Sliding through an opening in the underbrush with his delicate longbow and well-worn back quiver, the hunter eased into a clearing as he scanned his new surroundings with silent, determined intent. The dense, humid air caused a trickle of sweat to roll down from his sideburns as the buzz of mosquitoes and gnats hovered annoyingly around his head and eyes. Out of the periphery of his vision, he caught a glimpse of something that triggered immediate excitement. Nestled along a log in the distance was not a deer, but there was an imminent harvest nonetheless.
Numerous seasoned woodsmen know about spring morel mushrooms, but there is another delicacy that is almost as easy to identify, widely available throughout late spring and into hunting season in many areas, and is a delicious wild forage of gourmet caliber. The fungi in question is Laetiporus sulphureus, known more commonly as “chicken of the woods.”
I came to know this mushroom quite by accident. While attending a large traditional shoot in May of 2012, I posted a photo on a traditional archery forum of a big, bright rosette of mushroom shelves I spotted growing near a log on the course. I was amazed when a fellow brother of the bow asked if I had eaten it.
I was never very fond of eating mushrooms, although I have recently become enamored with the reclusive spring morel, and now the chicken of the woods. There are several reasons for this recent affinity for these two forest treasures. The major factor is that both have a meaty flavor. You probably guessed that chicken of the woods mushrooms tastes a bit like chicken. Morels also having a meaty, earthy flavor.
Another characteristic of this species that also appeals to me is the ease of its identification. It is difficult to confuse with potentially toxic relatives. Chickens are shelf brackets with bright orange or yellow bodies and bright yellow tips. Their fleshy, rubbery bodies usually have yellowish pores on whitish undersides that have no gills. They often grow on oak, although they can also be found on beech, chestnut, willow, and sometimes even coniferous tree species. Their bright overlapping fan-shaped caps can be quite large (some brackets can weigh over 100 pounds) and visible from quite a distance.
While some individuals have a sensitivity to this species, a few can have a full allergic reaction. It is wise to eat a very small amount at first to see if you react. Use caution if you already have a wood allergy or if the host tree is known to have irritating or toxic qualities like the yew. The edible quality can also vary with the age of the organism, so don’t give up on them if your first culinary experiment isn’t fantastic.
If you are lucky enough to come across good, fresh chickens, they will be very moist, brightly colored, and rubbery throughout. The entire bracket can be delicious when young, but in older specimens the thicker base will be woody and only the fringe will be choice. The edges are always best, and it has been said that if only those parts are cut off and taken, the brackets will continue to grow and allow multiple harvests in the same season.
Once collected, chickens can be immediately soaked in salt water to remove any insects and then prepared. Unlike some mushrooms, dehydration does not work well to preserve them. The thick bodies do not rehydrate very well. I prefer to freeze them by layering sliced edges between waxed paper sheets on a baking pan until they are solid. This keeps them from sticking together. I place the frozen brackets in a bag and then remove a few at a time for meals while keeping the rest frozen. They will last in excess of a year this way and longer if you vacuum seal them.
Once they have been soaked and rinsed to remove any insects or debris, you can cook them like chicken breast. I have had success breading and frying them, sautéing them in butter with onions, adding them to stews, and of course using them in my favorite—authentic German jaeger schnitzel (hunter’s schnitzel—see sidebar).
I have come to enjoy harvesting some of the many offerings that the woods provide. Many wild foods such as berries, fruits, and mushrooms are available during the times when we are in the field hunting. Keeping an eye out for these morsels can add a bit of satisfaction to any hunt, and you might feel good about being a bit more self-sufficient with your diet.
Jaeger (Hunter) Schnitzel
- ½ pound of venison chops (5 or 6 x 1-inch backstrap chops)
- 1 cup of sliced chicken of the woods mushrooms
- 1/3 cup sliced morel mushrooms
- 1 cup of all-purpose flour
- 1 cup of Italian breadcrumbs
- ¼ teaspoon of salt (or to taste)
- ¼ teaspoon of black pepper
- 3 tablespoons of olive oil
- 3 tablespoons of butter
- ½ a sweet onion or one large shallot
- ¼ cup of red wine
- ½ cup of beef stock or broth
- 2 eggs
- ¼ cup of heavy cream (may substitute whole milk)
Place venison cutlets between two layers of cling wrap (to prevent splattering) and pound each side with a meat hammer to tenderize.
Dredge the pounded cutlets in a plate of flour, salt, and pepper, then coat in a bowl with the well beaten eggs. Transfer the cutlets to a plate with the Italian breadcrumbs and thoroughly coat. Reserve some of the flour for thickening later.
Heat a large, heavy cast iron skillet with the olive oil and butter over medium-high heat. In batches, cook venison 3-4 minutes or until browned, turning once. Remove the venison from pan; set aside and keep warm.
Using the same pan, add the thinly sliced onion or shallot and the mushrooms. Then sauté 3-4 minutes, adding additional butter if necessary, until tender.
Add the wine and beef stock and simmer for several minutes.
Add the heavy cream and a teaspoon of flour mixed with butter to thicken the sauce to the consistency of gravy while constantly stirring.
To serve, pour the mushroom sauce over the cutlets and enjoy with an accompaniment of traditional German spatzle, butter noodles, or potato of your choice.