Forays into Foraging

The squawking ‘shroom

Neon pulses from a fallen tree. Coral, tangerine, red-orange all spill out of the log in ruffled waves, white foam building underneath. How could this much color grow out of so many forest greens and bark browns? More than appetizing, these scalloped layers appear radioactive. But you’re actually looking at 20 lbs of free chicken.


This is the chicken of the woods mushroom, one of nature’s playful tricks. The chunk pictured here, spotted on a hike in Virginia, is a nearly 20 lb arm-straining mass, more akin to a whole roasting chicken than a box of button mushrooms. These mushrooms can range anywhere from a small cluster to a hulking 100 lb bracket –stumbling upon a large specimen can satisfy a whole season’s worth of mushroom cravings.

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You’re most likely to come across chicken of the woods in the fall, though you can sometimes spot a few throughout the summer. There are a handful of different varieties of the mushroom, but the two most sought-after edibles are Laetiporus sulphureus and L. cincinnatus, both of which usually pop up on decaying hardwood trees and logs in the Northeastern U.S. They are easily recognizable by their bright orange color and fan-like shape – the mushroom body, or “shelf,” is formed by flat layers, with color that fades towards the outer edges. And if you look at the underside of the shelf, either yellow or white in color, you should see small pores, not gills. Because it has no dangerous look-alikes, chicken of the woods is a good mushroom for beginners to seek out; mycologist extraordinaire and author of Mushrooms Demystified David Arora includes it in his “foolproof four.”

Chicken of the woods needs to be cooked to be edible. Specialists also advise making sure that the mushroom’s host tree is hardwood, noting that species growing on eucalyptus or conifers may cause “gastric upset” – nothing deadly, just unpleasant and avoidable. Once you track down a chicken of the woods, remember the spot where you found it: it will continue to regrow in the same place until it kills its host tree and then depletes all the nutrients from the wood, so you may very well have a reliable stockpile for several years.

The name “chicken of the woods” may have you thinking of hen of the woods, also known as maitake, but the two are distinct. Maitake earned its nickname from its exaggerated ruffles which resemble a hen’s tail feathers. Chicken of the woods, instead, has a more bewitching connection to poultry – take a bite and, like Alice in Wonderland, you’ll be sent careening down a rabbit hole to, well, chicken. Some detect a hint of lemon that reminds them of crab or lobster – and the coral outer color of the mushroom, which holds when cooked, no doubt adds to this effect. But more than anything else, it’s the chewy, sinewy texture – just like a grilled chicken breast – that squawks.


This mushroom masquerade is testament to how texture can trump taste, often with no particular logic behind it. More than taste, texture is the reason people are completely turned off by certain types of food – bananas, ickily mushy; okra, eerily slimy; aspic, uncannily giggly. But texture can also be sublime: feather-light mashed potatoes, the crystals in a quality chunk of parmigiano, meringue that dissolves on the tip of your tongue with a faint fizz.

In China, there is a word for these memorable encounters: kou gan, or “mouth feel” – a term often reserved for the singular gristly, slippery, elastic sensations of such beloved specialties as shark’s fin, goose intestines, chicken feet, and sea cucumber. North American attitudes tend to be more suspicious of odd textures. Mushrooms are famously held in contempt, in contrast with most other parts of the world. Only recently has offal begun to overcome its stigma and land on sought-after plates.

Big Food is well aware of just how particular we are about texture. Food companies have zeroed in on our quirks and turned them into a science – “food rheology,” which has now introduced terms like “mouthfeel” to our own language. Experiments in this realm categorize people according to their texture preferences (one divides consumers into categories of “smooshers,” “crunchers,” or “suckers” – at the end of the day, we’re just animals smacking on food), and a whole psychology of texture has emerged, full of its own emotional associations. Studies show, for example, that people tend to think soft or smooth foods have higher calorie counts than hard of rough foods. Texture is also being studied as an indicator of quality perception in food – like pulp giving the impression that orange juice is fresh-squeezed.

With chicken of the woods, you can use the power of texture to your advantage to make a range of dishes that will have everyone thinking “tastes like chicken” while pleasing vegetarians and carnivores alike. You can sauté the mushroom with olive oil, garlic, and parsley for a light pasta sauce, simmer it with tomatoes in a hearty ragù, stir it into creamy risotto, or fold it into eggs and Gruyere for a fluffy quiche.

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But perhaps most impressive of all is chicken of the woods’ ability to hold its ground in a veg-friendly schnitzel, or “cotoletta” in Italian. Breaded and pan-fried, the mushroom won’t have you thinking about what you’re missing, like mourning juicy beef when biting into a Portobello burger. And, unlike soy bacon and other “meetz,” you won’t be faced with a list of mysterious ingredients that rivals the Magna Carta.

If you’re lucky and stumble across a big chicken of the woods (and are still standing after carting it back down the mountain), you can save any extra not used that week by cleaning it and then dehydrating or freezing it, so you can enjoy it throughout the off-season. It’s best to cook the mushroom before freezing, since cooking after defrosting will leave you with more watery and less flavorful bites.

At the very least though, even if you can’t find chicken of the woods, or if you can’t bring yourself to eat something growing out of a log, I hope this recipe helps inspire you do some more double takes as you walk throughout your day – you may be speeding by some free chicken.

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2-3 eggs (depending on size)
¾ cup breadcrumbs
About 1 teaspoon of seasoning – I used a mix of oregano, paprika, salt, and pepper
About 1 tablespoon olive oil
About 1 tablespoon butter
8 chicken of the woods “steaks” — To get a “steak,” break apart the mushroom into chunks by slicing each scalloped layer where it connects to the main core. Trim off any woody (often closer to the core) or waterlogged (sometimes at the thinner outer edge) parts, and wipe off any dirt with a cloth. Then slice the pieces into planks, flat on each side and roughly ½ inch thick (see picture below). I ended up with steaks just slightly smaller than my hand – depending on how large the steaks are you can pan-fry them in one or more batches to make sure they don’t get too crowded.


  1. Beat the eggs in a shallow bowl, and mix breadcrumbs and seasoning in a second shallow bowl or plate.
  2. Fully coat the mushroom steak in the egg (hold it above the bowl for a second so any extra can drip off) and then the breadcrumbs. Repeat with the three remaining steaks.
  3. Heat half of the olive oil and half of the butter in a wide-based skillet. Once the butter has stopped foaming, add the mushroom steaks.
  4. Cook the steaks over medium-high heat for about 5-7 minutes per side, depending on thickness, until the breadcrumbs are browned and crispy. Watch the butter to make sure it doesn’t burn, adjusting the heat if necessary. If cooking in batches, transfer steaks to platter and cover to keep warm while cooking the remaining mushroom steaks
  5. Heat the remaining butter and olive oil, and repeat with the remaining steaks.
  6. Serve immediately with lemon wedges.


Forays into Foraging

Lunch on the Hill

Last week I found myself looking for lunch in the median dividing Pennsylvania Avenue. Eastern Market may have been around the corner, beckoning with blueberry buckwheat pancakes, but instead I was searching for my next culinary thrill amidst six lanes of honking traffic, under the watchful eye of the U.S. capitol building.

I was standing in the middle of the street, scanning a concrete jungle for green, because of Dr. Bill Schindler, an anthropology professor at Washington College. His research interest in prehistoric technology is matched by a remarkable commitment to everything-DIY (this is a father of three who bakes his own sourdough bread in a backyard wood-burning oven, drives to Pennsylvania from his home on Maryland’s Eastern Shore each week to buy raw milk to make his own yogurt, and cures all of his own meat, eating only animals raised by people he knows), making him a venerable authority on foraging.

On this June Saturday, Dr. Schindler was leading an edible walking tour of Capitol Hill, winding his way through the neighborhood in pursuit of wild greens, mushrooms, and berries to later transform into lunch. We collected bags of dandelion, purslane, and wood sorrel, dug up stalks of wild garlic and onion, stumbled upon Oregon grape, mulberry, and Kousa dogwood berries, picked poor man’s pepper, chickweed, and common mallow, and reached up to black walnut, ginkgo, and linden trees – all within a 6-block radius. Our urban world is surprisingly edible, depending on how you view it.

Dr. Schindler digging up wild garlic – no ground was off limits.

Digging up wild garlic – no ground was off limits.

Looking for edible plants changes your perception of scale. Under the shadow of imposing monuments and fortress-like institutions, you normally wouldn’t think twice about a spindly weed sticking out from a crack in the sidewalk, peeking at the constant stream of lawmakers and tourists. We’ve been enjoying the many waves of a dynamic food revolution, but all the hype to eat the newest Korean taco, our salivating over the novel and exotic, sometimes keeps us from looking down at what’s right in front of us – or even what we’re walking on.

The wild foods that we try so hard to eliminate from our gardens or walk past without a second thought offer a host of nutrients – many of which have been lost from the foods we’ve been cultivating for generations – at no price (that is, if you’ve read up on things; once you dip your toes in mycology that price could be poison if you don’t have a good understanding of what you’re eating). One viable concern with wild plants is the effect that any chemical contamination may have on the soil they grow in. The best way to address this issue is to forage in areas you’re familiar with – know your neighborhood and its history. “But what about dog pee?” asks my mother. To this, I say you can wash what you pick and, honestly, you’ve probably eaten something worse without knowing it – going to any restaurant is an impressive exercise in trust that we accept as part of daily life.

Foraging and the reactions it provokes say a lot about the psychology of food. Since the advent of the supermarket, we’ve been more comfortable knowing less about where our food comes from and where it’s been since, as if a blank page makes something clean. That attitude is certainly changing as the farm-to-table movement charges forward, but there’s still a widespread convention that food is grown within certain boundaries, either on farms or in the confines of gardens or containers.

The structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote about people’s understanding of “raw,” “cooked,” and “rotten,” describing how our definitions for these basic words varies across time and culture – one man’s rotten is another man’s dinner. The same goes for “wild.” Some people flock towards the fruiting ginkgo trees in Central Park, gathering up all the little yellow-orange spheres littering the ground, while others walk past, balking at the smell. Whether something is edible or not can be just as much a question of culture and socioeconomics as biology.

As with most trends, foraging has also begun to transition from one end of the spectrum to the other, having been recently embraced by the world of fine dining, raising hunter-gatherer practices to a new level of chic. Look no further than René Redzepi’s Noma, a Danish restaurant relying on wild ingredients that are hand-selected from the Scandinavian landscape (see Jacob Mikanowski’s piece in The Point journal for a beautiful description). It’s been lauded as the world’s best restaurant for three years in a row, with eager diners flying halfway across the world for a dinner reservation made a year in advance. In this context, foraging is an art form rather than a survival mechanism, but it’s important to remember that it’s something that we can engage with in our own neighborhoods, local forests, and backyards.

Searching for edible plants is addictive. Once you start paying attention to the edge of the sidewalk, narrowing your focus as you open your eyes, you’ll find yourself exclaiming at the sight of a recognizable tuft of green at every block. You don’t even need to go for a walk; here’s what I found in the backyard this weekend – all pretty foolproof to identify and easily stumbled upon in most regions.


Wood sorrel: This plant looks like clover, but is silkier and more delicate, with bright yellow flowers. Centuries ago, Europeans would use this as a substitute for lemons when citrus was inaccessible, since it offers a similar bright, acidic taste. It can be eaten cooked or raw, though it turns an unappealing brown-green color when cooked so I prefer to combine it with other greens in a sauté pan, or use it raw as an herb or addition to salads.


Lamb’s quarters: This plant is also known as wild spinach, pigweed (because it was fed to pigs), and goosefoot (because of the shape of its leaves – I agree that it looks more like a goose’s foot than anything related to a lamb). Lamb’s quarters were eaten, both in raw and cooked form, by Greeks and Romans long before Arabs carried spinach over to Europe.


Dandelion: This ever-present weed is becoming more popular at stores and markets. Look for smaller, tender leaves. When picking through edible plants, trust your sense of touch: tough, gnarled leaves will likely have a harsher taste, while younger, more delicate ones will only have a slight bitterness, which lends itself well to creative uses in the kitchen.


Snap peas have been falling off the vine in the garden lately, so I added them to my backyard collection, figuring they would be a good sweet counterpoint to the wild greens, and then decided to toss everything together with pasta, asparagus, and ricotta cheese.

I chose to use tagliatelle, long ribbons of wide pasta made with eggs, because their cheerful yellow color adds to the festivity of the dish and the rich taste from the eggs helps ground the vegetables. Incidentally, if you are confused about the subtle nuances between fettucine and linguine, tagliatelle and pappardelle, look no further than the Bologna Chamber of Commerce for the gold standard, literally – the city displays a gold replica of the definitive tagliatelle pasta shape, specifying the precise measurements of 1 by 6 millimeters:



Tagliatelle (about an 8 oz package dried)
¾ cup ricotta
Bunch of wild greens (i.e. dandelion, wood sorrel, lamb’s quarters)
About 2 cups snap peas
About 6 stalks asparagus
Handful of fresh mint and tarragon
Shallot (or wild onion or garlic if you can find some)
Olive oil
Salt and pepper


1. Blanch the peas and asparagus: Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Meanwhile, prepare a large bowl of iced cold water and trim the asparagus stalks. Drop the asparagus and peas into the pot and cook for about 2 minutes before draining. Immediately transfer the peas and asparagus into the ice water bath to stop the cooking, then drain.

2. Cut the asparagus into bite size chunks and the snap peas to your preference – I left some whole, sliced some in half, and removed the peas from others, chopping up their pods.

3. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil for the pasta. As you wait, heat a few glugs of olive oil in a large skillet with the chopped shallot. Add the wild greens, peas, and asparagus, and season with salt and pepper. Sauté for about 5 minutes.

4. Once the pasta water boils, add the tagliatelle, stirring to prevent the pasta from sticking together, and cook for about 3 minutes. When the pasta is just shy of al dente, transfer the tagliatelle to the skillet using a slotted spoon, continuing to heat the sauce under medium-low heat. It’s not only OK that some pasta water makes its way to the skillet, it’s actually preferable – starchy, salted pasta water thickens the sauce and helps it adhere to the pasta. It’s good to get in the habit of reserving a half of a cup or so of pasta water before draining the contents of your pot because it’s an easy way to smooth out the sauce at the last minute.

5. Add dollops of ricotta and torn fresh herbs to the pasta, and stir to combine. Add more salt and pepper to taste, and finish with a drizzle of olive oil. Serve with extra ricotta on the side.


Forays into Foraging

Forays into foraging

Generally speaking, I’m not much of a baker. I have more of a craving for salt than a sweet tooth, and all the precise measurements involved in baking doesn’t really jive with my throw-everything-in-a-pot mentality. But having access to a bunch of great (and often free!) fruit here in the Northwest has encouraged me to experiment with pies and other baked goods this summer.

On my walk to work a few weeks ago, I noticed a tree full of plums less than a block away from my apartment. It didn’t look like anyone was taking advantage of all the fruit, since there was a bunch of half-rotten plums scattered on the ground underneath the tree. How sad, I thought, I need to bring them all home! The tricky thing was that the tree sat on the grassy strip separating a house + sidewalk from the paved road – private or public property? When I asked a reliable colleague in the produce department at work for his advice, he said technically the law was in my favor. So the next day I came armed with tupperware containers and knocked on the door of the plum house – I figured I would double check, especially since it looked like these folks had a chicken coop and probably fell under the hippie urban farm category. No one answered, and I went ahead and picked a reasonable amount of plums (hippies would want to share, right?).


Then I did what any reasonable person with a pile of fruit would do: make pie!


It turned out great – the combination of plums at different stages of ripeness made the pie more tart and interesting than your standard sugary recipe (though the varied crust color speaks to the many nuances of my circa-1964 oven).

And the possibilities for economical pie are endless – there’s actually a online map which locates public trees and plants that are free for the picking across the U.S. Here in Seattle, foraging is pretty popular, especially in the summer with all the berry bushes scattered across neighborhoods (and you can’t forget nettles in the springtime or mushrooms in the fall).  The city has also helped fund an impressive project called the Beacon Food Forest, which is transforming part of a public park in the Beacon Hill neighborhood, less than 3 miles from downtown Seattle, into 7 acres of edible trees and plants for Seattleites of all backgrounds.

My second foraging experience of the summer was combing Discovery Park for blackberries last week. My friend Rachel and I hiked one of the main trails in the park (just a 20 minute bike ride from my apartment), stopping to pick berries at large patches along the way. Between the two of us, we amassed about 4lbs of berries – we also ran into someone who was collecting 12lbs to make blackberry wine! He piqued my interest in infusing vodka with blackberries, but for now I stuck to good ol’ baked goods. Back at home, I made a blackberry crumb pie, with a walnut and brown sugar topping, and blackberry scones…and still had some left to freeze.

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