have no idea.
Chicken of the woods, also known as sulfur shelf, can be a reasonable standby when hen of the woods is unavailable.

Usually at this time of the year I would have more hen of the woods mushrooms than I could process.  The smell would be hanging over our kitchen like a heavy blanket and my wife would be asking me just when she might get a break from "that stench".  Last year was a banner year as far as hen of the woods were concerned.  A hen in every pot. This year promises to be a comparative disappointment.  Still, no need to let it get you down.  Plenty of other mushrooms out there that still need eating.

This morning I rediscovered the chicken of the woods (aka sulphur shelf) mushroom.  Usually I leave these mushrooms behind, considering them to be too tough to truly enjoy.  Yes, they are perfectly edible but, with so many other spectacular mushrooms, I have rarely found a chicken of the woods that was tender enough to tempt me.  Sometimes simply being edible just isn't enough.  If it weren't for the lack of other mushrooms, I might have left this three pound beauty uninspected.  I am glad that I didn't.

I found it under an old oak tree, right where I would have expected to find a hen of the woods.  Aside from the distinctive, salmon color, it was a true hen look-alike.  It was fresh, the outer inch (or more) of every leaf was very soft.  The flesh was almost the texture of an oyster mushroom.  It cooked up a lot like an oyster mushroom, too -- if I had added a drop of anisette, I might have fooled a blindfolded connoisseur.

I cooked up some of the outer, salmon colored flesh first, carefully carving it away from the tougher, orange stems.  Some of these outer rings I tore into pieces and sauteed with olive oil, garlic and salt.  I was delighted to note that it kept its wonderful salmon color.  Were I a true chef in a fancy restaurant, I could have asked for nothing more beautiful with which to top a pasta.  It tasted like, well, olive oil, garlic and salt -- with only the faintest hint of mushroom -- less even than the store-bought, button variety.  Truly, the flavor of the chicken of the woods can hardly be called flavor at all.  Still, the texture was fabulous and who doesn't enjoy any excuse to eat something that tastes like olive oil, garlic and salt. 

Next, I shredded and sauteed some of the firm, inner, orange-colored flesh.  It was, as its name suggests, very much like chicken in texture.  Dry chicken.  The kind of chicken you might be served at a lousy convention dinner, smothered in dubious brown gravy with reconstituted mashed potatoes on the side.  I tried adding more olive oil and some water.  It soaked up the oil like a sponge while the water steamed off.  This helped the texture but who needs all that extra fat?  So I tossed the inner mushroom.  Happily, I was left with more of the good stuff than I will probably be able to eat.

It is hard to envision a scenario where preserving a chicken of the woods mushroom would be worth the trouble.  Black trumpets have such a distinctive flavor -- and fetch such a famous price tag -- that preserving your surplus is an absolute necessity.  I either dry and bag them or saute them and store them in olive oil.  Hen of the woods mushrooms I preserve by either sauteing, shrink-wrapping and freezing them or drying and bagging.  I've tried pickling oyster mushrooms but they end up slimy.  Next time I think I'll just dry them and see how it goes.  Chanterelles I never find enough of to preserve.  But preserving a chicken of the woods seems a bit like preserving a button mushroom.  It's best served fresh, like so many other things.
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