The little co-op where I do the bulk of my shopping has had some lovely and surprising cultivated organic mushrooms lately. Yesterday they had black trumpet and maitake, or hen of the woods. Seeing them labeled maitake brought back sudden memories of a teacher’s room in Suita, just north of Osaka, 22 years ago and a little plastic kiddie bento presented to me by the gym teacher at the school where I was teaching. She had made matsutake gohan for me, had taken time during a busy morning before getting her children off to school and herself to work. I had been on display for plenty of spectator eating, but this little container of mushroom rice drew a bigger crowd and more attention than anything else I ate during my years in Japan. On a teacher’s salary, matsutake were a serious splurge. The highest quality mushrooms early in the season can fetch up to $2000 per kilogram. It was an extraordinary gift, especially considering that we didn’t know each other except for our passing. She spoke no English, and I didn’t yet speak much Japanese. The rice was simple—no kombu, no shoyu, no dashi—just the pure flavor of the faintly piney mushrooms. It was heavenly.
So, when I saw the maitake, I decided to make a simple lunch of them, a kind of Minnesota version of the matsutake gohan. I simmered Emmer wheat in chicken stock (recipe here) and sautéed the mushrooms in good butter with just a pinch of salt and pepper. The little branch of thyme I laid across the bowl of warm wheat perfumed it. Emmer wheat is a toothsome grain high in protein, and it is often labeled under its Italian name, farro. It seems to be pretty widely available now. The cooking instructions on the package I bought advise that the grain is supposed to be al Dante, which I think is a perfect bit of Divine Comedy. (Sorry! I was an English major.) It should be cooked al dente, and makes a nice lunch, simple side, or salad tossed with anything from cubes of roasted squash and herbs to ribbons of abura-age. Serve it warm or at room temperature.
**Japanese pronunciation key: All Japanese vowels are pronounced the same no matter what. The only variations are that they are sometimes elongated and sometimes shortened. A is ah as in a doctor’s office tonsil check. E is eh as in egg. I is ee as in eagle. O is oh as in oh what a lovely day. And U is ooh as in ooh la la. Now you’ll sound like a pro ordering sake (not saki) and kobe (not kobi) beef.
Emmer Wheat with Hen of the Woods
Yield: about four servings
1 c. emmer wheat
2 ½ c. chicken stock (preferably homemade—recipe here)
about 12 ounces hen of the woods (or any other mushrooms), washed and broken apart
a little knob of good butter, perhaps 2 T.
salt and pepper
a sprig of thyme, if you wish
- Put the stock and the wheat into a medium saucepan over medium high heat, cover it, and bring it to a simmer.
- Simmer for 10 to 20 minutes, or until it is tender but still has a slight bite. Your cooking time will vary depending on whether or not your grain is pearled and how vigorously your liquid is simmering. Check it periodically after the first ten minutes of cooking.
- Meanwhile, place a skillet over medium heat. When it is hot, add the butter. When the butter is melted and foaming, add the mushrooms and season them with a bit of salt and pepper.
- Sauté the mushrooms until they are taking on some nice color.
- Drain the wheat and place it in a serving bowl. Top it with the mushrooms and the thyme sprig, if you wish.