One of our favorite mushrooms to gather and prepare in the fall is Chicken of the Woods - Laetiporous gilbertsonii. These are a relatively warm-weather mushroom that fruit with very little moisture. Here in the Sacramento Valley we have been seeing them pop around mid-September following a light rain. They grown on (and in) trees, and are unfortunately a sign of an unhealthy tree.
Chicken of the Woods (or COW) is one of the easiest choice mushrooms to identify, but no wild mushroom should be eaten without a solid identification and proper cooking! I'm serious y'all, you will have some serious issues if you take this lightly. If you are going to be foraging mushrooms, get your books, mushroom groups, experienced friends, and sites like Mykoweb or Mushroom Observer all in a line.
The three main points I will make about COW are these:
Identify: This is NOT a complete list, but Chicken of the woods mushrooms are found on dead or dying wood, and grow into showy fans of candy-corn colors; bright orange and yellow. The undersides will have yellow pores (Never gills!) and they do not have a stem or stalk.
Trim: Once you have a 100% identification now you can prepare. Young COW mushrooms are the most tender as they will get quite woody starting at the base, and eventually drying up into chalky white chunks. Harvest the youngest pieces, or simply trim away the woody bases, or break them off with your hands.
Simmer: Never eat raw! I simmer mine for 15 minutes in well-salted water, then drain before I start any recipes. This twice-cooked method has been very effective, and we have had no stomach issues. As with any. wild mushroom, if this is your first time eating Chicken of the Woods, eat a small amount of the finished dish and wait 24 hours. Alas, some folks are intolerant of COW even when fully cooked.
Now we can start cooking! My favorite dish to make with Chicken of the Woods is a pot pie, but you can substitute this mushroom for just about any chicken recipe. My partner loves fried nuggets, and I've made a delicious COW piccata as well.
Chicken of the Woods Picatta Method: After simmering and draining, coat pieces in a bit of flour and pan-fry over medium-heat in olive oil until lightly golden. Remove from pan. De-glaze the pan with white wine, add a bit of chicken or vegetable broth, lemon juice, and butter. Add the filets, flip, then simmer very lightly for a just a few minutes and finish with capers. Buon appetito!
Chicken of the Woods Nuggets Method: Start by making a seasoned flour with all-purpose flour, a spoonful or two of cornmeal, a spoonful of corn starch, salt, pepper, dried oregano, and paprika. Season it however you like really! Soak nugget-sized pieces (that have been pre-simmered) in milk. Pour a little bit of the milk into the flour and mix it in with a fork to make a few crumbly bits. Dredge the COW nuggets in the flour, and fry in hot vegetable oil until golden brown.