Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Understanding the Chicken

After multiple dining experiences (and blog posts) involving the chicken of the woods mushrooms growing near my home, I have only just begun to know how to fully appreciate them.

Though this fungi can run tough and/or dry, when you pick the right parts of the right mushroom at the right time and prepare them correctly, the c.o.t.w. is absolutely divine. Sound like more trouble than it's worth? It isn't. The same guidelines apply to a zucchini, we're just more used to dealing with those.

Here are my rules for having a healthy relationship with this vegan chicken:

1. Only pick specimens that you want to eat. This is difficult to do, because in your ecstasy at having discovered an enormous, traffic cone-orange wild mushroom, you're going to want to take it all. But you really only want the tender, flexible tips of an older mushroom and not quite all of a younger one. They're most tender at the edges and become woodier as you move back towards the base. I suppose the tougher parts are good for stock, but so are onion peels.

2. A mushroom brush is not enough. Unless your 'shroom is growing high up on a tree, or in a hospital, it will have dirt not only on it but in its "skin." The mushroom seems to embed little pieces of the forest that can't just be wiped away, so before you cook it, taking a paring knife and gently scrape or poke out any dark bits. Remember, you'd do the same with an unsightly zucchini.

3. Keep it simple. It's only when I try to dream up fitting preparations for this glorious ingredient that I end up not using it and letting it turn pale and sad. Pick it, clean it, and just cook it up in a pan with a little olive oil and salt. Eat it straight up as an amuse, on toast, on noodles (pictured at top), or whatever. It is so richly flavorful - sometimes like poultry, sometimes like eggs, sometimes with a hint of lemon - that it needs little else.

4. Slice it thinly. Doing so will shorten the cooking time and enhance the texture, which, if you follow the other rules, can be as soft as an omelette.

4. Don't eat it if it's growing on a pine or another type of conifer. Apparently that can make you ill, though your odds are probably still better than if you were eating ground beef.

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