Since hen of the woods can have such a large size, I love swapping them out for meat in recipes. With the maitake coming up in earnest in late September/October right now, I’ve had more than my share of them hanging out in the fridge queue waiting to get cooked, so big ol’chunk of hen has been on the menu often, and you won’t hear any complaining from me.
One of my favorite recipes I was toying with hit the mark on the first try: a big hunk of hen pan roasted like a piece of meat, with a good handful of julienned leeks tossed in for the last few minutes of roasting to soak up some flavor from the pan and brown around the edges. The inspiration came from a few different places, but mostly from being at my grandmothers house having a burger the other week, complete with a little pan of her fried onions, slighly black around the edges.
Old timers I used to cook burgers for on West 7th street in St. Paul will agree with me here: there’s an art to the cooking onions, and a little char, as opposed to caramelized onions, which are very sweet, can be a great foil for something rich, like a Sunday roast.
After the leeks and mushrooms are cooked, I finished it off with a few black walnuts for an earthy undertone, cut the hen into slices, spooned all the goodies and browned butter from the pan on top and called it dinner, with a bowl of greens on the side. Just a different way to make them you might try sometime. The black walnuts (or a nut of your choice, as long as they’re toasted!) are optional, but complete a good earthy flavor trio of mushroom, onion, and nut.
Before you try cooking large pieces of hen of the woods, clean them, then clean them again.
One thing to mention about cooking large pieces of hen is that, unfortunately, just because you found a large hen doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to treat it like this, since nature doesn’t care about what humans enjoy eating.
As the hens grow, if there’s a rainfall, or a couple, or just a good wind, particles can go into the shelves, nooks and crannys of the mushroom and literally grow into the flesh, as it continues to grow, especially the pore filled underside of the fronds.
The recipe here is the simplest form. The walnuts are optional and, if you can get some, fresh thyme would be a great addition to the leeks as they cook.
Hen of the Woods Roast with Leeks and Black Walnuts
- A large cluster of hen of the woods mushroom (about 1.5 lbs) meticulously cleaned and washed if needed
- Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
- 1 large leek tender parts only, cut into fine 1 inch julienne
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 2 tablespoons toasted black walnuts
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons flavorless cooking oil plus extra if needed since very dry mushrooms will soak up more
- Fresh cut chives to garnish (optional)
- Preheat the oven to 375. In a large cast iron skillet or heavy saute pan large enough to accomodate the chunk of hen of the woods, heat the 2 tablespoons of oil. Brown the hen gently on the cut sides and as many others as you can manage, seasoning with salt and pepper along the way.
- When the hen has been browned and caramelized a bit, move the hen to one side of the pan and add the butter to the pan along with the garlic and leeks. Put the pan in the oven and cook for 15-20 minutes, or until the hen is completely cooked and hot throughout.
- When the hen is cooked through, remove the pan from the oven, stirring a bit to distribute the leeks around the side of the pan, which should be a little browned and caramelized, then remove the hen of the woods to a cutting board and slice into serving pieces.
- Put the pieces of mushroom into a warmed serving dish or casserole (pictured), then toss the walnuts in with the leeks, double check the seasoning, then spoon the buttery leek-walnut mixture over the hen slices in the dish so diners can help themselves at the table. Garnish with chives and serve immediately.