By Suzette Martinez Standring
When the aroma of summer grass gives way to the musk of forest mushrooms, the telltale scent of fall, and the humidity steams and dark skies shower rain, I smile in anticipation of foraging time. A bouquet of earthiness is captured best in my favorite fungi, Grifola Frondosa, or the Hen-of-the-Woods mushroom. It is so named because, typically, the large gray/brown mushroom, found nested at the base of oak trees with clusters of rounded layers, resembles a ruffled chicken.
I’ve been foraging since 1997. Oh, those strange-to-me sightings of toadstools and Earthstars while I rambled in the woods. When I first came upon a Hen-of-the-Woods, I bent down and said, “What the heck are you, little guy?” Later, armed with a field guide, I discovered it was considered a “choice” edible. After discovering that it sold for over $20 a pound in specialty markets, my interest grew. That’s when I became an avid forager. Free gourmet food is so exciting!
The thrill of bagging this delicious polypore never wanes. You don’t know wide-eyed reverence until you’ve stumbled upon a five pounder in full feather-like splendor. Once I found a woodland grouping of seven, my all-time record, but I took home only three and hoped another forager would scoop up the rest. Sure, I could have taken them all and eaten this wild delicacy for the next 25 meals, or perhaps filled my freezer to the exclusion of anything else. Yet even the ancient Israelites got tired of eating manna from heaven, no point in being piggy.
Ah, but the fragrance of cut up clusters sautéing in butter, garlic and olive oil! When frozen for future use, the hen-of-the-woods will hold its firm texture and flavor. I like to make a hen-of-the-woods stuffing for boneless chicken, or stir savory fragments into a risotto, or simmer up a luxurious mushroom soup.
The various woods and parks of the Southeastern Massachusetts offer the forager happy hunting grounds. The best specimens are young and softly firm. When cut away from the base, the cream-colored underside is clean and bug-free. I have found both large and small “hens” to be tender if taken before they mature too far. I avoid older mushrooms that feel tough to the touch, as no amount of cooking will tenderize them.
Occasionally, my hopes are dashed when the hunting is not happy. There are days when I trudge back with an empty basket, and spotting a more successful forager fills me with fungus envy! But learning to go with the flow of nature is good for my character.
As we head into fall, the glory season for New England, it is not always just about the colorful leaves. Wake up and smell the mushrooms!
Suzette Martinez Standring is the award winning author of The Art of Column Writing and The Art of Opinion Writing: Insider Secrets from Top Op-Ed Columnists. She teaches writing workshops nationally.