This is about two things I’d not really tried before – a book and a fungus.
The fungus is chicken of the woods (or Laetiporus, or “sulphur shelf”). It’s a beautiful furled beast of a mushroom. It clings to the sides of trees, and delights a colleague of mine, Mark, who enjoys a spot of foraging. Very kindly, he brought me a stout lobe of the stuff, all earthy smell and vibrant colour. Thanks Mark!
“Butter, onion, garlic, white wine – don’t muck about!” he said. I never listen…
The book is Fuchsia Dunlop’s Every Grain of Rice – one of the tour de force cookbooks of 2012. The kind that everyone buys, raves about, but then actually cooks stuff from. Yotam Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem was probably the biggest one of those for me, but for some reason I never got around to picking up Dunlop’s blockbuster. Since my partner moved in, I’ve been meaning to cook more stuff from his copy, so this seemed like a good time.
In Every Grain of Rice, Fuchsia Dunlop gives two recipes for Gong Bao, the Chengdu precursor of that British takeout staple kung pao chicken. There’s a chicken and a mushroom version, and chickeny mushroom is what I had to hand. What follows is basically a simplified crash together of the two.
- Chicken of the woods mushroom, about 300g
- Dried fruity chilis, I used 2 medium anchos
- Fresh red chili, to taste for hotness
- Spring onions, 4-5
- Garlic, 3 cloves
- Ginger, 2cm chunk
- Peanuts, 100g
- Sichuan pepper, 1tsp
- Honey, 2tsp
- Light soy, 2tsp
- Vinegar (sherry or rice), 3tsp
- Water, 50ml
- Cornflour, 2tsp
Serves 2. To make this without foraging, I’d suggest a blend of portobello and oyster mushrooms.
Deseed the chili, and tear into strips. Slice as much fresh chili as you fancy using. Peel and thinly slice the garlic and ginger. Cut the spring onions into thick slices, using some but not all of the green.
Combine the honey, soy, vinegar, water, and cornflour. Mix them well.
Get plenty oil really quite hot in a wok or frying pan, and quickly stir fry the mushrooms for 3-4 minutes until just soft.
Add the chilies and Sichuan pepper, and let them sizzle and fry briefly until they just release those wonderful aromas. Add the ginger, garlic, and onions, and do the same – fry until fragrant. Add the peanuts and let everything come together briefly, then add the liquid mix. Stir, keeping everything well mixed as it thickens, and you’re done.
So what’s it like? Well, my experience was a little coloured by an adverse reaction (see below), but it’s basically a rich, substantial mushroom. The older it is, the more friable and chalky, so you want to east it fresh as you can. Likewise, it’s firmer nearer to the stem. Raw, it’s meaty and subtle. Fried, it lost a bit of the complexity, but it really soaks up the zingy sauce flavours. I think its light citrus note helps there too.
Really, this is just a transport mechanism for fruity chili and Sichuan pepper, two of my favourite things.
It’s not toxic, but…
I won’t be repeating this experiment because sadly I seem to be in the very small proportion of the population who experience mild nausea after eating chicken of the woods. Massive stress on the mild here – I’m fine. But couple that with the difficulty of finding them, and this is probably off the table for the foreseeable.
Common advice is to nibble a bit first and see how you feel. Most people are apparently untroubled. I only remembered this advice after a few hearty forkfuls and felt decidedly peculiar after about fifteen minutes. There followed two hours of pronounced discomfort.
A background rumble of nausea wasn’t quite what I had planned for my afternoon, but there you go.
And just look at this magnificent bastard: