The enormous mushroom that does not look like a mushroom. Maitake. Hen of the woods. Grifola frondosa.
October is its usual month in this neck of the temperate, urban woods, but this year they started early, in September. Then they disappeared. I am hoping that with some rain (we are in moderate drought, at the moment - 7" below average rainfall for the month) we may see more more appearing before the really cold weather stops them.
This is bang-for-the-buck mushrooming. Maitake cost a fortune in gourmet food stores, so bringing one heavy hen home feels very satisfying. And if you have a family to feed, all the better.
I have found them growing at the base of oaks and beeches, and (once) on the exposed roots of an avenue of old, ornamental cherries. They like hardwoods, and damage them over time.
If you have been lucky enough to collect your own, use the outer caps, or frills of the mushroom. Wild specimens are always heftier and thicker than cultivated maitake, which sometimes look quite delicate (in which case, use the whole thing, roughly chopped). For wild mushrooms, save the woodier heart for slicing thinly and drying.
If you have gathered them wild, soak them in salty water to discourage any small bugs, and to help dislodge the stray twig or leaf. Cut up, and dry well.
This is a serious soup. It is thick: your halved bread roll should stand up straight once dipped into the bowl. It is not very pretty. It resembles sludge. But it is delicious. The sherry vinegar really helps. If you don't have any, lemon juice is fine, though more austere. (Cider vinegar might be very good... I could write a lot about vinegar, Buy the good stuff.)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup chopped onion
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 1/2 lbs maitake, cleaned, dried and roughly chopped
3 - 4 cups mushroom, vegetable or chicken broth or water*
5 stalks thyme
Salt and pepper
1/2 cup milk
1 teaspoon sherry vinegar, or lemon juice
Sauté the onion and garlic in the oil over medium heat until translucent - about 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms and the thyme. Cover and cook for 8 minutes. Remove the lid, and allow the accumulated moisture to cook off and the mushrooms to start browning. This caramelizing gives extra flavour to the soup - especially helpful if you are only using water for the soup. Once the mushrooms' edges have begun to brown a little, add the broth or water, stirring well to scrape up any good, sticky bits. Cook at a simmer for another 30 minutes, tasting, and adding salt and pepper.
Cool and purée in batches. Return the soup to the pot and to medium heat, and add the half cup of milk, stirring. Test for seasoning again. Finally, add the teaspoon of sherry vinegar.
Serve with bread or hot rolls for dipping. Or scooping. Or just plain shoveling.
For other maitake recipes turn to the pages of 66 Square Feet - A Delicious Life. In the October chapter you'll find Forager's Boeuf Bourgignon, and in December - made with oyster mushrooms, but my go-to mushroom recipe - wild mushroom pizza.