My, my, my, maitake

Harvesting from the garden is rewarding. It feels good to store away beets for the winter that we started from seed, then thinned, watered and weeded. And potatoes whose leafy plants we had diligently shoved dirt around in hills and removed endless beetles from. Rewarding, because time and effort yielded a bounty better than any produce the grocery store could offer, and while farmer’s markets might have specimens as healthy as ours, hours of labor and familiarity with each plant add a flavor that cannot be matched.

Our garden is small this year, our root cellar is gone, and I miss the pleasure of knowing we have food stored away to supply our table with home grown vegetables throughout the winter and to share with family and friends.

But without sowing, weeding, hilling, debugging and digging we still have the joy of fall harvest, the guilty pleasure of gathering Maitake mushrooms. While mushroom experts have assured us there are no Maitake on our island, (also known as Grifola frondosa, Hen-of-the-woods and Sheep’s Head) we can assure you there are. Right here in Otter Creek, capital of the world and center of the universe. (We were told the same thing about morels).

What’s that behind that tree?

Chicken-of-the-Woods, frequent companion to Maitake

Chicken-of-the-Woods, frequent companion to Maitake

After a day in the studio a quick walk through the woods is a needed antidote to the glow of LCD and hum of computers. The scent of earth and rustle of dry leaves is reward enough. But when the air becomes crisp and the leaves begin to pile on the ground the Maitake burst forth from their wounded or dying hosts. And, when we are so lucky to find them, we gather the brown clusters and bring them home.

That’s all there is to it, no planting, bending and weeding, hoeing or tending. We just happen upon them as we walk. And yet since we gathered them ourselves they too take on a richness no market-bought mushroom can offer.

We have been sautéing, eating, freezing and sharing. The paella pan does double duty as we shred in mounds of Maitake in olive with some white wine. Maitake are meaty and full-flavored mushrooms. While we do not have a root cellar full of vegetables it is comforting to have a few meals of mushrooms on hand. It is so easy to gather them from the forest floor that I feel guilty to have this yield with so little effort. Oh, to be similarly able to stroll through the woods and gather beets and squash.

This year we found Maitake in several locations here in Maine, and a beautiful rosette in Connecticut. That’s where I grew up, and the woods there must have suited them. Every fall an Italian mushroomer would ask permission to gather from our forest, and my mother gave it to him. I think she enjoyed this annual exchange, describing him waving his hands through the air as she dodged his mushroom knife, and his offers to share the harvest, which she declined. Dad was more adventurous with food, he might have accepted and given them a try.

Dad was a foodie long before the term was prevalent. He brought back Mexican spices and canned enchiladas in the sixties and introduced us to a world of flavors unknown in suburban Connecticut. It was he who baked sour dough bread when he couldn’t find it in a store and created his own salad dressings. He loved to cook and share flavors, and was equally enthusiastic when we would take a turn at the oven or stove. Seated at the head of the table surveying my sisters’ apple crisp or roast beef, my stir-fried shrimp, or our mother’s classic leg of lamb, he would comment on flavor, smile with pleasure, and invariably say, “We eat like kings around here.”

It was Dad who led us to that classic mushroom cluster at the base of an oak in a cemetery in Connecticut, as we celebrated his life and went in procession to bid him farewell with bagpipes and tears and stories.

Tonight we eat those choice Maitake, harvested from near where he has joined Mom. They are sautéed with broccoli, red pepper and rosemary and sweet potato. I survey the table and enjoy the flavors and raise my fork in salute to the man who taught me so many more things than appreciating food, and say, “We eat like kings around here.”

Thanks, Dad.

Read Dad’s obituary here:

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Happy snuggled in Dad's favorite Otter Creek fleece vest.

Happy snuggled in Dad's favorite Otter Creek polar vest

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2 comments on “My, my, my, maitake

  1. Hey Karen! What a wonderful read! So sorry I missed the funeral, but please know I was there in spirit. Planning on Christmas in Mass as far as I know. Can’t wait to see you again, as you always bring a smile!

    Love ya,
    Stacy

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