Last week I went foraging for mushrooms with a friend, this was the first time I had gone on a foray in many years (pre-ankle surgeries) and, although it was hardly a true foray, it was a lot of fun. My friend had spotted a Chicken of the Woods growing in a very urban area, right off of a parking lot growing on a beautiful tree.
This mushroom, the Laetiporus sulphureus, is common in North America, although in the Bay Area it is presumed to be Laetiporus gilbertsonii. It is edible and is described as having a meaty texture and flavor similar to chicken. I was excited to harvest one and give it a try.
Although mushroom foragers have varying opinions on the Chicken of the Woods, local foragers I have met said that this variety harvested off a eucalyptus or pine tree will make one sick, while others consume them regularly without any ill effect. I decided to proceed with caution. It is important to note that this mushroom is considered a safe and delicious mushroom, it will not make you die from eating it, as can happen with many other wild fungii and an inexperienced forager. I would never dare to eat a foraged mushroom without the advice and supervision of a confirmed expert. Some people have a sensitivity to Chicken of the Woods and the ill effects are more gastrointestinal in nature and can cause inconvenient effects if one is sensitive.
When I picked it, it exuded a lot of water, which meant it was a very young specimen and therefore prized. It is a beautiful butter yellow color color, rubbery and firm feeling with a pleasant mushroomy scent.
It continued to exude the water and by the time I got home the paper bag in which it was stored was rather soggy. I gave it a good wash and had a great moment of excitement when a rather large pill bug decided to leave its mushroom home and explore my cutting board! This is one of the things mushroom foragers are used to, the insect life living within the specimens. As a more amateur forager this causes me great, shall we say, upheaval!
The visiting guest was removed without incident and a tot of Kentucky bourbon helped calm things down. I thinly sliced the mushroom, carefully examining it to ensure there were no more “residents” lurking within, and set about a large pot of water to the simmer.
Per my friend who happily consumes the Chicken of the Woods regularly, she advised that cooking them thoroughly will help ensure no stomach issues, so she recommended simmering for 15-20 minutes in water, draining, and then using in a recipe as one would for any mushroom dish. My plan was to dice them after they were simmered, saute in butter and wine with some herbs and combine with other wild, but cultivated, mushrooms as part of a mushroom hand pie.
The sliced mushroom pieces developed a beautiful salmon hue, and were quite firm, like a hard shell winter squash. After simmering for 20 minutes the color of the mushroom deepened a little bit and they had a lovely meaty aroma.
I drained them well and chilled all but two slices, which were my samples. I diced them into small pieces, sauteed them in butter with some minced white onion for about 8 minutes, then added a splash of Sauvignon Blanc, salt and pepper, a pinch of thyme, and some chopped parsley. They smelled divine, and I had a small spoonful.
Some of the ill effects for sensitive people described by mushroom experts are tingling and itchiness of the mouth and tongue, and stomach issues which I shall not describe here. I have a lot of strange food intolerances and was worried I might immediately experience some oral issues with the Chicken of the Woods but did not. The next day, however, my system was most unhappy and I decided that, sadly, the Chicken of the Woods is not a mushroom for me.
It was a fun experiment, however, and despite the outcome I shall continue in my mushroom foraging but stick to the more “big” choice consumables: Morel, porcini, chanterelles, and candy caps.
Caution should be exercised when foraging and consuming wild mushrooms. Many toxic mushrooms may resemble edible mushrooms and no one should attempt to eat a wild mushroom unless it has been carefully identified by an expert, and, even then, it may not be safe. It is worth stressing that each single specimen must be carefully identified as well as checked for general good condition. Eating a toxic mushroom can be fatal. Don’t take chances.