Hen of the woods, aka Grifola frondosa, is a large, multi-capped mushroom that grows at the base of oaks. The biggest one I ever found was over thirty pounds. Usually they are smaller, about the size of a chicken, or maybe a turkey. The entire mushroom is edible, unless you are one of the unfortunate few in whom it produces gastrointestinal drama. I've served hen to hundreds of people, and so far only one of them has had a bad reaction (Sorry, Kim!) A cultivated version of the mushroom is available commercially—it's called maitake. I often see it at Whole Foods, at my local co-ops, and on restaurant menus. It's expensive.
The soup recipe works with many varieties of mushrooms, so you don't really need a hen, but that's what I used for my soup.
Hen of the Woods Soup
2 pounds fresh hen-of-the-woods (maitake)
¼ cup finely minced shallot (or onion)
1-2 tablespoons fat (I used duck fat, but canola oil will work fine.)
2 tablespoons butter or oil
1 quart homemade chicken stock (you could use plain water)
1 teaspoon fresh thyme (or ¼ teaspoon dried thyme)
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 cups milk
Cut up and clean the mushroom. Take your time—there might be a lot of debris hiding in the crevices. Divide it into two piles. Pile One should include all the raggedy bits. Pile Two should consist of the nicer bits—small whole “caps,” prettily diced pieces, etc. In other words, things you want to see in your spoon when you eat the soup.
In a medium size pot, sauté the shallots and mushrooms (Pile One only) in the duck fat or oil. Use lots of heat. Don’t be afraid to let the mushrooms get brown. Brown is good!
Add the thyme, pepper, and stock. Simmer for twenty minutes.
Pour into a blender and pulverize. Give it a good ninety seconds or more. You want to get it to the point where it will pour through a strainer. Return the mixture to the pot. (Don’t bother with the straining—you pulverized it sufficiently, yes?)
Heat a large sauté pan. Add butter or oil. Throw in Pile Two (the nicer mushroom pieces) and let them cook for a few minutes without stirring—you want them a little crispy on the bottom. Flip the mushrooms and cook a few minutes longer. Turn off heat and add a ladle or two of the blended mixture. Stir it around to deglaze the sauté pan, then pour it all back into the pot with the blended mixture. Simmer for twenty minutes or so.
Add milk. (For a thicker soup, you can make a very light béchamel —maybe one tablespoon flour and one tablespoon butter to two cups milk. Or you could swing out and use straight cream.)
Salt to taste, then cook on low heat just long enough to bring it up to serving temperature.
Serve, with garnish.The garnish is mostly to tell your guests that you have been paying attention, and to interrupt the unrelenting brownness of the soup. A little chopped parsley is sufficient. Maybe some crumbled bacon. If you want to get fancy, a dollop of crème fraîche is sure to impress.