The day before I went on FOX 9 to demo a couple mushroom dishes last week, I was feeling pretty defeated about having no fresh props to bring into the show. I mean, what’s a good mushroom hunter without any fresh specimens? The woods don’t obey commands though; all you have are educated guesses.
I had been to my best hen spot once a week, every week for the past month, and hadn’t seen a single thing around the trees that I know often have “friends.” I wasn’t expecting much.
First thing I saw were a couple decent aborted entolomas, and they’re great, but they definitely don’t have the shock value a massive hen packs. I picked a couple entolomas to hedge my bet just in case I came up empty handed, then trudged through the thick patches of jewel weed to where the old hen-harboring maples were.
Low and behold, one of the trees had about 7 or 8 hens that were takeable, but had shot their spores and were past prime. Looking around the area carefully paid off, though, and I gave out a squawk when I saw two other maples that had what can only be described as “big bastards.” I left the spored-out ones, then wrenched the two monsters (about 20 lbs. each) from their roost at the bottom of the maples.
The big hens would be the showpieces for the TV segment, that was for sure, but I also lucked out and found a couple nice, dark hens that were very young, still tightly packed together and soft — my favorites.
I knew that the massive hens would be dismantled and pickled posthaste after the show. But the other two, both about the size of small watermelons, were so nice looking in their natural shape that I thought: What if I cooked them in big clusters, like a vegetarian steak?
The roasted treatment was great, but even more special was how it preserved the natural shape of the hens.
The other part of the recipe is the simple sauce made from anchovies, garlic, lemon and wine. It is a bit of a riff on a sauce I used to make as a garnish for a tenderloin (the most tasteless cut of beef) when I first started cooking at Il Vesco Vino in St. Paul, back when it was located in the Victorian mansion on Selby Ave, which now houses a chocolate shop.
The sauce could be a post in itself. It’s rich and intense. When you serve it on the side it makes the hens seem like a grand roast; a centerpiece for a fall meal.
Roasted Hen Of The Woods Steaks
A 3 lb. hen would serve two as a vegetarian entree. Some roasted fall root vegetables would be nice alongside.
- Grapeseed oil, lard, or other fat with a high smoke point
- Kosher salt and pepper, to taste
- Some fresh herbs and aromatics for basting the hens, optional (I used a sprig of sage, and a couple cloves of garlic)
- Unsalted butter, as needed for basting (optional)
- Youngest possible hen of the woods, mine was about 3 lbs
- 1 recipe white-wine anchovy sauce (follows)
- Preheat the oven to 375.
- Trim the hen of the woods meticulously, paying careful attention the base. (After you slice off the dirty root, there still may be layers of dirt and or rocks growing inside the mushroom. I once had somebody break a tooth on a hen because of this and it cost a restaurant a bunch of money.)
- Cut the stem up until it is pure white, then inspect the rest of the leaves and folds for snails, spiders, and anything else creepy crawly that would scare your girlfriend or family. Dip the hen in cold water quickly and give it a good shake, this will help to dislodge debris. If your hen has been in the fridge for a while, is getting dry, or was picked after a rainstorm, it may need a gentle scrubbing with a damp cloth and rinsing in the water.
- Gently separate the hen of the woods into 1lb clumps, these will be your “steaks”.
- Heat the fat in a large 10-inch saute pan until smoking. Add the hen of the woods to the pan. Put the pan with the hen of the woods in the oven and bake for 10 minutes, then add the herbs to the pan with the hen, making sure there is enough fat left in the pan for them to infuse into. Season the hen with salt and pepper. If the hen steaks have soaked up all the fat, add a tbsp. or two more, then roast the hens for 10 more minutes, basting with the foaming butter and flipping the mushrooms occasionally to caramelize all of their sides evenly. After about twenty minutes, the hen should be thoroughly cooked, but oven times will vary, so err on the side of extra done.
- When cooked through, the entire mushroom should be wilted and hot throughout when pierced with a knife. When you’re sure they’re done, place the pan back on the burner, and baste the hens with the remaining herbs and butter, turning over to continue caramelizing all of the sides evenly if needed. Using a pair of tongs, remove the hen steaks to a board with a paper towel to drain, then serve immediately, with a carving knife and the anchovy sauce.
White Wine-Anchovy Sauce
This is also really good on grilled or roasted vegetables, steak, or anything slightly bitter, like rapini or belgian endive.
Yield: 1/2 cup
- 2 tbsp. unsalted butter, plus 1 tbsp. for finishing (optional)
- 1 2 oz. tin of high quality anchovies, patted dry on a paper towel and roughly chopped.
- Dash of Tabasco
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 1/8 tsp. fresh ground black pepper
- 5 fresh garlic cloves, finely minced
- 1 tsp. fresh chopped sage (optional)
- Heat the butter, garlic, sage, and anchovies in a small 8-in. saute pan. Using a wooden spoon, press down on the anchovies and garlic, smashing them as the butter sizzles, when the garlic starts to brown lightly, deglaze the pan with the wine, then reduce the heat to a simmer and add the Tabasco to taste, and the black pepper. Allow the sauce to cook, stirring occasionally until it becomes homogenous. You should end up with about a 1/2 cup of sauce. Remove the sauce from the heat, add 1 tsp. of lemon juice, and serve immediately.
- If you want to emulsify the sauce and make it creamier, before you add the lemon juice, increase the heat on the pan to medium high, then, using a whisk, vigorously add the remaining unsalted butter, stirring constantly to form a creamy emulsion. When all the butter has been absorbed, add the lemon juice, then transfer the sauce immediately to a sauce boat or similar vessel and serve immediately.