September 7, 2020

Bailey Lininger

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How to Fry Chicken of the Woods

A recipe for mushrooms foraged by four-year-olds

Mushroom hunting is a source of true, unadulterated joy for my forest school students. They memorize mushroom names with the same fervent effort that other kids their age devote to the characters of Frozen II or Paw Patrol, and the complicated titles roll off their tongues with surprising clarity: turkey tail, chicken of the woods, polypore, destroying angel. We bring a set of small, foldable field guides to our twice-weekly classes in the woods, and our copy of Mushrooms of the Midwest is the undeniable favorite. Its soft corners and frayed edges, like those of a cherished but absolutely ragged baby blanket, reveal just how deeply loved—and fought over—it is.

How to Fry Chicken of the Woods - Quote

They even delight in finding jelly leaf fungus, a mushroom that looks like a bunch of soggy raisins glued to a stick.

I’m not sure what exactly it is about fungus that so enchants my students. Perhaps it’s the fact that the mushrooms we find are right-sized for their four-year-old selves—not too big, like the trees that tower over them, or too small, like the insects under their feet. Or maybe it’s the mystical quality that mushrooms have: gone for months, then, poof, back again. Whatever it is, it fosters a deep and abiding love. They even delight in finding jelly leaf fungus, a mushroom that looks like a bunch of soggy raisins glued to a stick.

While walking the trails recently, we discovered a prime chicken of the woods mushroom sprouting from a downed tree, fluorescent orange and yellow, a day-glo spot in the otherwise green-and-brown forest. We gently pried it off the log and broke into it, revealing the muscular striation within. With its bright colors, distinctive look, and genuinely chicken-like flavor, chicken of the woods is a perfect mushroom for amateur foragers. In the upper Midwest, you’ll find it on downed or dying beech and oak trees starting in August and going all the way into October.

Inspired by the mushroom’s meaty characteristics and my students’ appreciation for all things fungus, I went home that night and made simple fried chicken of the woods tenders. The union of kids’ menu flavor with foraged mushroom was delicious in its own right but also deeply nostalgic. This is grown-up comfort food at its finest.

Fried Chicken of the Woods Tenders

Serves 2-4

Ingredients
½ pound chicken of the woods
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp onion powder
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp salt, plus more for sprinkling
Fresh ground black pepper
2 eggs
About 1 cup neutral oil, such as grapeseed or canola, for frying

Preparation
Cut your mushrooms into flat, tender-like pieces, ideally not more than ½ inch thick. Discard any woody pieces. Give your mushrooms a good scrub to get rid of any dirt, then let them dry on a towel.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, salt, and a few cranks of fresh ground black pepper. These seasonings give the tenders a really good diner-chicken-tender flavor, but you could go in any number of directions with the seasoning. In another medium bowl, whisk together your eggs.

Once your tenders are cut and dried, dredge them first in the seasoned flour, shaking to remove any excess. Then dredge them in egg, allowing any excess egg to drip off. Then, go back into the flour, shaking once more to remove excess. Set aside.

Heat a large frying pan (cast iron is ideal here) over medium heat. When your pan is hot, add oil—enough for a shallow fry. 1 cup was perfect for my 12-inch cast iron pan.

When the oil is hot, add a batch of tenders, taking care not to overcrowd the pan. Fry on one side until golden brown, and then flip, cooking for about 2-3 minutes on each side.

When both sides are golden-brown, take the tenders out of the pan and place them on paper towels to drain. While they’re still hot and oily right out of the pan, season generously with salt. Don’t be skimpy with the salt! They might be foraged wild mushrooms, but they’re still fried food.

Serve immediately with your favorite fried food dips. I recommend a honey mustard made with the Midwest’s own Kream Mustard.

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