It's not too hard to find cultivated hen-of-the-woods (maitake) mushrooms in shops and at the farmers' market, and they're pretty good, especially when fried or roasted till the edges of their many "petals" get crisp, with the interior remaining juicy. But it's a rarer treat to see gigantic wild ones brought to the market by farmers who somehow find the time to gather them (or who maybe send their kids into the woods on after-school foraging missions). They're different from cultivated maitake; they vary a lot in color and moisture level; when raw they are more aromatic and can have a startling catch-in-the-throat pepperiness; and when cooked they almost always have a bigger flavor.
(Note that the ragù I describe can be made with most supermarket mushrooms too; ordinary white mushrooms would be delicious, as they always are.)
Last week, Jackie and I bought a half-pound (225 g) piece cut from a soccer-ball-sized hen-of-the-woods by the man from Berried Treasures Farm, about 130 miles north of Manhattan. This mushroom is composed of a substantial off-white "stalk" from which many small petal-like caps grow; I can't help thinking it is cauliflower-like in structure, and from the cook's standpoint I suppose it is. So, I cut it up like one, more or less. I removed the caps/petals, and we ate them for dinner that night, simply sautéed. Once trimmed of desiccated edges and rid of worms (there was exactly one, and it was tiny), I cut the core into chunks, awaiting further processing.
Its destiny was to become part of a variation on an Italian meat sauce (ragù) for pasta, and with a few exceptions the dish was made as I would have made an all-meat ragù. Here, though, mushrooms would replace much of the chopped meat: they add a particular texture - moist and substantial but not chewy - and plenty of flavor (maybe more than the meat). Also, fennel bulb would replace celery and leeks would replace onions in the aromatic sofritto that started the sauce: this yields a softer-tasting ragù in which the mushrooms can really stand out.
The sofritto consisted of a medium carrot, the white and palest green parts of a smallish leek, a scrap of garlic (you really don't want this sauce to be garlicky), some parsley stems, a few slices of fennel and a small chunk of Italian speck (like smoked prosciutto - and regular prosciutto would have worked well too). I minced this fine in a food processor with salt and pepper; sure, I could have chopped it by hand, but the processor would be employed twice more in the coming minutes, so it was worth walking three feet across the kitchen to use it.
In a saucepan, I sweated the sofritto in olive oil. As it cooked, I used the food processor to chop about six ounces (170 grams) of pork shoulder (butt); veal would have been a reasonable substitute. I stirred the chopped meat into the softened sofritto, breaking up the clumps with my spoon. Meanwhile, I minced the mushroom stalk (no need to wash the food processor bowl after each use: everything is going into the same pot), and when the meat had lost its pink color (but not browned - all of this should take place over medium or medium-low heat) I added the mushroom and cooked it, stirring frequently, for two or three minutes. Then I poured in around 2/3 cup (160 ml) white wine and reduced it until it no longer smelled raw. I had some light chicken stock in the fridge, so added perhaps a half cup of that, followed by the skinless flesh and juices of two grated tomatoes. If decent ripe tomatoes had disappeared from the farmers' market - which they are on the point of doing - I'd have used canned, and if I'd had no stock I'd have done without.
I gently simmered the ragù, partly covered, for an hour or so, until it had a good consistency thanks both to reduction and to the collagen in the pork shoulder. After a taste for seasoning, I let it cool and stowed it in the fridge (yes, it can be used right away).
We ate it with egg-rich pappardelle; fettuccine/tagliatelle would have been just as good, but I don't think that a non-egg pasta would have worked. I can't give you a scientific reason for this; it's a question of expectations and tradition.
As with most egg-pasta dishes, I tossed the noodles in a skillet first with a lump of butter then with a good portion of ragù. When it had been put into warmed bowls, I added more sauce, then a few oyster mushrooms that I'd earlier sautéed with a minced shallot and finished with parsley. Theoretically, I should have used the petals/caps of the maitake, but, as I said, Jackie and I had wolfed these down the night before. The sautéed mushroom topping is a great enhancement - visually and in terms of texture - but it certainly isn't imperative. Grated parmesan is optional; try it with and try it without.
I'm not sure I'll ever make a traditional non-mushroom ragù ever again (of course I will). This one was more savory and texturally more interesting - plus it had more of a story to tell to the people sitting around the table. And yes, I will make a vegetarian version some time, with mushrooms replacing all the meat; I'm pretty sure it will be delicious.