The first thing “regular” mushrooms do when you put them in a hot pan is exude water, lots of it; only after they’ve poached in their own juices will they start to brown. That’s true of most cultivated and wild mushrooms, too, but there are exceptions: Think of morels and black trumpets, whose thin walls are almost brittle in texture.
Now, you don’t always want your mushrooms to brown. Some, like chanterelles, retain their flavor best when steamed or otherwise lightly cooked. But sometimes crunch is just the ticket, and there may be no better mushroom for crisping than the hen of the woods, a.k.a. maitake, which comes in lovely clusters emanating from a central core — not unlike a cauliflower, I suppose.
This fall, our part of the country has been positively overrun with the wild version (and cultivated ones are, by no means, impossible to find). This mushroom’s moisture content is low enough that it will quickly brown; its edges are thin enough that they will quickly get crisp; it has enough bulk to retain some juiciness when these things happen; and it is tender and easy to eat pretty much however it is cooked. (Yes, there are tough mushrooms, like the so-called king oyster, which can be almost unchewable if not cooked with skill.)
Not long ago, I came upon some nearly perfect hen of the woods — in a shop, not a forest — and I bought a clump weighing something less than half a pound. I had no particular dish in mind when I bought it, but once I’d contemplated its particular qualities and its fine flavor (how trite would it be to say “delicately earthy”?), I decided to leave well enough alone and cook it without any extraneous flavors, barring oil and salt. I still wasn’t sure whether it would be served with before-dinner drinks or as a side dish, so I aimed for something that could, in the former case, be eaten with the fingers.
The oven was already preheated to 400 degrees for another purpose; if it had not been, I could have cooked this on top of the stove. Again thinking of cauliflower, I cut “florets” away from the mushroom’s base and trimmed away any dirty bits at the core end of each. No further cleaning was necessary. I was aiming for fan-shaped pieces about three inches long and a couple of inches across at their wider end, but sizes inevitably varied.
I added about 4 tablespoons of good olive oil to a 10-inch skillet over medium heat, then laid in the mushroom fans in a single layer, sprinkled with salt and a little more oil. I put a smaller pan lid on top, serving as a weight to compress the mushrooms slightly, and cooked them for just a minute to get them started. Then the weight came off and the pan went into the oven for 10 minutes; now, the bottom surfaces were golden and crisp, and I flipped the mushrooms and returned the pan to the oven for 5 minutes more.
I moved them to a plate, sprinkled them with some extra salt and tasted a little piece that had “fallen off” one of the fans. Just as I’d hoped: It was crisp around the edges with a toasty, nutty flavor and a texture akin to that of fried or baked pasta, and the inside was moist and tender. And yes, it all tasted delicately earthy.
The question of whether they’d be a side dish quickly became moot, as grasping fingers appeared as out of nowhere, and in a few minutes, the plate was empty. This happened before I was able to drizzle the mushrooms with the fancy new olive oil I was eager to try.
I guess I’ll have to make this again.