Thursday, September 11, 2014

Hen of the Woods Confit

The hen of the woods are starting to come in, pretty much on schedule this year--I expect to see them in early September and continuing through the month.  Last year they apparently started in mid-August, and since I wasn't tuned in, most of what I found late in August and early September were already way past their prime.  Which was a shame, because it's one of my favorite wild mushrooms, and certainly the most abundant, at least in terms of sheer weight, since a single specimen can weigh several pounds.

Not the most beautiful of specimens, but it worked well in the confit after some trimming.

The sudden influx of fungal flesh presents a problem, along with much pleasure.  It's a versatile mushroom, excellent sauteed, roasted, even grilled, and it's an amenable companion to pretty much any meat or fish.  With its firm texture it can add a meaty element to vegetable dishes, like a promiscuous ragout of the almost paralyzing variety of garden produce available now, served over polenta or noodles.  One of my favorite ways to serve it is a simple saute of hens and red onion or shallot in plenty of olive oil, tossed with noodles and sprinkled with excellent aged gouda, like Marieke.

Well-rinsed, shredded hens in the casserole with sunflower oil and tasty duck and pork fat.

So we eat a lot of it fresh when we have it, but can rarely consume it all, even after giving away a quantity.  I've yet to find a satisfactory way to preserve it.  I think some people dry it, and I should look into that some more, though that seems a last-ditch approach.  The best I've come up with so far is par-cooking it with oil, either in the fry pan or oven, then packing portions into plastic bags and freezing it.  The confit presented here today takes that approach to the extreme, cooking the mushrooms in a lot of fat for a long time.  Initial impression:  it's a winner.

After a couple hours in the oven.

I took 12 ounces of cleaned, trimmed hens, torn into shreds about an inch wide and three inches long--of course, these are going to be pretty irregular, doesn't matter.  I tossed the shreds with a teaspoon of salt, and added these to a lidded glass casserole along with:

1/2 a big shallot (2 ounces by weight) sliced
3 cloves of garlic peeled and halved lengthwise
a few sprigs of fresh thyme
10 black peppercorns
5 juniper berries, crushed
3/4 cup fat

For the fat here, I used 1/2 cup sunflower oil and 1/4 cup of a pork and duck confit blend.  Next time I'll try it with all sunflower oil.  I would add more shallots next time, too.

Stick the covered casserole in a 350 oven for an hour, tossing every 15 minutes.  Lower the heat to 300, remove the lid, and cook for another hour or so, again tossing from time to time.

The mushrooms will give off a lot of water at first.  In the long cooking this water will evaporate, and at the end the hens will wind up almost frying gently in clear, pure fat.  If you've made duck or another kind of meat confit before, this will sound familiar.  It's the exact same progression.

At the end I removed the hens from the fat, not bothering to drain them particularly well, and found that 8 ounces remained from the original 14-plus ounces of hens, shallots, etc.  And I was able to pour out a generous half cup of fat from the 3/4 cup that went in.  The hen shreds remain a firm, appealing texture, and they're imbued with the aromatic additions and the tang of flavorful fat.  I packed them into a Weck jar, and when I added back the fat, it came right to the top.  I'll keep it in the fridge for a while and see how the flavors develop.  With the next batch I may try freezing some.

For a lovely lunch on a cool breezy day, after spending the morning in the garden harvesting ahead of possible frost this weekend, I threw some of the hen confit in a pan along with some slivered jalapeno.  The hens shed a good bit of oil, and when they were hot and the chile wilted, I removed them from the pan and tossed them with a few leaves of parsley.  A little butter in the pan, and I soft-scrambled a couple of eggs.  Served with the hens on top, sliced tomatoes on the side, toasted sourdough. 

I'm ready to get back in the garden, then later perhaps into the woods again, to see if there are more hens about.

Text and photos copyright 2014 by Brett Laidlaw