Chicken-of-the-woods (Laetiporus sulphureus) is a startling fungus. Often bright yellow, and rather alien in appearance, it grows mostly on the trunks of oak trees, though sometimes on poplar or yew. It is a parasitic fungus, and eventually causes the rot and death of its host.
It is fairly easy to identify. Young specimens are bright to pale yellow, often with bands of orange and sometimes a pale pink. Its surface is velvety and hairless. It has pores rather than gills, which are also yellow. The texture is flexible and a little rubbery. As the mushroom ages, the colours fade, and the body becomes rigid and woody. It is the younger, softer, examples that are good for the kitchen, though sometimes older specimens will have edges that are still soft enough to trim away from the rest and use. They will often fruit year after year on the same tree, until the tree has been rotted and collapses. There aren’t many fungi that could be confused with chicken-of-the-woods, though as ever be 100% sure of identity before harvesting and eating. And, as ever, be mindful and responsible in your foraging.
There are reports of chicken-of-the-woods causing gastric upset in some people, so just try a little the first time you eat it. Do not eat specimens growing on yew – the yew is full of toxins which can be taken up by the mushroom, making it poisonous.
In the kitchen it lives up to its name. Although the flavour is mild and mushroomy, the texture when cooked is quite similar to chicken, and so it can be used as a substitute in all manner of dishes; pies, stews, soups. It freezes well, and is a valuable addition to any larder.
Chicken-of-the-woods is robust enough to use in spicy dishes, and indeed will take on the pungent flavours whilst retaining its own.
Ingredients (serves 4)
1 large white onion, peeled and diced
3 cloves garlic, peeled and finely sliced
40g fresh ginger, peeled and grated
2 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp nigella seeds
2 tsp fennel seeds
1/2 cinnamon stick
6 green cardamom pods, bruised
1 tsp chilli flakes (or more if you like it hot)
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp turmeric
1 tin plum tomatoes
250ml veg stock
1 bunch coriander, chopped
butter or ghee
Put the onion and a knob of butter or a spoonful of ghee in a non-stick frying pan, on a low medium heat. Cook until the onions are translucent and just starting to colour, around 10 minutes.
Turn up the heat slightly, and add the spices along with a pinch of salt. Fry, stirring regularly, until the spices start to release their fragrance. Don’t let them burn or you’ll get a bitter tang to the curry.
Add the tomatoes, ginger, garlic, half the coriander, and the stock. Put a lid on the pan, turn down the heat, and simmer for half an hour.
Meanwhile, prepare your chicken-of-the-woods. Brush clean, and trim any tough pieces away and discard. The mushroom has an odd habit of growing around any stalks and twigs that are in its way, so cut these out. Keep an eye for any bugs – mainly an issue in older specimens. Slice into 1cm thick slices. Fry in butter or ghee on both sides, with a pinch of salt, until starting to colour, and any moisture is driven off. Remove from the pan and add to the curry sauce, reserving a few pieces to garnish the finished dish.
Remove the lid from the curry and cook for a further 10 minutes, breaking up any remaining large pieces of tomato with a spoon, until the sauce has thickened. Taste, and season with salt if required.
Serve garnished with the remainder of the coriander and cooked mushroom, alongside some rice or flatbreads, maybe a yoghurt dip.
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