Fall mushroom season is often celebrated by foragers with the arrival of a mushroom known as hen of the woods—a gray and off-white rosette-shaped fungus that can grow quite large. Also known as maitake or Grifola frondosa, it resembles the ruffled feathers of a gray chicken and is found in association with mature oak trees ranging from the Midwest to the East Coast of North America. Many specimens grow up to 30 pounds (yet single mushrooms weighing up to 100 pounds are not uncommon) and appear in the same spots year after year.
This tasty and highly versatile mushroom adds a meaty texture and a complex savory flavor to recipes. Due to its size in the wild, there is usually a lot of mushroom to work with, which makes it great for a variety of preservation methods: It can be pickled, fermented, or made into a dehydrated powder or seasoned jerky. The individual caps of the mushroom can also be easily pulled apart, battered, and deep-fried for a flavorful and juicy tempura.
Adding this mushroom to the diet regularly has great benefits both medicinally and nutritionally. Due to its high content of beta-glucans (a complex carbohydrate), hen of the woods is considered one of the more potent medicinal mushrooms. Among its most promising uses are blood sugar regulation, immune system modulation, and support against cancer. The dehydrated and powdered mushroom is often added to medicinal mushroom blends for its health-promoting benefits.
Don’t live where hen of the woods grows? Another benefit of this mushroom is that its saprophytic nature means it can be cultivated, and it is often widely available at many supermarkets, sometimes under its Japanese name, maitake. For those unlucky at foraging—or those in areas where hen of the woods don’t grow wild—this is a great time to experience some new flavors. Try this seasonal pumpkin soup recipe to get a taste for this delicious, ultra-healthy mushroom!
Hen of the Woods
AND PUMPKIN SOUP
2 pounds fresh hen of the woods (maitake) mushrooms
1 medium to large pumpkin (try a fairy-tale pumpkin for a rustic look)
1 tablespoon oil or butter
1 yellow onion
4 cloves of garlic
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 cup cashew milk, or heavy cream
1 cup mushroom broth, or water
¼ teaspoon chili pepper, optional
Salt and pepper to taste
Sautéed hen of the woods Cut into the top of the pumpkin around the stem and remove the top, reserve—this will be your lid for cooking the soup inside the pumpkin. Remove seeds—these can be shelled and toasted as a garnish.
Preheat the oven to 400°F. Add the oil to a large pot on medium heat. Add chopped onion in a large pot and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook for another minute. Add the mushrooms, thyme and soy sauce, cover with a lid and allow to cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, allowing the mushrooms to release their water.
Remove the lid and cook for another 5 minutes, letting the excess water evaporate and sauté the mushrooms until they have browned. Add a splash of mushroom broth—about a ¼ cup—to deglaze and lift all the browned bits of flavor at the bottom of the pot. Reserve a few sautéed maitake mushrooms for garnish and added texture.
In a high speed blender, combine the sautéed mushroom and onion mixture along with the thyme, soy sauce, cream and chili pepper if using, along with the remaining mushroom broth and blend until smooth and creamy. An immersion blender can also work directly in the soup pot. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Pour soup into the pumpkin and replace the carved top with the stem to create a lid.
Cook in the preheated oven for 1½ hours. When serving, scrape the edges of the pumpkin to incorporate into the soup. Add a few reserved sautéed mushrooms, fresh herbs and chili oil to make a nice garnish for each bowl.