Into the woods

Thanks for the photo, bonappetit.com. Yes, I know, I'm phoning it in, with the photo. What do you want? I'm two weeks away from giving birth.

Thanks for the photo, bonappetit.com. Yes, I know, I’m phoning it in, with the photo. What do you want? I’m two weeks away from giving birth.

Maitake mushrooms, also known, adorably, as hen-of-the-woods, for the fact that each tuft looks like a fluffy, feathery little chicken, have been darlings of the food world for, oh, at least 10 years now. But the thing that mystifies me is how seemingly 98% of recipes that use maitakes miss the point. That might be fine for one of those run-of-the-mill oyster mushrooms or even shiitakes, when you get a good deal on them, but these babies are expensive, and so practically any preparation—sauteeing, grilling, adding to stews—that doesn’t capitalize on maximizing their inherent umami qualities feels like a waste. And the best way to make them is so easy!

I count myself one of the lucky ones, because the very first time I tasted maitakes, they were prepared exactly the right way, the way they should be every time, because there is none tastier. My husband and I went to Craft for a make-up Valentine dinner—I had had to work the Valentine shift in a restaurant a few weeks earlier—and I ordered these mushrooms, roasted. They arrived at the table looking totally weird, like an ashtray full of  gnarled twigs; I doubt they were dressed with anything more than olive oil, salt, and pepper before they entered the oven, and nothing was added after they came out. They needed nothing more than that. Roasted maitakes are chewy and meaty, with crisp tips and tender centers, and they taste like a ne-plus-ultra mushroom—earthier, saltier, more minerally, than any other mushroom you’ve ever eaten. We ordered a lot of stuff that night, but these, and Karen DeMasco‘s brilliant donuts that arrived for dessert, and maybe one other thing*, were all we could talk about.

So what does this mean for you, the home cook? Unfortunately, I’m going to encourage you to break the bank here, since roasted maitakes shrink up incredibly—a clump that a newbie thinks might serve 4 will likely end up looking like a meager serving for 1. So get a few big clumps, and then use your fingers to break them apart into large bite-size clumps. Drizzle with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and spread them out—no crowding!—on a large baking sheet and roast in a 375 oven until they brown and crisp up on the edges—they can be ready as soon as 15 minutes, depending on how small you’ve made your clumps, so keep an eye on them. You will simply never make them any other way again.

*Our Craft reservation happened to be on the same night that Martha Stewart was convicted, and this was when I still worked at her company, so needless to say, this was the most memorable day I have ever had at any job, ever ever, hands down. So maybe we talked a little about that too.

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