Four years ago about this time, I came across an odd-looking mushroom that resembled a brain at the base of an oak tree on our land in northwest Minnesota.
Curious to learn what it was, I sent a photo of the brain-like mushroom to Matt Breuer of Bemidji, a hunting and fishing guide and expert in mushrooms and similar wild goodies.
Breuer was quick to reply, saying the big mushroom was a Hen of the Woods.
"My favorite," he said.
The mushroom was well past its prime by the time I got back up north several days later, and I hadn't seen one since.
Until last week, when I found another "hen" growing in the exact spot at the base of the oak tree where I'd encountered the previous one in 2014.
The mushroom was in prime condition, so I wasted no time in picking it.
I'm always skittish about mushrooms, but everything I read online quickly waylaid those concerns. Hen of the Woods, also known as Maitake mushrooms, almost always grow at the base of oak trees, I learned, and they don't have a look-alike that's either dangerous or poisonous. Research also has shown the mushrooms to boost immune systems and inhibit the growth of certain cancer cells, among other health benefits.
I checked out a couple of YouTube videos for tips on preparing the hen and sampled it as part of a recent evening meal. The shape and makeup of the mushroom reminded me of a cauliflower, with its series of florets attached to a large central stem.
I cut away the base of the stem and gave the mushroom a thorough rinsing. I then peeled off several of the florets, removing any of the remaining creepy-crawlies I could find and giving each of the pieces another good rinsing.
I sauteed the florets in olive oil and sprinkled them with a dash of sea salt.
No wonder they're Breuer's favorite.
I absolutely love morels, but the Hen of the Woods definitely gives the morel a run as the tastiest mushroom I've ever eaten. I'll definitely pick every hen I find from here on out.
Catfish song collection
It's not often that I get to write about my enjoyment of music and fishing in the same column, but the opportunity came along recently in the form of a songwriting contest sponsored by Half Brothers Brewing Company in Grand Forks.
Local singer-songwriter Joe Greenwood has written, performed and videoed a collection of folk songs about the Red River as part of the 12-week contest, which just wrapped up and required contestants to submit a new song each week.
Greenwood calls his 12-song collection "As the River Turns: The Red River Adventures of Captain Joe Eddie." The collection includes everything from songs such as "Catfish Stew" and "As The River Turns," to a 13-minute epic called "The Catfish Mermaid (Or, The Transformation of Captain Joe Eddie Into a Catfish)."
With a harmonica, an acoustic guitar or mandolin and a voice perfectly suited to singing about the river-comparisons to early '60s Bob Dylan or acoustic Neil Young are inevitable-Greenwood has compiled his collection into a playlist that's available on YouTube.
I learned about the collection and the inspiration for writing the songs a couple of weeks ago while interviewing Greenwood for a story about zebra mussels, which have been showing up with unfortunate frequency late this summer on the Red River.
A fisherman himself, Greenwood says the Red River and his fictional alter ego river captain were logical topics for his contest songs.
The concept is a "long story," he says.
"The song contest could be whatever, and most of the people are writing pop songs or folk songs," Greenwood said. "I decided to go with folk story songs, so I'm trying to really tell a sort of mythological story, and I think fishermen will like it because it's all about the river and catfish."
A single judge picked four winners each month, and the 12 singer-songwriters making the cut will perform the songs that got them there in a concert set for 7 to 9:30 p.m. Sept. 7 at the downtown Grand Forks brewery.
A panel of judges will pick the grand prize winner, who will receive $550, 10 hours of studio time and a prime performance slot at the Greenway Takeover Festival set for Sept. 13-16.
As of late last week, Greenwood wasn't sure if he'd be a finalist but remained hopeful he'd be among the August winners. Regardless of the outcome, he says he has enjoyed the ride he took in writing and performing the songs.
"It really took me on a journey, especially considering the subject matter and the story structure," Greenwood said.
The song collection is available by going to YouTube.com and searching for "The Red River Adventures of Captain Joe Eddie."