Recently, my husband received a large gift in the form of two beer cases full of chicken of the woods mushrooms, harvested here in Indiana. Neither of us had tried this particular fungus before, and we were excited to experiment with it’s potential, considering the absence of local or wild foods available in this farm-covered state.
I know almost none of the forage-able plants in Indiana, no one else seems to know what any wild plants are called, and there appears to be very little written about the subject of plant identification in this area. On top of all of that, this region, and much of Indiana, is a giant corn field. And where there is no corn there is soy. For miles and miles. Acres and Acres. This means that the amount of bizarre chemicals and fertilizers in the air, earth and water is pretty concentrated compared to other parts of the country, and the benefits of wild foraged food, aside from it being free and including a nice hike, are pretty much negated.
Rural Indiana is however, fascinating, in spite of the lack of bio diversity. My husband, who grew up amidst these vast expanses of GMO mono crops, tells me that Indiana is the most deforested state in the nation, and that the good soil here is owed to the fact that the place was, prior to being logged and backfilled, a giant swamp. He orates, imagining huge old growth jungles and rainforest like environs aloud, as we march through what little woods there are left, looking for prime locations for him to fly fish.
Similarly, as we traverse the grid of indistinguishable thoroughfares that cut through fields, separating the little hamlets and housing developments stationed like oases amidst all the industry, I wonder what the area looked like when the midwest was America’s bread basket and not it’s ethanol bucket. Any attempts to research the agricultural background of Indiana, prior to post World War II subsidies and the bizarre industrialization of farming in the United States, lead nowhere. The history of Indiana is corn. Corn and soy- soy and corn. (I did find that there is a Professor R. Douglas Hurt at Purdue University who has written several books on the subject, and I am in the process of hunting those down.) Often, cooking and purchasing food here reminds me of the scene in 1973’s The Wickerman, where Officer Howie, freshly arrived to the remote agricultural powerhouse of Summerisle, orders fruit for dessert and is presented with imported, canned peaches. Such I feel is the dynamic between farming and food here in Indiana- all hands on deck to produce for people elsewhere, while the health and vitality of local farmers and their families is forfeit.
However mushrooms are something that people here are enthusiastic about. Morels and chanterelles are relished, as are puff balls. This giant load of chicken of the woods mushroom was a beautiful surprise, and I am excited to look for it myself having now tried it.
For those who don’t know, chicken of the woods is a shelf fungus that grows on trees. It’s Latin name, laetiporous sulphreus, indicates that it is bright yellow and covered in a multitude of pores. It has a ton of vitamin C and potassium, and is pretty high in protein; 100 grams of mushroom has about 14 grams of protein, which is roughly equivalent to protein derived from legumes.
When harvesting chicken of the woods it is important to be aware of the wood on which the fungus is growing, as some woods like pine and eucalyptus can cause the mushroom to be mildly poisonous for humans. With any mushroom hunting it’s important to do your research!
Now for the recipe. Chicken of the woods does taste like chicken, though it cooks up drier than most fowl or fungi. It lends itself perfectly to milk gravy for this reason, and a good two cups of shelf fungus made a very satisfying breakfast in the form of good old fashioned S.O.S. (Shit on a Shingle, for the uninitiated.). Upon researching the history behind the colorful name, I found that this dish has it’s origins in the military, and is traditionally made with chipped beef, though variations abound.
I used homemade sourdough whole wheat bread, toasted extra crisp as my “shingle,” and pulled the gravy together quickly before topping the whole mess with a fried egg. This is one of those meatless dishes that doesn’t register as vegetarian- a flexible option for mixed dietary needs, as long as no one’s vegan or gluten intolerant. Serves 2-3 people
2 cups cleaned and chopped chicken of the woods mushrooms
1 onion, diced
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 tablespoon ground, dried sage
salt to taste (around 1/2 tablespoon)
1 cup milk and a splash of milk
1 tablespoon all purpose flour
Whole Wheat toast
In a frying pan over high heat, melt butter and sautè diced onions. Cover them with a lid and reduce the heat to medium high, allowing them to brown in the butter.
Next, add mushrooms and cover the pan with a lid again, allowing the steam from the onions to help cook the fungus for a minute or two. Give it a good stir at least once.
Add nutmeg, white pepper and salt to the pan and mix everything together well before covering and allowing the mushrooms and onions to cook together longer. Chicken of the Woods is funny in that it doesn’t become slimy or dark when it’s being sautéed the way button mushrooms tend to- it’s actually pretty hard to tell how far along they are by looking in the pan. Look for darkening along edges.
While the mushrooms are cooking, mix 1 tablespoon of flour with 1 cup of milk. Make sure there are no lumps of flour as they will be a gross addition to the gravy.
Add a generous splash of plain milk to the pan and sprinkle in the sage. Mix well, turn down the heat to medium, and cover until the milk has condensed.
You can get your eggs frying and your toast toasting while this is happening.
Finally, add the milk and flour mixture to the pan and keep it moving! It should thicken up within 1-2 minutes with persistent stirring over medium high heat.
To serve, spoon 1/3 of the gravy onto hot, crispy toast, and top off with a fried egg. Serve with hot black coffee!